Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #regency Mystery/Romance
"My dear Luten, you can't be serious!" Sir Reginald cried, and lifting his coattails, he perched on the arm of an upholstered chair in Lord Luten's magnificent gold drawing room. "Whoever ever heard of turning down a dukedom?"
Luten's proud face stiffened in contempt. "A dukedom is usually conferred for some extraordinary service to king and country, military service for choice. What did I do? Caught–helped to catch–a criminal the prince mistakenly thought was trying to assassinate him, but who was, in fact, a voyeur and proprietor of a bawdy house. The family tree can do without that sort of ornament.”
Sir Reginald was delighted with the answer. One had to express enthusiasm for the honour for the looks of it, but to have to "your grace" Luten would be a constant aggravation. Such firm opposition allowed him to continue urging in safety. "But aren't we forgetting the man
"That's no reason, or half the Bow Street Runners would be dukes," was Luten's reply.
Sir Reginald shook his head in mock grief. "It's a demmed shame," he said. "Still, you're right to refuse it. To paraphrase Cato, one would rather have men ask why one had not a dukedom than why one had."
"If the Prince wishes to scatter dukedoms about, he should give one to Pattle. He actually caught the murderer," Luten said, casting a kindly eye on the third man in the room, Coffen Pattle.
It was hard to credit that Pattle could catch anything, with the exception of a cold. His short, chubby body was encased in a rumpled blue jacket and dusty buckskin trousers. His face was ruddy and his mud-coloured hair left much to be desired, but from this unprepossessing face a pair of sharp blue eyes peered out.
"Leg," was his reply to this homage. This terse speech was understood to refer to Lord Luten's sprained ankle, which had prevented him from taking as active a part as usual in their last case.
The three gentlemen were each quite different in appearance. The Marquess of Luten was every inch the aristocrat. His tall, lean physique and impeccably tailored jacket of blue superfine formed a perfect contrast to Pattle's unfortunate build and dishabille. Neither Luten’s finely drawn eyebrows nor his long-lashed grey eyes suggested masculine strength. It was his square jaw and strong nose that lent authority to a face that might otherwise have appeared weak. His thin lips and haughty smile added a touch of arrogance.
Sir Reginald Prance, with fewer physical assets to aid him, still managed to present a striking appearance. This elegantly slender dandy devoted much of his time and money to standing out from the crowd. That autumn he had adopted the Bohemian style in homage to his new friend, Lord Byron. The curl dangling over his forehead looked out of place on his narrow greyhound face. The Belcher kerchief at his throat, mauve with gold spots, had taken an age to arrange in a casually graceful fold but the effect, he felt, was worth any effort.
These three gentlemen, along with Luten's fiancée, Lady deCoventry, formed the nucleus of the Berkeley Brigade, a group of Whig aristocrats who led the younger members of the ton in matters of style. The name derived from their living as neighbours on Berkeley Square. They had recently been instrumental in solving a few murder cases.
"What Prinney ought to do is boot out Mouldy and Company and put the Whigs in power like he promised," Coffen said. Mouldy and Company was the Whigs' derogatory name for the reactionary Tories. It was Luten's aim in life to replace them with the reforming Whigs.
"He didn't actually promise it in so many words, but he knew that was my understanding," Luten said. His keenly developed sense of privacy seldom allowed him to air a grievance in public. That he did so now told his friends how strongly he felt about the Prince's betrayal in offering him a dukedom instead.
Sensing Luten's mood, Coffen went a step further and added, "Ought to be sued, the scoundrel. Or horse-whipped. Suing's too good for him."
Prance smiled benignly. "If you two are planning treason, I beg you will hold me excused. Actually, I have a rather important call to make this morning." He waited for the expected question. Much better to make them ask than to announce his destination. It would sound like boasting.
As it was Coffen who spoke, the question did not take quite the form he expected. "Who is she?" he asked.
"Not a she, a he," Prance replied, wanting to have the famous name dragged out of him.
"If you're leaving, I'll ankle over to Corinne's," Coffen said, struggling up from his chair. Corinne, the Countess deCoventry, was his cousin. He turned to Luten. "Daresay you'll be hobbling down to the House, now that you're back on your pegs." Luten had recovered sufficiently that he could now walk with the aid of a cane.
"A little later," Luten replied.
When no one asked Prance where he was going, he said as casually as he could, "Let us go then, Pattle. Byron is expecting me at ten-thirty."
Luten didn't even blink at the dropping of this ten ton name. Coffen ferreted around a molar with his tongue until he had dislodged whatever was bothering him, then said, "Byron, eh? I wondered why you was so eager to be off. Say 'how do' for me."
"Shall I also give him your regards, Luten?" Prance asked. He was well aware of Luten's jealousy of this social demi-god, who had made no secret of his admiration of Luten's fiancée and had, in fact, had a little success in that quarter. Prance knew it was naughty of him but he couldn't resist. The rogue in him had to be avenged for their lack of interest.
"Not necessary, thank you, Prance," Luten drawled in a voice that betrayed his annoyance. "I'll be speaking to Byron myself later today."
"What about?" Prance demanded sharply, as if he owned the poet.
Luten's eyebrows lifted a micrometer, which was his way of showing disdain, "Politics, what else? You know the Whigs are eager to rope him into our circle."
"He's already a Whig."
"But not a very active one. His speech on defence of the Luddites caused quite a stir in the House. He would be a handsome addition to the party's shadow cabinet."
"Oh indeed. A handsome addition to any party," Prance said, and left before Luten could give him a setdown.
The autumn wind was brisk. A horrid season really. Nothing to look forward to until Christmas, unless one counted Guy Fawkes day an occasion. He had heard the Pantheon was having a Guy Fawkes party with fireworks in the street. That might be mildly amusing. He admitted a childish delight in fireworks. Long, grey, battleship clouds hovered menacingly overhead. Prance held his curled beaver hat on with one hand and turned up his collar with the other as he hastened to his waiting carriage.
Coffen came out and joined him. "Pray don't quiz me as to the reason for my visit to Byron," Prance said, "for it's a great secret."
"I wasn't going to," Coffen said. "But if you're using him to stir up trouble between Corrine and Luten again, you'll have me to answer to." On this threatening speech he crossed the road to Lady deCoventry's house to cadge a decent breakfast. His cook had served him the usual morning feast of charred toast, weak coffee with no cream and an egg boiled so hard it bounced off the maid's head when he threw it at her.
Prance climbed into his carriage and was soon lost in a reverie of what Byron's note could presage. He drew the paper from his pocket and admired the hasty scrawl as if it were the Ten Commandments, carved in stone. It said:
“Prance, would you be a good fellow and drop by 8 St. James's Street this morning any time after ten? I have something urgent I'd like to discuss with you. Yours ever, B."
He folded the note gently and returned it to his pocket for later transfer to his Byron archives. The terseness of it pleased him. It was not the sort of note a gentleman would write to just anyone. Its very brevity declared their close friendship and that "yours ever" was treasured. What could the urgent matter be? Surely Byron wasn't going to dun him for a loan? No, it couldn't be that. He must be making a fortune from the sale of
Perhaps he was to be the first to see some new work the poet had written. Byron had claimed to appreciate Prance's own oeuvre, the tedious
Round Table Rondeaux,
a long poem about King Arthur, written in blank verse with copious footnotes. Or even better, the summons might have to do with helping Byron out of some fracas with a lady. Or best of all–
No, he wouldn't let himself even think it. The famous poet couldn't be asking him to collaborate on a play! He and Byron had discussed drama one evening over a bottle of hock and soda water. Byron had mentioned his interest in writing a play, at which time Prance had developed a similar interest.
The future was so rosy Prance could hardly wait to arrive.
Byron's factotum, Fletcher, admitted Prance to the drawing room where the premier poet of England lay sprawled on a chaise longue, wearing a shirt open at the neck and no jacket. He was reading, with a one-eyed marmalade cat sitting on his stomach and a large yellow dog named Abu, some species of hound, curled up at his feet. Byron sat up languidly, smiled a welcome and made room for Prance on the seat. Prance, who normally dreaded cat hair on his jacket as he dreaded the pox, didn't hesitate an instant before sitting down.
He had fallen utterly under the poet's spell. He would have sat down with a tiger or the poet's pet bear, if asked. He wished he could turn his own green eyes to that Atlantic blue-grey shade of his hero's, that his complexion had such an interesting pallor, and that his lips could be re-fashioned into that petulant yet sensitive shape that drove the ladies mad. The only one of these wishes he saw any hope of fulfilling was the complexion, by a judicious application of rice powder.
Prance was, by degrees, redecorating his own saloon with eastern touches, though he had not yet succumbed to replacing his sofa with the sort of ottoman on which he presently sat, destroying his jacket, nor could he quite bring himself to replace his priceless collection of bibelots with brass oddities.
"Good of you to come, Prance," Byron said, laying aside the book he had been reading, sitting up and shifting the cat to his knee. "Don't mind the mess. I couldn't live without animals. They're so undemanding. Just feed ‘em and stroke 'em and they're your friends for life. Now if only we could find a woman like that!"
Prance, who had no real love of any four-legged animal, smiled his approval and Byron continued. "I daresay my note confused you. Don't worry that I plan to dun you for a loan, or use your well-known diplomacy to get me out of this infernal quagmire with Caro Lamb. After vast tantrums and drama and tears and name-calling and hair pullings, the attractive nuisance is rusticating in the country for the nonce–God help the countryside. And my other affairs are progressing with their usual indecency."
Prance was thankful for that word about money, but wondered why he had been invited to come. Byron lifted a sheet of paper from the sofa table and handed it to him. "Tell me what you make of this," he said.
Prance's hand trembled as he accepted the crested sheet. He felt his eyes were to be the first, other than the poet's, to read some new literary marvel. The crest at the top of the sheet, however, did not say
Byron's family motto. The superfluity of capital letters and exclamation marks suggested a female hand. He read,
"Dear Byron: You were so Kind last evening at Melbournes when I hinted at my little Trouble that I have screwed up my poor Courage to ask
— no, Beg for your help. I am being Held to Ransom for Five Thousand Pounds!!! for the recovery of some billets doux from an old lover! Will you call on me tomorrow morning? And if the gentleman you mentioned will agree to come, we might yet sort it out without Beggaring me. Yours in Desperation, Adele."
Prance found much to disappoint him in the letter, and much to intrigue him. He, himself, was obviously the gentleman Byron had mentioned to Adele, else why was he reading her letter. It was something to be spoken of in company by Byron. And at Melbourne House, so this Adele was not just some actress or tavern maid he was flirting with. "Who is Adele?" he asked.