"I feel like I should do something to make this into a Momentous Occasion," I said to Pond as I crossed the Vere River on a narrow stone bridge and took the turning off the Piddinghoe Road toward Verevale.
"My lord?" he hung onto his hat with one hand and the dashboard with the other; I suppose I took the turn a little too fast, the tyres squealing in protest, but I didn't want to bother with changing gears.
"The Saint-Clairs return to Verevale after fifty years, there should be banners and fanfares and whatnot, don't you think?"
"I don't believe one Saint-Clair attending a hunt-party as an invited guest quite constitutes a triumphant homecoming, my lord," he smiled over at me, "Though perhaps your lordship might blow a fanfare on the motor's horn?"
"Good idea!" I grinned back at him, then spent the next few minutes banging away at the button for the electric klaxon. The result wasn't very satisfactory, though: it sounded less like a triumph and more like a goose being murdered slowly. I gave up the enterprise when I startled a small herd of cows into a stampede.
The countryside we were driving through was quite lovely, smooth rolling downs with the willow-lined Vere meandering through, the grass still green in late autumn and dotted with white cattle, the trees glowing in shades of gold and vermilion. I wondered how much of what I was seeing was Saint-Clair land and how much was let along with Verevale Court, if those were our cows or the Levondales'. I knew so little about the estates aside from Foxbridge Castle, and had no idea how much land there was or how it was being managed, or even where it was all located. I would have to remember to ask Nanny about it when I got home.
"Well, this is an awfully grand sort of village, what?" I remarked as we crossed the Vere one more time and were confronted by a sort of monumental gate, like Marble Arch but wide enough for farm-carts to pass, through which we drove into a perfectly circular road lined with pale golden stone buildings; it was impressive enough to warrant shifting down to first gear so I could take it in slowly.
"The village was built all-of-a-piece by the fourth Earl of Vere in 1740 after the old village burned down," Pond informed me, quoting from one of the numerous books he'd read about the history and architecture of Verevale Court during his week in Plymouth—when he wasn't chatting up sailors, that is, "All that remains of the original Verevale are the church foundations, crypt, and graveyard. Many believed at the time that the Earl started the fire himself, in order to rebuild in a more organized fashion."
"Well, it certainly is neat," I said, coming to a stop in front of the church in question, which bore a striking resemblance to St. George's Hanover Square and looked wildly out of place in the country. A proper country church should be Norman, or Gothic at a pinch, not Neoclassical.
The village was laid out like a compass, with the church on the eastern point, the arch we'd just come through on the northern point, an equally monumental lodge-flanked gate into the park on the southern point, and a village hall that looked just like the Royal Opera Covent Garden on the western point; the spaces in between these points were filled with identical three-storey houses standing close together like suburban crescents.
Instead of a village green, the circle was filled by a formal garden with gravel paths radiating out from a broad fountain at the center, tiled to resemble a compass rose with an immense iron armillary rising out of it; the fourth Earl had fancied himself a Great Navigator, you see, having once sailed to Jamaica to inspect his plantations there.
"It was based on designs by the Adam Brothers," Pond went on, "who remodeled several of the rooms at Verevale Court and Vere House in London for the fourth Earl."
"Indeed?" I said, just to show I was listening. As we neared the park gates at a crawl, a very cross-looking old man came hobbling out of one of the lodges to open them for us, pulling his forelock as we passed through. Beyond the gate, the drive rose in a perfectly straight line terminating at the top of the hill, where Verevale Court squatted regally, a big golden stone box with a dome like a fireplug on top, flanked by two smaller boxes with identical smaller domes.
"The central block of the house was built by the second Earl in 1672," he enthused as we flashed past a few more pristine white cows scattered decoratively beside the drive, "It's considered the first truly Baroque house in England, twenty years ahead of the style."
"You don't say," I prompted, though he didn't really require any encouragement. We didn't seem to be getting any closer to the house, though I was back up to third gear by then; some kind of optical illusion was at work, it got larger and more complicated as pillars and chimneys came into focus, just not any nearer.
"The design was based on the principle of the Golden Mean, and all the major dimensions are found on the Fibonacci Sequence," his voice had taken on a tone of fanaticism as he warmed to the topic, "The main block is a hundred and forty-four feet wide on each side, eighty-nine feet high including the roof, with the rotunda of fifty-five feet comprising a drum of thirty-four feet and a dome of twenty-one feet, for a total of a hundred and forty-four feet from base to apex."
"Extraordinary!" I was impressed by the cleverness of it, and Pond's memory for numbers.
"When the third Earl added the flanking pavilions thirty years later, he followed the same principles: each pavilion is eighty-nine feet wide and fifty-five feet high, with a thirty-four foot rotunda. The connecting colonnades use Fibonacci numbers but not in sequence, each has thirteen arches twenty-one feet high and eight feet wide, placed five feet apart."
"Golly," I breathed out as we finally entered the decorative gate into the vast courtyard, where the immense house towered over us; it's one thing to say 'one hundred and forty-four feet high,' and something else entirely to look up at a flagpole waving a hundred and forty-four feet in the air at the top of a rotunda—less than half as high as the dome of St. Paul's, but pretty breathtaking nonetheless.
"Very imposing, my lord," Pond agreed as we pulled up to the foot of the front steps and craned our necks at the gilded statue of Victory that leaned out from the pediment thirty yards above us like the figurehead on a gargantuan ship.
A pair of tall young footmen came down the steps, one to open my door for me and the other to direct Pond toward the service court. At the top of the steps an exceptionally impressive butler, well over six feet tall with a face reminiscent of the Duke of Wellington, stood ready to receive me. He welcomed me with a stately bow and led me through the house, going slow so I could gawk as we went.
The hall was two storeys high and walled with monumental paintings and stone medallions embedded in a froth of plaster cherubs and flowers, its chequered marble floor scattered with great thronelike chairs; then came the rotunda, more terrifying from the inside than outside, painted robin's-egg blue with more plaster garlands lathered on its walls, the far-away dome enameled cobalt and spattered with silver stars, the coloured marble floor a map of the world with England plated in gold at the centre; then a long and lofty room (the 'saloon,' I was later told) with scarlet brocade hangings and a riotously painted ceiling, dozens of imposing portraits in heavy gold frames, tables and settees with heavy gold legs, and a row of tall French windows looking out onto a terrace and sloping lawn going down to a lake in the distance; and finally we reached a more human-scaled room, light and airy, filled with flowered chintz sofas and prettily draped tables laden with silver photograph-frames and delicate flower arrangements.
"Viscount Foxbridge, my lady," the butler boomed in a voice like the Last Trump, which rattled the chandelier and could likely be heard in the village—though it didn't seem to have much of an effect on the lady in the room, who didn't look up from the embroidery-frame she was working on.
"Oh, Lord Foxbridge!" the lady looked up by the time I'd crossed the room and stood in front of her, having finished a tricky bit of curlicue on her embroidery, "I'm so glad to meet you!"
"The pleasure is all mine, Lady Levondale," I bowed low over her hand and kissed it, making her giggle a bit. She was a pretty little thing, pleasantly plump with a pert smile and merry eyes, expensively but rather sloppily dressed in a French lace tea gown slipping sideways on her round shoulders, her pearl necklaces all hanging slightly askew, and wispy white-blonde curls escaping from the pearl-headed combs of a perhaps-too-ambitious coiffure—she made me think of the White Queen, as dressed by Callot Sœurs.
"I do hope you had good weather for your journey," she gestured for me to take the chair beside her own, "Are you hungry? We've just finished luncheon, but Winborn can bring you some sandwiches, if you like. Or something to drink?"
"Some tea would be nice, thank you," I smiled at the butler, who bowed and sailed backward out the door, snapping it shut as he went, "I was delayed getting out of London this morning, so my man packed a basket for us."
"I'm told you've been staying with Lord and Lady John Chatroy," she said, "Such lovely people, they were so kind to our Michael in his first year at Cambridge."
"They are lovely," I agreed, "And so wonderfully unconventional. It was an education, I got to feed pigs and milk a goat, and ate dozens of things I'd never heard of before."
"It's nice to try new things, of course, but I found it a little discomfiting when we went to visit. Calling the son of a duke 'Professor,' and his wife by a funny nickname the very moment I met her, and sending the gentlemen out to smoke while keeping the ladies in the dining-room. So kind, but they quite put me off my balance; I thought it would have been much kinder to observe some of the conventions."
"I just pretended I was abroad," I said, rather agreeing with her but thinking it would be disloyal to the Chatroys to do so aloud, "And I had their son, Claude, staying with me for a while, so I was sort of prepared for them. A charming boy, but full of surprises."
"Surprises are much easier to take in stride when one is young," she reached over and patted my hand, "But at my age, I find convention so comforting. One always knows where one is with convention, you know what to do and where to go at any given moment, where to sit, what to call people, what bedroom to give a guest. It saves worry, don't you think?"
"Well, so long as the convention is comfortable for everyone," I pointed out, "Sometimes I think it makes us lazy and complacent, and we end up constraining others and causing unhappiness just so we don't have to think."
"Oh, absolutely!" she lit up a bit, spotting a sympathetic soul, "I'm always telling Levondale that. Convention is supposed to make things easier, not more difficult. He thinks our daughter Lavinia ought to get married just because that's what young women do. But it wouldn't make her happy, so why should she take all that trouble about it?"
"It would be rather different if it was your heir who didn't want to get married, though, wouldn't it?" I wondered.
"I don't know," she frowned thoughtfully, "Perhaps if ours was an old title with ancient estates attached, like yours; but can a landless barony be more important than a boy's happiness? I wouldn't think so—but then, I expect my husband would most strenuously disagree. Of course, Michael's only nineteen, we have ages before we have to cross that particular bridge."
My tea arrived just then, and we chatted for quite a while longer, exploring mutual acquaintance (it turns out we knew quite a few of the same people) and experiences of each other's counties (she'd gone to school at Cheltenham, so was quite familiar with my corner of the island, though my experience of East Sussex was limited to a couple of boyhood outings to Brighton). I found her absolutely delightful.
"Oh, look at the time!" Lady Levondale exclaimed when the clock on the mantel started chiming three, "I must let you go freshen up before tea. We have tea in the library at four, of course. I've put you in the Venetian Room, I hope you'll find it comfortable. James will show you the way."
"Thank you, Lady Levondale," I kissed her hand again, then followed the footman who'd appeared, apparently unbidden, at the door—back through the vast scarlet room and the vast rotunda into the vast stair hall, where marble steps rose in operatic magnificence into the upper reaches, surrounded by dozens of rather plump deities cavorting on implausible clouds in a vivid trompe-l'oeil Olympus.
The Venetian Room, when I reached it at the end of some very grand corridors, was quite a dazzling chamber, all gold-embroidered blue velvet and practically-life-sized paintings of Venice in the style of Canaletto; it was also equipped with a stunning dark-haired boy in tennis whites lounging on the hearthrug before a cozy-looking fire.
"Hullo!" the boy greeted me cheerfully when I came in, "I wondered who they'd give this room to. You're Foxbridge, aren't you?"
"'To whom they'd give this room,' I think you'll find," I corrected his grammar with a smile; I'd ordinarily bristle a bit on being addressed so informally by a strange youth, but after two weeks of the Chatroys, I was proof against offense, "You must be the Honourable Michael Levondale."
"Oh, you're not going to be stuffy, are you?" his handsome face fell with disappointment.
"They taught us manners at Eton," I walked over and kicked his leg to show I was joking, "Addressing gentlemen you've never met as if they were school-chums makes me wonder where you were educated. Borstal, perhaps?"
"Charterhouse, actually," he laughed, getting up to shake my hand properly, "But I'm glad they put you in here, Mum and Dad had quite a shindy about the best bedrooms. He wanted to put his American chum in here—he has some sort of connection to Venice, or something—complete with wife, and I'd be worried all night about untoward noises. My room's right above this one."
"Are you very noisy at night?" I wondered, watching his face; the tone in his voice when he told me where his room was sounded just a mite suggestive, "I might have to ask your mother for a different room."
"You know American men sleep with their wives?" he countered, stepping even closer to me, almost close enough to kiss and certainly too close to mistake his intent, "Not sure my delicately nurtured sensibilities could stand proximity to such rampant debauchery, what?"
"What makes you think I won't be just as rampant and debauched?" I played along with the game, reaching down and grabbing on to the necktie he had knotted at his waist instead of a belt, "My mother was American, you know."
"Ahem," Pond stage-coughed from behind a small door hidden in the paneling before entering the room, interrupting what was turning into a very interesting meeting, "Will your lordship wish to change before tea?"
"I suppose I'd better," I stepped away from the boy, who didn't appear at all disconcerted by Pond's entrance and merely looked at him as if he were an exhibit in a museum, "Lead on, Macduff."
"'Lay on, Macduff,' I think you'll find," Michael teased, goosing me on the backside as he left, "See you at tea."
"Fresh as paint, that one," Pond remarked in his non-valet voice.
"And pretty as a picture," I agreed, following him into the adjacent dressing-room, which was quite as grand as the bedroom despite being much smaller, with its own fireplace and more views of Venice on the walls, "This promises to be quite an entertaining visit."
"Isn't Mr. Levondale a trifle young for your lordship?" he divested me of my jacket and tie, took out my cufflinks, and pushed me toward the bathroom so I could wash my hands and face.
"Oh, I don't know. I find my tastes expanding with experience. Anything interesting on in the servants' hall?" I asked, turning back my cuffs and fiddling with the old-fashioned taps; the bathroom was a bit of a disappointment after the splendours of the bedroom and dressing-room, a skimpy cupboard affair with the barest necessities and a tub no bigger than a hip-bath, "That butler's quite a specimen, like Winchester Cathedral in a tailcoat."
"Mr. Winborn is indeed very imposing," Pond agreed, "As are his sons, who both work as footmen here."
"A family affair?" I came back out, drying my hands, "I wondered if the Winborns had been here since the Georges, or if they were more recent additions."
"Mr. Winborn came here as a footman thirty years ago," Pond told me, taking the towel and my shirt and letting me get out of my trousers unassisted, "Though his father was butler at another important house not far away. I have not yet discovered his earlier antecedents."
"I wouldn't be surprised to find Wellington on his family tree, the resemblance is remarkable."
"I also encountered Mr. Massingale in the servants' hall, my lord," Pond changed the subject and his tone, sounding very grave, "Lord Faringdon's valet."
"Jingo's here?!" I exclaimed, astonished, "Could he be the 'mutual friends' Lady Levondale mentioned in her invitation?"
"No, my lord, I believe the Pargeters are the friends in question," Pond finished buttoning my shirt and held open a fresh pair of trousers for me to step into, "Mrs. Pargeter's maid, Miss Hibbert, informed me her lady is a frequent visitor here."
"Oh, well, that's all right," I was relieved, "I'd hate to think Jingo was making use of Lady Levondale to play some sort of trick on me. It'll be dashed awkward just being in the house with him, it would be unbearable if he was up to something."
"I suspect he is up to something, my lord. He's always up to something."
"Well, yes," I agreed, "But I'd rather it didn't involve Lady Levondale, or me. If Julia's the one who had me asked here, there may be nothing amiss at all."
"I wouldn't count on that, my lord," Pond frowned at the knot he'd just put in my tie, then took it apart to do over again, "What have you been doing with your neckties? I'll need to put a new buckram in this one."
"I used some on Claude," I admitted, a little abashed but also rather pleased with myself, "He got me to tie him up. It was surprisingly fun."
"Expanding tastes, indeed," he snorted, completing a better knot and sticking it with a small cameo-headed pin, "Next time, use your bootlaces or your braces. They're better suited to the purpose."
"I'd no idea you were such a devotee," I laughed at him as he stuck an artfully folded silk into my front pocket.
"I am devoted only to your lordship's clothes," he gave me one of his rare real smiles.
"I missed you, Pond," I grinned at him, and only a supreme act of will kept me from hugging him as well.
"If your lordship wishes to be maudlin, I shall absent myself," he replied, back in professional voice.
"Thank you, Pond," I relented, turning away to admire his handiwork in the glass, "You have excelled yourself. My fellow guests won't be able to take their eyes off me."
"Thank you, my lord," he bowed and slithered out of the room.
I made my way back downstairs, taking my time since I wasn't trying to follow any Winborns marchants, examining the painted walls of the staircase and standing in the center of the rotunda to goggle at the distant dome.
"Pretty impressive, isn't it?" an American-accented voice startled me and I almost fell over backward, "Like a state capitol back home."
"I feel like an ant at the bottom of a vase," I said to the newcomer, my irritation turning quickly to interest.
"Name's Vandekamp," the man put out his hand—his very large, square, strong hand—to shake. He was a big, distinguished-looking chap, fifty or so with a handsomely rough-hewn face and thick salt-and-pepper hair, "Chester Vandekamp."
"How do you do?" I took the offered hand, which enveloped mine completely, "Viscount Foxbridge."
"I never get used to you youngsters over here having titles," he gave me a warm smile that made me go weak in the knees.
"Just a hand-me-down thing," I deprecated myself shyly; a frolic with the lovely young Michael would be a jolly pastime, but Chester Vandekamp was my very precise cup of tea, and a frolic with him a consummation devoutly to be wished. If he'd had a big mustache, as well, I might not have been able to control myself, "Not something one earns."
"So you reckon a knight is better than a viscount because it's earned? Unusual viewpoint for an Englishman," he was still holding on to my hand. Was he flirting?
"I am a bit unusual," I replied, looking up through my lashes at him.
"What are you standing around in here for?" another American voice, female and not unpleasantly nasal, echoed into the rotunda.
"Just chatting, my dearest," Vandekamp turned to greet the lady, a brassy blonde with a spectacular figure and a face that had recently been cherubically beautiful but was starting to come to grief under its careful paint, "May I present my wife, Lord Foxbridge?"
"How do you do, Mrs. Vandekamp?" I took her hand and kissed it, dazzled by the enormous diamond on her finger.
"Coo!" she exclaimed, vamping like a chorus girl, which I later discovered she had been before she married, "Just like a Frenchie! What kind of lord are you, Lord Foxbridge?"
"Now, Mamie, that's not a nice question," Vandekamp scolded her gently, looking at her with eyes so full of love and affection that I was forced to dismiss any fantasies I'd been harboring about him—even if he was susceptible to my wiles, I couldn't suppose he'd ever dally while she was around to be worshiped.
"Well, there's lots of lords here, honey, I find it confusing," she complained, "I read about the peerage and all when we came here, and it was real interesting, but you-all don't say what kind of lord you are, not the way it is in the book."
"I'm a viscount by courtesy, ma'am," I explained, charmed by the lady's cheerful frankness, "My father is the Right Honourable the 10th Earl of Vere, Viscount Foxbridge, and Baron Saint-Clair, as it would say in the book. I'm his heir, so I'm known by his second-best title."
"Well, how about that!" she grinned at me as if I'd pulled off a particularly clever parlour-trick, "I'm glad you explained it to me. That other kid got real huffy when I asked him. Lord Rupert Something."
"I assume he's the younger son of a duke or a marquess if he says his Christian name."
"His Ma's a duchess," Mrs. Vandekamp hooked her arm around my elbow and started towing me toward where the tea was, "She's here, too. A 'dowager,' but they don't call her that to her face."
"Well, it's not an insult," I pointed out, strolling along with the lady while her husband trailed behind us (and was it my imagination, or did I feel his eyes burning through my clothes?), "It's just one of the words we tend to drop out of sheer laziness. Like saying 'Lord' instead of what rank of lord one is."
"You should give a correspondence course, Lord Foxbridge," Vandekamp overtook us and draped his arm over my shoulder as we walked, "Help us ignorant Americans keep from sticking our feet in our mouths."
"I never saw much point in expecting foreigners to know all our silly customs," I laughed as we reached the library door, only one leaf of which was open so we had to break apart; they went in ahead of me and I watched with interest as he caught up to his wife and gave her a surreptitious squeeze on the backside as they approached the tea-table.
"Oh, Lord Foxbridge, how nice you do look," Lady Levondale descended on me in an hospitable flurry when she caught sight of me in the doorway, and dragged me toward the centre of the room, "Such a pretty tweed. I see you've met the Vandekamps, but I don't know if you've met everyone else?"
"Not everyone, no," I took in the large-ish group of people scattered decorously around the quite magnificent room (what other kind of room was there at Verevale? This one was done up in moss-coloured velvet and gold braid with the books imprisoned behind ormolu lattice in great glass-fronted cabinets), recognizing only a few faces.
"The Duchess of Tyne?" my hostess gently towed me over to the ranking personage in the room, a small but stately creature enthroned in a massive wing-back chair; she was just tipping over from middle-age into elderliness, her hair tinted to an unusual shade of jonquil that I suppose was meant to be blonde and arranged in an impressive old-fashioned pompadour, though her clothes were thoroughly up-to-date; her face was interesting, almost completely devoid of chin, with watery blue eyes and a parrot's-beak nose, which should have been rather foolish but was instead imbued with an expression of immense dignity.
"Your Grace," I bowed low over her hand.
"How do you do?" she greeted me with a plummy woodwind voice and the roundest vowels I'd ever heard. It was such a stagey sort of accent that I wondered if she was putting it on, or if she was the model on which theatrical grandes dames based themselves.
"Her son, Lord Rupert Gosforth," Lady Levondale turned me slightly toward a fair young man draped bonelessly over the end of a sofa. He was obviously his mother's son, with the same long chinless face and water-blue eyes, though with a different nose, a strong straight one that suited the face better and rendered him rather attractive.
"How do you do?" he said in the same sort of plummy round-voweled voice, but much deeper, a bassoon compared to his mother's oboe; his eyes were languid, the blond-lashed lids dropping slowly instead of blinking, but the handshake was admirably firm, the hand strong and hot.
"I'm sure you know Lord and Lady Faringdon?" I was dragged along to the next guests.
"How are you, Foxy?" Jingo beamed at me, taking my hand. If he was in any way surprised or discomfited by my appearance, he didn't let on—but then, I wouldn't expect him to, any more than I'd expect him to let on that he was up to some sort of skulduggery. The whole point of Jingo and Dotty was their invariable mask of frivolous bonhomie.
"As well as can be expected, Jingo," I said as nicely as I could, though I really wanted to punch him right in the face, "You're looking lovely, Dotty."
"Foxy, darling," Dotty cooed, pressing her bosom against my arm and kissing me on the cheek, leaving a smear of lip-rouge behind.
"Have you met Sir Peregine Pendersleigh?" Lady Levondale wasn't letting any grass grow, pulling me along to the next guest.
"We've met briefly," I conceded, taking the hand of the amiable-looking old man, "You gave a very interesting lecture at Oxford a couple of years ago, all about reconstructing the domestic life of the ancient Egyptian peasant by comparing tomb paintings with modern practices."
"Yes, I remember," Sir Peregine shook my hand vigorously, though his grasp was weak; he was slightly hunched over and terrifically wrinkled, his bald and beady-eyed head thrust forward like an old tortoise; his pale suit was foppish in cut and colour, but seemed to be too big for him—as if he'd shrunk a good deal since he'd bought it, "Foxbridge of Magdalen, you said some very complimentary things afterward over sherry in the Master's Lodgings. Are you still interested in Egyptology, my boy?"
"Oh, certainly," I replied vaguely—in fact, I'd never been interested in Egypt per se, but I am fascinated by the way archaeologists figure out how things happened thousands of years ago. Archaeology is just another form of detective-work, but with exotic names and everybody already dead.
"I'm sure you must have met Sir Wilfred Beckett Haven?" I was hauled inexorably on, despite Sir Peregrine's obvious desire to detain me in conversation.
"I don't believe so," I took the next hand offered, which belonged to a tall and extraordinarily rigid-looking man, with a pencil mustache on a distinguished face immediately recognizable from the newspapers, "But I know of your work in the Cabinet, sir."
"I know your father very well," Sir Wilfred stated, as if magnanimously prepared to forgive my existence over this fact, squeezing my hand in a painful grip, "We often dine together at St. Stephen's."
"How nice," I winced at the handshake and took an immediate dislike to the man. Parliamentarians tend to annoy me, too many of them exuding an air of condescending self-importance, so a Cabinet Minister must be a very annoying creature, indeed. Allying himself with my father certainly did not endear him.
"And his daughter, Muriel Beckett Haven," I was pulled along again, this time confronted by a terrifically pretty woman of about thirty-five, smartly but not too fashionably dressed, with an intricate coiffure of black curls that must have taken her maid a full hour to assemble.
"I believe we met at Lady Paxton's ball last June," I said, taking her hand but not lifting or kissing it as I ordinarily would. Her face might have been really beautiful if it didn't wear an expression of bitter disappointment bravely borne, and she had a strangely mincing way of speaking that I found off-putting—despite her obvious efforts to be charming, I disliked her the first time I met her, and was not sanguine that she'd grow on me now.
"How do you do?" she simpered, her fine dark eyes shrewd and assessing, her smile tight and neutral.
"And this is my daughter, Lavinia," Lady Levondale said with a fanfaronade kind of tone in her voice, as if the girl was a fascinating celebrity. She was an odd-looking creature with a sort of cylindrical face, long and narrow, barely prevented from being horsey by the tiny mouth and protuberant eyes of a Chinese goldfish.
"How do you do, Miss Levondale?" I said suavely, trying to cover the sudden discomfiture I felt, being stared at like an inanimate object: the girl gave me her hand, but did not smile or respond, she merely gazed blankly at me as one would a questionable painting in a gallery one didn't quite care for.
"And of course you know the Pargeters, don't you?" my hostess completed the round of the room, leaving me there to return to her tea-table.
"Hullo, Foxbridge," Bertie greeted me with his mouth full of cake, glancing up from his plate with a friendly smile and then focusing sharply on my waistcoat, "That is a pretty tweed. Where did you get it? The cut looks like Anderson & Sheppard, but that wasn't in their swatch books."
"A little shop in Jermyn Street," I told him, caressing the heathery-fawn fabric of my lapel, amused by his astonishing memory for the tiniest details of gentlemen's suiting and haberdashery when he probably couldn't tell you his own address without looking at his cards, "They sell goods from the great Scottish estates. This stuff comes from a place called Glenbogle, and I sent it along to Anderson & Sheppard to make up for me."
"Glenbogle, Scottish shop in Jermyn Street, I'll remember that," Bertie promised, returning his attention to his cake.
"I understand from my man, Pond, that you're responsible for my invitation," I said to Julia Pargeter, sitting next to her with the cup of tea and plate of cake the footman had just handed me.
"Aunt Cynthia is responsible for the invitation," she smiled at me, a twinkle in her storm-gray eyes, "I merely suggested it might be amusing to have you down, you were such delightful company at Castoris."
"Lady Levondale is your aunt? I didn't know."
"Not really," she explained, "My father and Lord Levondale have been bosom friends since forever, they were at school together. I've always known them as Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Felix."
"And 'Cousin' Lavinia?" I asked quietly, nodding faintly in the direction of the strange young woman, "What's her story?"
"She's usually very friendly, if a trifle over-earnest about things. The way she cut you just now was quite extraordinary."
"It was awkward," I admitted, "I felt like a cad out of Jane Austen, having failed to impress Lady Catherine de Bourgh."
"I'll ask her later what that was all about," she promised, "And in return you can tell me about your friend, Faringdon. But not now. So, what have you been doing reading Jane Austen? Not at all the sort of thing I'd suspect of you."
"Really? Just because I like pulps, people seem to think they're all I've ever read."
"Most people who read pulps can't read anything else," she shrugged.
"You're an intellectual snob," I teased.
"Hullo-ullo, sorry we're late," a man came caroling into the room, two young women trailing behind him, then stopped suddenly in front of me, "What ho, a new face! You must be Foxbridge. I'm Levondale."
"A pleasure to meet you, Lord Levondale," I stood up and shook his hand. He was a funny-looking old buster, stout and burly but with a very pointed face, slanted eyes and a slanted smile, like a bull-terrier that's very pleased with itself; he was dressed in grass-green tweeds and leather gaiters veritably squeaking with newness, like a City gent playing at country life.
"We've just been down looking at some new pigs on the home farm," he said cheerfully, taking a cup of tea and waving away the cake.
"They were so sweet," one of the girls exclaimed, plumping down on the other side of me in the sofa. She was dark and skinny and past the first blush of youth, but had the chubby cheeks and rosebud mouth of a little child, with huge swimmy brown eyes and frizzy unkempt hair, "Don't you think baby pigs are the sweetest things?"
"I don't think I've ever seen a baby pig," I replied, charmed. The girl was very plain, but her enthusiasm was endearing.
"Oh, but you must!" she exclaimed, grabbing my hand, "Baby animals are always far the best kind, but baby pigs are particularly wonderful. They're so very pink. I'm sorry, we haven't even been introduced, have we? I'm Abigail March, Lavinia's friend."
"Viscount Foxbridge," I took her hand.
"Oh, yes, I know. You were so pretty in your Oberon costume."
"You were at my masquerade ball?" I was baffled.
"Oh, no, but the pictures were published in this month's Tatler. I absolutely devoured them, it looked like such fun."
"I'll make sure to invite you next time," I promised.
"That's so kind of you!" she gushed, "I love looking at pictures of parties, they always look so exciting, but then I don't ever seem to enjoy myself when I go to parties. Perhaps I don't go to the right ones."
"Those elaborate parties that end up in the magazines are never as much fun as they look," the other newly-arrived girl said, "I've been to parties that were crashing bores, but the pictures looked like such a great time, I wondered if they were the same parties at all."
"Really? I had a whale of a good time at my party," I said cheerfully, though I felt obscurely offended. The girl was quite good-looking, dark-haired and sun-bronzed with a rakishly cut bob, though not what you'd call 'pretty'—she was simply too impressive and hard-edged for that epithet, like one of your icier Classical goddesses. She was also American and had the same epic profile as Chester Vandekamp, so I had to assume she was related to him, probably his daughter.
"Oh, I'm sure your party was fantastic," she said diplomatically, "But so many hostesses I know are more interested in how the thing looks than whether or not anyone is having a good time. Like the guests are just decorations to be placed here and there for effect and moved about when the effect goes stale."
"Oh, I know what you mean," I saw her point, "I've been to parties like that. But I always manage to have a good time, anyway."
"A man who can have a good time at a boring party is a pearl beyond price," she smiled warmly at me, a touch of flirtation in her voice that I found a tiny bit alarming, "I hope you don't mind if I stick to you like a limpet at the Hunt Ball."
"Not at all," I wasn't sure how to respond to that: did she mean for me to act as her escort, or just to show her how to enjoy a boring party? "Though I doubt it will be boring, people are so worked up after a hunt, the dancing is always great fun."
With the topic of past parties both great and dismal introduced, the conversation became general, and the rest of tea passed quite pleasantly. When the party started to disperse, though, Julia and I clung to our places, chatting of this and that, until we were finally alone.
"Now, tell me about Faringdon," she said abruptly when the last footman left with the last tray.
"What do you want to know?" I didn't know why she was asking and so had no idea where to start... after all, I knew a lot about Jingo.
"I want to know why, out of the clear blue sky, two celebrated socialites like the Faringdons should suddenly start taking an interest in socially negligible people like me and Bertie, and the Levondales?"
"They're blackmailers," I said simply, "You have lots of money, and they want some."
"Really! I thought they were very well off," she frowned and concentrated, rifling her own encyclopædic knowledge of the movements and dispositions of the nation's wealth, "Aside from living in rather fine style, Faringdon has been making quite a few very shrewd investments these last two years."
"They must be fairly rich, by now. They've been at this game for a while, and they're very good at it. They very nearly got me for fifteen thousand quid; if they manage a couple of coups like that a year, they'd be earning a mint."
"Yes, I see," she leaned back into the sofa, satisfied, "That explains a great deal. Faringdon was essentially bankrupt when he came into the title, the estates sold for death duties; everyone assumed it was her money they were living on, but nobody knew where her money came from."
"Now you know," I shrugged.
"How is it worked, though?" she pursued, sitting forward again, "Bertie and I are as dull as ditchwater, we couldn't come up with a worthwhile secret between us, and the Levondales are respectability itself. You aren't even old enough to have a past, what could he possibly have over you worth fifteen thousand pounds?"
"Well, um..." I stammered, not sure I could trust her with the more delicate details.
"No, I don't mean for you to tell me all your secrets," she smiled comfortingly at me and patted my hand, "Though, by the way you're blushing, I can surmise what they are. What I mean is, what are the mechanics of it? How does he 'get the goods,' as it were?"
"Hidden cameras, mainly," I said guardedly, wishing that I hadn't mentioned my own involvement in Jingo's schemes, "He planted a confederate in my house in the guise of a footman, who installed cameras in several of the bedrooms and managed to photograph some goings-on of rather damaging appearance."
"The footman who was murdered?" she wondered.
"Yes, though the murder wasn't related to the blackmail, at least not directly; and if it wasn't for the murder, I never would have found out about it. Jingo and Dotty never appear in the case, you see: the photographs are taken by a confederate; if there isn't anything to photograph, a seduction is carried out by a confederate; and then the threats of blackmail are made by another completely separate confederate who doesn't approach the victim until months later. If Jingo and Dotty do appear in the case, if they have to carry out the seduction themselves for any reason, they simply look like fellow victims."
"That's extraordinarily clever," Julia was looking off into the middle-distance again, examining the mechanism in her mind's eye, "An admirable system. But I still don't see how they can hope to catch me or Bertie in their toils, much less Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Felix. I mean, even if Dotty did manage to seduce poor Bertie, and get photographs of it, I can't see what use they'd be. It's not like I'd divorce the silly fish for something so banal as a one-off infidelity."
"In the character of a victim, Dotty could likely convince him to pay in order to preserve her marriage," I pointed out, "He's chivalrous enough to do it. And what if Jingo managed to seduce Bertie? Divorce would be the least of his worries."
"Oh! I see. I don't think he's inclined that way, but you never know," her face took on a different sort of frown as her admiration for the Faringdons' cleverness gave way to her fierce instinct to protect her husband, "It's so much a part of the public school tradition; most of you grow out of it, but men will be boys when they can, won't they?"
"More than you know," I smirked before I could catch myself.
"I know a good deal more than you seem to think," she said with a sly grin, "But I shan't embarrass you with indiscreet language, you're already blushing quite enough. At any rate, forewarned is forearmed, I won't let Bertie alone in a room with either of the Faringdons."
We were interrupted by a pair of housemaids who came in to draw the curtains and light the lamps, so we left them to their work and made our way out through the hall and rotunda to the stairs, and I left her at the first bend of the corridor on the first floor, where she and Bertie were lodged.
I went along to my own room in a thoughtful mood. I wasn't worried about Bertie and Julia, she could take care of him and herself all right; but I did worry about the the Levondales—especially Michael, who as little as I already knew him was particularly susceptible to the Faringdons' variety of blackmail.
"I thought you'd got lost," Jingo drawled lazily from my bed, where he was lounging with a cigarette and a silver cup of my best whiskey from the liquor-case of my luggage, his shoes and jacket lying carelessly on the floor.
"Get out of my room," I ordered curtly.
"Why so inhospitable, Foxy?" he sounded amused, rolling over onto his stomach and giving me one of his roguish grins.
"Only my friends are allowed to call me that," I stepped over to the fireplace and picked up the poker in a meaningful manner, "Friends don't fill your house with spies or blackmail you for fifteen thousand pounds."
"Guineas, pet," he corrected me, "And what's a few thousand guineas to you? Besides, I didn't get you on film, I lost my best agent and a good friend, and your pal Lord Arthur tied me up nice and tight without a farthing to show for my pains. Why hold it against me?"
"You abused my friendship and trespassed on my hospitality, Faringdon. I can't forgive that."
"You're very moral, aren't you?" his voice changed to a serpentine and dangerous tone as he slid off the bed and came to stand in front of me, "Never done anything against the laws of God and Man, have you?"
"I've never knowingly hurt anyone," I said, instinctively raising the iron poker a few inches between us.
"Who have I hurt?" he demanded, stepping closer, so close that I could feel his breath on my face, "Who have I really damaged? I don't kill people, I don't maim or disfigure people, I don't deprive people of their livelihoods or anything that means anything to them. I just charge money of people who can easily afford it to keep their secrets. So what?"
"So, it's wrong," I insisted, "You hurt people by betraying their confidence, making them afraid of exposure, making them ashamed of their love."
"Twaddle. I don't make the laws, I didn't make society the way it is. I just capitalise on it, the same as anyone else."
"Twaddle, yourself. Capitalising on unjust laws is itself unjust; what you're doing is wrong and no amount of justification is going to change that."
"Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree," his demeanor changed back to his usual flippant charm and the Cheshire-Cat grin resurfaced on his handsome face—but his hand closed painfully over my wrist, forcing me to drop the poker, "And I should warn you that I'll not take kindly to your interfering in my business here."
"I don't take kindly to you practicing your 'business' on my friends," I growled, struggling to wrench my wrist out of his grasp.
"Come, let's kiss and be friends," he grabbed my other wrist and forced both arms behind my back, pulling me close to him; he wasn't much bigger than me, but was a good deal stronger, and my struggle was in vain as he kissed me hard on the mouth.
"My lord!" Pond gasped, entering from the dressing-room with a tray of decanters and glasses in his hands.
"Lord Faringdon was just leaving," I said with a shameful squeak in my voice as Jingo released me and I stumbled back against the mantelpiece.
"Good evening, Pond," Jingo swept up his jacket and shoes in one fluid motion and headed for the door, "See you at dinner, Foxy."
"Did he hurt you, my lord?" Pond asked, setting down his tray and coming forward to examine my bruised wrist.
"Just my pride," I said, hugging my arms around me and turning to face the wall; though I was terribly angry, I was shocked to discover myself powerfully aroused at the same time, and I knew Pond would notice, with his eagle eye for the drape of my trousers.
"Your lordship's bath is ready," he said soothingly, going back to the tray and rearranging it unnecessarily to give me a moment to compose myself.
"Thanks, I'll have a nice soak before I dress for dinner."
"Very good, my lord."
The tiny bath was actually quite comfortable, short but deep and shaped so I could sit in it like a beach-chair, the fragrant water reaching up to my chest; my cigarettes and a decanter and glass were set on a little wicker table beside me, making it even more comfortable. I lit a cigarette, poured a drink, and settled in for a good long think.
Really, there was something in what Jingo said: what he was doing was wrong, but it wasn't as wrong as it could be. He did follow a certain gentlemanly code in his crimes, after all, never taking more than his victims could afford, and as far as I knew he'd never actually exposed anyone, only threatened to. I tried to imagine what would have happened if William hadn't been killed and Jingo succeeded in squeezing me for fifteen thousand—which I could easily afford, and I would have cheerfully paid up to keep Twister safe.
But would he have gone to Twister for another payment? The prospect of photographic evidence in circulation would have sent my beloved into a tailspin of fear and remorse, placing a serious strain on our relationship. And what about Aunt Em and Nanny? What would the threat of exposure have done to them? And sweet silly Claude? Then there were the servants involved, people who would likely have been required to render services instead of cash, to help set up further victims for the Faringdons' plots.
So, no, I could not just live and let live. I'd already warned Julia Pargeter, and I could do my best to protect the Levondales—for though I'd only just met them that afternoon, I felt a rabid loyalty to my hosts—but what about the rest? I barely knew the Vandekamps or the Gosforths, Sir Peregrine or Miss March, what protection did I owe them? I actively disliked the Beckett Havens, though, and rather hoped Jingo would take a swing at them.
But was that moral? Wasn't wishing them harm just as bad as Jingo harming them? I had an uncomfortable feeling that I might look differently on the Faringdons' activities if they hadn't involved me or people I loved. After all, I'd known perfectly well that Silenus was a blackmailer, just on the other side of the law, and I'd countenanced the activities of a professional assassin I'd encountered in my travels the previous summer without a qualm. On the other hand, Silenus worked for the greater good, and my assassin friend only killed gangsters, so didn't that make their crimes moral rather than immoral? Or was that another justification, more convincing than Jingo's but just as facile?
The water went cold before I was able to come to a conclusion, so I gave up and got out, dismissing the problem from my mind; I sang a cheerful little song, instead, as I toweled off and applied the cologne and talcum powder, in preparation for submitting myself to Pond and the White Tie.
"Did Lady Levondale send a card with my dinner-partner?" I asked a bit later as Pond did up my studs.
"Yes, my lord," he answered distractedly, concentrated on the task, "Your lordship will be going in with Miss Levondale."
"Oh," I sighed, slightly disappointed; I'd hoped it would be Julia, and was afraid the Levondale girl might be uncivil, "But at least it isn't Dotty. I'm not sure I could refrain from choking her in between courses."
"Your lordship could use the practice," he replied, stepping away to retrieve my tie, "If one wishes to learn dissimulation, one must spend time dissimulating. Lady Faringdon would make an excellent whetstone against which to sharpen one's skills."
"I don't think I could eat and dissimulate at the same time," I frowned, "It would ruin my appetite."
"All new practices are uncomfortable at first, my lord," he said sententiously, anchoring my tie to the back stud and coming around to fasten it under the collar-wings, "I'm sure your lordship's first boiled shirt was uncomfortable, and now wearing one to dinner is second nature."
"True enough," I conceded, seeing his point, "But not wearing one to dinner is absolute bliss."
"I should never have let you go to Bourneham," he grumbled, shaking his head over my childish lack of sartorial discipline.
When I left my rooms all primped and pretty, I saw Mr. Vandekamp coming toward me down the corridor, so I waited politely for him to catch up before joining him for the trip downstairs.
"You know, I knew your Granddad in New York," he said when he reached me, laying his arm over my shoulders as we walked (his very warm, heavy, muscular arm), "I should have spotted it right off, you're the spitting image of your mother; but when you mentioned your father's name, I realized you must be old Matt Savarell's grandson."
"You have the advantage of me," I replied, startled by this sudden mention of a man I rarely thought about, though always glad to be told how much I resemble my famously beautiful mother, "I hardly ever saw him. I think he didn't like my father, so he never came to Foxbridge Castle; and I was seldom brought to London."
"He hated your father," Vandekamp laughed ruefully, "When old Matt took against someone, he could be pretty obstinate about it. But he was real proud of you, he brought your letters out at the club and read them to everyone, and kept your photograph on his desk."
"Really!" I was amazed by this: Mummy made me write to Grandfather Savarell once a month, but he never replied to my letters; he sent cards with fat cheques in them for birthdays and Christmas, but he only wrote his signature, no 'best wishes' or anything. I'd always assumed he didn't really like me, "You'll have to tell me some stories about him."
"I'd love to do that sometime," he said, then bewildered me by walking right past the staircase; I was pretty sure the only rooms in that corner of the house belonged to the senior Levondales. But then he opened an obscure little door and ushered me ahead of him, and I found myself in a domed cage of fancifully gilded bars inside a very deep tubular shaft, "Can you beat this elevator? Just like a birdcage in a chimney."
"I didn't know there was a lift in the house," I looked around me with interest as Vandekamp closed the accordion door and fiddled with some buttons and levers.
"You can wear yourself out on all these stairs, and I prefer to expend my energies in more interesting exercise," he said, stepping across and pressing me against the iron bars as the little cage began a slow descent, pressing my shoulders against the bars and leaning his full weight against me so I couldn't move, "We'll get together some time while we're staying here. Maybe we'll talk about your granddad. Maybe we'll talk about something else."
"Alright," I whispered, a little shocked—I suppose complete adoration of one's wife is no indicator of marital fidelity—but more than a little thrilled, "That would be nice."
"Good," he kissed me on the forehead and pulled away, giving my backside a really quite thorough grope as he pushed me out of the lift ahead of him; but I had to take a moment to rest against a pillar and gather my dignity about me, so I let him go on ahead.
The drawing room, expectedly opulent and vast enough to require a fireplace at each end to keep it warm, was all glinting gold and creamy Italian marble with thumpingly magnificent gilt furniture, including a heavy gilded table in the center of the room covered with the makings of cocktails and presided over by the thumpingly magnificent Winborn, for whom I made a beeline.
"Lord Foxbridge, I hope you can forgive me," Miss Levondale snatched me off my route, attaching herself to my elbow with a vice-like grip and hauling me into a corner, her whisper as harsh and loud as a steam-kettle, her large eyes practically bulging with earnestness, "My behavior this afternoon at tea was perfectly atrocious, I know, but I was labouring under a misconception about you."
"Oh, think nothing of it," I protested chivalrously, "I didn't mind at all."
"That is kind of you," she exhaled with relief, though did not loosen her hold on my elbow. Her grip was surprisingly strong, and I was beginning to worry about the hang of my coat-sleeve, "You'll think me very foolish, but I feel I must explain."
"Of course, if you like, but I assure you it's not necessary. I really didn't mind."
"I'm afraid we've both been victims of a practical joke," she explained, letting go of my elbow but still standing very close, sort of crowding me into the corner, "I suspect it was my brother's plan, but my father was instrumental in convincing me. They made me believe that you were coming here in hopes of marrying me, in order to regain possession of Verevale Court."
"What?!" I tried to stifle a laugh, stunned by the ridiculousness of the joke but not wanting to hurt her feelings.
"I know it sounds awfully silly," she went on, "I'm afraid I have a sore-spot about men wanting to marry me for mercenary reasons. I know I'm not pretty or anything like, but I am an heiress of considerable fortune; between that and my father's eagerness for me to marry, I've been somewhat beset by impoverished aristocrats. It's given me a bit of a complex, if you know what I mean."
"Quite," I agreed, "Fortunes and fortune-hunters go hand-in-hand, what?"
"Unfortunately, my brother knows my weakness and played on it. Convinced that you were a gold-digger, I decided to be unconscionably rude to you and chase you off. I suspect he was hiding outside the library to watch, that's why he wasn't at tea."
"The little devil!" I marveled at the boy's mischievousness.
"But Julia told me the truth about you, and now I feel utterly stupid."
"You mustn't feel stupid," I consoled her, taking her hand and tucking it into my elbow so I could lead her out of the corner, "When someone you trust uses your weaknesses against you, takes advantage of your trust, you're not to blame."
"You're very kind, Lord Foxbridge," she repeated.
"Not in the least," I'd towed her back to the great marble-topped table from which Winborn was dispensing the libations, "In fact, I am quite a vindictive sort. What shall we do to revenge ourselves on your father and brother?"
"Revenge?" she looked aghast.
"Reciprocate, then, if you prefer. Whichever, your brother seems ripe for a dose of comeuppance; and if we can get your father with the same bolt, so much the better," I selected a martini from the array of cocktails laid out on the table, "You can tell me their weaknesses, then we'll devise some entertaining tricks to play on them. It's only fair, after all. Now, tell me, what did Julia say about me? I'm always mad to hear what other people say of me."
"Only that you're frightfully rich," she said in a low whisper, whether to shield the butler from this information or through a distaste for discussing money, I couldn't tell, "Millions, independent of the earldom and its estates. You could buy out the lease any time you liked. She also pointed out that Daddy would be unlikely to give me Verevale as a wedding-present, he'll of course leave it to Michael with all the money, since I already have my grandmother's fortune."
"Well, aside from the undeniable delight of a lifetime in your company," I said to Miss Levondale, tossing back the first drink and taking a second one for sipping, "now I'm here at Verevale, marrying you for access to it seems a brilliant idea. The house is incredible."
"We like it," she said warily, trying to decide if I was kidding or not.
"Tell me about the pictures. I know these aren't Saint-Clair ancestors, all of the Reynoldses were brought to Foxbridge when my great-grandfather remodeled the house."
"My grandfather's collection," she led me over to the largest portrait, hanging to the left of the door, depicting a multitude of muslin-clad children and adolescents clustered around a rather grim-looking old man in blue velvet and a toweringly-coiffured lady in shimmering pink satin, peppered about with frisking spaniels and backed up by an awe-inspiring draped arch, "The Cautionary Example of Other People's Ancestors, he called them. This is the third Duke of Montclair and his family in 1775, at the height of their power. But the current duke lives in a Lambeth bedsit while his family mansions are now asylums and hotels, and most of the Montclair portraits are in American museums, sold to cover debts."
"And what was the lesson contained in the example?" I wondered. Her grandfather would have been the second Baron, with whom my grandfather the ninth Earl feuded all those years ago; I wondered if there was a certain resentment of ancient names, and therefore a delight in such names coming to ruin, informing the acquisition of this collection.
"Grandfather never said," she frowned a little, thinking it over, "But I think the lesson is that ancestry and display are all very well, but if you can't keep your money up to snuff there isn't much point to it. Living beyond your means is considered a cardinal sin, in this family."
"Or a capital crime?" I joked.
"That's very good," she laughed politely, though I sensed she didn't think capital was a joking matter, "This room is all Reynolds, the dining room is mostly Gainsborough, the library is Lawrence and Romney, the saloon is Lely and Kneller, and all of these families are either extinct or destitute."
"Where are the Levondale portraits?" I wondered
"There aren't many," she said, looking at me oddly, as if the question itself was a surprise, "But they're all in the billiard room and the morning room."
"I hope you'll show them to me, sometime," I said.
"Of course," she shied away from me a little bit; I suppose I'd been laying on the charm with too heavy a hand, and sounded like one of her impoverished-aristocrat suitors, making her uncomfortable.
"I've been thinking about having a portrait done," I backpedaled into a more businesslike tone, "Did you have one painted when you came out?"
"Mother had László do the whole family for my coming-out, but I don't think my picture turned out very well," she was eyeing me closely, quite scrutinising my face, "I think Augustus John would have suited me better. It's too bad Sargent's dead, he'd have been perfect for you."
"He did my parents' portraits," I replied, pleased, "I've been thinking about approaching László, but he's so much in demand since he did the Royal Family that it will take ages before he's free."
"Oh, no, you mustn't let him paint you," she went all earnest again, clutching my elbow painfully, "I mean, he's a lovely man, and he's wonderful for society women 'of a certain age,' but he'd make a hash of you. His genius is in making people much prettier than they really are without making the likeness unrecognizable; and you're already impossibly pretty, you'd end up looking like an advertisement for something. Augustus John is too painterly for you, the beauty of your face is in the clarity of colour and purity of line. No, I think Orpen is your best bet, though Meredith Frampton would be ideal if you're not concerned with being fashionable."
"Oh!" I replied, taken aback by the passion in her voice and the speed of her words, "Thank you."
"I'm so sorry!" she pulled back, her face colouring up to a nice shade of vermilion, "You must think me quite mad, calling you pretty of all things!"
"Not at all," I smiled gently, "I'm always glad to be called pretty. Impossibly pretty, even."
"Please don't think I was trying to flirt or anything," her skin went almost to puce, and her eyes were so wide I was afraid they might tip out of their sockets.
"Miss Levondale, let me put you at ease," I took her hand in both of mine, sparing a glance over her shoulder to see if we were being observed—and we were, Lady Levondale was watching us with indulgent delight, though the rest of the party seemed unaware of us—"You mustn't worry about me taking anything the wrong way, or being offended by anything you might say. You see, I'm already engaged to someone, though we haven't announced it yet. You can flirt with me all you like, and nothing will come of it; and I hope you will allow me to flirt with you, knowing that my intentions are purely Platonic."
"Flirting isn't really something I do," she said primly, though her colour returned to normal and she visibly relaxed.
"You should try it, it's great fun," I assured her, then gasped as a brilliant idea bloomed in my brain, "In fact, I think you shall try it. I think the first step in our revenge plot is to make your father think you're falling in love with me."
"What will that accomplish?" she wondered, glancing over her shoulder to where Lord Levondale and Michael were engaged in lively conversation with Dotty Faringdon.
"I'm not sure yet, but it gives us somewhere to start," I lifted her hand and kissed it roguishly, winking at her, "Lord Levondale devoutly wishes you to marry, so letting him think you're headed in that direction is a good beginning. The best practical jokes are based on raising the victim's expectations."
"I'll take your word for it," she said doubtfully, though she didn't pull away her hand.
"How are you at play-acting?" I asked, giving a stagey sort of come-hither look, as my Miranda had given to Freddie Bullivant's Ferdinand for our well-received turn in The Tempest at Eton.
"We did a lot of it at school, but I can't say I was particularly good at it," she replied with a smile, but belied her estimation by ducking her head in a perfect gesture of blushing pleasure.
"Well, practice makes perfect," I grinned and tucked her hand into my elbow, turning toward the north end of the room, "Shall we join the others?"
"What are you two conspiring about?" Lady Levondale asked archly as her daughter and I reached the group around the fire.
"We were discussing portrait artists," I said, bowing over her hand, "I had been thinking of László, but Lavinia dissuaded me."
"He's very fashionable just now," Lady Levondale twinkled as she noted my use of the Christian name, "We had him here to do our portraits a few years ago, he was the sweetest man, so very charming."
"László's no good at young men," Sir Peregrine piped up from the depths of a great armchair that appeared to have swallowed him whole, "Women, old men, and children, but not youths. Nobody does youths properly anymore."
"You should go to Paris for your portrait, Foxy," Dotty exclaimed, coming over and hooking herself around my arm, sort of inserting herself in between me and Miss Levondale, "Tamara de Lempicka is going to do me and Jingo this spring."
"De Lempicka could never do justice to Sebastian," Miss Levondale said heatedly, "Maybe de Monvel, if you're talking about Paris, but it would be a crime to reduce him to stylisation."
"Sir Oswald Birley is the best men's portraitist," Miss Beckett Haven declared in a bored tone, not looking up from the magazine she was examining, "Everyone knows that."
"Birley?!" Miss Levondale rounded on the woman furiously, "Birley's a picture-machine fit for nothing but the walls of offices. You might as well just tint a photograph."
"Lavinia's very interested in art," Lady Levondale said a little too loudly, trying to divert an argument, "When we went to Paris for our clothes last Season, I couldn't drag her out of the galleries for a fitting."
"I would say 'passionate' rather than 'interested,'" I threw one of my better flirtatious smiles at Lavinia, which caused a little ripple of intrigue among those who noticed it—Lord Levondale being most intrigued, I was happy to note, "I won't make any arrangements for a portrait without Lavinia's advice."
"Oh, there's the gong," Lady Levondale cried with relief, getting up and unobtrusively herding us into our prearranged pairings, "Shall we go in?"
The dining-room was exquisite, obviously the work of Robert Adam, with pink watered silk upholstery and a delightful painted plaster ceiling, and as Lavinia had said it was absolutely plated with pretty Gainsborough portraits. When we went to sit down, though, I realized that escaping the frying-pan of escorting Dotty to dinner meant I had landed in the fire of having to sit directly across from Jingo.
I should have known that would happen, since there are a finite number of patterns to arrange seating that a hostess can use at dinner, having to juggle the tables of precedence and keeping married couples separate. As the third-ranking male among the guests, I'd obviously be on either the hostess's right or one lady away from the host's left.
I'm not sure which exact pattern Lady Levondale used, since I am not a hostess myself and have thankfully never had to memorise the mind-numbing higher mathematics that are involved in seating arrangements for dinner; but as an earl's eldest son I am accustomed to being within spitting distance of either the host or the hostess, and have never been in so august a company that I found myself anywhere near the middle of the table. Though there are several degrees of precedence between me and a marquess, there were no dukes' eldest sons, earls, royal dukes' younger sons, marquesses' elder sons, nor full viscounts present at Verevale, so it was inevitable that I'd be near one of the Faringdons.
Dinner was a bit of a trial with Jingo right in front of me, smirking away in that maddeningly sexy way he has and reaching his long legs under the table to caress my ankles with his toes (how the hell had he got his shoes off under the table?) To distract myself, I concentrated all my charm onto furthering my faux amour of Lavinia Levondale—and in the process furthering a real friendship.
Like many plain women, she was a delightful companion once you got past her defenses, passionate and well-informed on a wide variety of subjects; she could be graceless in her facial expressions and gestures, and sometimes her words would rush out faster than her mouth could form them, but a fine spray of saliva on one's shoulder is a small price to pay for some really quite fascinating insights into modern art.
When it came time to turn my attention to Lady Levondale on my left, I made a point of asking her a lot of questions about her daughter, though of course her attention was spread a good deal thinner as she took part in several conversations at once while keeping an eagle eye on the footmen. After dinner over the port, I considered wedging myself in beside Lord Levondale to continue the campaign, but decided that would be laying it on too thick; instead, I parked myself next to Sir Peregrine and listened to him to natter about Egypt with his hand on my thigh, very high up—honestly, I was starting to feel like a Parisian hussy with all the pinching and groping.
Returning to the to the drawing-room, we found the ladies spread out into equal north and south factions with the footmen and the coffee-service forming the border: the northerners fell immediately on the card-tables and the southerners sat loosely clustered around the immense and heavily gilt piano at that end of the room, where Lavinia and Abigail entertained the company with the sort of music Aunt Em would sniffily characterise as young ladies' accomplishments—second-rate Romantic concertos that cover lots of mistakes within their gooey constructions and sound a good deal more complicated than they are.
Despite Aunt Em's example and careful lessons, I've a pretty democratic ear, and enjoy a second-rate concerto as much as a first-rate symphony or even a third-rate music-hall ditty, so I rather liked it—and I made myself conspicuous by applauding the end of every piece, and making sure my applause was just a bit more enthusiastic for Lavinia's efforts than for Abigail's (though Abigail was a marginally better pianist).
After the music, I sat close beside Lavinia on the sofa and looked adoringly at her while she told me more about art. And since this was a performance, I kept a weather eye on my audience: Lady Levondale threw indulgent smiles over her cards from way across the room, Lord Levondale glanced inquiringly at us over the top of his hunting magazine, and Michael looked frankly bewildered by the display; I also noticed some unexpected attention, Abigail watched us closely with an unhappy frown, and Lord Rupert looked absolutely enraged.
I could understand Abigail being a trifle put out by my monopolising her friend, but what did Rupert care? Was he enamoured of Lavinia? Or did he simply find such displays distasteful? So curious was I about the young man's obvious disapproval that I had to sidle away from Lavinia and ask Rupert if he'd join me in a game of billiards; he agreed with extreme reluctance, though, which piqued my curiosity even further.
The billiard room was a gorgeously masculine place, beautifully paneled in rich dark walnut carved by Grinling Gibbons in the shapes of foliage, fruit, and dead game; the ceiling was painted with a wildly overpopulated Baroque scene of the Judgement of Paris, with the Victorian brass billiard lamp descending rather comically from Aphrodite's navel. Rupert and I played in complete silence for some time, but I could see him working himself up into saying something to me, so I waited patiently for him to pop.
"I say, Foxbridge," he finally let loose while standing next to me at the scoreboard, turning toward me and towering over me in an intimidating fashion, "What's the idea of throwing yourself at Miss Levondale like that?"
"Why do you think there's some idea behind it?" I asked, looking up into his angry face. He was very tall, and I hadn't realized just how tall until he stood glaring down at me, "Can't a fellow flirt with a girl without ulterior motives?"
"Well, look here, I'm supposed to be flirting with her," he said, blushing a bit to admit it, "But I can't even get a look in, with you doing your Adoring Angel bit and hanging on her every word. You're scooping me, dammit!"
"All's fair in love and war, what?" I tried laughing it off, not wanting to admit that Lavinia and I were just play-acting for a prank, but also not wanting to make him actually angry. Though we were both armed with long sticks, he obviously had a distinct advantage of reach.
"But you've already got a fortune," he complained, "What do you need to go chasing after another one for?"
"Miss Levondale is a person, not a fortune," I pointed out tartly, offended.
"You know what I mean!" he thundered, stepping even closer to me; I tried to back away to safety, but there was a large wing-chair behind me and I was stuck, "My mother brought me down here to court Miss Levondale. We're stony-broke, and my idiot brother married a girl even more broke than we are, so the Mater's hauling me around to grab her an heiress by hook or by crook. I don't mean to treat Miss Levondale as an object, but I'm just as much an object in these schemes."
"I'm sorry," I said sincerely, though I was still a little offended. This revulsion for mercenary motives in marriage is probably what my grandfather felt when an impecunious earl took a running jump at his precious daughter; but it's probably only those of us with plenty of money who can afford such disgust.
"I don't much fancy my chances," he relaxed but didn't move away from me, his closeness becoming more a confidence than a threat, "I'm a younger son and not exactly one of the best and brightest; but I'm a decent chap and not bad-looking, we might come to like each other. But I don't have a prayer with someone like you turning her head."
"I hate to break it to you," I tried to placate him, "but neither of us has a prayer with her. She's not interested in getting married."
"Well, neither am I, really, but my Mater will have it so. I have to at least try."
"Just don't put yourself out too much, old man," I reached up and lay my hand on his arm soothingly, "She's only indulging me because she knows I don't mean anything by it. If she thinks you're in earnest, she'll run a mile in tight shoes before letting you alone in a room with her."
"How do you mean?" he wondered, putting his hand on my neck companionably.
"Just that you could get to know her if you don't come at her like Don Juan on the make," he was still standing terribly close, and I wondered why: it made sense when he was trying to intimidate me, but now it was a little bit odd, "She's sensitive about men wanting to marry her for her money, it will put her right off you. But if you take a friendly interest in her and her pursuits, who knows? She might come to like you, and though I seriously doubt she'd marry you, it would get your mother off your back if she sees you two getting along."
"You're awfully pretty, you know," he said, stroking my chin with his thumb.
"I know," I answered stupidly, startled by this sudden change of topic. Something was poking me in the stomach, and it wasn't a billiard cue.
"I'd like to get to know you better," he said quietly, then leaned in and kissed me softly.
"I'd like that, too," I said when he let me come up for air, "Not just now, though, do you mind? It's been a frightfully long day."
"Right-o," he said cheerfully, not at all put out as men usually are when they poke you and then don't get to go any further, "Shall we finish our game?"
"Does it ever seem to you, Pond," I mused as he arranged my pajama collar to lie smoothly against the lapels of my dressing-gown, "that more people are queer than aren't?"
"I don't see how that could be so, my lord," he answered, "If we were in the majority, there wouldn't be so much legislation about us, would there?"
"Oh, I don't mean exclusively queer like you and me," I clarified, "But it seems to me that a surprising lot of people go both ways. I expected that sort of thing at school, most of the boys were pining for girls while having it on with another boy; but it seems to have carried over into adult life to quite an unexpected degree."
"Perhaps your lordship's circle of acquaintance is more conditioned to such duality," he said thoughtfully, turning to neaten the arrangement of toilet articles on the dresser, "How many men does your lordship know who weren't educated at a public school?"
"Not very many, that's true," I went and sat in the very comfortable chair by the fire and put my slippered feet against the fender to warm, "But even at school, it was only a slim majority of us having it on with each other, almost half the fellows believed all the 'hygiene' bunkum they taught us and didn't even have it on with themselves. But so far, five out of the eight men in this house have made some sort of pass at me, and I haven't even been here a whole day, yet."
"I don't wish to make personal remarks, my lord," he said with wooden formality, which is his standard prelude to remarks of a blindingly personal nature, "but I suspect that is largely due to your lordship's particular kind of beauty. Ephebic, I believe the word is. I doubt those gentlemen are busy making passes at each other."
"That's sweet of you, Pond," I glowed at the compliment, "I suppose you're right, though, my sort of looks do seem to appeal to men who like women. Not that I'm complaining, mind. But do you mean to say that men who don't go to public school tend not to like boys?"
"It has been my experience, my lord," he said as he folded my shirt and underclothes over his arm in preparation to taking his leave, "that young people who remain at home for their education, and are not sequestered from the opposite sex during what one might call 'the sweetheart years,' are less likely to explore and build on feelings for their own sex."
"Really!" I frowned thoughtfully at this, "That must make it very lonely for those who don't care at all for the opposite sex."
"Very lonely, indeed," he said with a sad sort of smile, "Will there be anything else, my lord?"
"No, thank you, Pond," I hoped I hadn't upset or offended him—it was so hard to gauge his emotions, I never knew if he was annoyed with me until he put a slightly-too-tight collar on me next day, "Good night."
"Good night, my lord," he slid backward out the door.
Pond had given me a lot to think about, so I sat in the dressing-room for quite a while, smoking my pipe and sipping the snifter of cognac thoughtfully left at my elbow. And though I did give some thought to Pond's lonely puberty, I was really more occupied with figuring out how I might entertain all of the various offers I'd received during the day without completely exhausting myself.
I was pretty certain Michael was going to come to my room sometime after everyone else went to bed, which was the only reason I'd put Rupert off; but despite the gentle kiss, Rupert struck me as more of an out-of-doors type, anyway, preferring the hearty tumble in the bushes to the leisurely encounter in a bed; but the latter was quite probably Chester's style, and I could easily visualise a long idle afternoon with him.
What about Sir Peregrine? I was not averse to giving him a thrill, though I couldn't really imagine it going any farther than some flirty badinage and a few discreet pinches. Your elderly heterosexual roué might remain active with the ladies well into his twilight years, but elderly homosexual gents are so often cursed with self-consciousness of their age-ravaged bodies, and are reluctant to expose themselves to the potential disgust or ridicule of young men.
Well, whichever way things turned out, I certainly had plenty to keep me busy during my stay at Verevale. I just had to be careful to not amuse myself into a physical decline.
I went into the bedroom and stirred the fire a bit, then climbed up onto the massive bed, wondering if I should close the curtains or not—they were so artfully draped that I wasn't sure they were actually meant to be functional. I slid out of my slippers and dressing-gown and slid in between the sheets, picked up my book, and settled in to wait for Michael to turn up. It really had been a long day, though, and I was asleep before I knew it, the latest Hercule Poirot novel open on my face.
"You're pretty when you're asleep," Michael woke me up stroking my hair.
"Why'd you wake me, then?" I smiled up at him. I had no idea what time it was or how long I'd been asleep, but he looked as if he'd been asleep himself, flushed and tousle-haired.
"You're more fun when you're awake," he answered, coming in for a kiss. He wasn't wearing pajamas, and had been busy with my buttons before he woke me, so things progressed from there pretty quickly.
"If that's how they do it at Charterhouse," I gasped out quite some time later when we lay sweat-soaked and exhausted side-by-side, "then I'm sorry I went to Eton."
"I didn't learn any of that at Charterhouse," he gasped back, brushing his damp hair out of his face with his fingers.
"Hardly," he laughed, coming up on one elbow and looking down at me, "Just my own natural talent and filthy imagination. Plus a few hints and tips from the stables."
"Your stables must be a lot more interesting than mine," I told him, reaching up to tug on the curtain of dark hair hanging down over his eyes.
"What was all that billing and cooing at my sister tonight?" he asked, suddenly very serious.
"I was just being friendly," I shrugged cavalierly, though that's hard to do when you're lying down, "She's a nice girl, I like her."
"If that's what you call 'just being friendly,' I'd like to see what you think wooing looks like."
"Pretty much like this," I rolled over and pinned him to the mattress, sitting on his hips and holding his hands above his head.
"Do this to my sister and I'll have to call you out," he warned, though his eyes were twinkling as he struggled unconvincingly against me.
"I don't expect she likes me enough to let me do this, do you?" I asked thoughtfully.
"How should I know?" he said in the same thoughtful tone, "I'm not even sure she likes men."
"Well, I'll let you know when I find out," I said, letting go of him and lying back down beside him, "Let's not talk about Lavinia, I'd rather talk about you."
"I'd better get back to my own bed before Molly comes around to light the fires," he said regretfully, cuddling close and burying his face in my neck, "I don't want to get out in the cold, though."
"Stay here, then," I advised, wrapping my legs around him so he couldn't get away, "We can close the curtains, it's what I always do at home."
"These curtains are purely decorative," he laughed, "And Molly's a blabbermouth, your name would be mud in the servant's hall by lunch-time."
"What about your name?" I wondered. I'd often pondered the wisdom of trying to hide anything from one's own servants; and though I'd been careful with the curtains at Foxbridge, I frequently thought it would be easier to simply trust the loyalty and discretion of my staff.
"My naughty habits are already well known," he made a twisty bid for freedom and slipped out of the bed, tumbling gracelessly onto the floor, "A portion of my allowance is set aside every quarter-day for squaring the servants so word doesn't reach my mother or the village."
"So I'm not the only guest you've seduced?" I propped myself up on my elbow so I could watch him shimmy into his pajamas and dressing-gown before the cold air could settle on his skin.
"So far this week, you are," he knotted the cord on his dressing-gown and leaned over to give me a farewell kiss, "But it's only Saturday morning, and there are thirteen other guests to consider. See you at breakfast."
Michael had given me quite a lot to think about, so I lay awake for the longest time, staring at the pleated blue silk of the canopy and turning over the various things he'd said. Had he been serious about working his way through the entire guest-list? Surely not: Julia and Bertie, and Miss March, must be considered relatives, and I doubted seriously that anyone had lain a finger on the Duchess of Tyne since Rupert was conceived twenty-five years ago; and though the Beckett Havens, father and daughter, were both visually very attractive, their personalities were so hard-edged and chilly that I couldn't imagine anybody wanting to cuddle up to either of them.
Still, that left quite a few candidates, some of whom I'd considered myself; and assuming Michael wasn't exclusively queer, his horizons would be substantially broader than mine. If he was serious, he was going to be a very busy boy over the next couple of weeks—which made me wonder how he amused himself when there were no guests. The stables, perhaps?
I then wondered how much it cost him annually to 'square' the servants. I still didn't know how much I was supposed to tip the servants at a country-house, now I was of age, since Pond had been taking care of that for me; how to even calculate the appropriate emolument for keeping my secrets? If it was my own staff I was squaring, I could just add it to their pay-envelopes, maybe call it a rise in wages; I happened to remember that the entire staff wages at Foxbridge Castle, indoor and outdoor, including all the new servants, was in the neighbourhood of two thousand a year; adding ten or twenty percent of that figure certainly wouldn't break me, and might buy some peace of mind.
It then occurred to me that the annual salaries of almost thirty servants added up to less than a third of what I'd spent on my motorcar. Granted, I'd bought the most expensive motorcar available, and I was going to have it for several years, so the cost of the motorcar is substantially less than what I will spend on paying and feeding my servants over a period of five years (I'd been talking a lot to Julia, and had started to think in terms such as these); nevertheless, my servants' combined annual income was about one one-hundredth of my annual income, which is a rather shocking comparison; I began to wonder if these Communist chappies mightn't have a point.
My musing was interrupted by the aforementioned Molly coming in to lay my fire, so I snapped my eyes shut and lay perfectly still until she had finished. Housemaids, like the Wee Folk of myth, become quite flustered when they are observed in their rounds; and since they can't vanish into thin air like the Wee Folk, it's much kinder to pretend to be asleep.
As often happens, pretending to be asleep led to actually being asleep, and the next thing I knew the sun was up and Pond was standing over me with a pot of coffee on a tray. He gave me one of his querying looks when he picked up my discarded pajamas from the floor, so I told him all about my early-morning visitor—well, not all about him, as there are some verbs and adjectives that I blush to say even to Pond.
Breakfast was served in the dining-room, though it was rather dark in there with no east-facing windows; one gets all-too-accustomed to eating each meal in a different room, as we do at Foxbridge, it always seems to me immensely preferable to eating every meal but tea in one dining-room. Nevertheless, the breakfast spread was fantastic, and I gorged myself on one of the best kedgerees I'd ever tasted washed down with really excellent coffee.
After breakfast, Michael took me out riding so he could show me over the various courses the hunt was likely to take. My horse was from the Foxbridge stables, sent ahead of me along with my luggage; but it wasn't Pippin, who was too delicate of limb for the rough-and-tumble of a hunt—he could leap a fence or brook with the best of them, but if he fell or another horse banged into him he'd be done for. Instead I had a big dappled Irish hunter called Samson (Delilah's brother rather than her mate, which makes me wonder what goes on in the stablemen's heads when they name these animals); and since the horse was as unfamiliar as the terrain, I was going to need a lot of practice before the big day.
We spent hours trotting and galloping around, it was the longest ride I'd been on in ages (since I last hunted, in fact, the previous Boxing Day), but it was worth it to see so much of the park. At the end, he showed me one of his favourite spots, a spring-fed pond surrounded by massive weeping willows overhanging the water and screening it from passersby; we had a nice bathe, despite the absolutely freezing water, then sunned ourselves dry before getting dressed and riding back to the house.
We'd been out so long we missed luncheon, but Pond procured a tray of sandwiches, cheese, and fruit for me, so I had a lovely solitary picnic in the bathtub—I didn't really need a bath after swimming, but it was already drawn and I hate to waste all that lovely hot water; besides, eating in the bath is more fun than eating in bed, I don't know why I don't do it more often. When I got out, I went and had a poke around in the dressing-room while Pond laid out the afternoon's ensemble, peeping into drawers and examining the paintings,
"What's through here?" I asked, rattling the handle of a door I hadn't used yet, "It's locked."
"The Moorish Room, my lord," Pond replied from the depths of the wardrobe, "I believe Lord Rupert Gosforth is lodged there."
"Really?" I knelt down and peeked through the keyhole, spying a small vista of opulently decorated bedroom with a lot of sheer draperies and inlaid ebony couches strewn with cushions, like the film set for an Arabian harem. Then I remembered Pond telling me about the keys sometimes being the same in big houses, so I took the key out of one of the other doors and tried it. Delighted to discover it worked, I poked my head through and cried out, "Hullo-ullo! Anybody home?"
"What?" Rupert came through another door across the room, looking absolutely yummy dripping wet with a towel around his waist, "Oh, it's you, Foxbridge. What's up?"
"I just discovered we're neighbours, my dressing-room's right through there," I explained, crossing the room toward him, "Sorry to just barge in, I'm terribly nosy about doors."
"I was just getting out of the bath, come on in," he turned and went back into his dressing-room.
"So, I've thought up a plan to get your mother off your back about pursuing Miss Levondale," I told him, poking around in his dressing-room much as I'd poked around in my own.
"Really? How?" he looked at me with interest as he pulled the towel off his waist and rubbed his hair with it.
"You're going to tell her that you and I have hatched a plot for winning the girl over," I made an effort not to stare, but there was an awful lot to stare at; long and lanky isn't my usual type, but Rupert wore it well, "I'll be pitching the woo at Lavinia with all the energy of a strong-armed bowler; meanwhile you're going to be spending time with her, getting to know her, and getting to be jolly good chums with her. Then, of course, it turns out I've just been toying with her affections; her heart is broken, but here's good old Rupert with a shoulder to cry on, and she marries you in sheer gratitude. What do you think?"
"You're devious," he gaped at me with admiration, then frowned, "But do you really think she'd marry me out of gratitude?"
"No, of course not," I grinned happily, "That's just what we're going to tell your mother so she thinks everything is in hand and therefore leaves you alone."
"Oh, ah," he lounged on the daybed in a carelessly provocative pose, "But why? I mean, I understand you're flirting with her just for fun, and she knows you're not serious. But Mater will wonder why you'd do all that for me."
"Then she grievously underestimates your charm," I told him with a wink, "If she wonders why you and I are in cahoots, tell her it was all your idea and I'm just going along with it for fun."
"That she'd never believe," he pulled one foot into his lap—he was as limber as one of those yogi chaps you see at Empire Exhibitions—and toweled between his long toes, "She knows me too well, and I couldn't come up with a simple ruse to save my life. No, I'll tell her you're doing it for a bet, she understands gambling."
"Whatever you think best. I'd better go get dressed," I was getting into a state looking at him, and my linen bath-robe was doing nothing to hide it.
"What's your hurry?" he asked, getting up and coming toward me, putting his hands on my waist and towering over me like he does. And since neither of us had much or anything on, nor any pressing engagements, it seemed an opportune moment to get to know one another a little better.
When I staggered back to my own room some time later, I found Pond comfortably posted by the fireplace, fully upright but doing a crossword puzzle, waiting for me to return from my adventures through the mysterious door, "And how is the weather in Far Araby, my lord?"
"Lovely, thanks," I went and stood in my dressing-spot by the tall glass so he could start to work, "The natives were extremely friendly."
Once I was dressed, I went looking for Lavinia; but she wasn't in any of the downstairs rooms, so I assumed she must be in her own room; sticking my head into a pantry or servery of some sort, I startled a couple of young housemaids in deep conversation, who gave me directions to the south-east corner of the third floor. I apologised in florid terms for disturbing the maids, which set them to tittering like starlings, and took the service stairs behind them up to the third floor.
Arriving a little out of breath, I listened at the door for a moment before knocking (one of my worst habits, I'm afraid, listening at keyholes) and heard a storm of girlish giggles coming from within. Since it was more than one voice, but didn't sound like the intimate sort of giggling that one is loath to interrupt, I straightened up and rapped the panels smartly.
"Come!" Lavinia shouted imperiously, so I opened the door and went in, giving her something of a start, "Oh! Lord Foxbridge, I thought you were a footman, please forgive me."
"Not at all, I should apologise for invading your sanctum," I gave a courtly bow, sticking close to the door and taking a quick look around the room; it was very pretty, all glimmering pink satin and needlepoint roses, but dignified with Chippendale cherry-wood and not as frilly or precious as pink rooms often are, "And please, do call me Sebastian."
"Sebastian, please come in," she stood and gestured for me to join her on the sofa by the fire where she and Miss March were sitting, "I hope you don't mind, but I let Abigail into our secret, and she's been helping me practice 'adoring' facial expressions."
"I'm glad you did," I sat down in the middle of the sofa, in between Abigail and Lavinia, "We'll need an accomplice if we're going to convince people, and your own close friend is the perfect candidate."
"This is going to be so much fun!" Abigail clapped her hands in delight, "I've never helped play a prank on anyone before. What exactly are we going to do?"
"Well, after I talked to Michael this morning, and he taxed me with my flirting with Lavinia, I came up with a plan: we're going to make it look like you're falling for me but I'm only leading you on, and make them feel guilty that their meddling in your love-life has set you up to get your feelings hurt."
"How do we do that?" Lavinia wondered.
"I'm going to keep on flirting with you, but I've already told Michael that I don't mean anything by it, it's just a sort of habit I have. He may pass that on to your father, I'm not sure. In the meantime, Abigail, you are going to tell Michael and Lord Levondale—introducing the topic in as 'by-the-way' a conversational manner as possible—that you think Lavinia is actually falling in love with me and wants to marry me. Lavinia will start flirting back at me, but slowly, sort of warming up to it, if you see what I mean, like you're trying it on for size; if you started chasing after me like a dog after a cat, they'll know we're pranking them. Which reminds me, should we let your mother in on the secret? I'm not entirely comfortable playing this joke on Lady Levondale."
"Not right away," she answered after thinking it over a moment, "She might give the game away too soon. I'll let her know once we've got Daddy and Michael going."
"I've had another idea that I hope you'll like," I turned to face Lavinia, "I thought of a way to use this prank to get the Duchess of Tyne as well, but I'll need your help."
"What for?" she wondered.
"Well, Lord Rupert and I were talking last night over billiards, and he was telling me that his mother actually brought him here for the sole purpose of getting you to marry him. Apparently the family are broke, and she's using poor Rupert to catch an heiress. And though he wants to please his mother, he doesn't really want to get married yet, and he feels truly sordid about treating you as an object to be won. So what I'd like you to do is just be chummy with him, like you two are becoming friends—and he's a very nice young man, I'm sure you will get to be friends with him."
"I suppose," she looked doubtful, "But how will that 'get' the Duchess?"
"She's all set to nag Rupert into flirting with you, and plotting to get the two of you off alone together, and all those disagreeable matchmaking tricks; so we have to trick her into thinking he's doing what she wants. Rupert's going to tell his mother that he and I have cooked up a ruse between us, where I'm going to chase after you like ninety while he works on being your best pal; then, when I inevitably break your heart, he'll be there to pick up the pieces and you're sure to marry him on the rebound. As we go along with our prank on Lord Levondale and Michael, the Duchess will think everything's going according to her plans, and she won't meddle. What do you think?"
"I like it," she frowned thoughtfully, "One prank catching three victims, it's very efficient."
"Won't your secret fiancée be jealous?" Abigail asked in a clandestine whisper, as if the walls had ears.
"Hardly," I laughed, "Even if it was possible for her to hear about it all the way in Nice, she'd just think it was funny. And it's not really meant to be a secret, I'm engaged to Lady Caroline Chatroy. She just doesn't want to announce it until her mother's annual ball at the end of August, in order to get the maximum gossip-column noise."
"Lady Caroline!" Abigail squeaked with awe, "But she's absolutely gorgeous! And always so beautifully dressed. I'd give anything to be even a little bit like her. You're so lucky."
"Don't gush so, Abbie," Lavinia gently reproved her friend, "You'd think we were still in school, swooning over fashion magazines and pasting pictures of celebrities around our looking-glasses."
"I still do that," Abigail admitted sheepishly, and leaned close to me to whisper again, "I made a whole découpage of Hollywood actresses cut from magazines, on a screen in my dressing-room at home."
"Who's your favourite?" I grinned encouragingly, intrigued by the idea of a découpage screen and wondering if I could make such a thing in my study—if so, Gary Cooper and George O'Brien would feature prominently.
"Oh, Greta Garbo, definitely," Abigail gushed girlishly, "Though I also adore Myrna Loy."
"Garbo's wonderful," I agreed, "But I'd have to say Clara Bow is my favourite. She's pretty and funny."
That remark started us off on an absolute orgy of film-star prattle, and I soon learned Abigail's knowledge of actresses and their roles was truly profound: I couldn't name a film she hadn't seen, and she named dozens I hadn't even heard of. All this while, Lavinia just sat back and smiled indulgently at us, sometimes shaking her head in disbelief but otherwise just watching. I got the idea that she preferred watching others interact instead of taking a direct part.
It was getting on for tea-time before we exhausted the subject, so I asked Lavinia to check that the coast was clear before I left her room; it's not really scandalous at a country-house for a bachelor to visit an unmarried young woman in her bedroom during daylight hours, but we wanted to save that kind of thing for later in the game, preferably with gossipy witnesses on hand.
During tea, people got to discussing what rooms they were in, why the rooms were called what they were called, and which floor or side of the house their rooms were on. This was a pretty common second-day-tea topic, making it easier for guests to find each-others' bedrooms at night: though it isn't talked of openly, bedroom-hopping is as recognized a country sport as fox-hunting.
I didn't usually pay much attention to this kind of conversation, aside from a general curiosity about the names of rooms, since I'd always believed bedroom-hopping an exclusively heterosexual pursuit; but at Verevale I was actually surrounded by men who had expressed an interest in me, so I paid minute attention and composed a rough map in my mind's eye that I could use to navigate around in the dark.
But I also discovered during this exposition that the Faringdons were in the Queen's Room at the northwest corner of the second floor, while the Vandekamps were in the Gold Room at the northeast corner of the third floor; so what had Chester been doing in the second-floor west corridor when I met him on the way to dinner the previous evening? Had Jingo or Dotty (or both) already been at him before he molested me in the lift?
Much to my own surprise, I felt intensely jealous that they might have got to Chester before I could—and I had to wonder if that reaction was due to an unsuspected depth of feeling for Chester Vandekamp, or to my dislike of Jingo and Dotty. The latter seemed more likely, but struck me as unpleasantly childish. And maybe Chester had just been borrowing a collar-stud from Sir Wilfrid, who had the rooms next to theirs, and I had no cause to be jealous.
After tea I went out skeet-shooting with Lord Levondale and Bertie, just to brush up my birding skills; there was going to be a shooting party on Tuesday morning, with various local gentry coming along for the fun, and I hate to blast away uselessly at driven game with a lot of witnesses about. I'm a merely adequate shot at the best of times, and without practice I might accidentally wing a beater or shoot a brace of moles.
While dressing me for dinner, Pond brought me up to speed on his researches below stairs: the various servants' liaisons (which consist mostly of rather chaste banter and the occasional slow-dance by the gramophone—servants, as a class, are rather less licentious than their so-called betters), which of them might be Our Sort, and who might have been planted or corrupted by the Faringdons. It appeared a pretty clean joint, all in all, the Levondales' staff had all been in situ for some time, and none seemed particularly susceptible to blackmail; among the visiting servants, Mrs. Vandekamp's French maid was vaguely suspicious, but the rest seemed perfectly loyal to their respective employers.
I canvassed Pond's views on Chester's possible liaison with one or both of the Faringdons, and he soothed the green-eyed monster by pointing out it would be unlikely that he'd come out of the Queen's Room fully and properly dressed for dinner if he'd been doing anything untoward in there—I, of all people, know how difficult it is to be untoward without spoiling one's evening clothes.
I went down to dinner with a lighter heart, laughing at myself for indulging a fit of jealousy over a married man when my dance-card was already tolerably full, and resumed my campaign of conspicuously wooing Lavinia. With Abigail and Rupert in on the game, too, it was a lot more fun; we created a foursome over some board-games after dinner, with both of them shooting well-rehearsed jealous glares at us, and we had a pretty good time all evening.
I had to wonder, though, if our play-acting was really going to fool anyone. So far our intended audience seemed to take the appropriate degree of interest in our interchanges, but they might shrug it off after giving it any serious thought. There was just too little probability in the scenario.
Our ages were a problem, for one thing: it didn't make sense for a boy just come of age to go pelting after an unmarried woman (dare one say spinster) of twenty-eight, too old to seriously consider as marriage material and too dangerous for anything other than marriage: I might go after a married woman of any age from twenty to sixty, since a married woman is in a better position to bear an unexpected pregnancy without scandal; but an unmarried woman would have a hard time explaining such a thing away, so is generally counted out of the running for illicit affairs.
And then there was the question of looks: my face and form would give me entrée into just about any bedroom in the house; with lovely married ladies like Dotty Faringdon and Mamie Vandekamp lying around loose, and a ripping girl like Virginia to tempt toward marriage, what in the world would a beautiful youth like me want with a dowdy spinster like Lavinia?
The element that would really sell the scenario is my queerness: of course a queer would flirt ostentatiously with a female to divert suspicion from his true nature, and the best candidate for such an exercise would be a woman who was unlikely to expect to go any further than flirtation—if I flirted like that with Dotty and Mamie, or Virginia, I would be required to follow through in some way, either in the bedroom or at the altar. And of course Lord Levondale and Michael would consider Lavinia too much an innocent to even know what a queer is, so naturally she would take my flirtation seriously and begin to fall in love with me. It would be the perfect set-up.
But I was unexpectedly reluctant to let anyone at Verevale know I was queer—aside from those I intended to be queer with, I mean. In London you can get away with these things, there's so much going on among so many people that nobody can know very much about anyone else; but the world of country houses is very small, indeed. Though the members of the aristocracy and gentry don't all know each other, we're so interconnected through mutual friends and overlapping family that gossip spreads fast from stately home to stately home.
I hadn't really given much thought to this sort of thing in the past: as Julia said, romancing boys is practically an institution in public schools; and going through a 'Greek phase' at University is so common as to be almost acceptable. But as an adult, such things carry rather more severe consequences, and any generalised knowledge of my nature could lose me friends and make life awkward.
Worse, it would taint those who are close to me. Even if I didn't give a fig for my own reputation, I had to consider Caro and Twister: if everyone knew Caro's fiancé was queer, she might lose a measure of the respect she so highly values; and Twister would be unable to associate with me at all, I'd never see him again unless I murdered someone.
Or was I being unnecessarily cautious? After all, I know several men and women of Our Sort in this little world of County families, far more indiscreet than I, but have never heard any scuttlebutt about them from anyone; why should I assume that people would talk about me? The subject itself is taboo, most people who knew such a fact would be reluctant to repeat it, especially in mixed company. Unless I got tangled up with the law or the newspapers, it was unlikely that anybody would know or care what I got up to at night, or with whom.
Well, I could keep any revelation of my nature under my hat until and unless it was needed. In the meantime I was having too much fun to really care if the prank worked at all. I'm not sure why I enjoy flirting with women like Casanova on a spree, perhaps it's because I'm not weighed down with any real need for success with them, or maybe it's just the pleasure of having a second personality, such as Caro enjoys when she goes out as Charley. Either way, I was enjoying my after-dinner pastimes almost as much as I was enjoying my after-bedtime pastimes.
But only almost.
While Pond was undressing me and putting me into my pajamas, I thought about whether I should get in bed and wait to see who showed up, or if I should go visiting on my own initiative. With the former I risked spending the night alone if nobody came to call, and with the latter I risked being out when someone interesting did come to call; there was also the possibility that more than one visitor would show up, or that I'd intrude on an assignation already in progress. It was all rather hit-or-miss, and I was a rank novice at the game.
"Do you really spend every night alone in your room when we're in the country?" I asked Pond, my quandary reminding me of what he'd said earlier about the rarity of below-stairs canoodling.
"Yes and no," he frowned angrily, not at my indelicate question but at a small wrinkle in my dressing-gown lapel, "At Foxbridge Castle, I'm alone in my own room; but when we're visiting other houses, I usually share a room with another servant, generally another visitor's servant. Here, I'm sharing with Lord Faringdon's valet."
"And I assume that 'sharing' isn't a euphemism in this case?" I sighed as he went after the wrinkle with a little electric thimble contraption he uses for spot-fixes—a waste of energy, since I was just going to take the thing off, and more than likely drop it on the floor, before anyone would see it.
"Young Massingale is really not my type, my lord," he looked at me dubiously, wondering if I'd been paying any attention in all the time I'd known him, "But he seems a nice enough lad. We haven't spoken much, but he's friendly and personable. The Verevale servants are quite taken with him."
"Not to be personal or anything," I borrowed his disclaimer for boundary-crossing remarks, "But sleeping alone all the time, don't you get kind of, I don't know, lonely? Frustrated?"
"Not really," he shrugged, something he hardly ever did around me anymore, "I'm happy to do all my socialising in London, or Plymouth or Oxford as the case may be, and then have a nice rest in the country. There are too many difficulties involved with getting off alone with a bloke on a country estate, there's very little privacy and everyone knows everyone else's business; all that caution would just make me tired."
"Well, I'm glad I'm not in service. That kind of austerity would drive me batty."
"I am also glad your lordship is not in service," he said with a tiny tiny smirk on his face, "You'd be a nightmare to work with."
"Good night, Pond," I laughed out loud, "Go sleep the sleep of the righteous."
"Thank you, my lord," he bowed, as wooden-faced as always but I could tell he was laughing inside, "Good night."
By then, I'd decided that I'd take pot luck in my own bedroom, so I went in and got comfortable in the bed, rejoined Monsieur Poirot's pursuit of the Big Four, and once again fell asleep with the book open on my face. When next I woke, Pond was bringing me my morning coffee, and I couldn't decide whether or not to be disappointed that I'd slept through the night undisturbed. After all, I had really needed the sleep.
Since it was Sunday, Pond put me into a dark suit instead of my riding togs, and I went down to breakfast to see who else would be observing the rites that morning. I was rather disappointed to discover that Lavinia did not intend to go to church, as I had lots of stage-business planned with carrying her prayer-book and handing her on and off the kneeler like a parfit gentil knight; but she was something of a secularist, and only went to church on high holidays because it was expected of her as a member of the manor family.
In fact, very few people came down at all, most of the party breakfasted in bed, preferring a good lie-in on Sundays (as I did when I was in Town); I opted to go to church anyway, since I was already dressed for it and curious to see what the villagers were like. I was the only male who went to the village in Lady Levondale's car, though, and I felt rather conspicuous in a bevy of women, my uncovered head shining bright in a row of demure hats, right up front in the Levondale pew of the Church of St. Michael Archangel.
I can't say I enjoyed the sermon, which was read by an especially good-looking vicar—like a gilded marble statue of the archangelic saint had just climbed off his pedestal and put on a cassock—in an unfortunate nasal monotone. I tend not to listen to sermons much, anyway, unless they're delivered with some theatrical pulpit-pounding and hallelujah-shouting, but I found this one kind of annoying—dull but obtrusive, like a fly buzzing around my ear. When I someday become Earl of Vere, patron of nine livings, I'm going to make sure my vicars know how to put on a show.
Still, I enjoyed looking at the droning vicar as much as I enjoyed sitting in the really beautiful Georgian church, admiring the pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows (which, according to a banner wreathing St. Michael wrestling a demon in the largest window behind the altar, were installed to commemorate the death of the eighth Earl of Vere in 1875) and reveling in the gorgeous music of a cathedral-worthy pipe organ (donated by the first Lord Levondale upon his arrival in 1876).
After church, I was deluged by farmers wanting to greet me: though the village and the home farm were let along with Verevale Court and the park to the Levondale family, the rest of the farming in the surrounding parish was done by tenants of the Earl of Vere (which was news to me, I'm sorry to say—I really should have taken more of an interest in the estate long before); so when word got around during the sermon that the red-headed boy up front was their landlord's heir, I became an instant celebrity.
It also transpired that the living at St. Michael's was one of the nine in my father's gift, which made the handsome vicar my new best friend, as well; he and his sister invited me to luncheon with such enthusiasm that it would be churlish not to accept, and I was borne off to the vicarage along with a clutch of village biddies representing the Altar Guild while Lady Levondale and the rest of her party returned to Verevale Court in the car.
The vicarage dining-room was a noble chamber, elegantly proportioned and furnished with excellent taste, but it was a little crowded with the Reverend Mr. Aylesford, Miss Aylesford, the five-member Altar Guild, several farmers who'd dropped in for a friendly chat and were asked to stay, the sexton and his wife, and little me all crammed into it; but we had a pretty festive time, anyway, over the simple but plentiful board. Since I would of course be unable to converse on local matters, I was interrogated on my various appearances in the newspapers and society rags of late, including the murder at Foxbridge Castle; and even being careful to relate the heavily censored or downright fictional official versions of events, I held my audience spellbound, always gratifying to a dyed-in-the-wool showoff like me.
After spending an abnormally long time at the table, the good Rev. walked with me part of the way back to Verevale Court, telling me funny stories about various interesting characters in Verevale village that I should be sure to meet next time I came down. He was a really nice man, and a good storyteller despite his nasal voice; it seemed a shame that he should choose a profession that requires him to orate formally to a crowd on a regular basis when his talents clearly lay in one-on-one communications.
I got back to the house in that doldrums hour before tea-time where there's absolutely nothing to do if you're not already doing something, so I went into the saloon and examined the regiment of Restoration aristocrats whose penurious descendants had been forced to flog the family portraits. It was a fascinating collection, and I found myself wondering if the aristocracy in those days had really borne a distinct family resemblance to each other, or if all those thick-lidded eyes and petulant mouths were just a fashionable convention.
The collection brought back to mind the Cautionary Example of Other People's Ancestors that Lavinia had told me about that first night. I sat pondering another one of those group pictures, an immense thing of extraordinary beauty, which depicted the numerous family of another duke whose titles were now extinct, and which once took up most of a wall in a room much like this one in another stately home that was now, if I remembered correctly, in use as a girls' school.
I'm not terribly conversant in my own family history, but there is an elaborate family tree carved in stone over the fireplace in the Great Chamber at Foxbridge Castle, which shows an unbroken male line going back and back and back all the way to the first Saint-Clair who'd arrived in England with William of Normandy almost nine hundred years ago, so far up the chimneypiece that one actually needs a ladder to get up there and read his name and dates. Colour is provided to this tree by the shields of the families who had married into ours, or that one of ours had married into, and the whole gorgeous mess culminates finally with my great-grandfather and his wife (who had the piece commissioned to celebrate their marriage) above the great Saint-Clair crest with its unquartered shield, changed only once in its history with the addition of a crusader's cross in 1275.
It was a proud heritage, and I was filled with awe that I was part of such a thing—and absolutely terrified that the whole thing came down to to a fine pinpoint with me: if I died tomorrow, those nine hundred years of ancestors died, too. How many times during that line's descent from the eleventh century to the twentieth had it come within a hair's-breadth of ending, and how many times had an heiress been brought in to keep things going? And in how many generations would that inevitable ending come to pass for the Saint-Clair name? How long until it was my portrait hanging up in an American museum, or in the collection of a class-embittered moneylender's son?
Rather a chilling thought, and I had to get out of that room before it made me sad. I fled to the library and found Sir Peregrine in sole possession, examining a really large old book and making notes in his little notebook. It warmed my chilled soul to sit with him, chatting of this and that while he flirted outrageously with me, though I'd sat in a chair a little too far from his own, and he couldn't reach my thigh.
Then there was tea, after which I went and shot some more skeet, after which I dressed for dinner, after which I flirted with Lavinia in the drawing-room, after which I scowled at Jingo across the dining-table, after which I turned the pages while Lavinia played the pianoforte, after which I played billiards with Rupert and Bertie, after which I got ready for bed, after which I had a salutary visit with Michael in his room, after which I went back to my own room and went to sleep. Life in a country-house can get rather repetitive; but then, I suppose, life in an office or a factory must be even more repetitive, so I shouldn't complain.
The rest of the week went pottering on along its prescribed course, offering only a few exciting deviations from the pleasurable routine. But those deviations were so exciting, and the routine so pleasurable, that I was ready to count my visit to Verevale Court as the most successful in my career so far.
I went riding most mornings right after breakfast, and within a few days Samson and I were the best of friends; he responded to my very thoughts, it seemed, before I even shifted the reins, and was an absolutely fearless jumper. Sometimes Michael would join me on these morning rides, and once Lord Levondale came along with us, but for the most part it was just me and Samson galloping about the countryside and going out of our way to hop every fence and hedge in the place. A couple of times I rode into the village during my peregrinations, visiting the shops and popping into the vicarage to say hello, though it was too early in the day to visit the pub and get to know the villagers there.
I was going to miss these daily rides in the spring when I went back to London for the Season—I'd gotten rather lax around the midriff last summer without daily riding (or any other form of exercise that didn't involve a private room and a like-minded friend) to keep me in trim. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to take the trouble of keeping a horse or two in Hyde Park and becoming an habitué of Rotten Row.
The Wooing of Lavinia, or rather the Worrying of Lord Levondale and Michael, progressed apace: I often spied the latter two casting concerned looks at me and Lavinia when we'd sit with our heads together over a game of backgammon or an illustrated paper; from a distance it looked like we were whispering sweet nothings to each other, though in fact we were usually talking about art or literature, or exchanging views on the other guests' conduct (of which she mostly disapproved).
I could tell, when I was alone with Michael (which wasn't often, but always delightful), that he wanted to quiz me about my intentions, and on occasion seemed just about to let loose with an admonishment on my behaviour toward his sister, but I always managed to divert his attention when he looked like his trend of thought was headed in that direction. Whether Lord Levondale was having similar urges to take me aside for a man-to-man chat, I couldn't say, but he often looked like he had something of the sort on his mind, stroking his chin or twisting his mouth to one side when he looked at me.
Rupert and Lavinia weren't hitting it off as buddies, as I'd hoped they would, though they got along well enough and were spending a good deal of time together (usually when I was out riding or shooting, pastimes Lavinia did not care for); Rupert and Abigail, however, were getting on like a house afire: she hung on his every word, which is always gratifying to a chap, and he found her breathless enthusiasm a nice change from the blasé sophistication of the society girls his mother had been throwing at him.
In his spare time, he was also getting chummy with Virginia Vandekamp. Though an American, and apparently without means of her own until her father died, Virginia might make a good second choice for Rupert's matrimonial pursuits; but I didn't think that had entered his mind when he started spending time with her. She was very athletic, and enamoured of his favourite sport, tennis, so it seemed natural that they'd become friends. I wondered, though, if I didn't detect a certain frisson of more-than-just-friends pass between them?
The Duchess seemed satisfied with how things were going, though, and Rupert reported that she'd been sweet as cream to him all week. She also seemed to take quite a shine to me, believing that I was a loyal supporter of her aim to get hold of Lavinia's money through marriage, and was extraordinarily courteous to me whenever our paths crossed—she even winked at me now and then, in a manner that can only be called 'conspiratorial.'
I tried my best to quash my revulsion over these winks—after all, my own father had done the very same thing, dangling after an heiress to save the family bacon (though he hadn't been anywhere near as broke as the Gosforths were, and had his own coronet to offer), and it was only by pure chance that he and my mother had actually fallen in love with each other. On the other hand, I don't particularly like my father, so perhaps that's not the best comparison to draw.
My other affaires de cœur—or perhaps I should say affaires des hanches, since they centered rather lower on my anatomy than the heart—developed satisfactorily, as well, though in somewhat different fashion than I had initially imagined. Chester Vandekamp, for example, was not such a proponent of leisurely afternoons on perfumed sheets as I'd assumed, but instead took me in the gun-room after the shooting party (at which I performed quite well, only missing twice), on a table heaped with dead pheasants and grouse. I would not have thought feathery corpses and blood a suitable background for passion, but in the event I found it rather bracing. He caught me a second time in a linen cupboard, and while I enjoyed the interlude immensely, it was over all too soon and I was suddenly back in the corridor with a red face and a slightly skewed suit.
Lord Rupert, on the other hand, proved to be less outdoorsy than I expected, and was instead quite fond of getting cozy in the bath (his bathroom was much nicer than mine and equipped with a shower-bath as well as a tub big enough for two); then Sir Peregrine, far from limiting himself to badinage and pinches, turned out to be something of a pouncer, and considerably more vigourous than I thought a septuagenarian could be—and not in the least bashful about his aged person, he happily shucked to his wrinkled skin in order to demonstrate on my person how ancient Egyptian wrestling differed from the ancient Greek method. It just goes to show, you mustn't let yourself be fooled by appearances.
But if I thought my conduct was rather more Sodom-and-Gomorrah than the recording angels might like, I was a mere babe in arms compared to Michael Levondale: he was indeed working his way steadily through the guest list, and intimated to me during one of our chats on horseback that he'd already got through all three of the Vandekamps (on separate occasions), both of the Faringdons (one at a time and then both together), was busy laying the groundwork for seducing both Miss Beckett Haven and the Dowager Duchess, and intended to get around to tumbling Lord Rupert and Sir Peregrine as soon as he had the time. The boy was an absolute shameless terror, and I couldn't help but admire him.
That he'd already been dallying on the Farindgons' web gave me some cause for concern: while Pond had been keeping an eagle eye on their servants, I had done absolutely nothing to thwart their machinations at Verevale Court, aside from delivering a few vague warnings about the Faringdons’ general untrustworthiness; I was afraid of causing a scene or creating any kind of awkwardness by being completely frank, and as a result the one person I most wanted to protect from Jingo and Dotty had already been in bed with them, one at a time and both together. I could only imagine who else they'd managed to practice their guile upon, and didn't even have to use my imagination to know what kind of photographic evidence they might have obtained in this remarkably busy house.
Pond had been checking my rooms twice a day for hidden cameras, but we had no way of knowing if the other rooms had been so equipped, and no way of knowing what Massingale and Wickson, Dotty's maid, might have been doing during the numerous hours each day in which Pond was unable to keep his eyes on them; and though Pond didn't believe that any of the maids or footmen had been corrupted, the Verevale servants did not circulate through the upstairs corridors at random times during the day and night, as they so often do at Foxbridge: the Faringdons and their servants could easily navigate those corridors undetected during the hours in between making the beds and turning them down.
But clearly I was going to have to do more than drop a few hints and let Pond do all the legwork. I was pretty sure I could completely de-claw Jingo and Dotty with one telephone call to Silenus in London (or wherever it was he wintered), but I was loath to do so—it would be an awful lot like snitching out a schoolfellow to the Master, something that no honourable Etonian would contemplate until he had exhausted every avenue of personal combat, and then mediated with a prefect.
A wholesale unmasking was out of the question, too, since Silenus would not thank me for ruining the Faringdons' ability to get around in the haute monde and do his bidding; even unmasking them privately to the Levondales, word would get out if Jingo and Dotty hastily departed Verevale Court mere weeks after hastily departing Foxbridge Castle, and I would incur Silenus's wrath the same as if I'd denounced them to the entire company. No, if I was going to thwart the villains, I would have to be extremely circumspect about it.
Aside from searching their rooms (essentially impossible since someone was nearly always in there) and searching any other parts of the house and estate they might use as a cache (completely impossible due to the size of the place), there was no way of getting hold of their cameras and any film they might have hidden—I didn't think they'd have developed any photographs just yet, that would be too dangerous. My hands and tongue were pretty well tied.
By Thursday evening (I must admit I hadn't been giving the problem my undivided attention, so it took a while), I finally decided to try and appeal to their better natures—or rather, since one doubts they had better natures, offer them the benefit of my better nature, in the form of cash. Heading down the corridor to their rooms about an hour before dinner, I swallowed my pride and knocked on Jingo's door.
"Why, Foxy, what a pleasant surprise!" Jingo called heartily when Massingale ushered me into the dressing-room. He was lounging stark naked on the narrow bed, obviously fresh out of the bath, and my first impulse was to turn around and run—and I would have done so if Massingale hadn't already closed the door and remained standing in front of it, carriage erect and eyes forward like a schoolboy palace guard, "What brings you by?"
"I want to ask you to do something for me," I stammered out, having a hard time concentrating with him lying there naked. Jingo had one of the most beautiful bodies I've ever seen, not big and burly nor lavishly appointed but rather perfectly proportioned, taut and springy and irresistible.
"Indeed?" he cocked his head to one side while the smuggest little grin spread slowly across his face, "After all your insults and injuries, you want me to do something for you?"
"Look," I sat down in the armchair by the fireplace in order to get down to eye-level without getting too close to him, "I don't know what exactly you've been doing, what kind of photographs you've taken, or who you intend to blackmail. But I want you to leave my friends out of your schemes."
"And whom do you count as friends? Everyone here?" he wondered.
"Well, ideally, yes," I frowned and looked at my feet, embarrassed, "But specifically Michael, Lord Rupert, and Sir Peregrine. If you have photographs of them, I'll buy them from you for the fifteen thousand pounds you were going to extort from me."
"Extort!" he hooted derisively, "The language you use! I think you mean the fifteen thousand you would have happily exchanged for photographs of you and your handsome copper engaged in extremely interesting and enormously illegal activities. And it was guineas, you'll remember."
"Guineas, yes," I agreed, choking down a spurt of anger.
"Why particularly those three gentlemen? I assume you've slept with all of them?"
"Yes," I admitted, my face burning.
"Why not offer for any others? I might have pictures of all of the inmates here."
"I don't believe for a minute you have anything on Lavinia, or the Duchess, or Lady Levondale, or Miss March. I know you can't have any of Julia or Bertie Pargeter, since I already warned her about you. And honestly, I think the Vandekamps and the Beckett Havens can take care of themselves."
"You forgot Lord Levondale," he pointed out reasonably.
"I guess if he's been unfaithful to his wife, he deserves to be blackmailed," I said, and even as the words left my mouth I wondered if I really believed it, or if that was just a knee-jerk reaction based more on my admiration of Lady Levondale than any ideals regarding the sanctity of marriage.
"Your morals are very inconsistent," he got up off the bed and stood close to me, looming over me in a posture both enticing and menacing, “Considering how many married men you’ve had, yourself.”
"Yes, well..." I swallowed hard, looking up at him and burning with an unpleasant combination of shame and desire.
"Twenty thousand," he said after a moment's silence, "After all, your friend Michael has been a busy little beaver, he’s in several different sets. And just to be a sport, I'll throw in the pictures I did in fact get of Miss Levondale being very naughty with Miss March."
"Will you take a cheque, or shall I telephone my bank in the morning?"
"A cheque will be fine," he reached down and grabbed me by the elbows, pulling me up out of the chair and pressing me to him, "And you'll deliver it to me, in person, tonight. And you'll stay the night, with me and Dotty."
"Dotty?!" I gasped, terrified.
"Yes, Dotty," he grinned again, snaking his hands around my waist and holding me in an iron grip.
"No! I couldn't," I tried to wriggle away from him, “I won’t!”
"You will, or the deal's off. Twenty thousand is nothing to you; if you want to save your friends, a smidgen of sacrifice is required."
"Very well," I stopped struggling, defeated, and he let me go.
"Now go get dressed for dinner, like a good little boy. See Lord Foxbridge out, will you Massingale?"
"Please don't say anything to Pond about this," I begged the young valet when he walked me out to the corridor, humiliated that he’d witnessed that whole interchange.
"I wouldn't, my lord," he responded, not meeting my eye, though I didn't know if it was because he was also embarrassed, or was just courteously ignoring my embarrassment.
To say that I was perturbed by this turn of events would be the understatement of all understatements. Deeply rattled wouldn't even come close. In fact, I'm not at all sure there is a word or phrase that would adequately describe how I felt as I stumbled back to my room and fell into the uncomfortable Venetian throne beside my fireplace, where I sat staring at my shoes in a dazed manner.
"Twenty minutes until the second gong, my lord," Pond came in a few minutes later, no doubt wondering what had become of me.
"Right-oh," I said, but didn't move.
"Are you unwell, my lord?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Can I help?" he asked, coming around in front of me to look into my face; I suppose something in my voice alarmed him.
"I don't see how," I looked up at him.
"You can tell me about it while we're getting dressed," he put out his hand to get me out of the chair.
"I don't think I can," I said, taking his hand and standing up, "I don't think I can say it aloud."
"Shall I send word that your lordship is ill and can't come down to dinner?"
"No, I guess I'll get dressed," I went into the dressing-room and started peeling off my tweeds like a sleepwalker. I was so shocked I couldn't even think about how shocked I was; my mind was humming like an engine, the thoughts like pistons going up and down so fast that I couldn't hear one separate from another.
I went down to the drawing-room and got a couple of cocktails into me, which seemed to numb the turmoil just enough that I was able to talk and walk around like a normal person—or so I assume, since nobody asked me if there was something wrong or if I was feeling ill, as Pond had done. I had no memory of walking or talking, nor of going in to dinner and eating a meal, but I must have done.
Excusing myself from the drawing room at the earliest polite moment, I went back upstairs and sat staring at the fire in my dressing-room until Pond showed up to undress me, ages and ages later. And as I sat there, I kept ricocheting between the two columns of thought that had emerged from the chaos over the last couple of hours: Must I? and Can I?
Obviously, I had no legal obligation to give Jingo anything; but did I even have a moral obligation? None of the people in that house was a relative, or a schoolfellow, or even a friend of long standing. In fact, the only person at Verevale with any such claim on my loyalty was Jingo himself.
On the other hand, I did like most of the people there, and would happily become friends of long standing with them, particularly those whose photographs I'd be buying from Jingo. I hated to think of what being blackmailed would do to them: it would dim that wonderful light of eager conquest in Michael's bright and handsome face; it would introduce a note of shame and fear to Lavinia's and Abigail's long peaceful friendship; and imagine the squalid things poor Rupert would have to do for Jingo and Dotty, since he didn't have a penny to bless himself.
I have been taught to believe that if one can be of assistance, one must be of assistance. I could save a half-dozen or so people from the emotional and financial distress of blackmail; I could certainly cough up twenty thousand guineas without breaking the bank, and easily spend the night with a man I'd already had a hundred times already: therefore I had to save that half-dozen or so people.
But then there was the problem of Dotty, which brought me immediately to the Can I? column of my worries. I knew perfectly well that I could sleep with Jingo, my body's reaction to his nudity earlier showed that I still wanted him despite how much I'd come to dislike him. But how could I possibly allow myself to be intimate with Dotty? It would feel like I was being unfaithful to Caro, for one thing; for another, it would debase to a sordid expedient something that I considered my proud duty to the Saint-Clair heritage. And could I even perform with Dotty? I had no idea, I'd never tried anything like it.
Mightn't that, on the other hand, be a good reason to try it with Dotty? I mean, wouldn't it be better to know if I was actually capable of the act before I got married? On the other other hand, though, wouldn't my feelings for Dotty make being with her an entirely different sort of experience to being with Caro? Were the two acts even comparable? Again, I had no idea.
The bottom line was that the very idea of laying a finger on Dotty Faringdon terrified me right out of my skin. But since my objection to Dotty seemed to be made more of fear than any real moral or practical considerations, and since it had been drummed into my head since infancy that a Saint-Clair never allows fear to turn him from a necessary task, I began to feel that it was practically my duty to go through with it.
That was a very energising thought: my duty. It actually helped me pull the complicated dilemma together under one heading, organising the whole mess into one easy to consider (if potentially difficult to perform) responsibility. I may not like it, I may not want to do it, but the Saint-Clair motto is Fide Sanguinis Fæce, 'Loyal to the Last Drop of Blood.' And in this case I didn't even have to exsanguinate myself in loyalty to my friends, I just had to hand over a great wad of money and engage in some probably-not-unpleasant exercise.
I was so bucked up, in fact, that I was able to unburden myself to Pond with the whole story while he was changing my clothes. He was even less enthusiastic about it than I was, and thought I was an idiot to give in to Jingo's demands; but he at least understood why I felt I had to. I started to feel like a knight getting put into armour instead of a rather silly toff getting put into pajamas, with my faithful squire by my side and a two-headed dragon waiting out in the arena. I even imagined a bit of fanfare as I marched off down the corridor to the Queen's Room and knocked at the bedroom door instead of the dressing-room.
"Good evening, Lord Foxbridge. Come in," Wickson opened the door to me and gestured gracefully. She was very thick and squat, with grizzled hair and a creased and oily face like a walnut, a caricature of an old Gypsy woman though faultlessly dressed in a stylish black uniform. I wondered if she was, in fact, of Romany stock, though domestic service is certainly not the sort of career one finds Gypsies embracing.
"Foxy, darling, you actually showed up," Dotty was lounging elegantly on an ornately feminine couch in the centre of the ornately feminine room, dressed in a gossamer pink negligée with great feathery cuffs and absolutely nothing on underneath, like a sultry blonde Cleopatra, "I didn't think you would."
"Evening, Dotty," I said tersely, trying to be gracious but missing the mark somewhat. I had to admit that she was alluring, even to my men-accustomed eyes, as rosy-warm and inviting of caresses as one of those Victorian courtesan paintings you find in the better class of saloon bar; it made me feel rather nervous.
"Ah, here's our brave little soldier," Jingo came in from the bathroom, beautifully draped in a long Arab kaftan of silky gold tissue, nearly as sheer as Dotty's negligée and twice as sexy, "Come to sacrifice himself on the altar of depravity for the sake of his friends."
"Your cheque," I reached into my pocket and produced the long strip of paper, folded discreetly in half.
"Many thanks," he plucked it out of my hand, unfolded and examined it, then walked over to the magnificent Florentine writing-desk up against one wall, "If it makes you feel any better, you're paying for my little brother Georgie's education. You like Georgie, don't you?"
"Oxford's not that expensive," I said, though it did indeed make me feel better: Jingo's younger brother, Lord George Ponsonby, called Pongo at school as Ponsonbys usually are, was a smaller, prettier, and much sweeter version of Jingo; he fagged for me in his first two years (and my last two years) at Eton, and I was extremely fond of him—an entirely Platonic fondness, I hasten to add, as young Pongo wasn't nearly the tart I was at school.
"He'll need a little income of his own, and a splash of capital when he comes down," Jingo wrote out a fairly lengthy note and folded the cheque inside it, then put it in an envelope and sealed it with his signet ring in red wax, "Massingale, take this down to the post box in the hall, would you?"
"Yes, my lord," the young valet scurried forth from whatever corner of the room he'd been hiding in. As extravagantly pretty as the boy was, with his golden curls and gleaming complexion, he had nevertheless mastered that knack of blending into the woodwork which marks the best servants.
Wickson went out right after Massingale, leaving me alone with Jingo and Dotty; and they just sat there, Jingo at the desk and Dotty on the couch, staring at me. Not just staring, either, but smirking at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to do something amusing.
"So, do you come here often?" I laughed nervously, hoping to ease the tension with a joke.
"You're a sweet boy, Foxy," Dotty got up and walked over to me, putting her hands on both sides of my face and kissing me softly on the mouth; her perfume enveloped me in a warm delicious cloud of ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon, like a fresh-baked cake, "I really do wish you were staying, I absolutely adore redheads."
"Here's all the film we took this week," Jingo said, carrying a large and expensive-looking alligator dressing-case with pretty gilt fittings, "I'd appreciate having the case back, it's part of a set."
"You're giving me all of it?" I took the case, which wasn't as heavy as it looked, "Not just the ones I asked for?"
"Not giving, no," Jingo put his arm around my shoulder, and Dotty was still standing close, with only the dressing-case between us, "I'm selling them to you for twenty thousand guineas."
"Wait, you wish I was staying?" I was nearly as confused as I'd been before.
"We don't like unwilling playmates, chum," Jingo kissed me on the cheek and gave my shoulders a friendly little shake, "We just wanted to see how far you'd go."
"You mean, you were just pulling my leg?" I glared at him, "I've been worried to death for the last three hours and you were just kidding?"
"I wanted to knock some of the smugness out of you," Jingo laughed, sliding his hand slowly down my back and letting it rest at the base of my spine, "I won't lie, it's given me enormous pleasure to watch you moping around all evening like Joan of Arc heading for the stake. But I guess I went too far, that's why I'm throwing in the rest of the film, sort of an apology for upsetting you."
"Oh," I couldn't even think of what to say. Though immensely relieved, I was also oddly disappointed: it's rather jarring to work yourself up to a brave act of self-sacrifice and then find out it's not needed; all that putting-on of armour, all the fanfare and the banners, then the dragon folds his tent and goes home for his tea, "Thank you."
"If you ever change your mind, you're always welcome, Foxy," Dotty said to me, back on her couch with her steamy Cleopatra pose, but her tone gentle rather than provocative.
"Good night, old man," Jingo walked me to the door and let me out into the corridor, giving me another friendly kiss, "Off to your bed of virtue."
"Good night," I replied rather mechanically and went back to my own room, swinging the case thoughtfully as I went.
Honesty bids me admit that I was half-tempted to go back and see what it would be like with the two of them—curiosity is my most defining characteristic, after all. But the other half wanted to run as fast as I could into my room and Pond's protective sensibility, and that was the half that won the toss.
"They didn't make me stay the night, after all," I told Pond when I came into the dressing-room, where he was still tidying up.
"But they gave you the film you requested?"
"They gave me all of their film!" I said gleefully, "To apologise for teasing me. Wasn't that sweet?"
"Well, for twenty thousand, I should think they'd throw in a few extras," he said, taking the case from me and putting it on the dressing-table so we could examine its contents, "You could buy a country estate for that kind of money. Just the film, though, not the cameras?"
"I didn't ask for cameras," I frowned at the idea, "Rather like asking a barber for his razors, what? Tools of their trade and all."
"And with them, they can just go ahead and take dozens more photographs next week," he pointed out, "Are you going to buy those, too?"
"I didn't think of that," I admitted, peering into the case. There were about thirty shiny little cans of film rolls in there; if each roll recorded one encounter, there had been quite a lot going on at Verevale Court in the last six days. There was also a very attractive leather-bound notebook, which contained a long list of paired (and in some cases grouped) initials and dates with a number corresponding to a label on each can of film. As I expected, ML was the most common monogram on that list, paired at least once with almost every other monogram in the book—if they could hook that boy up to the electricity somehow, they wouldn't need a generator.
"How do we know these are the actual films?" Pond went on, picking up one of the cans and shaking it near his ear, "They might just be blank rolls."
"I could have them developed to make sure," I suggested, pleased to notice that he hadn't said 'my lord' in quite some time, like the old days when we were just friends, "Though I do believe Jingo gave me the real thing. He's a criminal, but he's pretty straightforward about it."
"If you say so," he closed the case and took it over to the wardrobe to stow out of sight, "But I shouldn't let you go alone to a negotiation. You always pay the first price anyone asks."
"What's the point of being rich, if you have to haggle like a rag-and-bone man?" I shrugged, "Can you find someplace secure to keep that film? Jingo wants the case back, and he didn't give me the key."
"Twenty thousand and he can't even spare the packaging?" he shook his head in exasperation; he brought the case back out and transferred the cans into a drawer in the bureau, locked it, and handed me the key, "Better put that on your watch-chain. But aren't you just going to destroy it all?"
"I suppose I should make sure it is the real thing, first," I said, though the only real reason I wanted to get the film developed was to see what was on it. Plain old prurient curiosity, of course, but there it is.
"Uh-huh," his tone conveyed just how much he believed my specious rationale, "Will there be anything further, my lord?"
"No, thank you, Pond," I smiled and reached out for his hand, "And really, thank you, Pond. You've been a real brick tonight."
"One endeavours to give satisfaction, my lord," he smiled back at me and executed a comical little bow after shaking my hand.
I got into bed with my diary, which I had been neglecting of late, and sat up for more than an hour catching it up on my doings. And nobody dropped in for a visit, so it really was a bed of virtue, as Jingo had said. I had a hard time getting to sleep, and eventually had to turn the light back on and pick up my book; I didn't feel even remotely virtuous, I just felt lonely.
The morning of the hunt dawned with perfect hunt weather, bracingly cold but not freezing, with a high, thin cloud-cover that softened the shadows without obscuring the light.
"I look amazing!" I gasped when Pond moved out of the way so I could get a load of myself in the cheval glass. The exquisite black hunt-jacket was brand new, just arrived the previous day from Poole's, for which I'd had a lengthy and very thorough fitting when I stopped overnight in London between Bourneham and Verevale. At the time, sitting for what seemed hours on a saddle in the back of the shop, I'd been bored out of my mind and resented the painstaking measurements; but now with the jacket on, I saw it had been worth every tedious minute.
The Poole hunt jacket had been Pond's idea, intended to distract attention from my having earned neither silver button nor pink coat (I like hunting, but I don't do enough of it to care about my buttons, and I look terrible in bright red). I usually get my suiting done at Anderson & Sheppard, widely considered the most fashionable of Savile Row tailors, beloved of the Prince of Wales and your better West End headliners; J. Poole & Co., on the other hand, dresses the King, and specialises in officers' uniforms and those ruthless black suits you see in Whitehall and the City. I mean, my father goes to Poole's, and that's all I needed to know about the place; Pond had to practically drag me in there by the nape of the neck, like a Nanny with a tantrum-throwing child.
But Pond is always right when it comes to clothes: that jacket was a dream, slim and sleek with the most ravishingly crisp shoulders and the smoothest pocket-flaps imaginable, yet immensely comfortable and allowing a full range of movement. With a high white linen stock, buttery chamois waistcoat, close-fitting cream doeskin breeches, and my best top-boots polished to a liquid sheen, I looked quite simply divine: a young god of the hunt, Artemis's own dear little brother.
"Very smart, my lord," Pond agreed, his eyes traveling greedily over the faultless lines of the jacket, caressing the shoulder-seams as if he couldn't believe they were real.
"Oi, Foxy," Lord Rupert burst in from next door, sloppily shoved into parts of his riding habit and carrying the other parts in both arms, "I wonder if I might borrow your valet for a minute? All the footmen are busy getting the hunt breakfast ready."
"I don't own him, Rupes," I laughed at his comical appearance, his shirt buttoned wrong and his braces dangling, his left sock coming off and flapping on the floor, "You can ask him yourself."
"I would be delighted to assist your lordship," Pond bowed and started immediately to work on him, starting with the shirt buttons.
"Oh, thank you...er..." Rupert hesitated, unable to recall my valet's name, though I must have mentioned it before.
"Pond, my lord," he whipped the poorly-laundered stock off Rupert's neck and tossed it fastidiously in my laundry basket, then started wrapping him up in one of my crisp and snowy spares.
"Thanks, Pond. I say, Foxy, that is a spiffing jacket," of course he was calling me Foxy, now. No matter how early or often I invite people to call me Sebastian, it just takes one person calling me Foxy and everyone else starts catching it like a cold. With Jingo and Dotty using the name incessantly, it spread through the house by midweek, and I even overheard servants referring to me by my school nickname.
"Isn't it? It just arrived from the tailors," I preened at the compliment and tried not to giggle as Pond stood up on tiptoe to knot Rupert's stock. He's a fairly diminutive chap, Pond, and though I'm only a couple of inches taller than average, he stands comfortably eye-level with my necktie-knot and I can see over the top of his head when he's tying it; but Rupert is a good six or seven inches taller than me, and poor Pond looked like he was trying to hang a window-curtain.
"I'm going to look like I crawled out of a second-hand bin, standing next to you," Rupert said enviously. His habit was well-cut and of good quality, but had indeed seen better days, and wasn't very well pressed.
"Nonsense, you look quite handsome," I went over to the open box where my jewelry was kept and chose some pieces to give him, having a hard time finding things that didn't have my initials, my crest, a fox, or flashy stones on. While Pond was busy getting his socks and breech-cuffs sorted out near the floor, I came over and pinned a shiny gold bar with a tiny enameled horse onto his stock, then replaced the plain silk knots in his cuffs with elegant octagonal gold links, "And now just a little bit handsomer. With my compliments."
"I can't take these," he frowned at the link in his right cuff, "They're from Cartier."
"You don't like Cartier?" I looked at him with surprise. I knew his pride would require a token objection to a valuable gift, but I hadn't expected him to recognise the maker.
"Oh, I like Cartier," he fingered the link thoughtfully, "But they're too expensive."
"Hardly," I dismissed the objection, "I never wear them, and I want you to have them."
"Well, thank you," he sounded touched, though somewhat distracted, as Pond was more or less pushing him into the armchair so he could put the boots on.
"My pleasure," I kissed him on top of the head and went over to the bureau to get my top-hat, threw my gloves and flask into it, and tucked my whip under my arm, "I'm going downstairs, I may actually die if I don't get my breakfast immediately."
When I got down to the dining-room, I discovered that guests were already arriving, and there were a number of strange women scattered about with tea and toast.
"Oh, Lord Foxbridge, how smart you look!" Lady Levondale exclaimed, partly to pay a compliment and partly to alert the new people to my identity. Out of the entire party, she and the Duchess were the only ones who hadn't taken to calling me Foxy, "Breakfast is a little light this morning, since we'll be eating again in an hour or so."
"A jug of coffee, some toasted bread, and thou," I paraphrased dramatically, going into a sweeping bow to kiss her hand, "O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
"Frivolous boy," Lady Levondale giggled delightedly, then started introducing me around, "Have you met Mrs. Feversham? She's our nearest neighbour."
Mrs. Feversham was a stout bird of fifty summers dressed in tweeds so broken-in they didn't appear to be sewn and buttoned together so much as to have grown on her like moss. Seven other ladies of similar variety and vintage were introduced as well, all near neighbours (or as near as one can get to an estate the size of Verevale), and only one was wearing a riding habit.
"Are you not hunting this morning, Lady Levondale?" I asked, parking myself halfway down the board with my coffee, toast, and a dollop of kedgeree.
"Oh, no, I haven't hunted in years," my hostess replied, shifting her legs uncomfortably, "Not since Michael was born. So we have a little card-party for those who don't hunt, amusing ourselves as best we can while the others are off on the chase."
"That sounds like fun," I lied. Playing cards with tweedy lumps like Ma Feversham all day sounded dreary in the extreme.
More people were wandering into the house, though most seemed content to mill around in the great hall instead of coming into the dining-room; I felt an odd pressure to bolt down my breakfast and go, especially after Lady Levondale left the room; her place was taken by the lumpiest of the tweed lumps, a Mrs. Tollemache of Summerease Manor whose son was at Eton with me, though I didn't remember him beyond the name—Tollemache can be pronounced so many different ways that it sort of sticks in your head when you find out how any particular Tollemache says his own name (the Tollemaches of Summerease Manor pronounce themselves 'tool-make,' in case you were wondering). I ate so fast trying to get away from her that I nearly gave myself indigestion.
"Oh, you're not hunting, either, Dotty?" I ran into the marchioness in the doorway, surprised to see her dressed in a skirt and cardigan with some quite handsome pearls.
"My visitor arrived early," she said mysteriously, "Makes the horses nervous."
"Visitor?" I wondered.
"I forget sometimes how grotesquely innocent you are in the ways of women," she smiled and patted my cheek, "You'll find out when you get married."
"Oh, one of those," I nodded sagely, "I do know enough about 'women's things' to know I'm better off not knowing at all."
"Ah, to be a fly on the wall behind your and Caro's marriage bed," she slid away from me toward the tea-pots, "It'll be like Adam and Eve on their first date, won't it?"
"Probably," I agreed, laughing.
I stopped in the great hall and chatted briefly with a couple of chaps I knew only slightly, a toadlike fellow who'd been at Magdalen and the aforementioned Tollemache who'd been at Eton, and they introduced me to various sisters, uncles, and houseguests in their retinues without any of them making any kind of impression on my memory—no fault of their own, of course, but when everyone is wearing the same thing, and talking about the same thing, you have to be fairly spectacular in the way of personality or looks to stand out.
Since there was nothing more interesting to do, I headed early to the stables, going around by way of the chapel-wing instead of the front door, partly to avoid the crush in the courtyard where mounted riders were already congregating and partly to stay indoors for as long as I could. The grooms were all busy trying to work out the Vandekamps' American saddles, with Chester supervising in a tone of voice that I expect he used on his board of directors when the profits weren't up to snuff, so I saddled Samson myself and got mounted; I gave Chester a cheery halloo and suborned one of the grooms to double-check my buckles before I cantered out of the stable.
The stable-yard was rather chaotic, with several horse-boxes being unloaded and another several being pulled in behind well-traveled estate vans, horses being led and horses being ridden, Verevale grooms mixing with visitors' grooms, and dozens of extraneous boys dashing about trying to fetch and carry without being trampled underfoot. Through a low tunnel under one of the curved colonnades, I entered the forecourt where the chaos was a little more genteel but just as noisy as people clattered about aimlessly on the cobbles and greeted each-other in voices that echoed off the stone walls.
Milling about in the gathering throng, I encountered a few more people I knew slightly, as well as some of my fellow guests. Rupert looked exceptionally dapper when he came down and mounted his horse (or rather, one of the Levondales' horses, and not the least of them), Pond had really gone to town on him: his coat and breeches looked fresh-pressed and his slightly broken-down boots looked like lacquer instead of leather. Even his hair looked neater and his face brighter under his beautifully brushed topper.
"I think I'll adopt you and bring you to live with me," I told him when I'd come abreast and could talk at a private volume, "just to see how good you look when Pond dresses you."
"I'd let you, Pond is worth sleeping at the foot of some bloke's bed," he laughed. "I'd steal him right away if I could afford him."
Some bloke? Foot of the bed? It was probably not meant as a rebuff, but was nevertheless a very clear indication that our tumbles in the tub were but a country-house fling and not to be continued or repeated—or spoken of—after we left Verevale. I tried not to feel hurt, but I'm a terrible egotist, it breaks my heart when men don't throw themselves at my feet with pledges of undying devotion.
A short time after that, the doors of the Hunt Room were thrown open, revealing a large low-ceilinged chamber on the ground floor where an elaborate hunt breakfast was being served. I was immediately torn as to whether to dismount and go stuff my gullet or to stay mounted and wait for the footmen to circulate with trays: on the one hand, I was still hungry, and the fruitcakes and toasted cheese circulating weren't going to be enough, plus I really wanted another cup of coffee (I'm not much of one for getting squiffy before lunch, and generally limit myself to a stirrup cup right before we set out, for tradition's sake, and the occasional warming sip at my flask); on the other hand, I hated to get down after I was mounted and before setting off, I always feel oddly naked if I do, like I'd taken off my shoes in public.
My tummy won that toss, though, so I lashed Samson to a stone basket of stone flowers on the balustrade and made my way indoors. Coddled eggs, a delicious mushroom cream over riced potatoes, three different kinds of sausages, and a big china tankard of hot black coffee filled and warmed me to a rosy glow of contentment; a whispered word to one of the maids serving at the buffet put me in possession of a silver stirrup cup filled with more coffee instead of mulled wine, and I mounted with it just as the hounds arrived from their kennel and started sniffing inquisitively among the horses.
I didn't count at the time, but was later informed that there were seventy-six riders and fifty-eight on foot, which is a pretty impressive turnout—when we’ve had the Cotswold Hunt at Foxbridge Castle, we seldom get more than thirty in the field, and since Aunt Em and Nanny are avid huntswomen who give no card-parties to entertain nonparticipants, there was hardly anyone on foot.
We were off as soon as the chapel-clock struck eleven, trotting at a good pace about halfway down the drive before turning onto an unpaved path and making for the first covert, a long copse with a trickly little stream that sat in the crease of two hillocks, through which the hounds went snuffling and yipping, getting no better result than to disturb the birds in the trees.
Without a great deal of standing about, we were off to draw the next covert, a fairly dense wood about a half-mile away on the bank of the river, adjacent to a spot where it runs deep and narrow. There was no find there, either, so we crossed the river (the showoffs taking it at a jump while the more sensible riders went two-by-two across a covered wooden bridge); travelling between coverts, I had a little trouble reining Samson in, he seemed to have taken it into his head that he was a racehorse rather than a hunter and was determined to get in front of everybody, not just the Master but the huntsman, the hounds, and perhaps even the fox.
We found at the third covert, another half-mile away with a shivery stand of lime-trees marooned in the middle of a wide depressed pasture, like a parsley garnish standing in a shallow bowl; a fairly sizable fox burst forth in a flurry of red and brown, making hell-for-leather southwards, apparently aiming for the large spinney visible beyond two streams and a patchwork of hedged pastures.
Then followed an absolutely splendid chase, the hounds heading off the fox before he got to the spinney and running him across just about every hedge and pasture in the park, being balked by the eastern boundary wall at one point and following it along for quite a while until there was a gate onto the Piddinghoe Road, at which some farmers were gathered to watch the fun.
The little crowd frightened the fox back in the other direction across open country again, infinitely better fun than riding alongside a wall; turning back westward, we skirted the bottom of the lake and jumped the Vere two or three times where it's channeled into a picturesque serpentine below the dam, then again at the narrow bridge by the second covert, where the fox nearly succeeded in going to ground but was diverted again in the direction of the lime-trees from which he'd sprung.
It was a bad move on the fox's part, he ran straight for the trees instead of careering as he should, and was caught only a half-dozen yards from the covert. I was in at the kill, Samson had kept me at the very head of the field and occasionally forced me to rein him back lest I ride over the hounds, so most of the chase I was close enough behind the Master to knock his hat off with my whip. It was rather gruesome, the hounds tearing the fox about a bit, though the death itself was a quick snap of the neck.
I've always felt a certain ambivalence about being in at the kill: I mean, foxes are vermin, and hunting foxes a grand old tradition and a hell of a lot of fun; but my family crest is a fox courant, a lot of my possessions are fox-shaped or have a fox on them somewhere, and my nickname is Foxy, so I have a certain fondness for the creatures as well. Basically, I enjoyed the hunt but the kill left me cold. And I had never been on so competitive a horse as Samson before, usually finding myself in the middle of the field, so hadn't ever been close enough to smell the kill as well as see it.
The riders pooled up in the bottom of the pasture and hooted and cheered while four youngsters and a couple of adult novices were blooded; those of us with flasks passed the whiskey around, excitedly commenting on the highlights of the chase, which jumps had been most challenging, which of our number had come a cropper somewhere along the course, and how the terrain compared to other hunts anyone had been on.
It had been a pretty long run, and with that and the two failed coverts we'd been out over four hours, so were more than ready for our tea. The sun broke through the clouds as we turned northeast back to the house, tinting everything in bright gold and sending our shadows ahead of us, and we cantered homeward along an easy route, crossing hedges at their breaks and going over bridges instead of jumping the streams.
Tea was served in the great saloon instead of the library, to accommodate the numbers, and was a much noisier version of the meal than I like at that time of the day; after getting some tea and hot scrambled eggs into me, I bowed out and headed for my room, deeply desirous of a hot bath and perhaps a little nap before getting dressed for the evening.
But it was not to be, at least not for a bit: I found Michael in my room waiting for me to come back, and he looked so fresh and innocent asleep on top of the covers, half-unwrapped from his dressing-gown; I pounced on him like a Regency buck on a hapless milkmaid, pulling him onto the floor and ravishing him in front of the fireplace with my boots on.
"Wow," he gasped out when I let him up for air, "That was worth waiting around for."
"How long have you been up here?" I panted, tired but exhilarated.
"Oh, ages and ages," he said dreamily, "My stupid girth broke, I fell off my horse before we reached the third covert, and had to come back."
"That's too bad, you missed a fantastic chase."
"Don't tell me that," he punched me lightly in the ribs, "Let me pretend you've all been traipsing disconsolately around the park without finding, then I won't mind missing it quite so much."
"I really need a bath, now," I pulled away from him and sniffed at my arm.
"Wait, not yet, you smell wonderful," he hugged me close and breathed deeply.
"I smell like a combination stables and sailors' brothel."
"Exactly," he agreed.
"You're a very odd boy," I shook my head and suffered myself to be sniffed a little while longer, until Pond knocked on the door to tell me that my bathwater was going to get cold if I didn't hurry. If I'd been allotted a big bathroom like Rupert's, I would have taken him with me (Michael, I mean, not Pond), but instead I sent him off on his way while I got into the blissful tub and had a really good soak and scrub.
"What's all this?" I asked Pond when I came out of the bath and found him in the bedroom, tidying over four sets of evening-clothes that he'd laid out on the bed side-by-side.
"I volunteered your lordship's bedroom and bath, and my own services, for some of the young men who are staying to change for the ball."
"That's very white of you," I raised an appreciative brow.
"All of the valets and ladies' maids have volunteered to assist the hunt guests this evening," he replied, "I could not in good conscience refuse to take part, and display a greater generosity on your lordship's behalf."
"Naturally," I agreed, warmed by his care for my prestige, "Which of these is mine?"
"Your lordship's clothes are laid out in the dressing-room," he turned and gave me one of his microscopically offended looks, as if I'd accused him of treating me less regally than the hoi polloi, "Along with Lord Rupert's clothes. His lordship's rooms have been given over to the use of four young ladies for this evening."
"You locked the connecting door, I trust," I glanced over to the doorway when I got to the dressing-room, strangely disturbed by the idea of a gaggle of girls so nearby while I was dressing.
"With the key on our side, my lord," he smiled at me.
"Well, let's fall to, shall we, before the rush?" I would have preferred to have a nap first, I was uncomfortably sleepy after so much exercise, but I didn't want to be loafing around waiting to be dressed with a bunch of other blokes—I'd much rather be dressed already so I could watch them change.
Rupert turned up and had a quick splash in the bathroom while I was being dressed, then came and lounged distractingly on the daybed waiting his turn; the other young men arrived in due course, and Rupert showed them where things were so Pond could keep working. And when I was done, I sat and watched Rupert being dressed, which was extremely entertaining.
I was just about to go into the bedroom and get chummy with my temporary guests, but there was a knock on the door—the outer door to the corridor, not the dressing-room door into the little passage that connected my three rooms—and I answered it to discover Dotty standing outside looking distressed.
"Oh, Foxy, I don't know what to do," she pulled me out into the corridor, hissing like a steam-kettle in an attempt to whisper. She was dressed already, and perfectly stunning in gold satin the same colour as her hair with an awful lot of diamonds studded about her person, "Jingo hasn't come in yet, and I'm worried."
"I'm sure he's just still at tea," I said soothingly, wondering why she'd come to me with her concern.
"No, I sent Massingale down to fetch him, and he's not in the house," she wrenched at the large chiffon handkerchief she'd been wringing in her hands, "I don't think he came in from the hunt."
"Oh, he must have done," I frowned, "Lord Levondale or the Master would have noticed if he hadn't come back with us."
"That's why I'm worried," she said, her voice cracking a little, "He can't have simply disappeared in between the stables and the house, something must be wrong."
"Well, really, Dotty," I felt a little exasperated, "You know what Jingo's like. He's probably somewhere around the stables with someone."
"I thought of that, you idiot," she punched my arm, "Otherwise I would have started worrying an hour and a half ago."
"Well, what do you want me to do?" I rubbed my arm gingerly; the handkerchief twisted around her fist hadn't softened the blow at all.
"I know I've got an awful rind, asking you for help after everything we've done," she said, her tone changing to one of pleading, which infected me with more of her fear than her hissing and hand-wringing had done, "But I honestly can't think of anyone more capable of finding him than you, and of keeping quiet when you do."
"Well, alright," I replied, mollified, "I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you, Foxy," she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, wiped her lip-rouge off me with the wrecked handkerchief, and scurried back down the corridor to her own room. And though the corridor was quite long and her door at the opposite end from mine, I heard very distinctly the key turning in the lock when she got there.
I stood there in the corridor for a bit, trying to think what to do. I couldn't pull Pond away from his labours, but I also couldn't go to the servants or to Lord Levondale and start searching for Jingo—after all, it would be very awkward for everyone involved if I raised the hue and cry, then found him romping about in the stables or a folly somewhere. But if he was trapped or hurt somewhere at a distance from the house, I couldn't hope to find him on my own.
The stables seemed like the place to start, and I figured that if I didn't find him there, I'd at least find out if his horse had been returned with the rest of them or if he'd come back early like Michael and any others who'd been unhorsed along the way; and then, only if it turned out he hadn't come back yet, I'd worry about who I could trust to take me looking for him.
The stable-yard was brightly lit and festive: though some of the horses were still being tended, most had already been stabled or put back in their horse-boxes; the grooms were starting their own little party in the big barn-like coach house, with a long trestle-table laden with food and drink and a Victrola playing some snazzy tunes that some of the boys were singing along with. I asked after the Verevale stable-master and was directed to the vast tack-room in the inner corner of the stable block.
Daughtry, a great strapping sunburned chap who I knew Pond had a bit of a crush on, informed me that Lord Faringdon's horse hadn't returned early, but he hadn't checked to see if it had arrived when the rest of the hunt did—with seventy horses coming in at once, one horse more or less wouldn't be noticed, and they wouldn't inventory the tack until all the animals were settled. But he took me down the rows and we discovered that Sirocco, the big black Arabian that had been assigned to Jingo, was not in his stall.
"I'll get some lads together and we'll start a search, my lord," he said when we'd ascertained that Sirocco wasn't still in the yard and hadn't been put in the wrong stall.
"Oh, don't do that, I'd hate to interrupt their party," I objected lamely, unable to think of a really good reason to keep the grooms out of it, but still not wanting more people aware of Jingo's absence than could be avoided, "If you can help me saddle a horse, and find me a torch, I'll go out myself."
"Certainly, but please allow me to accompany you, my lord," he frowned thoughtfully, appearing to get my real meaning but willing to play along with my fiction, "If Lord Faringdon is injured, you'll need someone to help you give first aid and carry him back."
"Oh, of course, thank you," I was immensely relieved to not have to explain myself further.
With very little help from me, Daughtry had a pair of sturdy-looking chestnuts saddled, got me into a spare pair of groom's boots and an old coachman's cloak (it was a bit cold to be larking about in white tie), and filled two large carriage lanterns to light our way; we mounted and went out quietly onto the drive.
We rode on the lawn instead of the drive, since motorcars were coming up for the ball and the headlamps annoyed the horses, then turned at the unpaved path and followed the course of the hunt toward the first covert. It was slow going in the dark, and so took a good deal longer than it had in the morning, though not near as long as it would have taken on foot.
"I remember seeing Jingo...Lord Faringdon, I mean, after we left the first covert, so I don't think he's in there," I said as we trotted along outside the trees, poking our lights through the branches and seeing nothing but more dark trees.
"If his lordship dropped out of the field further on, he still may have come this way returning to the stable, my lord," Daughtry pointed out intelligently, "If your lordship will follow the tracks of the hunt along the outside, I'll go up the stream path and search there, and meet you at the other end of the covert."
We went even slower as we examined the covert, and it felt rather eerie being out on horseback at night by myself, even though I could see Daughtry's lantern flashing occasional inside the copse. I got to the end of the covert before he did, and started getting rather lonely before the stable-master finally emerged.
A high gibbous moon broke through the clouds, and shed a good deal more light as we trotted along the open ground, so we reached the the second covert a bit more quickly. But it was even more dense than the first covert, and our lanterns didn't penetrate at all. We slowed practically to a crawl, and Daughtry made little forays into the wood when it loosened enough to allow a horse to enter.
"Here's a stirrup on the ground," he said, pulling up and dismounting about halfway along the edge of the wood, not yet in sight of the bridge we'd gone over twice during the hunt and again on the way back.
"Did you hear that?" I asked when a snickery kind of noise caught my ear, barely audible among the usual night noises of a wood.
"There's a horse in the wood," Daughtry replied after listening carefully for a moment, dropping the stirrup back where he'd found it, then remounted and led the way in between the trees in the direction of the sound.
We rode in silence for a bit, penetrating deeper by a rather circuitous route, not really a path so much as a trail of broken underbrush, where it looked like a large animal had gone plunging through it, taking no particular direction, perhaps a boar crashing through trying to escape hunters coming from different sides—but there wasn't a forest for miles around that was big enough to contain a boar. Leaning down from my mount, I examined the ground in the beam of the lantern, and saw that it was mostly clear of leaves and free of any tracks besides those of Daughtry's horse, as if it had been carefully swept.
After a few minutes of this maze-like ramble, we came out onto a fairly large clearing about two hundred yards across, with the river lightly screened by a loose line of willows on its bank, and more dense woods beyond it. A tall black horse was tethered to one of the willows, its saddle sitting beside it and its blanket gone, complaining gently and snuffing around for more of the grass it had already cleared from around the length of its reins.
"That's Sirocco," Daughtry rode over to the horse and dismounted again, soothing the beast and checking him by lantern-light for injuries.
"What's he doing so far into this wood?" I wondered, playing my lantern's beam around the clearing, looking for clues.
"The reins are hitched to the branch, not just caught," the stableman replied, "Lord Faringdon must have brought him in here for some reason."
"Is that the horse-blanket?" my beam crossed a reddish fabric something-or-other strewn with leaves at the opposite edge of the clearing from the horse. I slid down from the saddle and went to investigate.
It was the horse-blanket, but under the horse-blanket was Jingo with a knife sticking out of his chest, quite dead.
"Oh, Jingo!" I sighed—or I sobbed, I can't swear to which—and sat down hard at the base of a tree.
"Is it Lord Faringdon, my lord?" Daughtry came over and shone his own light on the body. The knife-handle glinted brightly, a fairly ordinary hunting-knife with the Levondale crest carved on the bone-inlaid handle.
"You'd better go back and telephone for the police," I said, forcing my mind into the comforting task of organisation, "And inform Lord Levondale while you're at the house. Ask him to inform Lady Faringdon and to set my man Pond to care for her and her servants. But nobody else can know yet, and please do not use the word 'murder' on the telephone or mention Lord Faringdon by name. Say 'death' or 'accident,' and 'a guest'; you never know who might be listening, and we don't want rumours flying ahead of an investigation."
"Yes, my lord," the stable-master blinked at my sudden authoritative tone; he went back and remounted his chestnut, but was reluctant to go, "Are you sure you should stay here alone, my lord? What if the killer is still about?"
"I'll be fine," I got to my knees and started examining the body—Jingo's body—as best I could in the lantern's light, "He's been dead for hours, the killer is long gone by now. Oh, go back by way of the river, would you? And bring the police here that way. We don't want a lot of traffic over that path we came in by, there may be clues."
"Very good, my lord," he submitted doubtfully, and went off through the willows to follow the riverbank out of the wood.
I knelt there for the longest time, my eyes darting around and recording evidence, but my mind reeling. I had been half-expecting to find a body from the minute Dotty came to my door, Jingo's criminal activities made it almost inevitable that he'd be murdered sooner or later. Besides, it had become such a habit with me to find bodies that it no longer surprised me.
But even half-expecting it, I was bowled over by the reality of it. I couldn't get over how similar this was to William's murder, the body in a similar position, the knife in a similar position, that same look of pained surprise on his face. And I really couldn't get over the fact that this was Jingo, someone I knew intimately, someone who'd been a major influence on my young life, someone I'd sort-of-loved once. That handsome face, that beautiful body, that rampaging sexuality, all that charm and all that wickedness, brutally snuffed out and gone from the world. I found myself weeping, it was just too terrible to be borne.
But borne it must be. After drying my eyes, I lifted Jingo's arm to test for rigor mortis; it was stiff but not yet immovable, which I knew meant he had probably been dead more than three or four hours but less than twelve; I'd seen him alive about seven hours earlier, so the time of death was sometime between noon-ish, when the hunt left this covert, and four o'clock. The front of his waistcoat and the top of his breeches were drenched in blood, in a pattern that suggested running downward, so he'd likely been standing when he was stabbed, and the amount of blood indicated that the knife had been twisted around or pulled partway out and pushed back in, allowing for a substantial escape of blood.
As Silenus had taught me, I stood and faced a tree, miming stabbing motions with a short stick to get an idea of where the killer had been standing, how tall he might have been, if he'd been left-handed or right, if he'd held the knife with his thumb on the hilt or on the pommel, in order for the weapon to be standing at the angle it was.
I decided that the killer was right-handed and about the same height as Jingo, a little taller than me; he'd held the knife with his thumb on the hilt, and stabbed straight forward into the center of the solar plexus, then twisted the knife upward and to the side to slice the lungs and pierce the heart. I further believed that the killer had held fast to Jingo's stock while he did this, as the white linen was wrinkled and creased in a way that suggested being crumpled in a fist, and the stock-pin was bent.
The knife was easily recognised, one of the dozen kept on an open rack in the gun-room, which was right next door to the ground-floor room where we'd had our hunt breakfast; anyone could have taken it during the meal, or even days ago; so unless the killer hadn't worn gloves, there was no clue there. The killer would have got a great deal of blood on him, though, so that might give us a lead if we examined people's clothes.
Getting up from my position, I replaced the blanket to what I hoped to be its original position, and went over to have a look at the horse and saddle. The reins had been tied to a strong branch of the tree with an ordinary slip-hitch, not a fanciful sailor's hitch or anything distinctive like that. The saddle was set neatly upright on the ground, the girth and stirrups tucked underneath—except for the left stirrup-leather, which had most likely held the stirrup we'd found outside the wood, and was fortuitously lying outside of the saddle so I could look at it without moving the evidence.
The leather strap was cut partway through across the underside, with a razor or a very sharp knife, and had torn the rest of the way to the surface. I didn't know how long it would take for a cut like that to pull apart during a ride, but it seemed the killer would have had to know that in order to be on the spot when Jingo's stirrup-leather broke. Could the killer have known exactly when the leather would break, though?
It seemed chancy to me, but it also struck me as a pretty good method to get someone to drop out of a hunt and loiter around in a predetermined range of space: one doesn't notice the underside of a stirrup-leather like one does a rein, and one doesn't pull hard enough on the reins for such a trick to work; and if that treatment was given to the girth, the whole saddle would have fallen off and the rider might have been injured, whereupon he'd be escorted back to the house. But a stirrup could go without your falling, you'd get down and have a look at it, and probably wouldn't notice the cut, only the tear; finding you couldn't fix it, anyone who stopped and asked if you needed assistance would be sent on, leaving you alone and on foot as the hunt disappeared into the distance.
To cut that stirrup, someone would have had to gain access to the stables sometime between the last time Jingo used the saddle, which would have been three or four o'clock the previous day (Jingo was a daily rider, like me, but always went out after lunch and returned before tea), and before Sirocco was saddled for the hunt. It would be easy to find it in the tack-room, since Jingo had brought his own saddle, custom-made and blazoned on both sides with the Ponsonby crest in enamel and gold.
But how to be in the woods during the hunt without arousing suspicion? That struck me as unlikely and difficult, everybody at Verevale was either in the house or on the hunt... or were they? That would be my first point of investigation, if there was anyone unaccounted for between, say, ten in the morning, giving him an hour or two to get to the wood before the hunt drew that covert, and three-thirty, when we returned to the house?
A clever murderer wouldn't be so obvious, though, so I didn't hold out much hope for that avenue of investigation. But I had to think about something, for every time my mind paused it would fill up with Jingo's face, his mouth slightly open and his dead blue eyes wide in surprise and pain and even a little bit of pleading, as if to say No! Not me, not yet! If I didn't keep busy, the police would arrive to find me keening and wailing over the body like a Greek widow.
I was alone in that wood with a corpse and two horses for what seemed like the entirety of the longest night in the history of the world, but it was really only about an hour and a half later that I heard voices and saw a half-dozen strong lights bobbing toward me from the direction of the river.
"Viscount Foxbridge?" a man asked me in a gentle, cultured voice while flashing a torch painfully in my eyes.
"Yes," I replied, flinching and bringing up my hand to shield my face.
"I'm Detective Chief Inspector Netley," he told me, turning the light upward so I could see his face, which was nice-looking in a faintly elfin way, and pleasantly creased as if it was accustomed to smiling gently, "You are able to identify the deceased for us?"
"The Marquess of Faringdon," I told him as he walked over to Jingo's body and pointed his torch at the face, which one of the constables had uncovered, "James Ponsonby, everyone called him Jingo. We were at school together, and we're both staying with the Levondales."
"And how do you come to be out here, Lord Foxbridge?"
"Dotty, Lady Faringdon that is, asked me to look for him," I explained, "He hadn't come back from the hunt and she was getting worried."
"And why did Lady Faringdon ask this of you, rather than alerting her host, I wonder?" he walked back over and faced me, though he didn't shine the light in my eyes again.
"I have a talent for finding things," I offered lamely.
"And finding people?" he wondered, and even in the dark I could see his eyebrows lifted inquiringly.
"Occasionally," I said.
"I am extremely disturbed by what I find here, Lord Foxbridge," he pointed his torch at the ground between our feet and nudged the dead leaves with his toe, "You found another body with a knife in its chest, just two months ago? Lord and Lady Faringdon were staying in the same house that time, too. You don't find that remarkable?"
"Are you accusing me of killing Jingo?" I gaped at him.
"Oh, no, Lord Foxbridge, nothing like that," he smiled as gently as I'd thought he would, "But you must understand that one doesn't usually find quite so many stabbed bodies discovered by one young man, nor quite so many of the same names in such similar cases only two months apart, without there being a fairly staggering connection."
"Quite," I agreed, but had no idea what else to say. There certainly were connections between the cases, though I couldn't tell Netley about any of them before I knew I could trust him.
"Quite," he echoed me a bit mockingly, the gentle smile falling down into an ironic smirk, "Why don't you tell me about your movements and your observations? From the time you left the house up to the time my men and I arrived, please."
I did so, sparing no details and even giving him the benefit of my theories, though of course I left out all of the emotional stuff and any hint of why I insisted on coming out alone with the stable-master instead of instituting a proper search in the first place. He didn't write any of it down, nor ask anyone else to take notes, he just looked at me with his bright eyes and gentle smile until I ran out of words.
"Very lucid," he commented crisply after taking a moment to absorb it all, "I'll ask you to make an official statement to that effect later on. For now, though, I think you should return to the house. One of my men will accompany you."
"Thank you," I deflated a bit, not because he was dismissing me but because it had been an incredibly long day, and after that last bit of exposition I felt like a squeezed-out orange. In other circumstances I might have tried to stick around to watch the police at their work, but it was cold and dark and I hadn't had my dinner.
I followed a uniformed constable out of the clearing and along the river-bank to the bridge, where a tractor-truck that had been commandeered from the home farm was waiting to haul the policemen back and forth; not a very elegant form of transport, slung in the back like a sack of turnips, but I was in no mood to care: it was faster than walking or riding and all I wanted was something hot to eat, something even hotter (and preferably alcoholic) to drink, and a fire sufficient to toast my feet.
When I got back to the house I was shocked to discover the Hunt Ball still in progress, the windows bright and cheerful music coming through the open front door. I shouldn't have been surprised, it was only just after ten o'clock, and I had been explicit about not letting anyone other than Lord Levondale and Dotty know what had happened. But it was a shock, nevertheless, and I found myself resenting the people inside for having a good time while I'd been off in the freezing dark woods mourning a murdered friend.
I also resented myself for suddenly thinking of Jingo as a friend now that he was dead, all his crimes forgiven and his memory fluffed about with a halo of regret for all my hard words to him. I was angry at myself, too, for going all weepy and maudlin over the murder of someone I know when I had previously viewed the murders of strangers as merely interesting intellectual exercise. It made sense that I would feel that way, a friend and a stranger will inspire entirely different emotional responses, that's what friendship is for; nevertheless, I felt like a hypocrite for all the tears I'd never shed for William, or for any of the other dead men I'd encountered in my travels.
Wearing a groom's boots and a coachman's cloak over my evening clothes, all liberally besmattered with mud, I was anxious to get to my rooms without passing through the ball; going through the Hunt Room and a circuit of low corridors, I was able to take one of the corkscrew staircases from the ground-floor to the corridor outside my rooms.
The corridor was full of people, though, spilling in from the gallery overlooking the rotunda; fortunately they were intent on their own business (canoodling—though how the American magazines mean it, rather than the activity for which I'd adopted the word for my personal use) and didn't pay any attention to me and my unorthodox attire. Well, one person noticed: at the far end of the corridor was Pond, standing in an elaborately casual manner in front of the door into the Faringdons' rooms and eyeing my muddy boots with horror.
"I wasn't expecting you to stand guard, Pond," I said as I came up to him.
"I deemed it wise, my lord," he responded, his eyes still riveted to the poor boots, "Until we know why and by whom Lord Faringdgon was killed, I think we can assume that Lady Faringdon and her servants are in danger as well."
"Well, certainly, that's why I asked for you to be informed. But are you armed or anything?"
"No, my lord, but I have been carrying things up here for Lady Faringdon so her servants don't have to come out, and to make sure nothing poisoned is brought in."
"I guess I'd better go in and talk to Dotty, pay condolences and all," I sighed, not looking forward to the encounter; Pond opened the door for me and I passed into the little passageway connecting the dressing-room and bedroom, knocking on the bedroom door, "Dotty? It's Foxy, may I come in?"
"Oh, Foxy," she pulled me into the room and threw her arms around my neck, "This is terrible, what are we going to do?"
"I honestly don't know, Dotty," patted her on the back, "I'll call Silenus first thing in the morning, he'll know how to handle the police here."
"I didn't mean about the police," she let go of me and stalked over to the side-table where a box of cigarettes stood. She was wearing a dark-blue velvet pajama sort of outfit with mink trim, and looked terrifically glamourous as she lit a cigarette and stalked around the room some more, "I mean about who killed Jingo and whether or not that person intends to come after me, and poor Stephen and Nadia."
"Stephen and...?" the names threw me off, though I figured out she meant the servants before I finished the query. They were huddled together on a settee next to the roaring fire, the young valet weeping and the older maid comforting him, "You'll be safe here. Pond can keep an eye out for Massingale tonight, since they're rooming together, and Wickson can stay here with you. We'll figure out something long-term tomorrow."
"Thank Pond for us, he's been extremely kind this evening," Dotty stopped stalking and looked suddenly scared and weak, "How am I going to go on without him, Foxy?"
"I don't know," I responded again, feeling terrifically inadequate, "I'm sure you'll manage somehow."
"Yes, I suppose I will," she gave me a long, sad look, "I always manage. But I loved him, I really did, I'm going to miss him so dreadfully."
"I'm sorry," I didn't really understand what I was supposed to say: this wasn't your ordinary sort of condolence call, there was no formula for it.
"Thank you, Foxy," she sighed heavily and sat down on the elaborate couch in the middle of the room, "You'd better go, now. I expect you missed dinner, you should go get something to eat. Thank you so much for all your help."
"If there's anything at all I can do, just holler," I said, edging out of the door, "I'm going to take Pond with me for a bit, but he'll be back shortly."
"How is her ladyship?" Pond asked when I came out of the room.
"She's seems to be doing well enough," I replied, "She has a lot of toughness in her. I'm starving, do you think you could get me something to eat?"
"I've already arranged supper in your room, my lord," he walked along the corridor with me.
"Thank you, Pond. If you could help me get these boots off, you can take Massingale back down to the servants' hall and get some rest."
I woke obscenely early next morning, having gone to bed obscenely early and slept hard and deep, like a very tired log; it was the first time in a long time that I'd woken up before Pond arrived with my coffee (not counting my fortnight at Bourneham, which was so unusual as a whole that it had already taken on a dreamlike quality in my memory), and I was rather at a loss what to do with myself. Out of sheer boredom, I got up and had a bath, then started dressing myself.
Pond arrived when I was halfway done, with a silent red-eyed Massingale in tow (the boy hadn't been out of Pond's sight all night), and finished me up in my soberest Sunday suit, though I had no intention of going to church that morning. As soon as I was dressed and had a couple of cups of coffee, I headed downstairs; it was still too early for breakfast, so I went to Lord Levondale's study, where the only telephone was located.
Telephoning to London on a Sunday was a tedious business, waiting ages to get through to the Lewes exchange and then to the Brighton exchange and then to the Westminster exchange, all of which were staffed by the absolute minimum number of operators in observance of the Sabbath. And when I finally got through to Hyacinth House, the night porter was still on duty, and he wasn't sure he was allowed to ring Silenus's rooms or tell me if he was even in the hotel.
I eventually convinced the night porter to go wake up the hotel manager, who told me that Silenus was not in residence, but could most likely be reached at his brother's house in Devon, whither his messages and post were being forwarded. Then I had to start all over again, from Lewes to Brighton to Exeter to Gelford Magna, then getting hold of someone at Lydelands, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Gelford.
"Well, Sebastian, what gets you out of bed at such an unearthly hour?" Silenus's voice came booming jovially over the line.
"It's Jingo Faringdon," I said simply and perhaps a bit brutally, ignoring my own advice about revealing too much over the telephone, "He's been murdered."
"Oh, dear," he gasped, "My dear boy, I'll come right away. Where are you?"
"I'm at Verevale Court in Sussex, a few miles south of Lewes."
"That will take me some time to reach," he said, and I could hear him flipping the pages of a book, an atlas or an ABC, I couldn't tell, "But I think I can get there by tea-time."
"I am relieved," I admitted, though I wasn't sure if I should ask Lady Levondale to invite him to stay, or let him make his own arrangements, "In the meantime, do you know anything about Detective Chief Inspector Netley of the Brighton CID?"
"I know of Netley, though I don't know him personally. Immensely clever, but without ambition," he sounded thoughtful, and I could see him in my mind's eye, leaning back in a chair and folding his hands over his tummy—though of course he must have been holding a telephone receiver, so couldn't possibly be sitting like that, "I've always found that combination propitious. I think you can probably trust him as well as you trusted Summerill."
"That's a relief," I said, "I was rather suspiciously vague in my statements last night, not knowing how much I could tell him."
"Just remember that you can't help Jingo, now," he advised, "Protecting Dotty and yourself are your only responsibilities. I'll see you soon."
He rung off then, and I sat at Lord Levondale's desk feeling rather blank with too many emotions: I was immensely relieved that Silenus was coming, but telling him about Jingo had reinspired the grief I'd felt the night before while keeping watch over his body, and so the relief was well-mixed with desolation.
It was still too early for breakfast, though, so I took some paper from the desk and started writing out the statement that I knew Netley would require from me later. I was painstakingly meticulous about it, just to kill time, and when I was done writing I bound the pages together with red string and sealing-wax, impressing my coat of arms onto each blob with the almost effeminately flashy carved garnet swivel-ring I'd recently taken to wearing (it was a family heirloom, 18th century, else I probably wouldn't have dared).
I folded the statement up and put it into my pocket, then went into the dining-room, where quite a lot of people were already having breakfast. Despite my hunger, I was oddly reluctant to eat once I was confronted by the regiment of covered dishes, something about gorging myself while Jingo lay dead seemed somehow distasteful; but I had to eat, so I filled my plate with kidneys and porridge, neither of which I particularly care for, as a sop to conscience.
"Lady Levondale, I wonder if you could recommend an hotel," I sat down beside my hostess, having come up with a good cover-story to explain Silenus's impending arrival, "Lord Faringdon's godfather, Lord Arthur Longueville, wanted to come and lend his support, but I didn't know if there was any place suitable that could accommodate him."
"I hadn't realised their families were close," she sounded surprised, as I'd rather expected she would: having even a minor Longueville as your godfather is something people are likely to mention, the name being among the most illustrious in England, "But I won't hear of an hotel, Lord Arthur must come stay here. I wonder where, though; I hate to put him on the third floor."
"I'm happy to change rooms, if it's any help," I offered.
"Do you think I should ask Lord Faringdon's brother and mother here, too?" she wondered, slightly baffled by the unexpected situation, "Lady Faringdon mightn't be able to go home until after the inquest, but I'm sure she'd want family around her in this trying time. But I've never met them, and asking a family in mourning to come stay with strangers, I'd hate to be impertinent."
"I'm sure they would be delighted to come, Lady Levondale," I assured her. I hadn't thought of poor Pongo or the Dowager Marchioness, "I'll telephone for you, if you like."
"You're very kind, Lord Foxbridge," she took my hand and squeezed it gratefully, "Such a help. If you'll excuse me, I have to go talk to my housekeeper."
No win this year.