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 made them giggle, 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 giggles 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, startling her, "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 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 last night, and he taxed me with my flirting with Lavinia, I came up with a plan. We're going to make them feel guilty, make it look like I'm leading you on, and 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 tell your father, or he may not, 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 bone, 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 courting you. 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 very 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 going to be nagging Rupert to flirt 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 conspiratorial 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. Actually, she'd take over the operation and sharpen the prank up to be truly devastating. She's brilliant at this sort of thing. 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 either the second week of July, or at 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 be so gushy, Abbie," Lavinia 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 on a screen in my bedroom at home."
"Who's your favourite?" I grinned encouragingly, charmed by the idea of a découpage screen, wondering if I could make such a thing in my study--if so, Messrs Gary Cooper and George O'Brien would be prominently featured.
"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 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 didn't participate, but just sat back and smiled indulgently at us, sometimes shaking her head in disbelief but otherwise just watching. I got the idea that she'd spent much of her life just watching.
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.
Going downstairs for tea, I felt suddenly as if I was forgetting something; then I realised that it was the first time since I'd been at Verevale that I'd gone upstairs and come down again without changing my clothes. I briefly considered going in and at least changing my necktie or grabbing a fresh handkerchief, but my nearly-empty stomach dissuaded me, and I went in to tea with a good appetite.
During the meal, 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 topic, making it easier to find each-others' bedrooms at night: though it wasn't talked of openly, bedroom-hopping is as recognized a country sport as fox-hunting.
I didn't usually take much part in that sport, since in most of the houses I've been to it was a predominantly man-and-woman pursuit; but at Verevale I was actually surrounded by men who had already expressed an interest in me (Sir Peregrine, as one would expect, in the Egyptian Room to the north and Lord Rupert in the Moorish Room to the east of my southwest corner room, and Michael right above in the Blue Room).
But I also discovered during this exposition that Chester and Mamie Vandekamp were in the Gold Room, in the northeast corner of the third floor, and Jingo and Dotty were in the Queen's Room at the northwest corner of the second floor; so what was Chester doing in the second-floor corridor the previous evening, when I met him on the way to dinner? Had Jingo or Dotty (or both) already been at him before he molested me in the lift? I somehow doubted he'd been visiting Sir Wilfrid or Sir Peregrine.
Much to my own surprise, I felt insanely jealous that the Faringdons got to Chester before I could--and I had to wonder if that reaction was due to an unsuspected depth of feeling for Chester, or to my dislike and distrust 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 or something, and I had no reason to be jealous at all.
After tea I went out skeet-shooting with Lord Levondale and Sir Wilfrid, 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 practically-unmissable game with a lot of witnesses about. I'm a merely adequate shot at the best of times, but without practice I might accidentally pot a beater.
Dressing for dinner, I brought Pond up to speed on all I'd learned and conspired about during the course of the day, and he gave me the details of the below-stairs version of bedroom-hopping (which consisted mostly of rather chaste banter and the occasional slow-dance by the gramophone after dinner--servants, as a class, are rather less licentious than their so-called betters, and belowstairs affaires des cœurs such as we had at Foxbridge are rare); I also canvassed his 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.
16,497 Total Words
Note for those following along in real time: I changed Abigail's surname from Smallridge to March.