When I got out of the bath, I went and had a poke around in my dressing-room while Pond laid out my afternoon ensemble, peeping into drawers and examining the paintings,
"What's through here?" I asked, stopping and rattling the handle of a door that I hadn't used yet, "It's locked."
"Lord Rupert Gosforth's room, my lord," Pond replied from the depths of the wardrobe.
"Really?" I knelt down and peeked through the keyhole, and saw a little slice of an opulently decorated room with an awful lot of draperies, like the film set for an Arabian harem. Then I remembered Pond telling me about the keys being the same in big houses, so I took the key out of one of the other doors and tried it. It worked, so 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, And since he was wearing a towel and I was wearing a towel, it seemed an opportune moment to get to know one another a little better; so I pushed him back into his dressing-room and got comfortable on the little daybed in there.
"You're really something," he told me a while later when we were standing together in the shower-bath (his bathroom was much nicer than mine) and rinsing off the residue of our exercises.
"You're pretty something, yourself," I wrapped my arms around his narrow waist and nestled my head into his clavicle--he was just so wonderfully tall. But the water got cold pretty soon, so we had to get out and start getting dressed, "By the way, I've thought up a plan to get your mother off your back about pursuing Lavinia.
"Really? How?" he looked at me with interest as he climbed into a lightweight suit of long underwear.
"You're going to tell her that you and I have hatched a plot for seducing the girl," I lounged into an armchair to watch him dress, "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. But of course I'm not going to marry her, 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 on the rebound. What do you think?"
"You're devious," he gaped at me with admiration, then frowned, "But do you really think she'd marry me like that?"
"No, of course not," I grinned at him, "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 got into his trousers next, which I found interesting: I always put mine on (or rather, Pond puts them on me) after I have my socks, shirt, collar, and necktie on, "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 this for me."
"Then she's underestimating your charm and attraction," I told him with a wink, "If she wants to know 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'd finished his shirt and pulled up his braces, then added a jumper, then did up his necktie--Harrow, by the way, so he must know Bunny and Twister, and I'd have to ask him for scurrilous tales later on--and sat down to put on his socks and shoes, "I'll tell her you're doing it for a bet, she understands gambling."
"Well, I'd better go get dressed," I got up and came over to give him a quick kiss before leaving, "Pond must be wondering what became of me. I went through a strange door and never came back."
"I hope you'll leave it unlocked," he grinned down at me, "I'll come surprise you in your bath sometime."
I didn't think Pond would like that, but didn't say so, and scurried back to my dressing room; there I found Pond comfortably ensconced in the armchair with his feet up, doing a crossword puzzle and looking at me with exasperation.
"And how is the weather in Wonderland, my lord?"
"Lovely, thanks," I went and stood in my dressing-spot by the tall glass so he could start to work.
(Note: please see yesterday's installment for the narrative section that belongs here)
I went down to dinner with a lighter heart, laughing at myself for a fit of jealousy over a married man, 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 me and Lavinia, and we had a pretty good time all evening.
I had to wonder, though, if the prank 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 were just too many questions of probability.
Our ages, for one thing: it didn't make sense for someone my 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, but unmarried women are usually left out of the bedroom-hopping game because they have a much harder time explaining unexpected pregnancies.
And then there was the question of my looks, which would obviously give me entrée into just about any bedroom in the house; with beautiful women like Dotty Faringdon and Virginia Vandekamp lying around loose, what in the world would a beautiful youth like me want with a dowd like Lavinia?
The element that would really sell the scenario is my queerness: of course I would flirt ostentatiously with a female to divert suspicion from my true nature, and the best candidate for such an exercise would be a woman who was unlikely to expect me to go any further than flirtation—if I flirted like that with Dotty or Virginia, I might be expected 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 of course 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; 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 information 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, buggery is practically an institution in public schools; and going through a queer 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 social activities 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 respect, which I know is important to her; 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 queers in our little world, more indiscreet than I, but have never heard any scuttlebutt about them from any 'county' sources; why should I assume that people would talk about me? The subject itself was 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, it was unlikely that anybody would know or care what I got up to at night, or with whom.
Well, I could keep that revelation 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 so much, perhaps it's because I'm not weighed down with any sort of worry over my 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 activities.
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 rather a toss-up.
"Do you really spend every night alone in your room when we're in the country?" I asked Pond, my dilemma reminding me of what he'd said earlier about the rarity of below-stairs canoodling.
"Yes and no," he frowned at a small wrinkle in my dressing-gown lapel, "At Foxbridge Castle, I'm always 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 thimble-like contraption he uses for spot-fixes—a waste of energy, since I was just going to take the silly 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 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 hunting when we're up in London, or Plymouth or Oxford as the case may be, and then have a rest when we're 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; I think it would make me tired."
"I'm glad I'm not in service, that kind of monasticism 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, resumed the adventures of Lord Peter, and once again fell asleep with the book open on my face. When I woke up the next morning, Pond was bringing me my coffee, and I couldn't decide whether or not to be disappointed that I'd slept undisturbed through the night. After all, I'd really needed the sleep.
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