Returning to the to the drawing-room, we found the ladies spread out into equal north and south factions with the footman and the coffee-service forming the border: the southerners falling immediately on the card-tables and the northerners 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 that Aunt Em would sniffily characterise as "young ladies' accomplishments"--second-rate Romantic concertos that cover any 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 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 newspaper, and Michael looked frankly bewildered by the display; I also noticed some unexpected looks, Abigail watched us with an unhappy frown, and Lord Rupert looked absolutely outraged.
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 was it me he was watching slip through his fingers? So curious was I about this development that I had to sidle away from Lavinia and ask Rupert if he'd join me in a game of billiards; he agreed rather reluctantly, which piqued my curiosity even further.
The billard room was reached through a very small masculine sitting-room off the drawing-room, and was beautifully paneled in rich dark walnut carved by Grinling Gibbons in the shapes of fruit and dead game; the ceiling was painted with a Baroque scene of Diana and Actaeon, with the modern billiard lamp descending rather gracelessly from the goddess's midriff. Rupert and I played in complete silence for several minutes, and 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 cut loose while standing next to me at the end of a set, turning toward me and towering over me in a somewhat 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 Casanova 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 joke, but also not wanting to make him actually angry. I didn't know how strong he might be, and though we were both armed with long sticks, he could obviously out-reach me.
"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 sofa behind me and I was stuck, "My mother brought me down here to court Miss Levondale. We're all 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 is probably what my grandfather felt when my father the impoverished young 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 scruples.
"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."
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