"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 third 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 third 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 third 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 first 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 second 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 just finished luncheon, but Winborn can bring you some sandwiches, if you like. Or something to drink?"
"Some tea would be lovely, 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, gesturing for me to park myself in a nearby armchair, "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 in due course, 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, 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, informs 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. 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 senior or junior Winborns, 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 into almost losing my balance, "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 slightly adenoidal, 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 was once girlishly 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 lipstick 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 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 Smallridge, 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 Smallridge, 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; forcing myself to sing a cheerful little song, 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 female 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 cylinder 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," he said, stepping across and pressing me against the iron bars as the little cage began a slow descent, gripping my waist and leaning his 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 avuncularly 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 first 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 looks, 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 Diana punishing Actæon, with the modern billiard lamp descending rather gracelessly from the goddess's midriff. 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 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 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."
"What 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 elegantly 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 a pass at me, and I haven't even been here a whole day, yet."
"I don't wish to take liberties, 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 develop feelings for their own sex."
"Really!" I frowned thoughtfully at this, "That must make it very lonely for those of us 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 gropes. Your elderly heterosexual roué might remain active with the ladies well into his twilight years, but elderly queers are often cursed with a 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.
13,872 Total Words
13,872 Total Words