"You're pretty when you're asleep," Michael woke me up stroking my hair.
"Why'd you wake me, then?" I smiled up at him. I had no idea what time it was or how long I'd been asleep, but he looked as if he'd been asleep himself, flushed and tousle-haired.
"You're more fun when you're awake," he answered, coming in for a kiss. He wasn't wearing pajamas, and had been busy with my buttons before he woke me, so things progressed from there pretty quickly.
"If that's how they do it at Charterhouse," I gasped out quite some time later when we lay sweat-soaked and exhausted side-by-side, "then I'm sorry I went to Eton."
"I didn't learn any of that at Charterhouse," he gasped back, brushing his damp hair out of his face with his fingers.
"Hardly," he laughed, coming up on one elbow and looking down at me, "Just my own natural talent and filthy imagination. Plus a few hints and tips from the stables."
"Your stables must be a lot more interesting than mine," I told him, reaching up to tug on the curtain of dark hair hanging down over his eyes.
"What was all that billing and cooing at my sister tonight?" he asked, suddenly very serious.
"I was just being friendly," I shrugged cavalierly, though that's hard to do when you're lying down, "She's a nice girl, I like her."
"If that's what you call 'just being friendly,' I'd like to see what you think wooing looks like."
"Pretty much like this," I rolled over and pinned him to the mattress, sitting on his hips and holding his hands above his head.
"Do this to my sister and I'll have to call you out," he warned, though his eyes were twinkling as he struggled unconvincingly against me.
"I don't expect she likes me enough to let me do this, do you?" I asked thoughtfully.
"How should I know?" he said in the same thoughtful tone, "I'm not even sure she likes men."
"Well, I'll let you know when I find out," I said, letting go of him and lying back down beside him, "Let's not talk about Lavinia, I'd rather talk about you."
"I'd better get back to my own bed before Molly comes around to light the fires," he said regretfully, cuddling close and burying his face in my neck, "I don't want to get out in the cold, though."
"Stay here, then," I advised, wrapping my legs around him so he couldn't get away, "We can close the curtains, it's what I always do at home."
"These curtains are purely decorative," he laughed, "And Molly's a blabbermouth, your name would be mud in the servant's hall by lunch-time."
"What about your name?" I wondered. I'd often pondered the wisdom of trying to hide anything from one's own servants; and though I'd been careful with the curtains at Foxbridge, I frequently thought it would be easier to simply trust the loyalty and discretion of my staff.
"My naughty habits are already well known," he made a twisty bid for freedom and slipped out of the bed, tumbling gracelessly onto the floor, "A portion of my allowance is set aside every quarter-day for squaring the servants so word doesn't reach my mother or the village."
"So I'm not the only guest you've seduced?" I propped myself up on my elbow so I could watch him shimmy into his pajamas and dressing-gown before the cold air could settle on his skin.
"So far this week, you are," he knotted the cord on his dressing-gown and leaned over to give me a farewell kiss, "But it's only Saturday morning, and there are thirteen other guests to consider. See you at breakfast."
Michael had given me quite a lot to think about, so I lay awake for the longest time, staring at the pleated blue silk of the canopy and turning over the various things he'd said. Had he been serious about working his way through the entire guest-list? Surely not: Julia and Bertie, and Miss March, must be considered relatives, and I doubted seriously that anyone had lain a finger on the Duchess of Tyne since Rupert was conceived twenty-five years ago; and though the Beckett Havens, father and daughter, were both visually very attractive, their personalities were so hard-edged and chilly that I couldn't imagine anybody wanting to cuddle up to either of them.
Still, that left quite a few candidates, some of whom I'd considered myself; and assuming Michael wasn't exclusively queer, his horizons would be substantially broader than mine. If he was serious, he was going to be a very busy boy over the next couple of weeks—which made me wonder how he amused himself when there were no guests. The stables, perhaps?
I then wondered how much it cost him annually to 'square' the servants. I still didn't know how much I was supposed to tip the servants at a country-house, now I was of age, since Pond had been taking care of that for me; how to even calculate the appropriate emolument for keeping my secrets? If it was my own staff I was squaring, I could just add it to their pay-envelopes, maybe call it a rise in wages; I happened to remember that the entire staff wages at Foxbridge Castle, indoor and outdoor, including all the new servants, was in the neighbourhood of two thousand a year; adding ten or twenty percent of that figure certainly wouldn't break me, and might buy some peace of mind.
It then occurred to me that the annual salaries of almost thirty servants added up to less than a third of what I'd spent on my motorcar. Granted, I'd bought the most expensive motorcar available, and I was going to have it for several years, so the cost of the motorcar is substantially less than what I will spend on paying and feeding my servants over a period of five years (I'd been talking a lot to Julia, and had started to think in terms such as these); nevertheless, my servants' combined annual income was about one one-hundredth of my annual income, which is a rather shocking comparison; I began to wonder if these communist chappies mightn't have a point.
My musing was interrupted by the aforementioned Molly coming in to lay my fire, so I snapped my eyes shut and lay perfectly still until she had finished. Housemaids, like the Wee Folk of myth, become quite flustered when they are observed in their rounds; and since they can't vanish into thin air like the Wee Folk, it's much kinder to pretend to be asleep.
As often happens, pretending to be asleep led to actually being asleep, and the next thing I knew the sun was up and Pond was standing over me with a pot of coffee on a tray. He gave me one of his querying looks when he picked up my discarded pajamas from the floor, so I told him all about my early-morning visitor—well, not all about him, as there are some verbs and adjectives that I blush to say even to Pond.
Breakfast was served in the dining-room, though it was rather dark in there with no east-facing windows; one gets all-too-accustomed to eating each meal in a different room, as we do at Foxbridge, it always seems to me immensely preferable to eating every meal but tea in one dining-room. Nevertheless, the breakfast spread was fantastic, and I gorged myself on one of the best kedgerees I'd ever tasted washed down with really excellent coffee.
After breakfast, Michael took me out riding so he could show me over the various courses the hunt was likely to take. My horse was from the Foxbridge stables, sent ahead of me along with my luggage; but it wasn't Pippin, who was too delicate of limb for the rough-and-tumble of a fox hunt—he could leap a fence or brook with the best of them, but if he fell or another horse banged into him he'd be done for. Instead I had a big dappled Irish hunter called Samson (Delilah's brother rather than her mate, which makes me wonder what goes on in the stablemen's heads when they name these animals); and since the horse was as unfamiliar as the terrain, I was going to need a lot of practice before the big hunt.
We spent hours trotting and galloping around, it was the longest ride I'd been on in ages (since I last hunted, in fact, the previous Boxing Day), but it was worth it to see so much of the park. At the end, he showed me one of his favourite spots, a spring-fed pond surrounded by massive weeping willows overhanging the water and screening it from passersby; we had a nice bathe, despite the absolutely freezing water, then sunned ourselves dry before getting dressed and riding back to the house.
We'd been out so long we missed luncheon, but Pond procured a tray of sandwiches, cheese, and fruit for me, so I had a lovely solitary picnic in the bathtub—I didn't really need a bath after swimming, but it was already drawn and I hate to waste all that lovely hot water; besides, eating in the bath is more fun than eating in bed, I don't know why I don't do it more often. When I got out, I went and had a poke around in the dressing-room while Pond laid out the afternoon's ensemble, peeping into drawers and examining the paintings,
"What's through here?" I asked, rattling the handle of a door I hadn't used yet, "It's locked."
"Lord Rupert Gosforth's room, my lord," Pond replied from the depths of the wardrobe.
"Really?" I knelt down and peeked through the keyhole, spying a small vista of opulently decorated bedroom with a lot of sheer draperies and inlaid ebony couches strewn with cushions, like the film set for an Arabian harem. Then I remembered Pond telling me about the keys sometimes being the same in big houses, so I took the key out of one of the other doors and tried it. Delighted to discover it worked, I poked my head through and cried out, "Hullo-ullo! Anybody home?"
"What?" Rupert came through another door across the room, looking absolutely yummy dripping wet with a towel around his waist, "Oh, it's you, Foxbridge. What's up?"
"I just discovered we're neighbours, my dressing-room's right through there," I explained, crossing the room toward him, "Sorry to just barge in, I'm terribly nosy about doors."
"I was just getting out of the bath, come on in," he turned and went back into his dressing-room.
"So, I've thought up a plan to get your mother off your back about pursuing Miss Levondale," I told him, poking around in his dressing-room much as I'd poked around in my own.
"Really? How?" he looked at me with interest as he pulled the towel off his waist and rubbed his hair with it.
"You're going to tell her that you and I have hatched a plot for winning the girl over," I made an effort not to stare, but there was an awful lot to stare at; long and lanky isn't my usual type, but Rupert wore it well, "I'll be pitching the woo at Lavinia with all the energy of a strong-armed bowler; meanwhile you're going to be spending time with her, getting to know her, and getting to be jolly good chums with her. Then, of course, it turns out I've just been toying with her affections; her heart is broken, but here's good old Rupert with a shoulder to cry on, and she marries you in sheer gratitude. What do you think?"
"You're devious," he gaped at me with admiration, then frowned, "But do you really think she'd marry me out of gratitude?"
"No, of course not," I grinned happily, "That's just what we're going to tell your mother so she thinks everything is in hand and therefore leaves you alone."
"Oh, ah," he lounged on the daybed in a carelessly provocative pose, "But why? I mean, I understand you're flirting with her just for fun, and she knows you're not serious. But Mater will wonder why you'd do all that for me."
"Then she grievously underestimates your charm," I told him with a wink, "If she wonders why you and I are in cahoots, tell her it was all your idea and I'm just going along with it for fun."
"That she'd never believe," he pulled one foot into his lap—he was as limber as one of those yogi chaps you see at Empire Exhibitions—and toweled between his long toes, "She knows me too well, and I couldn't come up with a ruse to save my life. No, I'll tell her you're doing it for a bet, she understands gambling."
"Whatever you think best. I'd better go get dressed," I was getting into a state looking at him, and my linen bath-robe was doing nothing to hide it.
"What's your hurry?" he asked, getting up and coming toward me, putting his hands on my waist and towering over me like he does. And since neither of us had much or anything on, nor any pressing engagements, it seemed an opportune moment to get to know one another a little better.
When I staggered back to my own room some time later, I found Pond comfortably ensconced in the armchair, his feet up on the fender, doing the crossword puzzle and waiting for me to return from my adventures through the mysterious door, "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, "The natives were extremely friendly."
Once I was dressed, I went looking for Lavinia; but she wasn't in any of the downstairs rooms, so I assumed she must be in her own room; sticking my head into a pantry or servery of some sort, I startled a couple of young housemaids in deep conversation, who gave me directions to the south-east corner of the third floor. I apologised in florid terms for disturbing the maids, which set them to tittering like starlings, and took the service stairs behind them up to the third floor.
Arriving a little out of breath, I listened at the door for a moment before knocking (one of my worst habits, I'm afraid, listening at keyholes) and heard a storm of girlish giggles coming from within. Since it was more than one voice, but didn't sound like the intimate sort of giggling that one is loath to interrupt, I straightened up and rapped the panels smartly.
"Come!" Lavinia shouted imperiously, so I opened the door and went in, giving her something of a start, "Oh! Lord Foxbridge, I thought you were a footman, please forgive me."
"Not at all, I should apologise for invading your sanctum," I gave a courtly bow, sticking close to the door and taking a quick look around the room; it was very pretty, all glimmering pink satin and needlepoint roses, but dignified with Chippendale cherry-wood and not as frilly or precious as pink rooms often are, "And please, do call me Sebastian."
"Sebastian, please come in," she stood and gestured for me to join her on the sofa by the fire where she and Miss March were sitting, "I hope you don't mind, but I let Abigail into our secret, and she's been helping me practice 'adoring' facial expressions."
"I'm glad you did," I sat down in the middle of the sofa, in between the two women, "We'll need an accomplice if we're going to convince people, and your own close friend is the perfect candidate."
"This is going to be so much fun!" Abigail clapped her hands in delight, "I've never helped play a prank on anyone before. What exactly are we going to do?"
"Well, after I talked to Michael this morning, and he taxed me with my flirting with Lavinia, I came up with a plan: we're going to make it look like you're falling for me but I'm only leading you on, and make them feel guilty that their meddling in your love-life has set you up to get your feelings hurt."
"How do we do that?" Lavinia wondered.
"I'm going to keep on flirting with you, but I've already told Michael that I don't mean anything by it, it's just a sort of habit I have. He may pass that on to your father, I'm not sure. In the meantime, Abigail, you are going to tell Michael and Lord Levondale—introducing the topic in as 'by-the-way' a conversational manner as possible—that you think Lavinia is actually falling in love with me and wants to marry me. Lavinia will start flirting back at me, but slowly, sort of warming up to it, if you see what I mean, like you're trying it on for size; if you started chasing after me like a dog after a cat, they'll know we're pranking them. Which reminds me, should we let your mother in on the secret? I'm not entirely comfortable playing this joke on Lady Levondale."
"Not right away," she answered after thinking it over a moment, "She might give the game away too soon. I'll let her know once we've got Daddy and Michael going."
"I've had another idea that I hope you'll like," I turned to face Lavinia, "I thought of a way to use this prank to get the Duchess of Tyne as well, but I'll need your help."
"What for?" she wondered.
"Well, Lord Rupert and I were talking last night over billiards, and he was telling me that his mother actually brought him here for the sole purpose of getting you to marry him. Apparently the family are broke, and she's using poor Rupert to catch an heiress. And though he wants to please his mother, he doesn't really want to get married yet, and he feels truly sordid about treating you as an object to be won. So what I'd like you to do is just be chummy with him, like you two are becoming friends—and he's a very nice young man, I'm sure you will get to be friends with him."
"I suppose," she looked doubtful, "But how will that 'get' the Duchess?"
"She's all set to nag Rupert into flirting with you, and plotting to get the two of you off alone together, and all those disagreeable matchmaking tricks; so we have to trick her into thinking he's doing what she wants. Rupert's going to tell his mother that he and I have cooked up a ruse between us, where I'm going to chase after you like ninety while he works on being your best pal; then, when I inevitably break your heart, he'll be there to pick up the pieces and you're sure to marry him on the rebound. As we go along with our prank on Lord Levondale and Michael, the Duchess will think everything's going according to her plans, and she won't meddle. What do you think?"
"I like it," she frowned thoughtfully, "One prank catching three victims, it's very efficient."
"Won't your secret fiancée be jealous?" Abigail asked in a conspiratorial whisper, as if the walls had ears.
"Hardly," I laughed, "Even if it was possible for her to hear about it all the way in Nice, she'd just think it was funny. And it's not really meant to be a secret, I'm engaged to Lady Caroline Chatroy. She just doesn't want to announce it until her mother's annual ball at the end of August, in order to get the maximum gossip-column noise."
"Lady Caroline!" Abigail squeaked with awe, "But she's absolutely gorgeous! And always so beautifully dressed. I'd give anything to be even a little bit like her. You're so lucky."
"Don't be so starstruck, Abbie," Lavinia gently reproved her friend, "You'd think we were still in school, swooning over fashion magazines and pasting pictures of celebrities around our looking-glasses."
"I still do that," Abigail admitted sheepishly, and leaned close to me to whisper again, "I made a whole découpage of Hollywood actresses on a screen in my dressing-room at home."
"Who's your favourite?" I grinned encouragingly, intrigued by the idea of a découpage screen and wondering if I could make such a thing in my study—if so, Gary Cooper and George O'Brien would feature prominently.
"Oh, Greta Garbo, definitely," Abigail gushed girlishly, "Though I also adore Myrna Loy."
"Garbo's wonderful," I agreed, "But I'd have to say Clara Bow is my favourite. She's pretty and funny."
That remark started us off on an absolute orgy of film-star prattle, and I soon learned Abigail's knowledge of actresses and their roles was truly profound: I couldn't name a film she hadn't seen, and she named dozens I hadn't even heard of. All this while, Lavinia just sat back and smiled indulgently at us, sometimes shaking her head in disbelief but otherwise just watching. I got the idea that she'd spent much of her life just watching.
It was getting on for tea-time before we exhausted the subject, so I asked Lavinia to check that the coast was clear before I left her room; it's not really scandalous at a country-house for a bachelor to visit an unmarried young woman in her bedroom during daylight hours, but we wanted to save that kind of thing for later in the game, preferably with gossipy witnesses on hand.
During tea, people got to discussing what rooms they were in, why the rooms were called what they were called, and which floor or side of the house their rooms were on. This was a pretty common second-day-tea topic, making it easier for guests to find each-others' bedrooms at night: though it isn't talked of openly, bedroom-hopping is as recognized a country sport as fox-hunting.
I didn't usually pay much attention to this kind of conversation, aside from a general curiosity about the names of rooms, since I'd always believed bedroom-hopping an exclusively male-and-female pursuit; but at Verevale I was actually surrounded by men who had expressed an interest in me, so I paid minute attention and composed a rough map in my mind's eye that I could use to navigate around in the dark.
But I also discovered during this exposition that the Faringdons were in the Queen's Room at the northwest corner of the second floor, while the Vandekamps were in the Gold Room at the northeast corner of the third floor; so what had Chester been doing in the second-floor west corridor when I met him on the way to dinner the previous evening? Had Jingo or Dotty (or both) already been at him before he molested me in the lift?
Much to my own surprise, I felt intensely jealous that they might have got to Chester before I could—and I had to wonder if that reaction was due to an unsuspected depth of feeling for Chester Vandekamp, or to my dislike of Jingo and Dotty. The latter seemed more likely, but struck me as unpleasantly childish. And maybe Chester had just been borrowing a collar-stud from Sir Wilfrid, who had the rooms next to theirs, and I had no cause to be jealous.
After tea I went out skeet-shooting with Lord Levondale and Bertie, just to brush up my birding skills; there was going to be a shooting party on Tuesday morning, with various local gentry coming along for the fun, and I hate to blast away uselessly at driven game with a lot of witnesses about. I'm a merely adequate shot at the best of times, and without practice I might accidentally wing a beater or shoot a brace of moles.
While dressing me for dinner, Pond brought me up to speed on his researches below stairs: the various servants' liaisons (which consist mostly of rather chaste banter and the occasional slow-dance by the gramophone—servants, as a class, are rather less licentious than their so-called betters), which of them might be Our Sort, and who might have been planted or corrupted by the Faringdons. It appeared a pretty clean joint, all in all, the Levondales' staff had all been in situ for some time, and none seemed particularly susceptible to blackmail; among the visiting servants, Mrs. Vandekamp's French maid was vaguely suspicious, but the rest seemed perfectly loyal to their respective employers.
I canvassed Pond's views on Chester's possible liaison with one or both of the Faringdons, and he soothed the green-eyed monster by pointing out it would be unlikely that he'd come out of the Queen's Room fully and properly dressed for dinner if he'd been doing anything untoward in there—I, of all people, know how difficult it is to be untoward without spoiling one's evening clothes.
I went down to dinner with a lighter heart, laughing at myself for indulging a fit of jealousy over a married man when my dance-card was already tolerably full, and resumed my campaign of conspicuously wooing Lavinia. With Abigail and Rupert in on the game, too, it was a lot more fun; we created a foursome over some board-games after dinner, with both of them shooting well-rehearsed jealous glares at us, and we had a pretty good time all evening.
I had to wonder, though, if our play-acting was really going to fool anyone. So far our intended audience seemed to take the appropriate degree of interest in our interchanges, but they might shrug it off after giving it any serious thought. There was just too little probability in the scenario.
Our ages were a problem, for one thing: it didn't make sense for a boy just come of age to go pelting after an unmarried woman (dare one say spinster) of twenty-eight, too old to seriously consider as marriage material and too dangerous for anything other than marriage: I might go after a married woman of any age from twenty to sixty, since a married woman is in a better position to bear an unexpected pregnancy without scandal; but an unmarried woman would have a hard time explaining such a thing away, so is generally counted out of the running for illicit affairs.
And then there was the question of looks: my face and form would give me entrée into just about any bedroom in the house; with lovely married ladies like Dotty Faringdon and Mamie Vandekamp lying around loose, and a ripping girl like Virginia to tempt toward marriage, what in the world would a beautiful youth like me want with a dowdy spinster like Lavinia?
The element that would really sell the scenario is my queerness: of course a queer would flirt ostentatiously with a female to divert suspicion from his true nature, and the best candidate for such an exercise would be a woman who was unlikely to expect to go any further than flirtation—if I flirted like that with Dotty and Mamie, or Virginia, I would be required to follow through in some way, either in the bedroom or at the altar. And of course Lord Levondale and Michael would consider Lavinia too much an innocent to even know what a queer is, so 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 else; but the world of country houses is very small, indeed. Though the members of the aristocracy and gentry don't all know each other, we're so interconnected through mutual friends and overlapping family that gossip spreads fast from stately home to stately home.
I hadn't really given much thought to this sort of thing in the past: as Julia said, romancing boys is practically an institution in public schools; and going through a 'Greek phase' at University is so common as to be almost acceptable. But as an adult, such things carry rather more severe consequences, and any generalised knowledge of my nature could lose me friends and make 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 a measure of the respect she so highly values; and Twister would be unable to associate with me at all, I'd never see him again unless I murdered someone.
Or was I being unnecessarily cautious? After all, I know several men and women of Our Sort in this little world of County families, far more indiscreet than I, but have never heard any scuttlebutt about them from anyone; why should I assume that people would talk about me? The subject itself is taboo, most people who knew such a fact would be reluctant to repeat it, especially in mixed company. Unless I got tangled up with the law or the newspapers, it was unlikely that anybody would know or care what I got up to at night, or with whom.
Well, I could keep any revelation of my nature under my hat until and unless it was needed. In the meantime I was having too much fun to really care if the prank worked at all. I'm not sure why I enjoy flirting with women like Casanova on a spree, perhaps it's because I'm not weighed down with any real need for success with them, or maybe it's just the pleasure of having a second personality, such as Caro enjoys when she goes out as Charley. Either way, I was enjoying my after-dinner pastimes almost as much as I was enjoying my after-bedtime pastimes.
But only almost.
While Pond was undressing me and putting me into my pajamas, I thought about whether I should get in bed and wait to see who showed up, or if I should go visiting on my own initiative. With the former I risked spending the night alone if nobody came to call, and with the latter I risked being out when someone interesting did come to call; there was also the possibility that more than one visitor would show up, or that I'd intrude on an assignation already in progress. It was all rather hit-or-miss, and I was a rank novice at the game.
"Do you really spend every night alone in your room when we're in the country?" I asked Pond, my quandary reminding me of what he'd said earlier about the rarity of below-stairs canoodling.
"Yes and no," he frowned angrily, not at my indelicate question but at a small wrinkle in my dressing-gown lapel, "At Foxbridge Castle, I'm alone in my own room; but when we're visiting other houses, I usually share a room with another servant, generally another visitor's servant. Here, I'm sharing with Lord Faringdon's valet."
"And I assume that 'sharing' isn't a euphemism in this case?" I sighed as he went after the wrinkle with a little electric thimble contraption he uses for spot-fixes—a waste of energy, since I was just going to take the thing off, and more than likely drop it on the floor, before anyone would see it.
"Young Massingale is really not my type, my lord," he looked at me dubiously, wondering if I'd been paying any attention in all the time I'd known him, "But he seems a nice enough lad. We haven't spoken much, but he's friendly and personable. The Verevale servants are quite taken with him."
"Not to be personal or anything," I borrowed his disclaimer for boundary-crossing remarks, "But sleeping alone all the time, don't you get kind of, I don't know, lonely? Frustrated?"
"Not really," he shrugged, something he hardly ever did around me anymore, "I'm happy to do all my socialising in London, or Plymouth or Oxford as the case may be, and then have a nice rest in the country. There are too many difficulties involved with getting off alone with a bloke on a country estate, there's very little privacy and everyone knows everyone else's business; all that caution would just make me tired."
"Well, I'm glad I'm not in service. That kind of austerity would drive me batty."
"I am also glad your lordship is not in service," he said with a tiny tiny smirk on his face, "You'd be a nightmare to work with."
"Good night, Pond," I laughed out loud, "Go sleep the sleep of the righteous."
"Thank you, my lord," he bowed, as wooden-faced as always but I could tell he was laughing inside, "Good night."
By then, I'd decided that I'd take pot luck in my own bedroom, so I went in and got comfortable in the bed, rejoined Monsieur Poirot's pursuit of the Big Four, and once again fell asleep with the book open on my face. When next I woke, Pond was bringing me my morning coffee, and I couldn't decide whether or not to be disappointed that I'd slept through the night undisturbed. After all, I had really needed the sleep.
Since it was Sunday, Pond put me into a dark suit instead of my riding togs, and I went down to breakfast to see who else would be observing the rites that morning. I was rather disappointed to discover that Lavinia did not intend to go to church, as I had lots of stage-business planned with carrying her prayer-book and handing her on and off the kneeler like a parfit gentil knight; but she was something of a secularist, and only went to church on high holidays because it was expected of her as a member of the manor family.
In fact, very few people came down at all, most of the party breakfasted in bed, preferring a good lie-in on Sundays (as I did when I was in Town); I opted to go to church anyway, since I was already dressed for it and curious to see what the villagers were like. I was the only male who went to the village in Lady Levondale's car, though, and I felt rather conspicuous in a bevy of women, my uncovered hair burning bright in a row of demure hats, right up front in the Levondale pew of the Church of St. Michael Archangel.
I can't say I enjoyed the sermon, which was read by an especially good-looking vicar—like a gilded marble statue of the archangelic saint had just climbed off his pedestal and put on a cassock—in an unfortunate nasal monotone. I tend not to listen to sermons much, anyway, unless they're delivered with some theatrical pulpit-pounding and hallelujah-shouting, but I found this one kind of annoying—dull but obtrusive, like a fly buzzing around my ear. When I someday become Earl of Vere, patron of nine livings, I'm going to make sure my vicars know how to put on a show.
Still, I enjoyed looking at the droning vicar as much as I enjoyed sitting in the really beautiful Georgian church, admiring the pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows (which, according to a banner wreathing St. Michael wrestling a demon in the largest window behind the altar, were installed to commemorate the death of the eighth Earl of Vere in 1875) and reveling in the gorgeous music of a cathedral-worthy pipe organ (donated by the first Lord Levondale upon his arrival in 1876).
After church, I was deluged by farmers wanting to greet me: though the village and the home farm were let along with Verevale Court and the park to the Levondale family, the rest of the farming in the surrounding parish was done by tenants of the Earl of Vere (which was news to me, I'm sorry to say—I really should have taken more of an interest in the estate long before); so when word got around during the sermon that the red-headed boy up front was their landlord's heir, I became an instant celebrity.
It also transpired that the living at St. Michael's was one of the nine in my father's gift, which made the handsome vicar my new best friend, as well; he and his sister invited me to luncheon with such enthusiasm that it would be churlish not to accept, and I was borne off to the vicarage along with a clutch of village biddies representing the Altar Guild while Lady Levondale and the rest of her party returned to Verevale Court in the car.
The vicarage dining-room was a noble chamber, elegantly proportioned and furnished with excellent taste, but it was a little crowded with the Reverend Mr. Aylesford, Miss Aylesford, the five-member Altar Guild, several farmers who'd dropped in for a friendly chat and were asked to stay, the sexton and his wife, and little me all crammed into it; but we had a pretty festive time, anyway, over the simple but plentiful board. Since I would of course be unable to converse on local matters, I was interrogated on my various appearances in the newspapers and society rags of late, including the murder at Foxbridge Castle; and even being careful to relate the heavily censored or downright fictional official versions of events, I held my audience spellbound, always gratifying to a dyed-in-the-wool showoff like me.
After spending an abnormally long time at the table, the good Rev. walked with me part of the way back to Verevale Court, telling me funny stories about various interesting characters in Verevale village that I should be sure to meet next time I came down. He was a really nice man, and a good storyteller despite his nasal voice; it seemed a shame that he should choose a profession that requires him to orate formally to a crowd on a regular basis when his talents clearly lay in one-on-one communications.
I got back to the house in that doldrums hour before tea-time where there's absolutely nothing to do if you're not already doing something, so I went into the saloon and examined the regiment of Restoration aristocrats whose penurious descendants had been forced to flog the family portraits. It was a fascinating collection, and I found myself wondering if the aristocracy in those days had really borne a distinct family resemblance to each other, or if all those thick-lidded eyes and petulant mouths were just a fashionable convention.
The collection brought back to mind the Cautionary Example of Other People's Ancestors that Lavinia had told me about that first night. I sat pondering another one of those group pictures, an immense thing of extraordinary beauty, which depicted the numerous family of another duke whose titles were now extinct, and which once took up most of a wall in a room much like this one in another stately home that was now, if I remembered correctly, in use as a girls' school.
I'm not terribly conversant in my own family history, but there is an elaborate family tree carved in stone over the fireplace in the Great Chamber at Foxbridge Castle, which shows an unbroken male line going back and back and back all the way to the first Saint-Clair who'd arrived in England with William of Normandy almost nine hundred years ago, so far up the chimneypiece that one actually needs a ladder to get up there and read his name and dates. Colour is provided to this tree by the shields of the families who had married into ours, or that one of ours had married into, and the whole gorgeous mess culminates finally with my great-grandfather and his wife (who had the piece commissioned to celebrate their marriage) above the great Saint-Clair crest with its unquartered shield, changed only once in its history with the addition of a crusader's cross in 1275.
It was a proud heritage, and I was filled with awe that I was part of such a thing--and absolutely terrified that the whole thing came down to to a fine pinpoint with me: if I died tomorrow, those nine hundred years of ancestors died, too. How many times during that line's descent from the eleventh century to the twentieth had it come within a hair's-breadth of ending, and how many times had an heiress been brought in to keep things going? And in how many generations would that inevitable ending come to pass for the Saint-Clair name? How long until it was my portrait hanging up in an American museum, or in the collection of a class-embittered moneylender's son?
Rather a chilling thought, and I had to get out of that room before it made me sad. I fled to the library and found Sir Peregrine in sole possession, examining a really large old book and making notes in his little notebook. It warmed my chilled soul to sit with him, chatting of this and that while he flirted outrageously with me, though I'd sat in a chair a little too far from his own, and he couldn't reach my thigh.
Then there was tea, after which I went and shot some more skeet, after which I dressed for dinner, after which I flirted with Lavinia in the drawing-room, after which I scowled at Jingo across the dining-table, after which I turned the pages while Lavinia played the pianoforte, after which I played billiards with Rupert and Bertie, after which I got ready for bed, after which I had a salutary visit with Michael in his room, after which I went back to my own room and went to sleep. Life in a country-house can get rather repetitive; but then, I suppose, life in an office or a factory must be even more repetitive, so I shouldn't complain.
The rest of the week went pottering on along its prescribed course, offering only a few exciting deviations from the pleasurable routine. But those deviations were so exciting, and the routine so pleasurable, that I was ready to count my visit to Verevale Court as the most successful in my career so far.
I went riding most mornings right after breakfast, and within a few days Samson and I were the best of friends; he responded to my very thoughts, it seemed, before I even shifted the reins, and was an absolutely fearless jumper. Sometimes Michael would join me on these morning rides, and once Lord Levondale came along with us, but for the most part it was just me and Samson galloping about the countryside and going out of our way to hop every fence and hedge in the place. A couple of times I rode into the village during my peregrinations, visiting the shops and popping into the vicarage to say hello, though it was too early in the day to visit the pub and get to know the villagers there.
I was going to miss these daily rides in the spring when I went back to London for the Season—I'd gotten rather lax around the midriff last summer without daily riding (or any other form of exercise that didn't involve a private room and a like-minded friend) to keep me in trim. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to take the trouble of keeping a horse or two in Hyde Park and becoming an habitué of Rotten Row.
The Wooing of Lavinia, or rather the Worrying of Lord Levondale and Michael, progressed apace: I often spied the latter two casting concerned looks at me and Lavinia when we'd sit with our heads together over a game of backgammon or an illustrated paper; from a distance it looked like we were whispering sweet nothings to each other, though in fact we were usually talking about art or literature, or exchanging views on the other guests' conduct (of which she mostly disapproved).
I could tell, when I was alone with Michael (which wasn't often, but always delightful), that he wanted to quiz me about my intentions, and on occasion seemed just about to let loose with an admonishment on my behaviour toward his sister, but I always managed to divert his attention when he looked like his trend of thought was headed in that direction. Whether Lord Levondale was having similar urges to take me aside for a man-to-man chat, I couldn't say, but he often looked like he had something of the sort on his mind, stroking his chin or twisting his mouth to one side when he looked at me.
Rupert and Lavinia weren't hitting it off as buddies, as I'd hoped they would, though they got along well enough and were spending a good deal of time together (usually when I was out riding or shooting, pastimes Lavinia did not care for); Rupert and Abigail, however, were getting on like a house afire: she hung on his every word, which is always gratifying to a chap, and he found her breathless enthusiasm a nice change from the blase sophistication of the society girls his mother had been throwing at him.
In his spare time, he was also getting chummy with Virginia Vandekamp. Though an American, and without means of her own until her father died, Virginia might make a good second choice for Rupert's matrimonial pursuits; but I didn't think that had entered his mind when he started spending time with her. She was very athletic, and enamoured of his favourite sport, tennis, so it seemed natural that they'd become friends. I wondered, though, if I didn't detect a certain frisson of more-than-just-friends pass between them?
The Duchess seemed satisfied with how things were going, though, and Rupert reported that she'd been sweet as cream to him all week. She also seemed to take quite a shine to me, believing that I was a loyal supporter of her aim to get hold of Lavinia's money through marriage, and was extraordinarily courteous to me whenever our paths crossed—she even winked at me now and then, in a manner that can only be called 'conspiratorial.'
I tried my best to quash my revulsion over these winks—after all, my own father had done the very same thing, dangling after an heiress to save the family bacon (though he hadn't been anywhere near as broke as the Gosforths were, and had his own coronet to offer), and it was only by pure chance that he and my mother had actually fallen in love with each other. On the other hand, I don't particularly like my father, so perhaps that's not the best comparison to draw.
My other affaires des cœurs—or perhaps I should say affaires des hanches, since they centered rather lower on my anatomy than the heart—developed satisfactorily, as well, though in somewhat different fashion than I had initially imagined. Chester Vandekamp, for example, was not such a proponent of leisurely afternoons on perfumed sheets as I'd assumed, but instead took me in the gun-room after the shooting party (at which I performed quite well, only missing twice), on a table heaped with dead pheasants and grouse. I would not have thought feathery corpses and blood a suitable background for passion, but in the event I found it rather bracing. He caught me a second time in a linen cupboard, and while I enjoyed the interlude immensely, it was over all too soon and I was suddenly back in the corridor with a red face and a slightly skewed suit.
Lord Rupert, on the other hand, proved to be less outdoorsy than I expected, and was instead quite fond of getting cozy in the bath (his bathroom was much nicer than mine and equipped with a shower-bath as well as a tub big enough for two); then Sir Peregrine, far from limiting himself to badinage and pinches, turned out to be something of a pouncer, and considerably more vigourous than I thought a septuagenarian could be—and not in the least bashful about his aged person, he happily shucked to his wrinkled skin in order to demonstrate on my person how ancient Egyptian wrestling differed from the ancient Greek method. It just goes to show, you mustn't let yourself be fooled by appearances.
But if I thought my conduct was rather too Sodom-and-Gomorrah to be borne, I was a mere babe in arms compared to Michael Levondale: he was indeed working his way steadily though the guest list, and intimated to me during one of our chats on horseback that he'd already got through all three of the Vandekamps (on separate occasions), both of the Faringdons (one at a time and then both together), was busy laying the groundwork for seducing both Miss Beckett Haven and the Dowager Duchess, and intended to get around to tumbling Lord Rupert and Sir Peregrine as soon as he had the time. The boy was an absolute shameless terror, and I couldn't help but admire him.
That he'd already been dallying on the Farindgons' web gave me some cause for concern: while Pond had been keeping an eagle eye on their servants, I had done absolutely nothing to thwart their machinations at Verevale Court, aside from delivering a few vague warnings; I had been afraid of causing a scene or creating any kind of awkwardness by being completely frank, and as a result the one person I most wanted to protect from Jingo and Dotty had already been in bed with them, one at a time and both together. I could only imagine who else they'd managed to practice their guile on, and didn't even have to use my imagination to know what kind of photographic evidence they might have obtained in this remarkably busy house.
Pond had been checking my rooms twice a day for hidden cameras, but we had no way of knowing if the other rooms had been so equipped, and no way of knowing what Massingale and Wickson, Dotty's maid, might have been doing during the numerous hours each day in which Pond was unable to keep his eyes on them; and though Pond didn't believe that any of the maids or footmen had been corrupted, the Verevale servants did not circulate through the upstairs corridors at random times during the day and night, as they so often do at Foxbridge: the Faringdons and their servants could easily navigate those corridors undetected during the hours in between making the beds and turning them down.
But clearly I was going to have to do more than drop a few hints and let Pond do all the legwork. I was pretty sure I could completely de-claw Jingo and Dotty with one telephone call to Silenus in London (or wherever it was he wintered), but I was loath to do so—it would be an awful lot like snitching out a schoolfellow to the Master, something that no honourable Etonian would contemplate until he had exhausted every avenue of personal combat, and then mediated with a prefect.
A wholesale unmasking was out of the question, too, since Silenus would not thank me for ruining the Faringdons' ability to get around in the haute monde and do his bidding; even unmasking them privately to the Levondales, word would get out if Jingo and Dotty had hastily departed from Verevale Court mere weeks after hastily departing Foxbridge Castle, and I would incur Silenus's wrath the same as if I'd denounced them to the entire company. No, if I was going to thwart the villains, I would have to be extremely circumspect about it.
I had to admit I was stumped. Aside from searching their rooms, which was essentially impossible since at least one of them or one of their servants was nearly always there, and any other parts of the house and estate that they might have hidden their films and cameras (I didn't think they'd have developed any photographs just yet, that would be too dangerous), my hands and tongue were pretty well tied.
By Thursday evening (I hadn't been giving the problem my undivided attention, so it took a while), I finally decided to try and appeal to their better natures--or rather, since one doubts they had better natures, offer them the benefit of my better nature in the form of cash. Heading down the corridor to their rooms about an hour before dinner, I swallowed my pride and knocked on Jingo's door.
"Why, Foxy, what a pleasant surprise!" Jingo said heartily when he saw me. He was lounging stark naked on the narrow bed, obviously fresh out of the bath, and my first impulse was to turn around and run. I would have done so if Massingale hadn't already closed the door behind me, "What brings you by?"
"I want to ask you to do something for me," I stammered out, having a hard time concentrating with him lying there naked. Jingo had one of the most beautiful bodies I've ever seen, not lavishly appointed like Claude's, but perfectly proportioned and insanely sexy.
"Indeed?" he cocked his head to one side while the smuggest little grin spread slowly across his face, "After all your insults and injuries, you want me to do something for you?"
"Look," I sat down in the armchair by the fireplace in order to get down to eye-level without getting too close to him, "I don't know what exactly you've been doing, what kind of photographs you've taken, or who you intend to blackmail. But I want you to leave my friends out of your schemes."
"And who do you count as friends? Everyone here?" he wondered.
"Well, ideally, yes," I frowned and looked at my feet, embarrassed, "But specifically Michael Levondale, Lord Rupert, and Sir Peregrine. If you have photographs of them, I'll buy them from you for the fifteen thousand pounds you were going to extort from me."
"Extort!" he hooted derisively, "The language you use! I think you mean the fifteen thousand you would have happily exchanged for photographs of you and your handsome copper engaged in enormously illegal and possibly immoral activities. And it was guineas, you'll remember."
"Guineas, yes," I agreed, choking down a spurt of anger.
"Why particularly those three gentlemen? I assume you've slept with all of them?"
"Yes," I admitted, my face burning.
"Why not offer for any others? I might have pictures of all of them."
"I don't believe for a minute you have anything on Lavinia, or the Duchess, or Lady Levondale, or Miss March. I know you can't have any of Julia or Bertie Pargeter, since I already warned her about you. And honestly, I think the Vandekamps and Beckett Havens can take care of themselves."
"You forgot Lord Levondale," he pointed out reasonably.
"I guess if he's been unfaithful to his wife, he deserves to be blackmailed," I said, and as I said it I wondered if I really believed it, or if that was just a knee-jerk reaction based more on my admiration for Lady Levondale than any ideas about the sanctity of marriage.
"Your morals are very inconsistent," he got up off the bed and came up close to me, looming over me in a somewhat menacing manner.
"Yes, well..." I swallowed hard, looking up at him and burning with an unpleasant combination of shame and desire.
"Twenty thousand," he said after a moment's silence, "And I'll throw in the pictures I did in fact get of Miss Levondale being very naughty with Miss March."
"Will you take a cheque, or shall I telephone my bank in the morning?"
"A cheque will be fine," he reached down and grabbed me by the elbows, pulling me up out of the chair and pressing me against him, "And you'll deliver it here, in person, tonight. And you'll stay the night with me and Dotty."
"Dotty?" I gasped, terrified.
"Yes, Dotty," he grinned again, snaking his hands around my waist.
"No! I couldn't," I tried to wriggle away from him.
"You will, or the deal's off. Twenty thousand is nothing to you; if you want to save your friends, a smidgen of sacrifice is required."
"Very well," I whispered, defeated, and he let me go.
"Now go get dressed for dinner, like a good little boy. See Lord Foxbridge out, will you Massingale?"
"Please don't say anything to Pond about this," I begged the young valet when he walked me out to the corridor.
"I wouldn't, my lord," he responded, not meeting my eye.
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