Authors: Edith Layton
The Disdainful Marquis
The Disdainful Marquis
By Edith Layton
Copyright 2015 by Estate of Edith Felber
Cover Copyright 2015 by Untreed Reads Publishing
Cover Design by Ginny Glass
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
Previously published in print, 1983.
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This is a work of fiction. The characters, dialogue and events in this book are wholly fictional, and any resemblance to companies and actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Also by Edith Layton and Untreed Reads Publishing
The Duke's Wager
The Disdainful Marquis
For three particular graces:
Dottie, Gillian, and RenÃ©e
The pavements were gray, the houses were gray, the very air was gray with cold October fog. Although it was a damp mizzly dank day in London, the fog did have its capricious moments. Here and there it lifted its skirts, or blew in little skirlish puffs to create small pockets of translucence so that anyone who had to be abroad on such a wretched afternoon had at least some small chance of finding their direction. But they had to be quick about it and gain their bearings to head in the right direction before the fickle mists encompassed them completely again. It was altogether a dreadful day for a stranger to be traversing the city, with the fog being so coy and whimsical.
The inhabitants of the city were used to the weather's vagaries, in much the same way that they might be used to an eccentric aunt's changes of mood. Those who had to be up and about traveled the streets with an air of grim tolerance, and they called comments to each other about how she was a right terror again today. But those who could afford to, avoided the outdoors entirely. And so the fog, most democratically covering the city's length from its most palatial houses to its most wretched stews, ironically only served to point out the undemocratic distribution of wealth and class. The poor groped about the town because they had to, the rich stayed snug at home because they chose to, and the only other travelers were the adventurers.
The occupants of the hired coach that picked its way through the mist-shrouded streets did not feel like adventurers. The rotund gentleman who kept tapping his neat little well-shod foot against the floorboards and consulting his gold watch and emitting periodic stifled sighs felt put upon, and his every ill-concealed gesture of impatience showed it. He was cold; the damp had crept through the floorboards and the ill-fitting windows of the coach into his very bones. He was bored, traveling through the gray city with nothing but gray vapor showing outside the windows. And he was hungry; his watch clearly showed teatime, just as his stomach had been telling him for the last hour. Yet every time his companion glanced at him, he tucked the watch back into his pocket, put on a brave smile of sweet forbearance, and pretended to gaze out the milky windows with active interest.
“Poor Arthur,” his companion thought guiltily as she watched him once again check his timepiece and heard another little muffled sigh. She smiled brightly at him and wished again that she felt half so bright as she pretended. In truth, if he felt cold and weary and his every motion showed that he thought himself on a fool's errand, then she felt colder and wearier because the whole day had been a crashing disappointment. Added to that, she knew she was the fool who had sent him on the errand. But he only suffered boredom and hunger. She was enduring the pangs of crushing defeat.
It had seemed so reasonable, Catherine remembered, when she had been back at home, carefully penning all the letters to the London employment bureaus, stating her qualifications and expectations of a position. It had seemed so correct a course to take, seeking some kind of genteel position in Britain's greatest city, so as not to be any further burden upon Arthur or her stepsister now that they were expecting an addition to their family. For despite all their protests to the contrary, she knew that it was not right that they should support not only a new marriage and the coming of a new baby, but also an unwed stepsister as well. And a stepsister who, she felt, could well be able to support herself if only she were not a resident of a little country town. But London! She had been sure she would be able to find a place for herself there. But she hadn't. And now the coach was taking her to her last interview, her last chance to find a post. For she knew Arthur would never again take her to the City, and never allow her to go by herself. It was propriety and duty that had forced him to come so far with her; if she failed, he would be careful not to say “I told you so” more than a dozen times to her, for he was basically a kind man, but he would never be persuaded to leave Kendal on such a mission again.
She glanced down again at the small pasteboard card she held tightly in her little gray glove. “Introducing Miss Catherine Robins,” it stated in flourishing script, “to see Her Grace the Duchess of Crewe in reference to a position on Her Grace's staff.” It was signed, with another discrete flourish, “The Misses Parkinson, Employment Counselors.” It was the last card she had. The other six lay, crumpled and used, deep in her reticule, mute testimony to her failures in the past two days.
Yesterday, on Catherine's very first call, Mrs. Oliphant had taken her card, taken one look at her, and screeched, “Oh no, my dear, you'll never do. Really, you won't do at all. Why, just take a look at Mum, just have a look. Why, I can't even lift her when she's a mind to be propped up for tea in bed. How can a slip of a lass like you do it?”
And, in truth, Mrs. Oliphant's mama had just lain there deep in her bed like a beached whale and grinned up in concurrence with her daughter. “Aye,” she had puffed, “my arm's just the size of your waist, luv,” and she had wheezed with laughter at the look on Catherine's face when she lifted said member and waved it about.
“But,” Catherine had gone on gamely, “the agency said you required a lady's companion, not a nurse.”
“Nurse!” Mrs. Oliphant replied, affronted. “Mum don't need a nurse. She's sharp as a tack just as she always was, but a lady's companion don't just sip tea and tattle. No, we need someone to shift her, now and again. Get her up out of bed when the weather suits. Dress her and lead her about now that she's not too sure on her feet. No, my dear, you'll never do.”
“You don't weigh up, lass,” the older woman had cackled, from her bed. “That's all. You'll do when you gain a few stone.”
Catherine hadn't “done” for Miss Coleman either. That aged spinster had given Catherine a few sharp looks and then had said in her crackling voice, “Not suitable. Sorry, Miss Robins, but you're too young to have one thing in common with me, and I do like to while away the evenings in friendly chatter.”
She had been “too young” for Mrs. Webster's great-aunt, and “too inexperienced” for Sir Stephen's mother-in-law. “Not what we're looking for,” Mrs. Bartlett had said succinctly, and Lady Brewer hadn't even given a reasonâshe had just sighed and said in her fadeaway voice, “Oh, not at all suitable.” And Mrs. White had just given her one gimlet-eyed look and snapped, “Not in this house, my girl. Not with three young sons on the premises. We want an older female to companion my aunt.”
Catherine sat erect and listened to the horses' muffled tread. This call was her last, she had left it for last because she had felt that a duchess would be far harder to suit than any mere Mrs. Whites or Mrs. Oliphants. In fact, she had thought not to dare try for the position of a duchess's companion. But now she had toâit was her last chance. If she failed at that, it would be back to Kendal, back to Jane and Arthur's little house, there to wait for their children to arrive, to be a dependent till she dwindled to nothing more than a dependent devoted auntie. For she had no finances and no parents, and her birth placed her too high for Kendal's sheep farmers to aspire to, and her dowry too low for anyone higher. Most of Arthur's merchant friends were married and even the vicar had a large and hopeful family. No, the duchess was her last chance, she thought, as she sat up straighter and thought frantically of how she could present herself so that she could at last “suit,” and wondered why she had so far failed so ignobly.
The coachman could have told her. But she was a lady, so he didn't dare be so cheeky. But when she had loomed up out of the fog to step into his coach, he had, for one moment waxed poetical and thought that in her muted cherry pelisse she had looked like a little robin redbreast come to cheer up London on a dark winter's day. In that moment's lapse of fog, her wellspaced sapphire eyes had twinkled up at him, and he had drunk in her fresh white complexion and noted, with approval, one saucy nose, two delightfully red lips, and a cluster of ebony curls beneath her gray bonnet. He had warmed for one moment, just looking at her.
Her brother-in-law could have told her. All the fellows he knew had tweaked him, from the moment he had married Jane, about the two dashing-looking females he now housed. Jane was well-enough-looking, they had teased, but to have another smashing-looking female under his wing as well was the outside of enough. He had laughed with them, for they meant no harm, but it did give a fellow a sense of well-being to come home to two delightful young women, to be stared at when he promenaded with them, one on either arm, to be waited on after dinner by two attentive and lovely young women. Not that he thought of his sister-in-law in that way, no, that would be most improper. But it was rather a treat to have her around. He would be glad when this job-hunting nonsense was over and she came back to Kendal with him and they could go on just as before, the three of them. As for ever telling Catherine that she was a stunner, that was a thing that just wasn't done. While Jane might tell him that Catherine took no account of her looks at all, that was too much to ask a fellow to believe.
But of all the reasons for her failure in obtaining a position that Catherine tortured herself with, her looks were not brought into account at all. She thought raven tresses were commonplace, and bright blue eyes unexceptional, and her complexion ordinary, and her overall appearance unfortunate. She conceded she was not ill favored, but that was all. For Mama had been a pale and stately blonde, and her half-sister, Jane, had also the fair hair and light hazel eyes that were Catherine's only standard of true feminine beauty. Papa, she remembered from far back in the dim recesses of memory of childhood, had been dark haired and blue eyed. That was well enough for a male, but it was Mama who had been beautiful and feminine and sought after. And Jane, who seemed from her five years' seniority over Catherine to be the most beautiful of females. Catherine thought of many reasons for her failure as the coach proceeded through the streets of London, things that ranged from wearing the wrong sort of gloves to not speaking clearly or standing straight enough, but never once did the thought of simply being too young and too alarmingly lovely enter her mind. No one, after all, had told her so. Except for Mama and Jane, and they were just being kind. And a few scalawags in the streets over the years, and they were just being rowdy.
“This is the last call,” Catherine said to Arthur, as she saw him lift the watch out of his pocket again.
“We'll finish up early then,” he said, “and go back to the hotel for some tea. Then we'll leave straight away in the morning, and it won't be long before we're all snug at home again.”
“There is the possibility that this time I might succeed, Arthur.” Only a hint of reproachfulness was in her voice, and Arthur missed it altogether.
“Oh, aye. Of course there's that possibility, but it is unlikely. As I said before, some young gently born females have to go out and toil for their livelihoods, and some do get positions. But only after much privation. And then that is only when they are willing to sacrifice some of their, ah, expectations. They get harder, my dear, and they get more worldly-wise. It's just as well that you discovered this for yourself. Now I think it wasn't such a bad idea, this trip. Once you're done with all that air-dreaming, you'll be happier. As you should be, with a devoted sister, and myself of course, to look after you. You will understand how fortunate you really are, and be content to settle down with us.”
“I know I am fortunate in you and Jane,” Catherine said as she had said so many times before, “and you do know how grateful I am, but Arthur, can't you see, I just wanted to do something for myself and not be only a burden?”
“Burden? Nonsense,” Arthur said, warming to his favorite theme and crossing his hands around his stomach, which Catherine knew was calling for sustenance. She had noticed that Arthur, plump to begin with, was adding to his substance at a pace to almost equal that of Jane, who expected their baby in the spring.
“As if family could ever be a burden. When I met your sister, I knew of your closeness and never did I expect anything other than your coming to live with us when we wed. I made that clear to Jane at the outset. I have often wished for a large familyâit was one of the sorrows of my life that I was an only child. Family is the backbone of the nation.”
Arthur went on, as he had done so often in the past on the virtues of family, while Catherine looked out the window again, seeing the city slowly pass by, trying to make out the shadowy figures that flitted by on the pavements, and hoping that some wildly wonderful thing would come to pass. Perhaps she might turn out to be the image of dowager duchess's long-lost sister, or perhaps the dowager had a little dog who would rush to her and the dowager would cry, “If FiFi likes you, the matter is settled. You must come to work at once.” Or perhaps the dowager would be a sweet little old woman who would offer her tea and say, “I know just how difficult this must be for you. I have been looking for some pleasant young woman to keep me company,” or then again she might sayâ¦
“We're here, miss,” the coachman called.
Catherine felt her hands turn to ice. And her heart began a faster beat.
“Arthur. I won't be long. But if I'm delayed, there's no need for you to sit here freezing in the coach. Why don't you go back to the hotel, and I'll take another hackney back and meet you when I'm done.”
“Nonsense,” Arthur said staunchly, with an air of seeing things through, as she knew he would. “I'll wait right here. Can't have a young female on the loose alone in London. I'll wait right here. After all, it's your last call.”
Catherine shivered at his words and stepped out to the pavement and stared at the imposing entrance of the house before her. The fog had lifted for a moment, making the entrance of gleaming white steps dramatically clear. Catherine swallowed, only to find she had nothing to swallow, and began to walk toward the steps with much the same gait of someone preparing to mount a gallows. Her gaze was so fixed on the door above the street level, the door with the beautiful fanlight glasswork, the door that might either open onto a new future for her, or onto the end to her hopes of independence, that she almost collided with a pair of gentlemen who emerged suddenly from out of a bank of fog.
“My pardons, miss,” said the closer of the two gentlemen, and after a look at her face, he went on more fulsomely, “a hundred pardons. It's this confounded fog. One moment the way is clear, the next I've almost run you down. Are you all right?”
As he had not even brushed against her, Catherine could only reply distractedly, “Why yes, quite all right.”
But the gentleman, dressed, Catherine noted absently, in the first stare of fashion, only stood and gazed at her, bemused.
A deeper voice intruded.
“Cyril, the lady is fine. I suggest we move on so that she can reach her destination.”
Catherine peered up to the speaker, who was so very tall that the fog, in a show of frivolity, shrouded his face as it might a mountain peak. He was dressed in unobtrusive grays that further blended with the day.
“But, Sinjun,” the other gentleman protested, “I might have done her an injury. Or frightened her, looming up like that, out of the fog. Are you sure you're unharmed, miss?”
“Quite sure,” Catherine answered, suspicious of the gentleman's inclinations to linger, and wondering if Arthur was watching this incident through the coach window. He might get it into his head that she was being molested and spring from the coach and make a scene, and if the duchess heard the altercation, her interview would be over before it began.
Seeking to end the conversation promptly, and yet not be rude, for these gentlemen might be friends of the duchess, Catherine asked the taller of the two, whom she could not see so well, rather than the shorter, who was staring at her in the most improper fashion, “Is this the Duchess of Crewe's address? In the fog,” she temporized, “I cannot be sure.”
“Oh yes,” the taller gentleman answered in an amused tone, “to be sure it is. Never fear, you have come to the right place.”
There was that in his voice, that undercurrent of sarcasm, that made Catherine look at him again. The mist, bored with veiling his face, drifted away, and she found herself looking into a pair of icy gray eyes that seemed as if they still held the depths of the fog in them. He was very handsome, Catherine thought with alarm, lowering her eyes from his frank stare, and very insolent.
As she turned to mount the steps, she heard him say again with amused cynicism, “You have come to exactly the right place, I believe.”
“Good day,” Catherine said firmly, sure that in some strange way she was being insulted and knowing one did not bandy words with strange men, friends of the duchess or not. She went up the stairs, lifted the door knocker, and rapped more firmly than she would have wanted to, in an effort to escape the two men's attention. But when she turned to look down again at the street, she could only see their shapes receding in the distance.
The butler who took her card almost took her breath away with it. He was old, and large, and impeccable. He looked at her with no expression and yet made her feel as though she were standing in her nightdress. “Yes,” he said after he glanced at her card, “come this way.” Without further comment he led her into the largest hall she had ever seen. It was floored with marble, and lined with spindly chairs. And each chair held a woman, sitting erect, each with a reticule, and a packet of letters on each lap.
“Oh,” Catherine sighed to herself, her spirits sinking further than she had thought possible, for it seemed that every unemployed lady's companion in the kingdom was there waiting to be interviewed, before her.
By the time the clock at the end of the hall had discreetly chimed four times, Catherine had gotten sufficient control of herself to observe the other females in the hall. She had a moment's fleeting thought for Arthur, sitting chilled in the carriage outside, waiting, but she could no more have left than she could have asked the butler to dance. She was here now, she reasoned, and she would see it to the end.
There were twenty-three other females in the hall. Each one studiously ignored the other. Some stared into space. Some busied themselves with bits of needlework and some were browsing through small volumes that they had brought with them. They were representative, Catherine thought with sorrow, of the entire spectrum of women companions. There were some who were elderly and looked like timorous spinsters. Some were motherly-looking women, large in their persons and almost dowdily dressed. One or two were elegant-looking middle-aged females, who looked as though they themselves might be advertising for companions. There was one huge muscular woman who might have easily belonged behind a barrow, hawking turnips. Catherine wondered if she might drop a hint about the elderly Mrs. Oliphant's search for a companion, for that woman looked as though she might be able to turn both her and her daughter in bed without a thought. But the women all sat silently, and she could no more speak to the female beside her than she could have whispered in church. None of the women looked happy, and all, she thought, wondering if there were some truth to Arthur's lectures, looked downtrodden in some fashion. Worst of all was the realization that she alone was under middle age.
Miss Parkinson, Catherine thought frantically, would not have sent her if she felt she would have no chance. It was true that she had looked at Catherine and whispered, “Oh, dear. You are not at all what I expected from your letters.” But when Catherine had explained her mission, and convinced her that she had nursed her own late mother through her final illness, Miss Parkinson had said, filling out the cards, “Might as well have a try at it. But,” she had cautioned, “a lady's companion is not an easy life, child.”
Looking at her fellow applicants, Catherine could well believe that. They all seemed resigned to their waiting, to their very lives.
After the butler had admitted two more prospective companions and seated them, he reappeared.
“The duchess,” he intoned, “is ready to begin her interviews.” And he motioned for the woman closest to a door at the end of the hall to come with him. She was a spry wiry woman with spectacles. With ill-concealed eagerness, she closed the book she was reading and sprang up to follow him. After a few minutes, in which Catherine had only time to smooth out two of her gloved fingers, the little woman reappeared. She seemed confused and walked the gamut between the outer circle of applicants and disappeared out the front door. “Obviously,” muttered a hawk-faced woman in black bombazine, “inferior references.”
The next woman to be called, a heavyset elderly woman, left the room after what seemed like moments, looking puzzled. And after that the succeeding applicant stalked out angrily after what could only have been a moment, muttering, “She's mad.” The remaining women began to mutter among themselves. One by one the applicants disappeared, only to reappear after an indecently short time.
“She could be deranged,” whispered a timid-looking woman sitting near Catherine. “But then,” she added with a smug little smile, “my last was quite gone in the head and I stayed with the poor soul until the end.”
“I,” said one of the elegant women, “shall not work with a mad person. An eccentric perhaps, as my last dear lady was an eccentric, but charming withal. But not a raving lunatic.”
One by one the others were shuffled in and out so quickly that Catherine doubted they had the time to present their credentials at all. The duchess, she reasoned, must be relying very heavily upon first impressions. And when the muscular woman went in, and returned so quickly that she must not have had time to have said a single word, Catherine was convinced of it. As she sat and watched, it seemed that only the two more stylish-looking applicants were given time for any decent conversation in their interviews. And yet the last one left very angrily, stating firmly to those who remained, “You are all wasting your time; this whole interview is a farce.” And then Catherine was called.
Remembering to remain calm at all costs, Catherine walked slowly across the room in the wake of the butler. He opened a door, and Catherine found herself within a room facing the duchess.
She must be a duchess, Catherine thought dazedly, for I should know her for a duchess anywhere.
The room was small, but richly furnished. It had been the duke's study at one time, and it still had a very masculine air. The duchess stood ramrod straight in back of a huge mirror-polished walnut desk. She stared at Catherine. And Catherine, bereft of speech, could only stare back. The duchess was tall, and thin, and very old. Her hair was white, not the commonplace snowy white of most elderly persons Catherine had met. It was rather the color of ice, as were the two direct cold eyes that fastened upon Catherine. The duchess had a great long imposing nose and gaunt slightly rouged cheeks. She wore a gray dress and was altogether the most imposing, imperious woman Catherine had ever seen. She looked almost as though the title “duchess” was too insignificant for her; rather, Catherine thought, she should be addressed as “Your Highness.”
“Well,” the duchess brayed in a loud nasal voice, quite shattering the image, “now this is more like it. How did a poppet like you get in? Who are you, my gel?”
Catherine fumbled her papers out and laid them carefully on the desk. “Catherine Robins, Your Grace,” she said in a low voice.
“Speak up,” the duchess commanded. “If you want to companion me, you must be more forthcoming. Why does a young thing like you want to be companion to an old woman?”
“I need to find a position, ma'am,” Catherine said, in a clearer voice.
“And how does your family feel about it? Got any family?”
“I have a sisterâwell, actually a half-sister and a brother-in-lawâin Kendal, ma'am. He, my brother-in-law, does not want me to go, but my sister does approveâthat is, of my desire for independence.” Lord, Catherine thought, I'm making a muddle of this.
“Can't blame your brother-in-law, he must feel like a fox in a hen house. Can't blame your sister neither for wanting a good-looking baggage like yourself out of harm's way.” The duchess chortled.
Catherine wondered whether she should hotly defend Arthur or Jane or herself, but the duchess was actually smiling benignly at her now, and she wanted the position so badly she let the comment pass.
“Tell me, my gel,” the duchess asked, unbending enough to sit, and motioning that Catherine do the same, “got any experience?”
“Here are my references, ma'am,” Catherine said, spreading out the papers. “From the vicar, and the schoolmaster, and the others from my homeâ”
“Not those,” the duchess cut her off. “I mean, any experience of life?”
“Well, yes, ma'am,” Catherine faltered, not knowing quite what the duchess was getting at.
“You'd travel with me,” the duchess went on. “I travel a good bit. I meet a lot of people, all kinds of peopleâyou ain't a shy one, are you?”
“Not at all,” Catherine replied, for in truth, she was not a shy person.
“Not frightened of men, are you? Or prudish? I can't stand a prude.”
“Not at all,” Catherine replied, thinking she was more frightened by the duchess than by any man she had ever met.
“Didn't think you were with a saucy face like yours. So you've come to London to see the queen, eh? And hope to be my companion. Well, you're more in the line of what I'm looking for than any of those biddies out there. You have an air of real gentility. Related to anybody important?”
“My father was a younger son,” Catherine said, putting up her chin. “And we were related to the Earl of Dorset.”
“Then what are you doing out looking for a position as lady's companion?” the duchess cried out ringingly, looking angry and affronted for no reason Catherine could fathom.
“We never corresponded with the family much after my father's death,” Catherine admitted, “and not at all after my mother's remarriage, which they did not approve of.”
“Black sheep? Better and better.” The duchess smiled.
“What would your family think of you flying across the Continent with me, meeting all sorts of people?” she challenged.
“As I said,” Catherine went on, “there's only my sister and brother-in-law, and they want only what would make me happy.”
“So they're cutting line from you? Don't blame them. What I'm saying, with no more roundabout,” the duchess said, leaning over and looking keenly at Catherine, and cutting off her indignant reply, “is, are you free and footloose? Are you ready for a lark?”
“Yes,” Catherine said, wondering why a companion would find life a lark, but feeling that if any came along she'd be quite ready.
“Get up,” the duchess suddenly barked, and, startled, Catherine did so.
“Turn, no, turn that way. You are a good-looking gel in any light,” the duchess said impassively. “But I'll bet you've been told that by the gentlemen before.”
“No, of course not,” Catherine protested, totally at sea, and wondering if the duchess were in fact, a little deranged.
“Haw. You're a good little actress. Sit down,” the duchess said, “and I'll put the proposition to you. You can let down your hair now and be frank. Your job would be to travel with me and to accompany me on my rounds. And to make sure I'm comfortable. I have a lot of friends. A lot of gentlemen friends, and I'd expect you to make them comfortable too, in a different way. You get my meaning?”
Catherine didn't at first. The first meaning she thought of was clearly preposterous and she was ashamed of herself for even thinking it. But she certainly was conversable and tactful enough to chat up any old gentlemen the duchess entertained to put them at their ease. So she nodded, so many thoughts crossing her mind that she was momentarily speechless.
“Good.” The duchess sighed. “I thought I was right about you. My usual companion, Rose, the lazy slut, has gone off and left me. And Violet, who sometimes travels with me, has gone and got herself another position. So I'm left in the lurch and I'm off to Paris in a month and demned if I'll go alone or with any of those old crows out there. So, gel, you understand?”
“Paris?” breathed Catherine, unable to take in her good luck. Was she being offered the position, in Paris?
“But let us get it clear. I travel in a fast set. You are very young. Perhaps you haven't understood. Are you worried about what people will say of your reputation?”
Catherine had the giddy instant thought of a group of old gentlemen and ladies being pushed rapidly in their invalid chairs or gambling wildly in their nightcaps while their attendants and nurses stood waiting to take them home to bed.
“My reputation?” Catherine thought quickly, searching for a precise answer that would satisfy the duchess as to her maturity and independence and put an end to this odd interview and perhaps win her the position she so desperately wanted. “My reputation,” she said loftily, “is my own concern.”
Seeing the wide grin on the duchess's face, she hastily added, “That is to say, it is excellent. It is widely known.”
“All the better.” The duchess beamed. “Fine then, gel, you've got the position.”
Catherine was so dizzy with happiness that she could only sit and stare at the duchess, who was smiling at her in the most conspiratorial, friendly way possible.
* * *
In a study very similar to the one that Catherine and the duchess sat in, one, moreover, only three doors down the street, two gentlemen sat in front of a cozy fire and smiled at each other in a conspiratorial, friendly way.
“Sinjun,” cried the younger one, waving a brimful brandy snifter at his friend, “a toast to the luckiest of chaps. I swear you are. Did you see the eyes on that filly? Blue as a summer sky. And moving in here right under your nose. All I have on my street are retired army gentlemen, and Sir Howard with two of the ugliest daughters known to mankind. And you've got the dowager and her lovelies right on your doorstep.”
“I've also,” drawled the taller man, putting down the papers he held, “got all this work you've brought me. And if I've read it right, it means I have some traveling to do.”
“But not immediately, dear fellow. You've time to set things up. We don't expect you to hop off immediately. And in the meantime, what a lovely diversion you've got right here. âIs this the Duchess of Crewe's address?' she says. Why, that means she's practically under your roof already. You just have to nip down the street and collect her.”
“I don't,” the taller man said, stretching out his long legs, “traffic with the duchess's companions.”
“But in her case, you could make an exception, Sinjun. She's a stunner, and new on the town too.”
“If she's in the duchess's employ, I doubt it. At any rate, Cyril, I seldom pay for what should be free.”
“Oh, I didn't know you were purse pinched,” the younger man laughed. “That'll be news to La Starr. How did you acquire that new bracelet she was sporting last week, for nothing?”
“I don't pay cash on the line.” The taller man smiled. “Because I don't like to stand in line, and the dowager's doxies traffic in volume, as you know.”
“What a lost opportunity for you then,” Cyril mourned. “Still, a toast! To the fairest wenches in London, to the dowager's doxies.”
“I think not,” his companion demurred.
“Then one to the old lady herself: to the dirty dowager.”
“No,” his friend said gently.
“Then curse it, Sinjun, you propose a toast. I'm desperate for a sip of this '94.”
“Very well.” The taller man took his glass in hand and intoned, “A toast: to work.” And he handed the papers to his friend. Cyril groaned. “To work,” he sighed, and dashing down the drink, he bent over the papers.
The Dowager Duchess of Crewe sat back in her late husband's favorite chair and waved her butler away. She lifted the glass of port that he had brought her and raised it in a silent salute before she allowed herself a sip of it. And then, alone in the study, she leaned back in her chair and sat, eyes closed, smiling to herself. Even in repose she retained her air of dignity and power. Even while relaxing she maintained her rigidly imposing countenance. With her gleaming white hair pulled back to show her strong features, seated behind the massive gleaming desk, she presented the perfect picture of a woman of consequence, a rich stone in an exquisite setting. She was a fine figure of a woman. It had not always been so.
For all women, and men as well, there is one point in life when they are beautiful, truly beautiful. There are some rare fortunate few who retain beauty all through life. But for most, they must make do with that one moment of physical beauty. And no matter how ill favored, every person experiences that moment. Nature is kind in that fashion, but she is unpredictable.
Thus, when the midwife cries in delight, “It is a girl, and a perfect, beautiful girl!” there are times when that is strictly true. At that moment, never to be repeated, the baby is indeed one of the most beautiful infants ever seen. For others, their summit of physical perfection comes in the toddler years. Still others are graceful, beautiful children and visitors will often comment, “She is a beautiful child; she'll be a real heartbreaker when she's grown.” Alas, that is often not true. For that particular child the epitome of beauty may exist only in that one afternoon of childhood. Later the snub nose may lengthen, the plump jaw grow rather like a lantern, the bright hair dim, and the glowing promise never be realized. For her, the moment came and passed in early childhood.
Still others are the envy of all their acquaintances in the years of early youth. For one brief incandescent time, the girl is lovely. But it is only for that time, never to be repeated. Others do make beautiful brides and the assembled wedding guests may swear they have never seen a lovelier bride and not perjure themselves. Yet, let as little as a few weeks go by and the vision is gone. Some are beautiful in the months of impending maternity, some as young mothers have an unearthly radiance that rivals religious paintings, some reach a glowing peak of ripened beauty in their middle years. For all, if they but live long enough, the moment will surely come. But it did not come for the Duchess of Crewe for almost seventy long and barren years.
Born as a simple “Mary,” fifth child and second daughter of the Earl of Appleby, she was a thin and red-eyed infant. Raised in the shadow of three hearty, boisterous brothers and a jolly older sister, little Mary looked rather like a shadow as a child. She was thin and pale with mouse-hued hair, and where the Appleby nose sat well on her father and brothers' faces, it overshadowed all else on her lean countenance. Sister Belle had mother's impudent nose, and grew to be a buxom, dashing sort of girl. Mary remained thin and gray-faced, although she elongated considerably as she grew and soon towered over both her mother, elder sister, and one of her brothers.
Nature, having given an impeccable lineage, an earl's castle to live in, and an impressive dowry to lure suitors with, did not see fit to overendow her with intelligence, beauty, or personality. Hers was a lonely childhood, but she did not seek refuge in books, as they were too difficult to read, or fantasy, as it was too much trouble to invent, or friendships, as there were too few children up to her weight in status or fortune.
When she reached the age of twenty-four, her father was reminded that he still had one great hulking girl at home who had received no offers even though she had been dutifully togged out and brought to London each season. He was a forthright man and it was a simple matter to remedy. After a hard day's hunting with his old school friend, Algie, Duke of Crewe, it was discovered that Algie had a son who was ready to be shackled into matrimony. At twenty and seven, George was a very eligible parti. He was no vision to set a maiden's heart thumping, being rather squat and square. He had not done too well at school, and his conversation consisted solely of horses and hunting, but he had the right breeding, fortune, and when his father quit this world he would be a duke. At dinner that night, between the buttered crabs and the haunch of venison, the matter was settled to all concerned parties' satisfaction.
At the wedding, the bride was not beautiful. Impending maternity only made the prospective mother ungainly and uncomfortable, and when her first child was born, no unearthly radiance transformed the new mother's face. Nor did it for the second, third, or fourth child. After the fourth heir arrived, duty done to king and country, George, now Duke of Crewe, devoted his amatory attentions solely to his amiable mistress in town, to his own, and his wife's, great relief.
Mary, Duchess of Crewe, had led a long good life. But something was missing. Some small niggling worm in the apple troubled the Duchess of Crewe obliquely during all those long privileged years. Not being a clever or introspective female, she never examined the problem too closely. But it was there, and it grew as the years went on.
For with all that she had had, she had never had attention, or at least any she had not paid for. No heads ever turned when she entered the room, as they had for jolly Belle. No one ever cried, “We must have Mary to our masquerade, she is such fun!” Rather they remembered that the Duchess of Crewe should be invited. George, while he lived, accepted that she was his wife as he accepted the fact that the title was his from the moment he could toddle. Her children knew that she was Mama, and that she must be visited every day for an hour when Nanny brought them to her. The world knew the Duchess of Crewe, but she was not in demand. For such a large female, she was, withal, seldom noticed.
In the natural way of things, if the duchess had succumbed to a chill in her sixth decade, she would have passed an unexceptional sort of life. The world would have briefly noted her passing and gone on smoothly. But her health was vigorous and two great events changed the course of her life forever when she contemplated her seventh decade.
First, George died, and she noted his absence more than she had ever noted his presence. And secondly, nature at last blessed her with beauty. It was nothing short of miraculous, almost like the transformation of a plain window pane after frost has touched it in the night. For age came to the Duchess of Crewe and brought a great transformation overnight.
It turned her gray-speckled mouse hair to the color of silver. It hollowed her cheeks, turning mere leanness to high imperious cheekbones. At last, her unfortunate nose found a face that it fitted, and, thinned down, it stood high and hawklike, a perfect object for two glittering myopic eyes to peer down over. Her rigid, angular body suited an old woman to perfection: In youth it had been awkward, in her dotage it was imperial. Her height was no longer uncomfortable; it became regal. She had been an unobtrusive woman; she was now an imperial old woman. Nature kept its promise at last.
For the first time, Mary, Duchess of Crewe, excited attention and admiration when she entered a salon. Strangers in the street glanced at her. She was an ornament at the theater. No one ever again forgot her after an introduction. When she appeared, heads turned, and the gentlemen showed her every courtesy. Even the greatest arbiters, the other society matrons, deferred to her. At a great age, the duchess suddenly discovered all the unfair advantages of physical beauty. But equally suddenly, it was not enough.
Much as a born actor after his first taste of applause, the duchess discovered the one ingredient that had been missing in her flavorless life: attention. And as much as she received, it was not enough.
It was only an unsatisfactory brief shower, falling after a long parched life. She wanted more than a taste of it. Now, at a time when many of her contemporaries were content to settle back and watch others live their lives, she wanted to begin hers. She wanted to bask in that rare and lucent light that had always eluded her, the full glare of public attention. But there were impediments.
She was aged, she was female, and she was alone. Her children had all grown, married, and presented her with batches of uninteresting descendants. She could not look to them. She had few friends, and no close ones. And none of them could have given her what she wanted.
She was done with tea parties and tame entertainments. She sought glory. It hardly seemed fair or just that now that she had been presented with a new face and a new aspect, she should languish in obscurity. She felt as a young girl might when her body ripened to a woman's, that there was an attractive stranger within her that she must introduce to the world.
She had heard of the sort of life one could lead if one were wealthy, titled, and attractive. She had heard of, but never seen, the gambling establishments, the fast parties, the masquerades and travel adventures of those select few who cared for nought but pleasure and excitement. And knew that as a duchess she could have entrÃ©e to any of them, once. But that there would have to be something special about her to permit her constant presence.
It was a set, she had heard, made up of the cream of the gifted: the poets, the musicians, the authors, the intellectual, the beautiful, and the amusing wealthy eccentrics. She had now presence, beauty of a sort, and wealth. She would have to see to the rest.
Her first companion was a Lady Wiggins, a noble woman who had fallen upon hard times. Together they had traveled to Bath and to Brighton and had received an invitation to a house party at the country seat of a notoriously rakehell lord. All that she had heard was true. She found excitement, gaiety, amusing company, and a sense of privilege. She was accepted, admired, but then, ultimately ignored. For she had no special cachet, no entertaining conversation, no wit, nor even scandalous history.
Her next season, she traveled with Mrs. Coalhouse, a younger woman with pleasant looks and a genteel manner. And although the duchess now cultivated the affectation of taking snuff, and had gone so far as to purchase outrageously expensive antique and imported snuff boxes, this eccentricity was only duly noted and not remarked upon. For in an age where the reigning eccentrics kept upward of a hundred dogs, or traveled without male companions to the Near East, or rode horses into drawing rooms, a handsome elderly female who took snuff was not much noticed. Even her newly emerged forceful personality was not enough.
The following season, in a sort of desperation, she combed carefully through all the applicants for the position of companion. She stopped checking their references and began to note only their physical persons and personalities. For if she could not develop her own startling personality, somewhere in the recesses of her mind she reasoned that she could buy the services of one. Her choice settled on one Miss Violet Peterson, who was nothing like any lady's companion the duchess had ever seen. She was, to the duchess's myopic eye, more like the sort of female who ran the gaming halls and parties she had lately been to.
Violet was youngâstill in her twenties, the duchess thought, although a clearer eye could have said thirties with more certainty. She was buxom, and red haired, and staggeringly attractive. Her dresses were all slightly too extravagant: a bit too low, a bit too colorful, a bit too embellished. But she was bright and alert and cheerful as a songbird. Men's heads swiveled when she flounced into the room. She was, the duchess thought, sometimes a bit too cheeky, but there was no harm in the girl, no harm at all. If it came to that, she was good company, even though it was not company the duchess was after, but the admiration of company.
It was during that first season with Violet, at the country home of a notoriously dissolute duke, that the first whispers about Violet came to the duchess's ears. The whispers grew louder at Brighton, and by the time they got to the scandalous Lady Chester's country retreat, they were a roar. One late evening at the faro table, a noted gossip, a beau of the ton, eyed Violet as she left the room a few moments after their hostess's husband had signaled to her and he leaned over to the duchess. “I say,” he said in a loud stage whisper, “did you know that your companion has spent more time between our host's sheets than her own? And for a price higher than the stakes we're competing for?”
Two high red spots appeared on the duchess's cheekbones. All the others at the table were pointedly looking elsewhere, but all were listening. If her sensibilities were offended, the duchess knew it would be social death in this room to admit to it. She decided to brazen it out, and, in a somewhat confused state of agitation, referred instead to what she felt were Violet's good qualities.
“Let the gel be,” she said in stentorian tones. “She gives good service. Worth every penny she asks.”
The duchess was a raging success after that. She and Violet were welcome to every affair they wanted to attend. If they were not welcome at the sort of parties and houses that the duchess was used to frequent during her long years of social correctness, well, she had put all that behind her now anyway. Attention was paid to the pair of them wherever they went. The duchess, through no overt act of her own, was now considered an amusing, clever, and charming eccentric. She even had the felicity to overhear society's pet bad girl of the season whisper to her cicisbeo, “There goes the Duchess of Crewe. Isn't she delicious? So dignified, so correct, such presence, such wit, to have a common trollop as companion. Plying her trade in the best houses. Oh, it's such a clever comment on society.”
So the duchess turned a deaf ear to propriety, and only cautioned Violet not to get above herself or to involve her employer in any of her doings, and to fulfill her duties as companion before she set off on any “larks” of her own. And Violet, who had been, in her turn, actress, opera dancer, kept woman, and then, only in dire financial trouble and fear of turning to the streets, desperate enough to try for the position of lady's companion, was all too eager to agree.
After another season with Violet in tow, Rose came along. Claiming long friendship with Violet, Rose begged for any position in the duchess's household. The bailiffs were at her door, Lord Lawrence had withdrawn his protection, and she, at thirty-three, was too long in the tooth for any more ingenue roles in the theater. Rose was blond and billowy and friendly, and within months the duchess had two female companions in tow. And her reputation was assured.
Polite society might shun her, her children might plead impotently, but she had a title of her own, and money of her own, and a tenacity of character that only the none too intelligent might claim. It was possible, her children's lawyer said patiently, that they might, after a scandalous, arduous court battle, proclaim her incompetent, but again, it was possible that they might not. The dowager went her way unmolested to all the resorts and masquerades and parties she desired, and she desired them all for all the attention she had starved for all those unawakened years.
And if she heard the whispers about “the duchess's doxies,” as the satirists were quick to dub her companions, she pretended not to hear. The contrast between her rigid aspect and her companions' life-styles tickled those she sought to impress all the more. And if she saw the caricatures in the shop windows of “the dirty duchess,” she was careful not to recognize their subject. Her dignity in the face of such vilification was an exquisite delight to her champions. Yet, all the while, in some recess of her mind, she took it as tribute. There was the distinct possibility that if her children had not been so browbeaten and afraid of scandal, they might have won their case.
And now in this chill winter of 1814, she had narrowly escaped missing another promised treat. For Violet, that wench, had only just sent notice she wasn't coming to Paris as she had netted the Marquis of Wolverton's protection. And Rose, that simple ingrate, had come and prated on about true love and the reformed gambler with whom she was going to settle down.
Even the Duchess of Crewe could not advertise for a trollop. And she had no notion of how to go about acquiring one as companion. One couldn't just pick a girl off the streets. And she could not very easily ask her butler or a footman to frequent a house of ill repute and choose any stray female. And she certainly could not be seen going to one herself. She never chose to think of exactly how her companions earned their extra keep. The whole thought of what transpired at those houses made her ill. So she had cast her net again, asking employment bureaus for a companion and hoping to luck upon, by accident, another woman like Violet, in the same way that she had gotten Violet, through the applicant's own bold deceit.
For three days she had interviewed women of all classes and sizes and condition. To some that she had felt were marginally suitable she had hinted at her purpose and their duties. Those who had understood had left in a huff, or stared at her blankly, apologized, and left. But then this lovely little wench, Catherine, had appeared. As pretty as, or prettier than, the selfish ungrateful Rose and Violet, and not so long in the tooth either, the duchess thought. And she seemed ready for any rig that might be running. The duchess finished off her port and rose to stare out the window. There was a great deal to get done. Travel arrangements to make, dresses to buy, reservations to plan ahead. But her major concern was settled. She had another companion. One who would really make them stare in Paris. And give her employer an international reputation.
After the coach had left them at the hotel, Catherine and Arthur spent the next two hours in a corner of the lobby, in hot debate. She was weary and excited, and would have loved to have been somewhere more private and comfortable. But Arthur was shocked at the idea of discussing anything in their rooms. She might be his sister-in-law, she might have lived in his house for almost four years, but she was a single woman. And he was a man not related by blood. Arthur had very exact notions of propriety.
He refused to postpone their discussion till dinner, for he knew that heated conversation was bad for the digestion. So they sat at a little corner table, beneath a very sick potted palm, and spoke in hushed, but agitated tones.
“She is a duchess, Arthur,” Catherine insisted again, “and very dignified. And if she wants a young companion, I am sure that it is so that she may be cheered up a bit.”
“I still,” he said, as he had said for the past hour, “do not think it a good idea. You do not know her, or her family, or the conditions under which you will be employed.”
“Arthur,” Catherine cried loudly, and then ducked down and flushed for she had not wanted to raise her voice, “you knew all that when I first went to apply for the post. And yet you took me anyhow.”
Arthur flushed a little himself and, because he was by nature not a devious man, admitted, “I just thought that it would help you get the whole mad notion out of your system.”
“You didn't expect me to get the post!” Catherine accused.
“No, I didn't, and to tell the entire truth I still don't know why you did. One”âand here Arthur raised his plump fingersâ“you haven't the experience. Two: You are far too young to companion a dowager in her dotage. Three: No matter how well born you are, you have never had traffic with the nobility. Why hasn't a duchess a whole slew of acquaintances and relatives who could recommend a companion to her?”
Seeing the momentary hit he had made, Arthur went on, “Four: You don't know London. And Five: It is dangerous to travel abroad to Paris, even if Napoleon is mewed up on Elba now and the hostilities have ceased, with a female whom you and your family do not know.”
“One,” said Catherine in a hot whisper, “she doesn't care about work experience. Two: I am twenty-one, old enough to be able to be good company for any female. Threeâoh, dash it, Arthur, I do want this post. She is a duchess and wealthy so I won't suffer any privation; truly, I can't see how I would. And perhaps it is just that she is lonely. And, after all, dear Arthur, it won't be forever. She said just for the season, to see how we will suit. It is October now; by summer I should be home again. And if I am not happy with her, I shall come home to you and Jane and the baby, and be a good devoted auntie and never stray again. Only I'll have earned the wages to buy the baby a present all on my own, at last. That is, if you will have me back?” Arthur patted her hand in embarrassment. She looked so woebegone. Her bright blue eyes were brighter with unshed tears, and a little crease had appeared on her white forehead. He felt like a beast.
“Of course, we'll have you back. We want you back so much we don't want to see you go.” He laughed, and she laughed with him at his unfamiliar excursion into humor.
“But I do worry about you. You are such a bright girl, Catherine, but you haven't any experience of the world. I worry about you over there across the channel with a strange female in charge of your destiny.”
“Oh I make no doubt,” Catherine laughed, “that she will sell me into bondage, and have me locked into a dank rat-ridden cell if I don't do her bidding. Arthur, do understand, it's not that I love you and Jane less that I wish to be independent; it's that I love you the more.”
“But if you feel that way, no matter what we say, why come so far, to London, to be a menial? Why not contemplate marriage? You are a fine-looking girl, Catherine.” Arthur was a little shocked by his presumption, but he was earnestly trying to counsel her, and was casting all inhibition to the winds.
“Oh, I do contemplate it,” Catherine said ruefully, creasing her gamine face into a parody of sorrow and causing Arthur to chuckle. “But who is there to contemplate me? With all of two shillings as dowry. Arthur, there is no one for me at home. Perhaps there might be someone for me in London, or Paris.”
“Your head's been turned by those two dandies I saw you asking the duchess's direction of when you got out of the coach,” Arthur accused.
“No,” she said, “they were way above my touch. And one doesn't meet one's future husband in the street.”
She rose and shook out her skirt.
“Now, Arthur, shall we cry off this battle? You know, and I know, that the thing is done. Or are you trying to starve me into submission? I haven't eaten in so long, I shall forget whether to use a fork or my fingers. Come, let's have a lovely reconciliation over dinner.”
Arthur sighed and rose, conceding defeat, and heeding the insistent clamor his stomach had been setting up for past hours.
They sat in the hotel's dining area and chatted amiably through all the courses. And by the time evening came Arthur bade Catherine good night at her door without one further premonition of doom about her future employment.
In the morning they breakfasted in solemn silence, and then Arthur collected his bags and Catherine's. She wanted to accompany him to the stage to say good-bye, but he insisted on loading her case into the hackney to drop her off first. “You must never go unaccompanied, Catherine,” he said sternly. “You must write us your address in Paris,” he cautioned, “and be quick to come home immediately if anything goes awry.”
It was a bright morning, and the hackney found the duchess's house with no trouble. As Catherine made to leave, Arthur stayed her. “Here,” he said gruffly, reaching into his pocket, “no young woman should go without funds,” and he pressed a small purse filled with coins into her hand.
“But I shall be earning money,” she said, returning the purse. Then she bent swiftly and pressed a quick kiss on Arthur's cheek, which made him color up. “I do love you and Jane,” she said in a shaky voice. “And I do thank you for all your concern.” And then quickly, before she should embarrass herself and Arthur again, she stepped out of the coach. Her trunk was handed down to her, and she stood on the curb, in front of her new home, and waved farewell to Arthur. The last look she had of him was of his worried face at the window.
Then she turned and went to mount the stairs to the Duchess of Crewe's house. There was no fog this morning and no mysterious gentlemen to unsettle her by saying that it was exactly the right place for her. But it was, and she went up the stairs.
As soon as the maid had left her, Catherine went to the window of her new room. And when she saw that she was safely two floors above the street level, and that there was no way any eyes but pigeons' could peer into her room, she turned and went directly to her bed. And sat there, bouncing up and down, giggling softly to herself just like a child. For if this is what Miss Parkinson had meant about a companion's life being a difficult one, she did not think she could have borne an easy one. The luxury would have flattened her completely.
She had, late in the night, when all of London had lain sleeping, been too afraid and too apprehensive to sleep. For once she had realized the position was indeed truly hers, she had at last the leisure to be anxious about her future and the opportunity to have all the second thoughts Arthur would have wished her to have. It had taken all her courage to be confident and lighthearted when she had taken leave of Arthur.
But once she had presented herself at the door, the butler had signaled to a footman, who invisibly signaled to a maid, and she had been, with no further comment, taken to her new room. And such a room! Catherine thought that no cosseted daughter of an earl could have been housed so extravagantly.
The room was large and airy, with windows overlooking the street. It was furnished with graceful taste in hues of green and white, picked out with pale yellow. After a few minutes of dazed delight, Catherine shook herself mentally and went to the wash pitcher. After only a few seconds of admiring its graceful gold trimmings, she poured water into a bowl and resolutely scrubbed her face and hands. It was time for work. Later she might have earned the leisure to simply sit and admire her room. She braced herself and went downstairs to begin her duties as companion to the Dowager Duchess of Crewe.
All her fine resolve was wasted. The butler informed her impassively that Her Grace was still abed, and, further, that she had left no message for her new companion. So Catherine spent her first full day of gainful employment too wrought up to properly luxuriate in her new quarters. Instead, she paced the room awaiting her employer's summons.
It did not come that day, nor the next, nor even the next. Catherine had time and to spare to memorize every detail of her delightful room. She was informed, each time she asked, that the duchess was variously occupied: at her mantua maker's, with her man of business, or dining out with friends. And, no, she was answered blightingly each time she inquired, there were no shawls to be mended, nor was there any knitting to unravel, nor even letters to copy out. In short, there was nothing for her to do but to wait upon Her Grace's pleasure. The members of the duchess's staff were uniformly polite to Catherine, but all those she encountered as she drifted through the house in search of occupation seemed in some indefinable fashion to look down upon the new female in their midst. Contemptuous, and rightly so, Catherine felt, of a female who was clearly not earning her way.
As the week wore on, Catherine began to wonder why the duchess had bothered to employ a companion at all. And once, in a small hour of the night, she sat straight up in bed in horrified alarm as she wondered whether the duchess was so advanced in years as to have forgotten the existence of her new companion altogether.
However, in the sixth day of her employment, while she was reading through a volume of poetry, Catherine received a summons to be present at her employer's side. She put down the volume with slightly trembling hands, smoothed down her wayward hair, and pinned a smile to her lips. At last, she would begin.
The duchess was sitting up in bed when Catherine was shown into her chamber. Even in bedclothes, she looked imperious and dramatic. She squinted up at Catherine and then motioned her to sit down. She seemed to be consulting a list she had on her lap, along with the dregs of her morning chocolate.
“There you are. Been settling yourself in, gel?” she boomed at Catherine.
“Yes, Your Grace. I have been waiting for your summons, and ready to be of whatever assistance you require.”
“Why would I require your assistance here, in my own house?” the duchess asked with amazement. “I have everything I need here. Got Gracieâshe's a lady's maid who knows her business.” And here Gracie, who'd been picking up about the room, sniffed disdainfully, met Catherine's eye for one bleak moment, and then went back to work. “And that old stick of a butler, Griddon, to see to the running of things, and Mrs. Johnson to order up the house. No, I don't need you yet, gel. Can't keep calling you gel, neither; Robin's the name, ain't it?”
“No, Your Grace. It's Catherine.”
“Catherine then. I'm getting all my plans in train for our little jaunt. Paris! It's been years, and now we can go again. Parties and folderol, and good fun. I can't wait. I called you here to see if you're ready.”
“I'll be ready to leave whenever you are, ma'am,” Catherine said. “At a day's notice.”
“A day's notice.” The older woman guffawed. “Not likely. Not with what all I've got to get readied. What are you wearing?” she demanded suddenly, staring at Catherine fixedly.
Catherine glimpsed down at herself in horror, wondering whether she'd spilt something on her gown. But no, it was the neat pristine gray one she'd worn the first morning. It had been nearly a week since she'd arrived and she'd worn each of her gowns in succession, so if it was Thursday, it would have to have been her gray.
“It's ghastly,” the duchess went on. “Ain't you got something livelier?”
“I do have one gayer frock,” Catherine heard herself say,thinkingof her simple sprigged tea gown, the prize of her wardrobe, that she kept for visiting at home, and that she had worn to a house party with much favorable comment.
“It won't do. I don't know what your game is, and I don't care. Maybe there's some that like a gel that looks like a nun, maybe there's a few that will find it amusing, but it won't do. You've got to dress with some dash. I can't have a little mouse, no matter how saucy a mouse, trailing through Europe with me. You've got to be togged out right.”
Catherine thought with panic of how she could dress up her meager wardrobe with dash, for in truth, she realized, a companion couldn't look shabby. Although her dress was considered proper by Kendal standards, this was, after all London.
“Good thing I took a good look,” the dowager grumbled. “Get me my paper, and some ink, and a pen, gel.”
Catherine hastened to obey the duchess's command, and brought her writing implements from her inlaid desk. The dowager mumbled to herself as she scrawled a note, pushing aside coffee cups and napery as she did so.
“There, good as gold. Go to Madame Bertrand, she's the one Violet used to go to, and she looked fine as fivepence. Even Rose gave up her modiste when she saw what an eyeful Violet looked when Madame Bertrand got through with her. She'll set you up.”
“But,” Catherine protested, accepting the note the dowager thrust at her, “I haven't received wages as yet, and I don't think I can order a new gown as yet.”
“I'll stand the nonsense, gel, and I don't want you ordering one gown. Give me that note back. I thought you was up to the mark. Why did that demned Rose have to go and get herself tied up?” the duchess complained as she scrawled another line on the bottom of her note. “Go out today and get yourself suited up in style. Got looks, but no style.”
The maid who suffered to accompany Catherine to Madame Bertrand's sat opposite her and looked everywhere but at her. She was a plump downstairs maid, and found getting into the carriage a treat, and had even vouchsafed as much to Catherine. But when Catherine had agreed eagerly, and tried to begin a lively conversation, the girl had recalled herself and shrunk back into silence. The duchess, Catherine thought, must be a high stickler for the social order of her servants.
They rode in stately silence through the streets of town till the coach stopped in front of a plain shop window on one of the busier business streets. One dress was artfully arranged in the window, and a great deal of drapery covered up the rest of it. But as there was no name or even number visible, Catherine hesitated to alight. The coachman, a jolly-looking young freckled fellow, held the horses and sent a footman to lower the steps.
“You're here,” he said, leaning down and looking into the coach, and giving the downstairs maid a ferocious wink. She colored up and pursed her lips and looked expectantly at Catherine, so that Catherine had no choice but to dismount.
Opening the door to the modiste's establishment was like opening the door onto a new reality. Whereas the outside of the shop might have been discreet to the point of plainness, the interior reminded Catherine of what she had always imagined a harem to look like. There was a quantity of rich fabric tossed about a large carpeted room. Several couches and divans and chairs stood at odd angles everywhere. Bolts of scarlet velvet, royal blue gossamer, and shining emerald silks lay opened and half opened, spread out for display over all unoccupied surfaces.
There were a few women dressed in dazzling style peering at the bolts of fabric, and, to Catherine's surprise, there were also a few fashionably dressed men lounging or sitting and gazing at the women and each other through quizzing glasses. There was a low babble of talk as she entered, and, to her chagrin, the conversation seemed to come to an abrupt stop as she stepped into the shop. Both the women and the men, Catherine realized, were staring at her with undisguised curiosity.
She held her head high and motioned the maid to sit, and when a small black-eyed woman approached, wearing a quantity of measuring tapes about her neck, as if they were a priceless necklace, Catherine held out the duchess's note.
“I am Catherine Robins, the Duchess of Crewe's companion. She sent me here to purchase some gowns.”
There was stifled laughter from somewhere to Catherine's left, and the other occupants of the room began talking again, some, however, still staring at her fixedly.
“Right,” said the little woman smartly. “She says you're going to Paris. You're dressed for a convent now. Come along, I'll take things in hand.”
She led Catherine, who was trying to hold her head high and ignore the attention she had caused, to the back of her shop. There, in another room, were several tables, each with a row of girls stitching. She walked past them and took Catherine to one of a few curtained partitioned stalls. As Catherine stood undecided as to what she should do next, one of the curtains billowed and a ravishing-looking woman stepped forth. She was tall and statuesque. Her hair, great golden masses of it, had come loose with her dressing, and she swung her hips slowly as she stepped up on a little dais in front of a mirror in the center of the room. Her heavily lidded eyes lit up with satisfaction as she caught her reflection.
“Perfect,” she breathed.
Catherine stood transfixed. She had never seen a gown so low in the front that most of its occupant's person seemed to threaten to spill out at any moment. The fabric above the high waist seemed sufficient for a waistband, and the magnificent creature in the gown surely needed three times that much before she could go out in public. Still, she had to admit that the startling vibrant blue color and the extreme cut of the gown made the woman in it an unforgettably vivid picture.
“He'll be pleased,” the woman said and smiled at herself in the mirror. “But I want him to see me in the amber, so he'll come across for that one.” And, without further ado, the sensational-looking female reached behind her, unbuttoned a few buttons, and quickly slipped out a few pins. Then with a shrug, she stepped out of the gown, leaving her entire person, Catherine noted with shock, nude from the waistline up, and only wearing a gossamer-thin demi-train below.
Catherine gaped. She had seen her sister nude, of course, on rare occasions when they were growing up. And seen herself, when she was undressing. But this female was as unaware of her nudity in front of strangers, even though they were all female, as a child might be. Although, she thought quickly, as she watched the woman's eyes linger lovingly on her own reflection, she was not quite unaware of herself after all. And there was nothing childish in her expression of self-satisfaction. She swept past Catherine into her cubicle again. “Bring the amber one quickly,” she ordered. “He grows bored quickly.”
The middle-aged woman looked at Catherine impatiently. “Come along,” she said. “Let's have a look at you without that nun's habit on. Come along, strip it off and I'll be back to have a look-see. La Starr's in a taking, and I have to get her amber gown seen to if she's to get it from her gentleman today.”
Left alone, Catherine hurriedly removed her dress. She held her discarded gown in front of her chest as she waited, chilled, for the dressmaker to return. There was a small mirror in the little alcove, she noted, and she realized that the other female could just as easily have seen herself there in privacy, without swaggering out to display herself in front of strangers.
As she waited she could hear the voices of a few other women admiring their gowns or calling for changes in them. None spoke in the accents she thought acceptable for a lady. Bored, and feeling cold, she watched her reflection in the mirror. Her black hair had come loose from its pins again, and there was a high flush along her cheekbones. On an impulse, seeing her reflection clutching her gray gown in front of her, and hearing no one approaching, she lowered the gown from in front of herself. She gazed at the reflection guiltily. Hers, she thought aimlessly, were higher and a better shape than the other females'. And then, scandalized by her train of thought, she whipped the gown in front of her again and held it in a death grip.
“Let's have a look,” the dressmaker said, bustling into the alcove with her. “Take that gray rag away; I can't see through it.”
Catherine lowered the gown again, shrinking with embarrassment.
“Right,” the little woman said briskly. “You're a knockout all right. The dowager's grown some taste, leave it to her. I know just the things that'll do. Almost the lady, that's the ticket,” she muttered to herself, and left again.
“I can't,” Catherine cried out, fifteen minutes later, as the dressmaker told her to turn around. “I can't possibly appear like this in public. I am a companion, not an actress. This gown is lovely, but it is not seemly.” She had been resigned to the duchess providing her with a new wardrobe; after all, one's employer had the right to dictate in matters of an employee's garb. But this gown and the others that the dressmaker had shown her were out of the question. At the dressmaker's brisk insistence, she had allowed herself to be pinned into it, but she knew it was entirely unsuitable in the dressing room, and now, in front of the mirror, in front of the other girls at their sewing, she knew it was impossible.
It was of a rich and ruby red, and it was so low in front that even her spanned hand could not cover the naked expanse it showed. Looking down, she could clearly see her breasts as they appeared to her when she was in her bath. The reflection showed little less. The waist was high and its folds clung and draped about her lower person so that she seemed to have been mired in some rich red sea kelp that outlined all her lower body. Her hair, untidy from changing so often, had loosened and curled. The whole effect was that of a wanton.
“No,” she said desperately, “I know the duchess would never approve.”
The dressmaker snorted.
“In a pig's eye, my girl. Didn't I have the entire dressing of Violet? And then Rose? Never fear, the duchess will approve. Come,” she said, more kindly, “it's the very thing. It's all the rage. You're going to Paris, my lady, and anything else would make you a dowd. And the duchess can't abide dowds.”
Seeing the indecision on Catherine's face, the dressmaker began to chuckle, as if struck by a new idea.
“Come, let your maid see it. She'll tell you what all the fine ladies wear, and what the duchess likes. Come along, come with me.” And taking Catherine by one cold hand, she pulled her into the outer room.
Catherine allowed herself to be tugged forward by this intractable little woman and before she had time to think of the audience that lay outside the door, she found herself the center of their attention.
She stood, cheeks high in color, eyes wide and expectant, in her incredibly indecent gown, in the midst of all the strangers waiting in the front room. There was a sudden quiet as she entered. Conversation ceased as they caught sight of the lovely young woman before them. Catherine held her head high and wished to disappear into the ether as she heard the dressmaker, through the pounding in her ears, ask the little maid what she thought the duchess would say. But curiously, the dressmaker's eyes were not on the little maid, but rather watching the tall blond-haired female she called “La Starr” in the bright amber dress. The blond woman had been posing and turning and posturing in it, showing it off to a gentleman, before Catherine appeared. And the moment that Catherine appeared in the doorway, the gentleman's eyes left her and did not return to her. She stared angrily at Catherine.
Catherine looked over in their direction and saw the amused gray eyes staring at her insolently. It was incredible how she had not forgotten a detail of his face since that morning in the fog. He stood leaning against a mantel, his long athletic form impeccably clothed in gray again. His face resembled, Catherine thought, a picture she had seen of a red Indian, with his cool angular good looks, high cheekbones, and black hair. But his look held mockery and disdain and an infuriatingly belittling humor.
He glanced over at the dressmaker. “I applaud you, madame,” he drawled, “as I am certain the duchess will. You have turned a little country mouse into a dazzler. Congratulations.”
He walked slowly over to where Catherine stood poised for retreat, although perversely refusing to flee in the face of his impudence.
“I see you found the right place, little one.” He smiled with what was not at all a smile. His eyes lingered at her breasts, and while her hands itched to fly up and cover herself, she only stood stock still and tried to return his stare with all the dignity she could muster. “See if you can make my little Starr something on this order,” he said over his shoulder. “It is a most impressive display ofâ¦taste.” And then, with a careless shrug, he turned and went back to the blond female, who was darting glances of the purest dislike at Catherine.
“Who,” Catherine panted, stripping herself out of the hated dress with fever in the curtained alcove, “was that insolent man? That popinjay, that man who spoke to me?”
The dressmaker spoke through a mouthful of pins.
“Who?” Catherine insisted, buttoning herself all wrong in her haste to get back into her good, decent little gray dress again.
“He is the Marquis of Bessacarr,” the dressmaker said placidly. “A neighbor of the duchess's. I expect that's how he knows you. And you should be flattered that he did. He doesn't acknowledge everyone, you know.”
“He need not acknowledge me,” Catherine insisted, setting herself aright again. “He need not ever acknowledge me again.”
Catherine left, with her maid in tow, carrying the few parcels the dressmaker had readied for her. The rest, she promised would be delivered as soon as might be. She had turned a deaf ear to all of Catherine's protests, telling her she knew well enough what would be a suitable wardrobe for the duchess's companion.
Catherine swore to herself, on the way home in the carriage with the stony-faced maid, that she would sit up nights if need be, adding on fabric to those indecent bodices. Style or no, she was never again to be ogled in that fashion.
Madame Bertrand sipped her tea and chuckled at her work table. It had been worth it, even though it had cost her some trade, just to see the look on La Starr's face. Brazen little hussy, going to her competitor for her dressing when she was in funds, and coming back to her dear Madame Bertrand when she was sailing the River Tick. Madame Bertrand knew her clientele wellâthey were the cream of the demimonde. And she had discovered that La Starr was going to a society modiste when she was in clover. But now, when her protector, the marquis, was growing bored with her, she had entreated her old friend to let her pose in a few gowns to see if he would bite and purchase them for her. But he had paid for only the blue one, after all. And after seeing that black-haired new beauty, he might not buy her any others either. Well, Madame Bertrand thought, there were plenty more where La Starr came from, both for herself and for the marquis.
“Sinjun,” the blond woman cooed at her companion as they walked down the street, “did you not like that amber gown? I swear I thought it would suit you down to the ground. “
“It would hardly suit me, my dear. Amber is not my color,” he said in a low amused voice, “and it did not suit you so well either. But that is not strictly true. Truly, I grow weary of clothes shopping with you. I think in future you should go yourself. I will draft you a check, my dear, to better enable you to do so. Oh, don't look crushed. It will be a very substantial amountâjust recompense for the delightful time we have spent together. But I think the exclusive nature of our acquaintance is over. After all, I plan to be traveling again soon, and it would not be fair to tie you to one companion now.”
“Travel to Paris, for example,” she said spitefully, “where the duchess might have a companion to compensate your idle hours?”
“Hardly,” he said, with real amusement. “Her companions are not so exclusive, you know. And it was the exclusivity of our relationship that I valued. As well as your own delightful self. One may admire a thing without wanting it,” he said slowly, “much as one may admire a public prospect, such as this pleasant well-worn thoroughfare, without wanting to spend all one's time on it. It is too public a place, after all. Private places bring more pleasure.”
Mollified, she sauntered along with him.
“Sinjun,” she asked sweetly, “shall we have a farewell party exclusively and privately together tonight? At my expense?”
He smiled down at her.
“You do me honor,” he replied.
“You will have to do me a great deal better,” she said roguishly.
And, laughing, they went on, in total understanding and accord.
The gentleman was not laughing a few short hours later. In fact, St. John Basil St. Charles, Marquis of Bessacarr, paced the floor of his study in a singularly humorless state.
“Damn it, Cyril,” he swore, with unaccustomed vehemence, “I thought it was to be Vienna. That is where all the business is going on. Why in heaven's name did he decide upon Paris? It is over and done with there. What earthly good can I do for you there?”
His friend sat and watched the marquis in his travels around the carpet.
“Sinjun, the old chap is never wrong, you know. I thought it was to be Vienna too. But he said that he had enough of his fellows there. What he needs, he says, is a good ear in an unexpected place. Paris, he said, and it is Paris he meant. You will be seeing him soon yourself, and doubtless he can explain it better than I can. But he fears treachery on all sides, and his man in Paris is a looby, he says. âSinjun's the chap for it,' he says. Everyone will accept you as just another merrymaker, and you can find out whose loyalties belong to whom. It's a hotbed over there now, he said, with some supporting the old Bourbon and some still working for Bonaparte. He won't be easy in his mind about Bonaparte till he's two years dead, you know.”
“And that I can't blame him for,” the marquis said, sinking at last into a chair. “But I had felt that I could do more good in Vienna. I have done before, unless he's come to doubting me now?”
“Nothing like it,” his friend assured him. “He still thinks you one of the best agents he has. But you're well known in Vienna now, for all your subterfuge. You've practically got the stamp of the foreign office upon your forehead, he says. And you can't work well unless there'ssomedoubt as to your aims, you know.”
“It's not so bad as that.” The taller man grinned. “But I'll grant that there may be a suspicion there that I'm not just another disinterested tourist. But Paris just now is filled with fools, with empty-headed nits who've gone for the fun and games of it. And I suppose I'm to be just another one of them?”
His friend nodded with a sympathetic smile.
“Ahh, my reputation,” the marquis sighed, passing a hand over his forehead. “My lamentable reputation.”
Cyril laughed aloud at that. For the marquis had posed as many things, many times, in his jobs for the foreign office. Aside from that, if there was ever a man who cared less for his reputation in the ton, Cyril did not know of his. The marquis had never cared for what any other soul in the kingdom thought of him, or any other soul in Spain, or France, or Italy, or any of the places to which he had traveled since he had enlisted his services in the war against Bonaparte. It was that, the old chap said, coupled with his winning manner and his natural intelligence, that had made him such an invaluable asset to their operations.
“Paris it is, then,” the marquis said derisively. “I will have to pack my dancing slippers.”
Cyril rose to go and stretched himself.
“I suppose,” he yawned, “that you'll be taking Jenkins? Where is he, by the by? I haven't set eyes on him in some time.”
“Down at Fairleigh, taking care of estate business. He's very good at that too, you know. But he'll be here like a shot when he gets my message. He's like an old gun dogâone sniff of powder and all else flees from his mind.”
“Just like his master, eh?”
“Don't let him hear you say that; Jenkins has no master. He chooses to stay on with me and work for me. We have no title for his duties as yet, not even after all these years. He is estate manager, overseer, accountant, and, most of all, friend. As it is, I'm delighted to just be his friend and be able to employ him. He's the one man I trust in this whole weary world.”
Cyril turned back at the door and pulled a hurt face.
“Oh, you don't trust me, Sinjun?”
“Not so far as I could toss you, old dear.” The marquis smiled slowly. “For if the old chap told you to place a knife in my ribs, you'd do it without a backward glance.”
“I'm hurt, old fellow, wounded to the quick. For I would give a backward glance, you know. To see if Jenkins was after me with another knife.”
They laughed and parted with a handshake.
The marquis went to his desk to write a note to his estate manager, valet, traveling companion, assistant, and friend, Jenkins. He smiled to himself and was actually laughing softly as he added a last flourish to the note. That would get the old boy running, he thought. A hint of subterfuge, spying, lying, and the possibility of mayhem, and Jenkins would drop anything he was doing to come along. Cyril was right, he thought, Jenkins was just like him. When they had met those years ago in Spain, they had each recognized it. The marquis had been on the crown's business, and Jenkins a batman who had just lost his officer. Exactly who had saved the other's life when they had met they had never resolved, but each had instantly appreciated the other. Regardless of class distinctions, education, and lineage, they had banded together, recognizing their common bond.
There was a time, the marquis thought, the smile fading from his lips, when style and reputation had meant everything to him. More than honor or love or duty. And only now could he jest about it, only now could he remember it without shrinking, as though remembering a thing he had read once in an old book rather than lived himself.
For he had been born to a title, and born to a dignity. Yet before he had reached his majority, his father had gambled it all away, as well as his mother's health and life, all save his title. And he had inherited nothing but the title and a mountain of debts. And a handsome visage and a strong body and agile mind. He had gone out and earned his money, at tasks and trades he chose not to mention to the world, and invested the proceeds wisely and husbanded them well, and not only rebuilt his father's lost fortune but added to it as well. But all the while he had worried about his dignity and his reputation. And what would become of him if people knew his methods.
He had done all so that he could present an unblemished name to the world. He had cared about his world and what it thought of him. And all that he did that enriched or amused himâall the trafficking in trade, all the consorting with women of the demimonde, all the gaming and the pleasuresâhe had tried to hide from the world.
“Ah,” he thought, scowling, it pained him to think of it even now. He had been such a callow fellow. And it had, in the end, cost him dearly. The one woman whose mind he admired the most, whose temperament most nearly matched his own, he dallied with and then dropped, because he had felt her face did not match the ideal of what the world would think his marchioness's face should be. And by the time he discovered how he missed her and how unimportant a face could be, only important if that certain face bore a smile for him alone, she was gone to another man wise enough to know the difference between a package and its wrappings.
And there had been another woman, whose face was so glorious that he forgot to look into her heart. And whose position and status were so low that he did not seriously think of her for his marchioness, for he thought the world would not either. So he only offered her a paid position as his mistress. But she too had found a wiser man, who had looked beyond the surface and not thought of the world's opinion, and offered her his hand as well as his heart. And he, the marquis of impeccable birth and reputation, had been left with an impeccably empty heart.
Such memories were only cold ashes to rake over. Valuable only because he had learned from his mistakes, they had served their purpose wellâlet them lie at rest. He had found occupation in serving his country; spying suited his temperament. He no longer cared for appearances; he, of all men, knew what a sham reputation and titles could be. He had learned to look beyond the obvious, to seek the truth beneath the surface clutter. And so he no longer cared for his own name; his reputation was no longer of any importance to him.
And the cream of the jest was that once he had left off caring and dissembling and trying to impress the world with his purity, his popularity soared. And his reputation, which no longer interested him, was pronounced to be of the highest. He gamed openlyâhe was called a daring gentleman. He wenched openlyâhe was called a dashing ladies' man. His growing cynicism was thought to be wisdom; his rudeness, wit; his unapproachable air, dignity. He sought no wife and was deemed the most eligible of the ton.
Someday he would have to marry, he expected, but he would remain heart-whole. He could not see himself letting his estates go to his only sister's eldest, a spotty, disagreeable little boy who whined. But even though the marquis had reached the age of five and thirty, he was in no hurry to be bound in matrimony. He thought of marriage in much the same way that a sinner thinks of confession and redemption, as something to be done at the last moment, on the deathbed preferably.
For with all of his wide experience with women, the marquis did not trust his perceptions of them too far. He shied from involving himself with them seriously, as he had been wrong once too often. He was scrupulously honest, however, with them and about his expectations of them. He enjoyed them physically and had learned to give them pleasure as well, and asked no more of them than that, and promised them no more than that. This attitude caused him no impediments to his desires. There were too many females eager to accept him on his own terms.
And those few who tried to change the terms were soon brought to realize their folly.
The marquis glanced at the note in his hand and rang for a footman to collect it from him. When the difficulties with France were finally irrevocably ended, he supposed he might find boredom at last. An emptiness might enter his life without occupation that did not offer such danger and interest. But he had learned to push such thoughts away. For now he was content to be a superior spy, and that was all that he cared to dwell upon.
St. John, Marquis of Bessacarr, darling of the ton, peer of the realm, patron of the frail sisterhood, social lion, and most superior spy, impatient with waiting for a footman to answer his summons, stepped out, on his way to a farewell dinner with his mistress, to send a message to his one true friend, his accomplice. And the message was to come to London instantly. For the assignment was at hand and they were off to Paris!
The trunks began to pile up in the great hall, as their growing number had already outstripped the confines of the back pantries. The duchess did not like to travel with any discomfort. So there were innumerable indispensable things to pack.
The duchess's modiste, a staple of the ton who would be horrified if her name were mentioned in the same breath as Madame Bertrand's, was giddy with ecstasy over the amount of clothing she was flogging her girls to turn out in time for the duchess's departure. Catherine no longer measured the time till their going by the calendar, but rather watched the trunks slowly take over the hall. By the time, she reasoned, that Griddon could no longer pick his way to the front door, the time of their departure would be at hand.
No one could have awaited their departure more eagerly than Catherine. Despite all the splendors of the duchess's accommodations, it had been a lonely time for her. Not even the lowest servant in the house had ever had the inclination or the time to chat with her. Thus she had passed her days in sewing or reading or gazing out the window at those more fortunately occupied, afraid to leave the house lest a summons from the duchess come while she was out. Only a few times had she dared hasty trips to the shops, and those only when there was a purchase she must make. On those rare occasions, it was a treat to be able to converse with the tradespeople she transacted her business with. There were times when the purchase of a spool of red thread had been the highest point of Catherine's day.
The only person she ever encountered in the street whom she knew, and he only by accident, was the duchess's near neighbor, the lofty Marquis of Bessacarr. When their paths crossed, he invariably would take note of her, to her distress. For he took special care to say something cryptic to her in passing. “It's a good life, isn't it, little one?” he said once, smiling, and, “My regards to your employer. Why does she still keep you under wraps?” he greeted her another time. Each time she steadfastly and properly ignored him. And each time he said a thing which seemed to amuse him, and which perversely always troubled her far into the night.
But today she was to have conversation. She stood in the duchess's bedchamber again, waiting to be noticed. For today she had come at her own request.
When finally the duchess had given Gracie instructions for the securing of yet another new trunk, this one for bonnets alone, she had time to look up at Catherine.
“How are you going, gel?” she asked pleasantly enough. “All packed and ready to scoot with me? Did Bertrand deliver as promised?”
“Oh yes, ma'am,” Catherine breathed, still embarrassed about the amount of clothing the duchess had thought necessary for her companion to have. Her fingers still ached from all the midnight sewing she had done to tame some of Madame Bertrand's more outrageous creations, and her conscience still pricked about the secretiveness of her stitchery.
“But there is a thing that I have to discuss with you.” She hesitated. This was difficult, although she had spent the better part of yesterday preparing herself for the interview.
“You see, Your Grace, there is the matter of my”âCatherine swallowedâ“wages.”
It did not sound so terrible once it was out, so Catherine rushed on, “I have been with you since October, and there have been certain expenses I have been forced to make. Expenses of a personal nature,” she hurried on, so as not to seem grasping or ungrateful for her food and pleasant housing, and not wishing to go into particulars, since most of her money had gone to laces and trimmings to alter her wardrobe.
“And as this is my first position, I did not think to ask originally as to when I would be paid. I do,” she went on with painful honesty, “realize that Your Grace has seen to my every comfort here, but Christmas is upon us, and so I wondered if I could ask that the wages I have already earned, only those, be given to me so that I might send a few things home before I depart.”
It was so difficult, Catherine thought, to talk about money. And so very foolish to feel like a greedy, grasping creature when one was only asking for what one had earned. But there it was, it was unseemly for a female to discuss money. Perhaps that was why it was so unseemly for a female to be actually employed.
The duchess looked hard at her for a moment, squinting her eyes to get a better look, which was something she seldom did, preferring on the whole to see the world in her usual pleasant myopic blurred focus.
“I usually pay my companions quarterly,” the duchess intoned, suddenly on her high ropes, and making Catherine quake at her own stupidity in not having discussed the matter on her initial interview to save herself this present embarrassment.
“But,” the duchess said, with a sly little grin, “I understand your predicament. You're probably used to much more ready in your pocket. I have kept your wings clipped since you came here, haven't I? But that's only because I wanted to spring you as a surprise when we got to France. Watch their eyes bug out when they saw you. No use to having rumors spoil the treat beforehand. So you're feeling pinched because I've kept you from your usual source of income, eh?”
Catherine had not a clue as to what the duchess was getting at, but then suddenly realized that she must mean that Arthur and Jane weren't there to provide for her as they usually did. Since that was true enough, too humiliatingly true, Catherine felt her face flush in embarrassment.
“Well, don't fret. You've been a good gel, and there's a treat for you. I'll give you the first two months' wages now and you can go on a spree with them. But once we get to France, that won't be a problem, will it?”
Catherine could think of no heavy expenses she could incur when she began her travels. Pourboires for servants could be taken from her pocket with no stress, since she didn't intend to spend every penny the duchess gave her now. So she nodded in happy agreement.
“Thought not,” the duchess answered. “But mind, I told Rose and I told Violet. I don't want to know about it. Do your duty to me first and be discreet about the rest, and we'll rub on well enough.”
There was no reason, certainly, Catherine thought, to bother the duchess with the small matters of tipping foreign servants, so she agreed again.
“We'll get you your wages now,” the duchess said, ringing for Gracie to get her her cash box, “and I suppose you'll want the same arrangements Rose and Violet did. I'll be your banker on our trip, and when it's over I'll hand it all over to you in a lump sum, or you can have it quarterly. It'll be like an extra cash bonus whenever you get it.” The duchess chuckled. “Money in the bank.”
Catherine took the money that the duchess handed to her, too grateful to count it. It seemed like a great deal, and even more, as it was the first money she ever earned by herself. And as far as the total sum of money being an extra bonus, it would be far, far more than that to her. The duchess, she thought gratefully, could have no idea of how penny pinched she really was. At the thought of the independence of spirit that the lump sum would buy herâthe freedom to choose whether to work again for some other woman, or to take her earnings and pay Arthur and Jane back some small portion of what they had given her so that she could live with them again with ease and spiritâCatherine smiled with pure joy.
“Money's a great thing. Ain't it?” the duchess crowed, seeing the girl's rapturous face.
“It is, ma'am,” Catherine sighed. “It is indeed.”
“Get on with it, then,” the duchess said, at first amused, but now bored with the chit's obvious greed. She immediately went back to chivying Gracie again about the whereabouts of her favorite feathered bonnet.
Catherine was as careful as a new mother with her firstborn child as she decided how to spend her wages. This time she had drawn Annie, a sharp little kitchen maid, as female escort. Annie was as distant and silent with Catherine as the others of her position. But Catherine had gotten used to the peculiar notions of status that prevailed in the duchess's household.
After hours of searching in the shops as carefully as a master chef searching for a perfect cut of meat, Catherine selected a warm but exquisitely made colorful shawl for Jane and a set of six beautiful enameled buttons for Arthur. Both presents were practical enough to please their sense of propriety, but extravagantly styled enough to be kept as personal treasures. And, best of all, both were small enough to be sent without incurring the world's expense on her shoulders. She was sure that Griddon could be asked to parcel them up for her, and that he would know how to go about posting them safely. For Catherine had never had to send a package to anyone before, never being far enough from home or knowing anyone far enough away.
To be sure, she thought, frowning slightly as she made her way back home, setting Annie to wonder if Her Grace's fine trollop had seen her wink at the butcher's boy, Jane's papa had lived far away and traveled further. But there was never any question of anyone posting anything to him, as he had never left a forwarding address.
Her own father, that dimly remembered handsome blue-eyed dark-haired man, had died when she was six. Mama had gone on alone, till she had met Jane's papa. He had been a slight, blond, elegant, and altogether charming widower. And Mama's heart had gone out to the outwardly blithe man with his little motherless, sober blond girl, only twelve to her own orphan's seven years. And if it had not, Catherine thought wryly, he would have pirated it anyway. For he was a persuasive man. Merry and laughing, charming and light spirited, he had invaded their house and swept Mama away with him. But only so far as the vicar's.
For after they were married, he had soon grown bored with Mama and two little girls, as he had grown bored witheverythingthat he had encountered in his life. Soon he was charming and delightful only to his drinking cronies, and soon after that, having found a safe harbor for his little girlâsay that much at least for himâhe was gone altogether, off on his own journeys. In search, he had said, of his fortune.
And he had left Mama with Jane and Catherine both to raise as best she could on what little her first husband had left her. When they had heard of his own death a few years ago, somewhere in Ireland, his own daughter had not even shed a tear. Small wonder, then, that Jane had not looked for a handsome, dashing stranger to carry her off, after a childhood full of a handsome dashing father who had carried her everywhere and then abandoned her. When prim and proper Arthur had stepped out from behind the counter at his shop to ask to keep company with her, she had accepted with alacrity. And though Catherine had not known Jane's father too long or too well, she too was wary of gentlemen with easy smiles and pleasing graces. Not, she reminded herself, that she was much in the way of meeting such gentlemen, or any gentlemen at all, these days.
Catherine quickened her pace, as the wind was beginning to bite fiercely, and the pavements at last communicated their chill through the bottom of her handsome kid slippers. She had been out shopping far longer than she had ever planned, and she was anxious to get back and get her parcels seen to, so that she could dream of Jane and Arthur's pleased expressions when they saw the bounty she had sent.
She was so intent upon her thoughts that she did not see him till he was almost abreast of her, although Annie had seen him coming from far down the street.
He tipped his hat, which he wore at a rakish angle, to Annie, and as she tittered, he swept it off altogether with a flourish as Catherine raised her eyes to him.
“Good day to you, little one,” he said pleasantly enough.
Although she had never acknowledged his greetings before, Catherine knew it would be quite rude to simply pass him by and cut him dead. He was a neighbor to the duchess, and the duchess seemed to hold him in some awe. So Catherine reluctantly inclined her head in greeting. His words had been innocuous enough, but she had seen the same amused gleam in his eyes.
“All ready for your little trip?” he inquired politely.
“Yes. Thank you. Quite ready,” Catherine answered, wishing he would end this interview, for she was not at all sure, all things considered, that it was proper for her to be speaking with him.
“Yes,” he drawled, seeing her impatience and hesitation, “you'd best be hurrying home, little ladybird. Your house may well be afire. Reinforcements have arrived.”
At Catherine's puzzled glance upward at him, something in his aspect changed, and he reluctantly withdrew his gaze from her clear blue eyes.
He replaced his hat jauntily and added, “You'd best see to your bonnets, child. The competition bids to be fierce this year.” And again he nodded and went on down the street, leaving Catherine with the usual mixture of feelings of chagrin and confusion, and Annie pink with pleasure at having been noticed by such a fine gentleman.
Catherine gave her coat to the footman and saw Griddon coming toward her. She began to explain about her parcels and how she wanted them sent, when he cut her off gently, “Her Grace has been asking for you. She's in the study. With a visitor.”
Catherine flushed with guilt, thinking of how on the one day that she was wanted, she was out. She reached the door and tapped lightly upon it.
“Come in,” the duchess called.
There was a woman sitting at the desk opposite the duchess. A magnificent woman. Her red hair was a tumble of curls, pulled back with a simple green ribbon. Her figure was full and imposing and her green walking dress was afroth with lace and frogs and knots. Her eyes were large and brown, with the darkest, longest lashes Catherine had ever seen. Her lips were full and very red and pouting, and she had, as she looked at Catherine, something of the imperious expression the duchess herself affected.
“Look who's here,” the duchess said wryly. “Look who the cat's brought back. It's dear Violet. And she's consented to come with me on my little jaunterings.”
“Go now.” The duchess waved at Catherine. “I just wanted dear Violet to get an eyeful of you and see how indispensable her services were. She and I have some business to iron out. I'll call you later. Go now.” She waved again, as Catherine stood there, staring like a ninny at the magnificent lady who made her feel all of two years old.
At last Catherine nodded and fled up the stairs.
Once in her room, she shut the door quickly, laid down her parcels with unsteady hands, and pulled the curtains closed. She was reacting, she told herself a few moments later, when she got her thoughts under control, just like a two-year-old who has seen a stranger who's frightened her. Why don't you, she scourged herself, go and creep under the bed while you're at it, to make the picture complete?
After a few moments, she had herself adequately under control again, and her face was very sad when she at last met her eyes in the mirror. “So be it,” she thought resignedly. “You cannot really lose something you have not had.” And, in all honesty, she had not been the duchess's companion yet, and she had not, she reasoned, lost a position she had never actually filled. “At least,” she told herself, with a little of her usual good humor, “there's very little packing to do,” as she saw all her new suitcases neatly arow in the corner of the room, ready for departure.
“So,” the duchess said, smiling hugely, “what do you think of your little replacement, Violet?”
“Quite the ingenue,” Violet answered in her high reedy voice, “but I don't think she's up to snuff.”
“She's a stunning little baggage and you know it,” the duchess went on, quite pleased with the agitation in her erstwhile companion's face.
“I should think you'd want to travel with a female that knows her way about. A responsible sort of companion. That little tart looks like she's still on mother's milk. She'll land herself in the suds before you know it, or pack it all in for some layabout's promises before you even reach Paris,” Violet said in the thin little voice that had been her downfall in the theater. For although the gentlemen had cheered every time she swept across the stage, no one past the middle rows had ever heard a line.
The duchess acknowledged the hit with a shrug. “Perhaps, but you'd be there to show her the ropes, wouldn't you, dear Violet?”
The magnificent female in the green walking dress relaxed the tight set of her shoulders. Up to this point she had not known if the old dragon was actually going to take her on again. She'd had to do some fast and glib talking, and then when the young smashing-looking girl had appeared in the doorway, she had thought that all was lost. But resiliency was her best asset, so she masked her surprise and said laconically, “Oh, I'll see to it that she doesn't embarrass you. I know what I'm about.”
“All because you're anxious to see Paris, eh?” the duchess prodded. “I'm pleased that you have acquired this sudden bent for travel. But of course, since Wolverton came down so handsomely with you, you wouldn't require any help from me with your wardrobe this time.”
Violet saw the old woman's eyes mocking her, so she gave in at last, feeling that a half a loaf was better than none.
“No, he didn't. He made up some wild story about me sneaking about with an actor on the sly, and used that as an excuse to simply pull out, without leaving me a farthing. As if,” she added, her bosom swelling, “I would sneak about with an actor, of all things, without a penny in his pockets and nothing but a handsome face to recommend him, and risk Wolverton's finding out.”
The duchess nodded sympathetically, knowing that was just what Violet would do.
“And dear Rose, have you heard from her?”
“Haven't seen hide nor hair of her, and that's the honest truth. Last I heard, she was off on the road with that new love of hers. He'll drink her out of house and home before she knows it unless I miss my guess.”
“This is all quite sordid.” The duchess sighed, ringing for Griddon. “And I don't think I care to hear about any more of it. I'll take you on again, Violet, although I was most displeased about the way you were so ready to leave me in the lurch. But I do have a reputation to uphold, and traveling with two companions is what my set is used to see me doing. But I won't hear of you changing your mind again. Do your duties, keep the new girl in line, and you will find I will be pleased.”
When Griddon appeared, the duchess asked him to call Miss Robins down again.
“Catherine,” the duchess said as Catherine, white-faced and subdued, came to the door, “this is Violet Peterson. I have spoken about her. She finds herself suddenly able to join me again and will be going to Paris with us.”
“I understand, ma'am,” Catherine said in a small voice. “And when do you wish me to leave?”
“Why, next week,” the duchess said, “when I do, of courseâdon't be such a gudgeon.”
“I shall have to see to the stage schedules,” Catherine said quietly. “Would you be so kind as to write me a recommendation so that I can secure future employment?”
Violet stiffened and gave Catherine a look of offended shock.
“Your new little miss don't think I'm a fit companion to travel with,” she shrilled.
“Violet don't fit your nice notions of propriety?” the duchess growled, in her iciest dignity.
“Oh no, that is not it,” Catherine foundered, “but I thought, when you said that she was coming with you, I thought you no longer required my services. That is to say, now that you have your original companion back, I did not see what need you would have of me.”
Catherine had researched the duties of a companion as best she could before even coming to London. But some things were basic, even back in Kendal. An elderly female, or an incapacitated one, or even a healthy able young woman of means could not live in society without proper female companionship. If there were no female relations in the home, and no indigent women in some branch of the family who would be glad of a home to be pressed into service, a companion was hired. A companion served as aide, or as company, sometimes as nurse, and most often just as figurehead for propriety's sake. But she had never heard of any woman requiring two paid companions. And that seemed to be just what the duchess was now implying. Perhaps, Catherine thought, with an amazed sense of guilt, she had not looked into the social habits that prevailed in the higher echelons of society as well as she should have. And now she had unwittingly offended Violet.
“I have often told you about Violet and Rose. I frequently travel with two companions. I have a position to uphold,” the duchess said, at her iciest, feeling obliquely accused by the mock innocence of this young upstart of a girl.
“I am sorry for the misunderstanding,” Catherine said gladly. “I should be delighted to travel with Miss Peterson, really I shall,” she said, looking beseechingly at the rigid Violet, and feeling a surge of delight at the thought of having someone to talk to at last nearer to her own age. “And I am relieved to find that you still want me.”
“Go, then,” the duchess said with unexpected relief. “Go and get acquainted. You'll be seeing a lot of each other, and I like my staff to be in harmony.”
“So you've got the green room,” Violet commented as she and Catherine made their way upstairs to Violet's room. “Rose, she used to have that one. What did you do before the old lady hired you on?” she asked disinterestedly as she walked unerringly into the room adjoining Catherine's.
Catherine, a little shocked at the familiarity with which Violet spoke of her employer, but not wanting to appear to be a prig and start the relationship off on the wrong foot, let the remark pass and merely said, “I lived with my brother-in-law and stepsister.”
“And I lived with the pixies at the foot of the garden,” Violet mocked, sweeping into her room and going straight to her looking glass.
Catherine looked nonplussed as Violet stripped the ribbon from her hair and examined her face in the mirror.
“Oh, all right, I'll play the game too,” Violet said wearily. “You lived with your brother-in-law and stepsister. Is it your first time in London then, s'truth?”
“Yes, and it's all been so strange to me.”
“Lord,” Violet sighed, “I'm going to be going across the face of Europe with Juliet. Well, you really landed in gravy hiring on with the dowager. She's a right old sort once you learn her ins and outs. Just watch your step with her, though. She's half tiddly, but the other half comes up when you least expect it. I remember once when Rose snuck out with that wild major before the duchess was ready to call it a night. Wasn't there an uproar about that, though? I thought old Rose was going to be chucked out in no time flat. But all was rosy again in the morning. Rose could never pick them. All for love, that's Rose. And not a penny in her pocket now to show for it. Not that I'm in clover either now, but after this jaunt I expect to have a few guineas put away, and you never know what gravy boats there are in Paris, do you?”
Catherine didn't know what to answer. Evidently Violet and Rose had both been up to some larks when the duchess's back was turned, and she supposed that the tedium of working for the duchess had to be relieved by some shows of spirit, but she honestly had no similar experiences to relate. So she simply smiled in a hopeful, friendly way at Violet.
Violet caught Catherine's expression in the reflection of her mirror. She stared thoughtfully. So the little miss was going to play it all airs and graces and not let her hair down? So be it, it takes all kinds, she thought. Rose had been more forthcoming, a right sort of girl. If this little chit wanted to play at being a society debutante, it was her business. And her dark hair and gamine looks and air of innocence might be a good contrast to Violet's own more spectacular looks. Just as Rose's blond buxom placidity had been a good foil for her own Titian vivacity.
But then, just for one moment, Violet caught one clear look of both their faces reflected in the oval of the mirror. Catherine's pure fine-grained white skin contrasted with her own powdered complexion; Catherine's clear startling blue eyes, with her translucent skin that allowed a faint blue tracery of veins to color her lids, contrasted with her own heavily soot-darkened lids and lashes; and the younger girl's faint blush of color above her cheekbones contrasted with her own heavily rouged cheeks. Then there was the chit's plump and dusky lips as opposed to her own richly red salved mouth, and, most damningly, the faint web of lines at the corners of Violet's eyes were not echoed on the girl's smooth face. No, Violet decided, only from across a room could the contrast between them be to her own benefit. She knew her assets as well as any banker knew his financial situation. Her own full figure and brazen coloring would catch the gentlemen's eyes long before they noticed the quiet beauty of this little miss. But standing side by side, Violet could only suffer by comparison. Her decision was made unerringly and irrevocablyâshe would stay away from Miss Innocence, stay far away in public, for her own good. And as far as when they were alone, time would tell if the chit would drop her air of sanctity.
“I'm for a quick kip,” Violet yawned, and, without further comment, she began to unbutton the bodice of her gown. She stripped down her clothes, as though she were alone in the room. Catherine hastily retreated, calling a good-bye that was only acknowledged by a nod and another huge yawn.
Really, Catherine thought, seeking the refuge of her own room, the women of London thought no more of nudity before other females than they did of nudity before a cake of soap. She wondered if she should write of the phenomenon to Jane in her letter next week.
But when she wrote her next letter to Jane, she mentioned not a word of it. For Arthur, she remembered, would most likely be reading Jane's letter over her shoulder. She wrote instead of the quiet Christmas she had spent, and the expectations she had of her journey. She closed by inquiring after their health and wished them all the joys of a new year. She sealed the letter and blew out her light. Then she went to her window to gaze at the moonlit streets of London, for a while. She watched some stray merrymakers reel past her observation post at the window seat and then she crept into her bed. She fell asleep as the bells rang out, and so celebrated the first moments of the new year of 1815 with quiet blameless sleep.
The deck of the packet to France was thronged with the fashionable of England and the Continent. Catherine tried not to goggle. There were gentlemen in the first and last cry of fashion, their capes billowing out in the wind, their hats defying every gust. The ladies wore rich garments and trailed retinues of more plainly dressed servants. Everyone boarding seemed to know each other, and the duchess nodded and smiled her tight little smile at gentlemen who bowed and ladies who stared. Gracie, like so many of the other servants who scuttled mutely and inconspicuously after their employers, only kept her attention on her mistress. But Violet, Catherine noted, behaved exactly as the duchess did, nodding and acknowledging old acquaintances. Evidently, Catherine thought, the companions of great ladies were treated exactly as their mistresses were, even though they were, in effect, no more than servants just like Gracie.
The duchess's retinue made their way to their berths. The duchess paused at the door of her cabin and looked at Violet.
“I shall rest. You know I cannot abide the sea. The mere sight of it makes me ill. But Gracie here knows what to do for me. I suppose you don't want to just languish in your cabin, eh? You'll want to see how the land lies. Well, get on with it. Let me know who's here and who's going where. But mind your manners. And take her with you,” she added, pointing to Catherine. “Let them get a look at her before we sail. That'll tickle them right enough.”
Violet looked as though she would balk at the suggestion, making Catherine feel like an ill-bred little sister who has insisted upon coming along with the grown-ups and so is hardly tolerated. But then Violet sniffed, “She's free to walk the decks, I'm sure.”
Violet was dressed, Catherine thought, as they turned from Her Grace's room, as though she were going to a high tea rather than sailing across the channel. She wore a bright burnt orange ensemble, and from the way she held her head as her fellow passengers turned to stare at her in the corridor, she acted as though she were the hostess of a large seagoing fete. Catherine felt mousy in her own rich, warm blue velvet cloak beside the glowing Violet.
As they were going out into the fresh cold sea air of the deck, Catherine noticed a small altercation taking place between the captain and a stunning attractive blond female. Although she too was dressed in the height of fashion, and was almost as theatrically brilliant as Violet, she wore an expression of consternation and seemed to be arguing with the captain. As they approached, Catherine heard Violet give out a low startled exclamation.
“Coo, now here's a turn. Look who's landed on us.”
“There,” the blonde cried, noticing Violet as she drew closer, “just ask her. That's the duchess's companion. She will tell you.”
“Excuse me, miss,” the captain said, wiping his brow, “but this lady says that the Duchess of Crewe is expecting her. She does not have her ticket, however, and I do not like to disturb Her Grace, and so perhaps youâ¦”
He trailed off, looking perturbed.
“Hello, Rose, old thing,” Violet said, with a slightly twisted smile. “Allow me to present Miss Catherine Robins, Her Grace's new companion.”
The blond woman looked stricken, but recovered quickly to say, “There, you see, the duchess's companion knows me. I'm sure Her Grace won't be angry if you take me to her. In fact, she might be very angry if you do not.”
“It's true that the duchess knows Miss Tomkins,” Violet said loftily, to the blond woman's evident relief. “I'm most surprised to see you here, Rose, and I'm sure Her Grace will be curious about your presence as well.”
Rose turned to the captain triumphantly. “There, did you hear that?”
The captain shrugged, content to have the burden of decision taken from him. “Very well,” he said, “but we sail in an hour.”
Rose turned to go below deck and gave Violet a radiant smile. “You're a good old thing, Vi,” she whispered, “and I'm not forgetting.”
“Is that,” Catherine whispered to Violet as they strolled on, “Her Grace's old companion Rose?”
“Don't let her catch you saying âold,'” Violet smiled.
“Whatever is she doing here?”
“With Rose one hardly knows,” Violet said disinterestedly. “Perhaps she's companioning someone else. Perhaps she's short of the ready and wants to touch the old girl's heart before she sails for a guinea or two. Time will tell.”
Violet spotted someone she knew in a clutch of travelers who were standing and joshing with each other by the rail, surveying late arrivals as they hurried up the gangplank. She turned and eyed Catherine obliquely. The wind had whipped color into the girl's cheeks, she noted. And her eyes gleamed bluer than the slate-blue sea beneath them. Her hair spilled out from the blue bonnet, tugged into curls by the sea winds' damp fingers. She looked as fresh and bonny as a young doe. Violet pursed her lips.
“I see some old acquaintances,” she said quickly. “Do you continue on your walk. Once the boat begins to move, you may not feel like staying above deck. So here's your opportunity to catch the lay of the land. I'll see you later.”
And, with a nod, she left Catherine's side and disappeared into a crowd of people.
Catherine walked on alone. She felt uneasy about walking by herself in a crowd of strangers, for she knew it was not the sort of thing a young female should do. At least, she amended, not the sort of thing she should do in Kendal. But the duchess had told her to go for a stroll, and Violet seemed to find nothing amiss with it. It would seem, she thought, a poor-spirited thing to rush below decks now and huddle alone in the cabin when all the world was up here on the main deck. That had been just as she had been doing, she thought, since she came to London, huddling alone while the world went by her window. Well, now she was to be one of that world. It was certainly time, so she walked on, watching the others, observing the scene.
However, she did not observe much of it. She was so flustered when one young gentleman swept her a bow and gave a whitetoothed smile, and so distracted when another elderly gentleman grinned most improperly at her, and, finally, so devastated when a trio of young women stared her up and down with cold disdainful eyes that she hardly had time to make the sort of observations she expected to. So she found herself a quiet corner of the rail and positioned herself there, staring pointedly out at the shore, so that anyone seeing her would think she was waiting for an escort to board the ship and come to her side. That, she felt, was a safer pose than merely perambulating the deck looking for insults. For it seemed, the fashionable world had the same opinion as regarded young females alone as did the world of Kendal.
It had been, she congratulated herself, a clever ploy, for no one bothered her now. However, she could see little of what was going on behind her and had to content herself with hearing bits of the conversation that flowed around her. Mostly, people were gossiping, she concluded. Talking about who was here and whom they expected to see. They spoke of “Lady This” and “Lord That.” She heard them joke about someone's bonnet, and someone else who had put on a few stone since they were last seen. They spoke of nicknames such as “old Bertie” and “Sly Betty.” All seemed to be code names, as when they giggled over “Viscount Viperous” or “the Dirty Duchess” and “the Deacon.” It was odd, she thought, that no one seemed to be speaking of the trip that was to come but instead only gossiping about who was there. She could not know that in the duchess's world people traveled not to see new things, but to see who else was traveling with them and who they knew that would be at their destination upon their arrival.
And so she was almost relieved when she heard a familiar voice at her elbow address her. Although the same voice caused only consternation every time she had heard it, this time it was with almost a feeling of pleasure that she listened to its deep laconic tones. At least it was familiar and she felt no longer so alone.
“Well,” he said, “and so the little country mouse takes to the sea at last. Are we to have the pleasure of your company all the way to Paris? Why, I suppose we shall,” he smiled not waiting for her answer. “I had quite forgotten that the duchess was never one to miss a gay party. Ah, but my mannersâallow me to introduce you, Jenkins, this is the Duchess of Crewe's latest companion, Missâ¦ah, my lamentable memory. Miss?”
“Catherine Robins, Your Lordship,” Catherine said quickly, to avoid further embarrassment, worrying about whether it was proper to introduce herself, and then once she had, wishing to bite off her tongue for admitting she already knew his name and rank.
The gleam in his gray eyes showed her he well knew her predicament.
“Allow me to present Robert Jenkins, my friend and my traveling companion.”
Catherine, turning and dipping a little curtsy, was further confused when she saw the gentleman she had been introduced to. For while the marquis, she noted, was dressed quietly but splendidly in dove gray and black in the peak of fashion, the shorter, muscular older man at his side was dressed as soberly and unobtrusively as any of the valets she had seen in the trail of their employers. Could it be that he was introducing her to his valet? Catherine hardly knew anymore what was proper in this strange milieu she had entered, and, throwing propriety to the winds she smiled up at Jenkins when she saw the sympathetic look on his grizzled homely square face.
“How do you do,” she said.
“Oh he'll do fine, now that he's met you,” the marquis went on. “As who wouldn't? You glow, my dear, you positively glow. Life with the duchess seems to have suited you to a tee. Do you know, Jenkins, that when I first met Miss Robins, she did not even know a street address in London? In fact, I flatter myself that I was the first to meet her, when Her Grace was conducting interviews. Of course, I shall not be the last. But from the moment I saw her, I knew that she would put an end to the stream of elderly parties that were quite obstructing the street in their eagerness to find employment with the duchess. It was becoming difficult to go out of doors, with the roadways thronged with elderly indigent females. Rather like stepping out into a massive sewing circle every day. There were so many old dears littering the walkways, it was becoming a traffic hazard. But then, as I laid eyes on Miss Robins, I knew she would put an end to it. We owe her a debt, Jenkins, for clearing up the public thoroughfares.”
Jenkins shot the marquis a look, Catherine thought, of censure.
“Delighted to meet you, Miss Robins,” he said in a gravelly voice, “but you must excuse me now. For I've things to see to.”
He bowed and took his leave, but the marquis seemed content to lounge at Catherine's side. He leaned back against the rail.
“Quite a change for you, isn't it?” he said to Catherine, in the same light bored tone that he had used with Jenkins. Rather, she thought angrily, as if he were still talking to someone else, even though there were only the two of them there now.
“Here you are, in the cream of London society. But you don't know a soul and can't yet get a taste of it. Her Grace has kept you cloistered, hasn't she? Now that's at an end, and you're free, but there isn't a familiar face about. Except, of course, for Violet, but she's feathering her own nest already. I,” he said, with mock bravado, “shall help you. For, God help me, I know every soul aboard this packet. There,” he said, turning his eyes toward a red-faced gentleman with bulging eyes, “is Old Hightower. Buried two wives and looking for a third rich enough to make matrimony worthwhile again. He lives in high style, but don't be fooled. His estates are mortgaged to the hilt, so he'll need to be quick about finding someone who hasn't heard of his financial distress. That's why he's off to Paris. Don't waste a second on him, little one, regardless of the diamonds at his throat. And there's Prendergast. Comely enoughâthere, that sort of a willowy-looking chapâ¦. Fancies himself a deep thinker, and he'll make up a poem for you the moment you flutter those incredible eyelashes at him! But that's all you'll get. He does have a fortune, and he'll likely keep it forever, for he doesn't spend a groat if he can help it. He's a perennial houseguest and as tight with a penny as a drum. And ah, there's Lord Huntâpass him by, child, pass him by. Drinks, you know, and forgets all of his promises in the morning. But now there, by his elbow, there's Sir Lawrence. That's one to keep your eye on. Old, but not infirm yet, and a chap who comes down handsomely when he's pleased. And he's not hard to please. And yes, there's Richard Collier, quite a prize despite that weathered look. There's many a good year left in him, and there's not a party he's likely to miss.”
Catherine drew breath in fury. She cut the marquis off just as he was gesturing toward the poor old gentleman being pushed aboard in his bath chair.
“I do not care about prizes and the personalities you have been so kindly explaining to me. My job is to be a companion. And whatever you may be thinking, please disabuse yourself of the notion that I am looking for a husband. I am here to be Her Grace's companion. To work, not to set my cap at anyone.”
The marquis stopped and looked at her with an arrested expression in his eyes. He stared down into her face, seeing the genuine anger and disturbance there. His eyes lingered for a moment on her lips, and she dropped her gaze, flustered both at her temerity in scolding him and at his intent regard.
Then he gave a shout of laughter that caused others on the deck to stare for a moment at them.
“Wonderful,” he said. “The intonation, the indignation, the heated countenance, all wonderful. Unless, it could beâ¦ No, I am not so wet behind the ears. Still,” he said, in a considering way. “What do you think of dear Violet?”
“Why, she is a delightful companion,” Catherine said stoutly.
“And what of the duchess's outline of duties?” he asked in a warmer tone of voice.
“Unexceptional,” she replied.
For once the marquis himself seemed puzzled. He gave her one more lingering look and then straightened.
“We shall see,” he said cryptically. “I hope you are a good sailor, little mouse, for the wind is picking up. I shall see you again, I am sure.” And bowing, he left.
Everything proper, she thought, with chagrin, while being everything improper.
Catherine watched him stroll away, stopping every few moments to bow or have a few words with other passengers. He was, she thought, watching his tall straight figure, quite the handsomest man aboard, but then she noted, watching the expressions of the females he greeted, she was not alone in thinking that. If only he were not so familiar and so puzzling, she sighed as she watched his slow progress across the deck.
And as she watched, he was stopped by Violet. Violet raised a glowing face as she flirted up at the marquis, and soon the two were deep in conversation. While Catherine stood watching intently, the marquis caught her at it. He looked up at her with a glance of rueful amusement as Violet motioned toward her. And then, before she could turn her head away, he gave her a curiously knowing smile. Then he linked Violet's arm in his and the two strolled away.
Catherine quelled her momentary feeling of dismay and then resolutely turned her face toward shore again. What was it that Miss Parkinson had told her so gently?
“A female who is a companion, no matter her birth, must always remember that she is not the social equal of her employer or of her employer's friends. However elevated her birth, she is yet an employee, and she must never imagine otherwise or she will be laying herself open to insult.”
Good advice, Catherine thought; perhaps I should work it in needlepoint and hang it above my bed, for I should not forget it for a moment. And neither, she told herself sharply, should I care about the marquis' choice of companions. And she stayed at the rail till they began to call ashore and the wind turned bitter enough to drive her below.
Once she reached her cabin again, Catherine opened the door without preamble and then stood motionless in the doorway. For there was Violet, her hat and slippers off, lying back against her bed pillows, talking animatedly with Rose. And Rose, the duchess's former companion, had made herself comfortable and sprawled out all over what Catherine had assumed to be her own bed.
When Catherine appeared, the two let off talking, and it was Rose who spoke up immediately, “There you are, Catherine. I'm happy to meet you. Seeing as how we're all going to be traveling together, I wanted to meet you. I was in such a state up there, I didn't have time for a word. But now, all's tight and we can have a nice coze.”
Violet watched them with a highly amused expression as Catherine stammered, “Oh, then you're accompanying someone to Paris, as well?”
“Oh, Lord love you,” Rose beamed, “I've gotten my old job back. But don't look so downcast. It'll be heaps of fun for us. Imagine, the duchess is going with three companions this time! She thought it was a right old joke too. I do confess, when I saw you with Vi here, I thought I was sunk, I did. But I got down on my knees to Her Grace and told her all my troubles. I groveled, I did. I was that afraid she'd pitch me out. It would serve me right, but then where would I be? She gave me a hard time, calling me all sorts of a fool, and what could I say when she was right? Giving up a soft berth with her to fly off with a gamester and letting the world go hangâit was madness. Yes, Vi, you were right. A leopard don't change his stripes. And he going off with another like that, leaving me high and dry without even fare to get back to London. But first thing I do back in town is to go haring back to Her Grace. And then I hear she's off to Paris! Think of it, me giving up Paris like that.”
Rose shook her head in distress at herself. She was beautiful, Catherine thought, in a very different manner from Violet. She was fair and blonde, with a full figure and a warm, comfortable manner. She had fine large brown eyes and a high bosom and a head of flaxen hair, and was fully as red of lips and dark of lashes as Violet. But she was not so elegantly stylish as Violet. Rather, she was comfortable and plushy looking, and as she prattled on in her soft voice, it was impossible not to warm to her.
“So I borrowed here and I borrowed there,” she said, ignoring a trill of laughter from Violet, “and I hied myself to the docks just in time to catch Her Grace. And still, I don't think I turned the trick till I said to her, I said that everyone would be positively agog when they saw her with the three of us in tow. A redhead and a blonde and a brunette. I said, what could be more smashing? More eye-catching? More distinguished? And then I saw her thinking and I went on that she'd be the success of the Continentâher name would be on everyone's lips, I said. And she upped and said, âYes, I think you're right.' And so here's old Rose. Coming along to Paris with you. And you needn't worry, for I won't step on your toes at all. Vi here can tell you I'm very amiable, and I'll never stand in your light. I know I'm not terribly bright, like Vi here,” she said, looking imploringly at Catherine, as though Catherine's opinion meant the entire world to her, “and neither am I so elegant as you. You look a treat, just like a young lady should. So I won't take the shine out of you. But I needed this job, truly I did, so say you'll be friends and we'll have a jolly time. For if I've gotten your nose out of joint, it will be rotten for us all, and I'll feel badly for having upset everyone.”
“No,” said Catherine, “I don't mind. Why should I? If that is what Her Grace wishes, why should I cavil? But I truly don't understand,” Catherine said sadly, shaking her head and sitting down in one of the gilt chairs in the cabin, “why someone would need two companions, let alone three. Especially when she doesn't seem to even require one, what with her personal maid seeming to do all the work for her.”
“You see?” Violet said in disgusted tones, lying back on the bed again, “it never stops, not even when we're alone together.”
“I think that's horrid of you,” Rose said indignantly to Violet. “Live and let live, I say. She don't mean no harm by it. She's probably born to better things, like Henrietta was, back in Tunbridge Wells. Never you mind, Catherine,” Rose said pleasantly. “You go on just as you want to. I just wanted to make sure you knew that I mean no harm. And that there's plenty to go round for all three of us, seeing as how the duchess means to hit all the high spots.”
Catherine looked at Rose and felt a distinct frisson of unease starting somewhere in the region of her stomach that had nothing to do with the motion of the ship.
“Enough of what to go round?” she asked slowly.
“Oh, Lord,” Violet groaned, and most inelegantly flopped over on her stomach and held a pillow over her head.
“Enough gentlemen, of course, dear,” Rose said, with puzzlement. “Enough gentlemen for us all to go around. There's plenty of fish in this sea. And even though there'll be three of us, we're all so different, there'll be money enough for all of us to make. I'll never cut into your takings, dear,” she said, eyeing Catherine's pale face with distress. “Never fear, we'll get on beautifully, like three sisters.”
Not many people were above deck now. The sky was lowering and the motion of the boat had already sorted out the good sailors from the bad, sending the latter below to suffer in privacy. And even those who did not mind the rolling sea, did not care to brave the chill winds and stayed below as well. Catherine had discovered that she was a good sailor, or perhaps it was just that she was so distressed that it would not matter to her if she were in the center of a tidal wave. Her own thoughts were in such turmoil that the motion of the ship could not match them for turbulence.
She stood at the deck and gripped the rail tightly with her mittened fingers. A great many things made sense to her nowâfrom the duchess's servants' attitudes to the attitude of Madame Bertrand, to even the marquis' mocking comments. Her face flamed when she thought of him and what she now knew he had meant every time he spoke to her. But she was not a stupid girl, and the fact that she had seen nothing in her situation that was not glaringly out of line distressed her almost as much as the opinions of the marquis and everyone she had met in the duchess's service.
For there was no doubt in her mind now. The artless Rose had prattled on and on till she had erased all doubts. She had been hired on only because Rose and Violet were not available, and Rose and Violet had been beautiful women, and young, at least far younger than the general run of ladies' companions in the marketplace. But there was no doubt, as incredible as it seemed, Rose and Violet were women of low repute. Catherine thought of all the euphemisms she had ever heard. They were demireps, they were fancy pieces. Oh, Lord, she thought, have an end to it, they were women who catered to the darker needs of strange gentlemen, whatever you called them.
And here she was, Catherine Robins, unmarried daughter of a younger son related to the great house of the Earl of Dorset, brought up as properly and as poorly as a churchmouse, traveling companion to a duchess and two highly paid cyprians. And presently almost penniless and precisely in the midst of the English Channel. I truly am “at sea,” Catherine grieved.
She tried to marshal her thoughts. For she had to decide on some plan of action immediately. Every moment brought her closer to France. The worst, she thought sadly, was done. She had hired onâshe had been introduced into the household of the Duchess of Crewe. And all those that had seen or met her most probably thought her on a par with Rose and Violet. What is done is irremediable, she thought vehemently, in an effort to think clearly, pushing aside intrusive thoughts of the disdainful marquis. It was the future she had to think on.
Her first impulse was to cut and run. She felt sullied by her new knowledge and sick at heart at her new understanding of Rose and Violet. The best thing would be to turn and go at once. But then she did some sums rapidly in her head. She had spent a great deal of her money on those foolish lace and brocades she had bought to embellish and repair her gowns. And most of the remainder of her income had gone for Jane and Arthur's presents and gratuities to the servants in the duchess's London house when she had left. If she should decide to turn right back and go home on a return ship when they landed at Dieppe, she would have barely enough to reach her home shores. Then there would be the problem of how to obtain enough funds to pay the many stage fares to see her home to the north country.
How could she even think of borrowing from either Rose or Violet? She could not approach them and say, “I cannot travel with two females as low as you are. My sensibilities are wounded to be even considered in the same light as you. So please lend me enough money to go home.” And if she shuddered to think of how respectable people thought of her, she now also had a few guilty feelings about Rose and Violet's opinions of her. For no sooner had Rose done with her long and artless talk than Catherine had stared at her and blurted, “I did not know! I had no idea,” and had rushed, shocked and shamed, from the cabin.
That, she thought, furious with herself, had been unnecessary and cruel.
The major problem, she tried to think dispassionately, was the duchess. For she did not know her well enough to know what her true opinion of her companions was. The dowager was such a dignified, socially secure woman that Catherine found it hard to believe she knew the truth about her companions. She had always spoken of Rose and Violet's doings in terms of their “high jinks” and “larks” and “nonsense.” It was, Catherine thought desperately, entirely possible that the old woman was naive enough to think they were just innocent romps. Or equally possible that the duchess's mind was turned with age, and that she truly did not notice such goings-on.
The duchess had made it clear that she would hold her wages till the trip was done, or pay quarterly, and, in truth, since paying a sum of money a few weeks past, she owed not a cent to Catherine. All of her wages were yet to be earned. Why should the dowager just hand over monies to a companion who quit her employ the moment they had begun their journey?
And, Catherine thought with a start, if the duchess's companions had such a reputation, how could Catherine ever find decent employment in London again? For the duchess would never write a reference if she quit so precipitously. But more, even if she did, such a reference would not be worth the paper it was written on.
After a half hour in the biting wind on the rolling deck, only two things were abundantly clear to Catherine. One was that she did not have enough resources to get safely home by herself. And two was that she did not have the resources to go safely on with the duchess. Yet every moment the ship bore her onward.
She bent with her head cradled in her arms, by the rail of the ship, cold within and without, until a light touch on her arm recalled her to herself.
“Why, Miss Robins, are you ill?” Jenkins' voice asked softly.
She looked up to see his concerned face close to hers. His was a lined and weathered visage. His hazel eyes looked as though they had squinted against many suns, and his short-cropped brown hair and neatness of person made him seem a comforting figure. He was old enough to be her father, and looked as though he might consider himself as such. She was tempted to blurt out her whole wretched story to him, stranger though he was. But then another familiar voice said, “The sea is not always kind to newcomers. Our little country mouse has strayed too far from her farmhouse.”
Catherine's head shot up and she looked with a mixture of embarrassment and defiance at the marquis. “I am not ill,” she said. “I was only thinking about things. And I lost track of the hours.”
She wondered suddenly if she could confide in him. He, alone of all the people on the ship was a familiar face. He would certainly have the resources not to miss advancing the small amount of money to see her safely home. If only she could strike the right conciliatory note, perhaps he could even give her some advice, for he was a worldly man. She hoped that he would unbend for a moment to give her the chance to speak freely. Jenkins, she saw, was watching her with a kind, concerned expression. She kept her gaze on the marquis as he stood and looked down at her with eyes as fathomless as the slate-gray sea they were crossing and she began to pluck up her courage.
Before she could speak again, he smiled, not at all kindly, and said in an explanatory fashion to Jenkins, “No, she's not a bit afflicted with mal de mer. So put away your vinaigrette, Jenkins. Rather, I think, Miss Robins is afflicted with a surfeit of companionship. Her cabin is literally bulging at the seams. The fair Rose has joined Violet, and now the duchess has a veritable bower of pretty flowers in her employ. Rose, Violet, and Catherine. That does not have the right ring to it. You ought to change your name, little one, to Forget-me-not, to ensure your standing with the duchess. And the gentlemen. Miss Robins is here, I think, Jenkins, because it is difficult for a little young country flower to keep her head high in the presence of two such spectacular blooms as Rose and Violet. But never fear,” he said, laying one gray-gloved hand across her cheek to tuck back in an errant wind-whipped curl. “There are many gentlemen aboard who are weary of hothouse blossoms and who will welcome a fresh young English nosegay such as yourself.”
All of Catherine's fears and shame coalesced into one direct and burning emotion of hatred toward the marquis. He stood there smiling, he who had been her one possible lifeline, and dashed all her nebulous hopes of escape to bits with his words. She had thought to confide in him, but before she had been able to breathe one word, he had begun a frontal attack upon her. She dashed his hand away and looked at him with brimming eyes.
“I find your humor ill bred,” she said. “And your inferences impertinent. Good day.” And she turned on her heel and walked off. After one moment's silence, she heard a laughing “Bravo!” called in the distance behind her.
“Didn't she carry that off well?” the marquis laughed. “Like the dowager herself. She is a quick study, I'll be bound.”
“I think you're being a bit hard on her, lad,” Jenkins said reproachfully.
The marquis' face hardened and he turned to look out to sea. “She's only a little artificial flower, after all, Jenkins. Don't tell me you're touched and believe her role as ingenue?”
“As to that,” Jenkins said, turning to face the sea as well, to get a last glimpse of home, “I couldn't say. But no matter what she is, she's only a girl. It's not like you to get so spiteful, especially toward a woman. I saw you chatting up Violet as nice as can be. And she's a right old tart.”
“But she's an honest old tart,” the marquis answered slowly, “with no dissembling. Our Miss Robins aspires to play the grand lady; it's that, I think, that tickles me.”
“Don't seem to tickle you. Seems to gall you,” Jenkins said.
“Perhaps. Perhaps it is just that I value honesty. And I might like her very well if she would drop that facade of purity.”
“Well,” said Jenkins at length, “facade's what it's all about, isn't it? With all of them? Pretending to be attracted and then pleasured, with a fellow pretending he don't notice the pretense. That's all part of the trade.”
“And probably why I don't patronize such businesswomen,” the marquis said loftily, till he caught Jenkins' eye and then laughed lightly. “Or at least such obvious tradeswomen. You old wretch, you make me admit my every pretense.”
“Seems you were interested enough in our bold little Violet,” Jenkins ruminated.
“It always pays, Jenkins, to have the friendship of such females. For there's a great many pillows that they have their ears to, and a great deal of information they can, all unwittingly, be privy to. So although I don't have any designs on Violet, and well she knows it, it does pay to be in her good graces.”
“Then, why are you going out of your way to alienate the little beauty?” Jenkins asked innocently.
“Be damned to you,” the marquis said pleasantly, and as he cuffed Jenkins' shoulder, they both began to laugh.
“It's just that 'tis pity she's a whore,” the marquis finally said, when Jenkins thought he had forgotten the subject.
“You can't be sure of that, either,” Jenkins finally replied.
“Oh yes, and Violet may be contemplating a life in the convent. Give over, old friend.”
“Then meet her price and see.”
“I'm not interested in the question,” the marquis said, yawning.
And it's not often that you lie to me, Jenkins thought, looking at the marquis' profile, or to yourself.
“It's not such a bad crossing, for January,” Jenkins said eventually, to dispel the marquis' frown.
“What? Oh no, it isn't,” his companion replied, and they talked of ships and crossings till the wind blew them below to seek refuge as well.
Catherine went back to her cabin, because she had nowhere else to go. And because she wanted to make amends to Rose and Violet.
She had no idea, as she crept back in, of what a fight had been raging before her return. For Rose and Violet now sat calmly, looking through their belongings, not speaking a word to each other.
But the moment Catherine had risen, ashen-faced, and fled, they had both sat there in stunned silence.
“Oh Vi,” Rose had wailed after a moment, “see how you've made a mull of it? You told me she was one of us, up to every trick, young as she was. And though when I first laid eyes on her I doubted it, really I doubted it, still you told me she was a deep one. And now, you see, you was wrong. She's just a little innocent and I've gone and shocked her to the bone. Oh I could bite out my tongue.”
“Don't be a fool,” Violet countered, sitting up and throwing away her pillow, with a look of furious dismay on her face. “It's all part of her game, I tell you. She never drops her guard, not for a moment. All meek and mild, and she'd stab you in the back in a minute. I know her kind.”
“That you don't,” Rose shouted with unaccustomed heat. “For where would you ever meet such a sweet young innocent?”
“Stupid cow,” Violet charged back. “If she was such a sweet young innocent, what would she be doing signing on with the old torment for?”
“Well, that's it exactly,” Rose sniffed, overtaken with remorse. “She'd hire on with Her Grace exactly because she didn't know what she was about. For we did leave the dowager in the lurch, and that you do know. And when she asked me for the name of a replacement, I didn't give her any, 'cause I wanted to leave the door open, in case things didn't work out. And it's a good job I did. But I'll wager you didn't give her a name neither. So she must have hired on this little pretty, just 'cause she's so pretty and young and know-nothing.” And Rose dabbled at her eyes with the edge of the bed covers.
“I never thought you were such a flat, Rose,” Violet sneered. “To be taken in so by an act of innocence.”
“Well, it's true that I've been taken in, many times, by the gentlemen,” Rose said slowly, “for I don't understand them at all, I think. Or maybe it's just that I keep expecting things of them that just ain't there. But I do know women. And I'll stake my life on that little thing's honesty. For if she was up to snuff, why shouldn't she come clean with us? You've done a terrible wrong, Vi, that you have.”
Violet, assailed by self-doubt, struck back instantly. “Rose, I vow Carlton took half your brains with him when he took all your money. Do you think the old fiend would run the risk of hiring on a good girl of good birth and reputation?”
“And I think you've gotten hard as nails, Violet; of course, she would, seeing as how she's half turned in the head. And well you know it too. Didn't you just say on our last trip as to how it wouldn't be long before the old cow would be in Bedlam, and how we might never meet on another jaunt together again? Not that I ever approved of how you refer to Her Grace. Because dicked in the nob or not, she's still a duchess, mind. Mad as hatter though she may be. So, of course, she'd hire on some sweet young thing. And a sweet young thing she is. I've never seen her on the town, and you haven't neither. Oh I feel like a brute, Vi, really I do, and you would too, if you hadn't grown so hard.”
“Well, I haven't grown so hard as your head, Rose,” Violet shrieked in a voice that would have stood her in good stead in her first chosen profession, the stage. “And don't you start blaming meâit was your babbling, your going on and on about your exploits that sent her flying, not mine. I was close mouthed as can be with her. So don't put the blame on me.”
“You've grown cruel, and hard, yes hard, Violet,” Rose stated with ponderous calm. “And I'm sorry for it.”
The two fell silent, avoiding each other's eye. And they went about pointedly searching through their portmanteaus, deep in their own thoughts, in exaggerated silence, till Catherine tapped lightly and entered their cabin again, after her time thinking on the deck.
Catherine spoke very quietly.
“I am very sorry,” she said, in the voice of a small child who has committed some grave misdemeanor and is determined to beg forgiveness as nicely as she is able, “about the way that I behaved. It was unconscionably rude on my part. Perhaps it was just that I was angry at myself for not seeing what was afoot. I quite deceived myself. And it was wrong in me to have given you the impression that I was disapproving or angry at you. For, you see, I was angry, but only at myself.”
“Oh there, there, my dear,” Rose cried, seeing the girl standing head bowed and alone in the center of their little room, “we didn't take anything amiss, did we, Vi? So you must not apologize, certainly not, right, Vi?”
“Right,” Violet said, looking uncharacteristically conscious. “Not a thing to apologize for. “
“That is very kind of you,” Catherine said, and then, turning her large anxious eyes to both of them in turn, she asked, hesitantly, “But there is something I must ask you. And it is very difficult for me, so please bear with me for a moment, and pray do not take offense.”
“Oh we shall not,” Rose hastened to tell her, looking very anxious herself.
“It is just this,” Catherine began. “Does Her Grace, that is to say, this is of primary importance to me, does the duchess know and condone your, ah, activities that go beyond companioning her?”
“As to that, you see, my dear, we really could not say,” Rose said nervously. “Her Grace gives us free time once she is abed and no longer requires our presence. She is a very free, that is to say, a veryâ”
“Liberal,” Violet put in quickly, seeing Rose stumble.
“Yes, an exceedingly liberal employer. And she does not care what we get up to when she is not abroad. That is, so long as we are discreet and do not embroil her in any of our activities.”
“Then,” Catherine ventured, raising her head, “you are not required toâto do,” she stammered, “what you do?”
“Oh, Lord love you, no,” Rose laughed in relief. “That is not the case at all. Why, just ask Vi, she traveled with Her Grace for a season before I signed on.”
“Rose speaks no less than truth,” Violet said hastily, “for the duchess hired me only as companion.”
“Just so,” said Rose in satisfaction.
“But I do not understand, surely she must have heardâ¦she does not care, then, you say?”
“The duchess,” Violet said quickly, “enjoys the attention we bring her. She enjoys the notice she receives when we are with her. As to what she may have heard, we cannot say.”
“So, then,” Catherine went on, thinking aloud, “she does not expect me to, she does not require me toâ¦”
“Oh never, I'm sure,” Rose said in horrified tones. “She never discusses such things with us.”
“Then I can stay on,” Catherine asked hopefully, “and only be a companion, and nothing else? No matter,” she said, with a little shake of her head, “what anyone else thinks? I cannot see how I can turn and leave now. And once I return home to Kendal, I shall, in any event, hardly be running into anyone that I have met here. Kendal is such a long, long way from London and Paris in so many ways,” Catherine thought aloud, “that it hardly matters what anyone in the duchess's set thinks of me. So, after this journey, I will retire and go to live out my life back home where no one has ever heard of the duchess to begin with. Not,” she said, aghast at her ruminations, “that you would not be welcome in Kendal. Or that I think anythingâ”
Violet cut her off with a wry smile.
“Give over, Miss Catherine. If you are a nice little thing from the country, if you are well born, of course you're shocked to flinders to find yourself with us. We're hardly the sort of companions a well-bred miss hopes to find herself with. But that don't bother us. So you're staying on then?”
“If you think, and I truly ask you please to tell me the truth, that I can go forward with the duchess and not be expected by her toâto pursue another trade.”
Violet gave out a little yip of laughter.
“Oh, that's a nice way of putting it. I suppose your pockets are to let, then?”
Catherine nodded sadly.
“Well, we can't help you out there neither. For we're both in the same case. But once we get ashore, we can remedy that, and if you want, we'll advance you the funds to skip out.” Violet looked almost as shocked as Rose and Catherine did at her sudden burst of generosity.
“Oh no, no,” Catherine protested immediately. “That wouldn't be right.” Catherine thought suddenly of the names she could put to someone who profited from a cyprian's earnings and then blurted, afraid that her companions might know the nature of her thoughts from her horrified expression, “I would not ask you to be responsible for me. For if I can go on solely as a companion, as I was engaged to do, I can see the journey out and then take my earnings and go home.”
“Of course you can go on with us. In fact, we can put the word about the gentlemen that you are not”âRose pausedâ“of a sporting disposition.”
Violet winced at Rose's effort to tidy up her speech, and then, considering the young miss so sadly lost in their midst, thought rapidly. For no doubt the little beauty would draw the gentlemen like flies to a picnic basket. And then she and Rose could only profit the more from the fact that she was unwilling to go off with them. She smiled with perfect charity at Catherine.
“Rose is right, we'll tell them, never fear. And there is no reason to concern yourself as to the duchess's caring one jot one way or the other. She'll be glad enough if you only play the companion well. All she wants is for heads to turn when she appears. She don't give a tinker's damn as to what you do to occupy your free time. Whether you sew a fine seam alone in your room or dance naked in a fountain, it's all the same to her. And that's the truth.”
“Very true,” seconded Rose.
“And,” Violet said triumphantly, “you yourself said no one at home is likely to ever know what the duchess and her set is about. So cheer up. It will be a good journey. Rose and I will be amiable enough. And all the duchess wants of you is to keep by her side in good looks. You can just put all else out of your mind.”
“You two must think me a fool,” Catherine said sadly.
“Oh no,” Rose protested. “We were all young once. Only, perhaps, not quite so young.”
Catherine laughed. And then she looked at her two fellow companions.
“I think I shall grow up quite a bit on this journey.”
“Travel is broadening,” Rose agreed complacently, ignoring the weary look Violet shot her.
The crossing, all agreed, was not so bad as it might have been. There were those, of course, who had been taken ill by the vessel's rocking over the January seas, and those who had been, as they expected, ill no matter what the conditions of the weather. But it might have been worseâthere had been only the cutting wind and the winter's cold. Travelers who were more experienced with the vagaries of the channel's weather could only be grateful that there had been no pouring rains or wind-driven squalls of ice.
As the shores of France loomed in the distance, the passengers began to assemble themselves for departure. Catherine had spent the remainder of her journey hugging her newfound knowledge to herself and attempting to try on a new public face. For, knowing what she did, she reasoned there was no way she could delude herself into forgetting it for a moment. If she could not go homeward, she must go onward with a new attitude. But which one?
She could not appear to be constantly disapproving, because she felt that would make her a sanctimonious fool, to go on with people of whom she patently disapproved. The only hope for it, she thought sadly, was to maintain an air of irreproachable dignity. To carry on as though she well knew what people thought, but was too sophisticated to care. No, she thought, not sophisticated, for that she could not simulate as she was decidedly not a woman of the world. Rather, that she knew what was happening about her, but chose not to notice or care. That was, after all, just what she was doing. Her attitude must be then, she thought, much as her employer's was. Tolerant and uncaring. And if she felt any squeamish qualms about having to affect any sort of attitude at all, and not simply give the whole matter up and fly off to try to get home in any manner that she could, she consoled herself by recalling that a young woman alone and without funds in the English countryside might be thought of as a great deal worse than one employed in the entourage of a duchess of the realm.
So Catherine stood, head high, surrounded by her trunks, on the deck of the packet and watched as the vessel began its docking procedures. And when the Marquis of Bessacarr strolled by with Jenkins at his shoulder, Catherine found her newly born affect of worldliness sufficient to allow her to acknowledge his presence with a smile and a nod in his direction.
He paused in his steps, for they both realized that it was the first time she had ever admitted his presence without his first having approached or accosted her. He smiled in his faint cynical manner and came to her side.
“So you have forgiven me my rash speculations? I am glad of it. I was, I fear, afflicted with the tediousness of the journey, and I let my tongue run away with me. How pleasant it is to see that you have compassion as well as beauty, little one,” he said, bowing over her hand.
Catherine smiled politely at him and at Jenkins, and said, she noticed, without the usual fast beating of her heart or dryness in her mouth, “Certainly. There is nothing to apologize for.”
It was amazing, she thought, now that she understood what all his sly references to her meant, her feelings of confusion in his presence had fled. It was as though she were a different person he was speaking to, and as though they both were part of an amusing play. Newly confident, she only smiled demurely when he gazed thoughtfully at her.
“I understand that we are both to be guests at Sir Sidney's little house party.”
She knew nothing of the sort, but only said carelessly, “I am sure it will be most pleasant.”
“Oh, delightful, I'm sure,” he said, with a puzzled look at her. “And I shall be envied, for I think that Jenkins and I are the only gentlemen to have made your acquaintance as yet. For I see that you do not join your companions.” He gestured toward Rose and Violet, who were chatting with a group of gentlemen.
“No,” she said a little nervously, “but please excuse me, as I think the duchess requires me now.”
She nodded and fairly flew off toward the duchess, who, she was sure, had forgotten her existence entirely, for the moment.
She had convinced herself that the world's opinion did not matter. But yet it seemed, despite her best efforts, that one gentleman's opinion mattered very much. She discovered she could not bear the contempt in his eyes.
“Oh, there you are, Catherine,” the duchess said, seeing her slip into the outskirts of the impromptu circle that had formed around her.
“This is Catherine Robins, my newest companion,” the duchess said to the general interest of the group of elderly persons around her. “Rose and Violet you know of old. But Catherine here has only just joined me.”
There were several murmurs of introduction and interested looks in Catherine's direction. A moment later, she found herself forgotten as the discussion turned to accommodations that were considered acceptable in Paris these days. Catherine had a good chance to covertly study the group that surrounded her employer.
They were all old, she thought with reliefâindeed, some seemed ancient. A few of the gentlemen still sported periwigs, and the women were either thinned by age, as was the duchess, or blatantly plump. Some were dressed in high style and others sported garments that seemed to have come straight out of museums. One poor old gentleman, Catherine noticed, sat trembling in his bath chair, attended by an impassive valet. It was he who was going on, in a high, tremulous voice, about how the conditions of travel had deteriorated since his last journey to the City of Light.
“Of course,” said the thin, pale old gentleman at Catherine's side, “that was before the flood, you know. Poor old Richard used to dance attendance on Pompadour herself, when they were both in nursery, I believe,” he said, laughing. “And Cleopatra as well, I'll warrant.”
Catherine turned to the speaker. He bowed and then looked at her with frankly approving eyes. She did not mind his obvious interest, because he was so very old and innocent looking. He had been tall, she guessed, in youth, but age had shrunken him, and now he appeared slender and almost translucently fragile. He had a thin coating of gray hair and his face was gentle and lined. His whole attitude, from the sober hues of his clothes to the quietness of his voice, gave her the impression of a gentle, kindly old fellow. So she smiled wholeheartedly at him.
“Ah, the duchess has picked herself a lovely this time,” he said. “I hope you do not mind me being so personal, but at my age, alas, all I can do is admire loveliness in all its forms.”
In truth, Catherine was growing weary of hearing nothing but references to her physical person, but it was impossible to mind anything this kind old gentleman said.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“Hah, look at the Vicar,” cried the duchess. “Just got in a new flower and he's already buzzing around her.”
“But never fear, little lovely,” cackled one old female in a dizzying collection of shawls and scarves, “for he's lost his sting.”
The assembled old people began laughing, and Catherine noticed that the man they called “the Vicar” laughed along with them.
“That is true,” he said ruefully, “but Miss Robins seems to be a perceptive child, and so suffers my attentions nonetheless. We shall meet at Sir Sidney's, my dear, and show these doubters that I can still, at least, dance to a tune or two.”
Catherine nodded her agreement, and further sounds of merriment were stilled as the vessel, now tied securely to the dock, began to let its passengers off.
The duchess debarked in state, leading her ensemble of four femalesâGracie directly behind her, and then Rose, Violet, and Catherineâcarefully picking their way down the gangplank.
“So exit the old hen and her delicious chicks,” the marquis remarked to Jenkins from his observation point against the rails.
“I tell you, Jenkins,” he said, in low tones, dispiritedly, “I cannot like this employment. Pitched into the midst of these posturing, empty, pleasure seekers. I'd rather be in the thick of some action or in any other company but this. Having to play at their games, play at being one with them is wearing. Fiend seize the old chap, I'll gather whatever I can and be quit of this charade as soon as possible. I cannot think I can learn enough of import for this trip to be worthwhile. I boarded this packet just to be in step with them. And what have I discerned so far? That Lady Scofield has left her lord for a dancing instructor. That he does not care so long as she takes care not to return too soon. That Lord Hunt is on the prowl for a French mistress, that old Bertie expects to make a killing at the gaming tables, and old Philip has to, else he cannot return home at all. That the Dirty Duchess has three females for hire in her train, one of them with the airs of a ladyâoh, all of this, I am sure will thrill the old chap and save our dear country.”
“Aye,” Jenkins said softly, “but you've not set foot on La Belle France yet. And you've not put your eyes or ears to work yet. It's in Paris where the meat of the matter lies.”
“And I have to stop off at Sir Sidney's and prattle with the lot there first,” the Marquis sighed.
“That you do,” Jenkins nodded. “For if you pass up an invitation such as that, they'll surely smell a rat. You're a pleasure-loving lad, and no pleasure lover would pass up such a treat.”
“Then let's haul ourselves off there instantly,” the marquis decided, uncoiling his long frame, “for the sooner it's over, the sooner we can go on. And,” he said, eyeing the duchess's party as it disposed itself into a coach in the quay below, “I might just seek some pleasure there as well.”
“Well,” said the duchess, with satisfaction, “now we're off. Sir Sidney has rented a house, and a great many good people are to be stopping off there before Paris. And so shall we. You've done well, Catherine,” she said with pleasure. “The Vicar's an astute man, and he likes the cut of you. And I noticed that everyone is bowled over by my three companions, Rose, you were quite right. Now, I shall take a brief rest and hope that it is not too long till we reach Sir Sidney's. I grow weary of so much travel, but I think it is best not to chance some local hostelry this night. Far better to spend the first night at Sir Sidney's establishment. For while it may be a foreign house, it has an Englishman in residence.”
And, so saying, the duchess gave a satisfied grunt and closed her eyes. Rose, Violet, and Catherine sat rather closely together on the seat opposite the duchess and Gracie. Their luggage traveled in one vast heap in the coach behind them.
“I saw you in conversation with Sinjun, Catherine,” Violet whispered, when she thought enough time had passed for the duchess to have found the slumber she sought.
“Sinjun?” Catherine asked, confused.
“The Marquis of Bessacarr, the handsome lord you were chatting up, on deck,” Violet answered. “For his friends call him so.”
“Go on with you,” Rose tittered. “Sinjun. Don't you just wish you called him so?”
Violet sniffed. “Well, I had quite a nice coze with him earlier. And he did ask after the new âchick,' as he called her.”
“But âSinjun' indeed.” Rose snickered. “As if you two were bosom bows.”
“He's too high in the instep for me,” Violet said calmly.
“All he'd have to do is crook a finger, Vi, and you know it. But he never does. He chats with us, and he says such lovely things so charmingly, but there's an end to it,” she told Catherine.
“Not,” Violet put in, “that he's a hermit. But when he has the like of Gwyn Starr in London. And Belle Fleur, and almost any female like that, he doesn't tarry with us.”
“And Lady Spencer last season, I hear. So don't be alarmed if he says things to you, Catherine, for he's only tarrying. And don't bother yourself about the Vicar's attentions either,” Rose whispered, “for he's old as the hills. I hear he was a terror years ago, but now he just sits back and watches like the duchess. So rest easy about him as well.”
Catherine nodded, both pleased and a little embarrassed about her two fellow companions' new solicitude on her behalf. But before they could offer her any further advice, the duchess opened one sharp eye.
“If you ladies want to prattle all the way, kindly let me know. I shall ride with the baggage.”
And the three of them fell to guilty silence as their coach rolled on through the city and outward, into the unknown center of France.
Catherine was stiff in every limb by the time the coach rolled into the great courtyard. She did not know how a woman of the duchess's years could wake so quickly, and look about so brightly, as they reached their destination. It was true that the dowager had slept soundly for all the hours that Catherine had been looking out her window, trying to get glimpses of the life and people in this new land. But still, she seemed more alert and rested now than the girl who was decades her junior.
It was night, yet the great house seemed to blaze with light. Liveried footmen leaped forward to greet them and Catherine could see that other coaches were unloading other newly come passengers as well. In the gloom dispelled by the torches the footmen were bearing, Catherine could make out familiar persons from the boat, alighting from their carriages. The house itself, she saw with wonder, as she stepped stiffly out onto the circular drive, was massive. Gray and distinguished, it seemed a palace to her. She had never beheld so old and imposing a residence.
But neither her employer nor her companions seemed impressed. They had seen English country seats before, and this monumental old chÃ¢teau was simply another stopping-off place for them. It had been the proud home of a French duke, who had fled during the revolution. Sadly, when the Bourbon had been placed back upon the throne and Napoleon left to lord it over only a small island, the duke was too impoverished and defeated by age to return. Instead, he hoped to better his heirs' conditions by letting the chÃ¢teau out, for an exorbitant fee, to those who could afford it. And Sir Sidney and his shocking wife could afford it well enough. They had come over to France the moment hostilities had ceased, much to the relief of Sidney's more correct relations, and lorded it there in the ancient manner ever since. They never needed to journey to Paris at all for gaiety, Sir Sidney often said happily, since all those who mattered in Paris would be sure to come to him, either before or after they visited the great city. And so life in the great house had been a constant party since they had arrived.
Sir Sidney and his blatantly beautiful wife (an actress who had been lucky beyond her deserts, Violet whispered to Catherine as they went up the great steps to the front portals) were busily greeting their new guests.
“Ah, Duchess.” Sir Sidney, a portly little man, beamed. “So you have come to grace our halls as well. And dear little Violet, and this must be Rose,” he chortled, chucking Rose under her chin. “You see, we hear all here at Beauvoir. But who is this little darling? Never say, Duchess, that you have three exquisite companions now?”
The duchess permitted herself a little smile. “I do say it, Ollie. Good evening, Lady Sidney. So good of you to have us,” the Duchess said, knowing quite well that Lady Sidney had nothing to say about who shared her house with her.
But her host and hostess had already turned to greet other arrivals, Sir Sidney chuckling that every time the packet came from France, he sent orders to his servants to make up the beds, for the British were coming. It was with relief that Catherine followed in the train of the duchess up the staircase, off the huge stone hall to which no amount of torches or candles could lend warmth.
A flustered housekeeper showed them to spacious, lavish rooms that Catherine was too weary to admire. Before settling in, Catherine scratched softly on the duchess's door. Being told by a perfunctory Gracie, already in her night shift, that the duchess was going to retire, Catherine was happy to wash and slip into bed. She had time only to murmur a silent thanks that she had gotten so far without difficulties before sleep took her far from the duchess, the chÃ¢teau, and France.
Catherine knew that her employer never rose before noon, and in the hours that she wandered through Sir Sidney's house, she came to understand that no female of rank did otherwise. Only the lower servants and she herself were up and about in the morning. A few gentlemen, she heard, had gone out early to ride with Sir Sidney over his countless rented acres. But she was well used to being alone, and contented herself in prowling the halls and investigating the premises, storing up details to regale Jane and Arthur with on some later, quiet country evening.
Still, she thought crossly much later on, as she struggled to do up her buttons while changing for dinner, if she could only get into the habit of sleeping the day away, her state would be vastly improved.
Rose tapped and entered her room just as the early dusk of a winter's day descended. Catherine stared at her in awe. For the comfortable, companionable Rose of the day seemed vanished. In her stead stood a startlingly beautiful woman. Rose wore a low gown, the color of her namesake. Her blond hair was swept up in a flurry of ringlets, a sparkling necklace sat upon her ample breast, and she glittered when she walked. A heavy perfume hung over her, and her bright eyes seemed heavily lidded and glistened in the candle's glow.
“Oh, don't you look fine?” Rose said happily, turning to Violet, all in flaming red, with red plumes twined in her curls, as she stepped into the room behind her. “Don't Catherine look lovely? I told her to get rigged out fine, and so she did.”
“And she didn't even ring for a maid. And so you should have, Catherine, to help you dress. Even though mine couldn't get out a âhow do you do' in English, and just chirped âwee-wee' whenever I asked her anything.”
Catherine could see nothing exceptional in her looks beside her two co-companions. She wore the simplest of light-green garments that she could find in her wardrobe, with a sash of darker green beneath her breasts. She had built up Madame Bertrand's bold bodice so that only some of her white shoulders and breasts showed above itânot at all like Violet and Rose's deep expanses of exposed breast. At the last moment she had bound up her dark hair with a green fillet, and the only ornament she wore was a simple gold pendant that her mother had left her. She felt she looked the servant to Violet and Rose's great ladies.
But they saw, tentative and graceful in the candlelight, a slip and sprite of refreshing girl, so simple and refreshing as to overwhelm their finery and make them seem tawdry.
Violet sighed. “You're either the boldest thing in creation or the most innocent. I'm not sure I want to know. Come, we're dining in state with the âgreat lady.' After that, simply stay away from darkened corners or stay at the old dame's side if you wish to escape trouble.”
“Don't rally with Sir Sidney, dear,” Rose cautioned as they went on slippered feet to the duchess's room, “for he's a right old caution. And don't dance with Lord Lambert, nor Jimmy Crawley neither. And don't flirt with Sir Harold, for he's up to no good, and don't agree to see Viscount Hightower's collection of snuffboxes, because he hasn't got any, and, no matter what he says, don't offer to help Jamie Prendergast when he comes all over faint, for he's fit as may be, whatever he says.”
Rose's admonitions went on, with Catherine losing track of her whispered warnings and only vowing fiercely to herself to avoid all members of the opposite gender, footmen and waiters included. At last the duchess appeared in her doorway, nodding complacently at her entourage and quite taking their breath away. For she was in her best looks, all in lavender, tall, erect, and stately. She breezed down the stairs, as regal as a visiting dignitary, with her three companions behind her and her devoted Gracie watching from an unobtrusive darkened part of the upper stair.
They dined in a great room with a blazing fireplace that was big enough, Catherine thought, to accommodate a forest full of logs. Their table was set up under two huge chandeliers whose candles lit their plates and faces as daylight, but left the shadowy retainers who filled their dishes and glasses as faceless as wraiths. Catherine might not have been able to swallow a morsel if it were not for the fortuitous fact that she had been seated next to the gentleman she had met on the ship whom the duchess had called “the Vicar.” He was actually, he admitted, the Baron Watchtower, but his intimates called him Vicar because of his quiet, cautious ways. Catherine found him a dear, gentle old fellow and enjoyed his calm good humor and his easygoing ways.
She wondered what he was doing in this ribald company, for all about them the other guests, led by their host and hostess, were laughing loudly and drinking freely and calling to each other from all parts of the great table, in a manner, she thought, that was not at all seemly. But the Vicar spoke no more than the truth when he told her that though he was too old for such pleasures, still he enjoyed being part of such merry company. She could not know that in his time, the Vicar, so named because all his actions had so outrageously belied his manner, had been one of the most absolute dissolutes of his era. There had been no pleasure of the senses that he had not engaged in, no deeds too outrageous for him to attempt. He had never married, never having been so inclined toward women. And when he had noted an excellent nephew coming of age, he had decided the fellow would do a great deal better with his title than he ever had, and so had gone happily on with his own proclivities. Now he was truly burnt out and content, at last, to be just an observer of the scene. But since he had nothing in common with the tame socially correct world, he traveled in the duchess's set, preferring to spend the last of his years among those who understood his past rather than those who pretended to ignore it.
Catherine, he thought, watching her animated face, and seeing the candles reflected in the blue depths of her eyes, was in way over her head. This amused him, and he made a note to follow her adventures. For, for all his pleasant ways and gentle, amused acceptance of life, he was fully as selfish as the duchess and would never make a move to help a fellow creature if in some way it did not help him. Like the duchess, he had no interest in the passions between a man and a woman, but instead of spending his time gaining the attention of others, as she did, he derived pleasure from simply watching the follies of others. Catherine, he thought, would be an entertaining little creature to watch. There was every possibility she was what she appeared to be. And every possibility she was not. He was delighted to devote his attention to her throughout the long and riotous dinner.
After dinner, the ladies absented themselves from the gentlemen for only a brief time. The servants scurried to set up gaming tables in the great room to the left of the staircase, and musicians filed into the other room to the right. Catherine stood with Rose and Violet in the ladies' withdrawing room, but when the great doors opened, with a hasty farewell they both left her. She quickly sought out the duchess, who was seated at a card table with another elderly female and two middle-aged gentlemen.
Catherine, not wishing to call attention to herself to the point of summoning a chair, stood at Her Grace's shoulder in the shadows of the candlelight. After a few hands of a game Catherine did not know, the duchess glanced up at her.
“I thought so,” the duchess grumbled. “My luck never runs right when someone's watching the cards. Run away, gel, I don't require you now. You're setting my luck to ruin. Run away, gel, and amuse yourself. I won't need you any longer tonight.”
Catherine wandered out of the gaming room, for she did not wish to wager anything herself and could not just stand and watch others. She decided that as no one yet had gone back upstairs, it would be socially incorrect to do so. So she went into the large room where she could hear the music and watch the dancers swirl about, to look around for the Vicar to keep her company.
She stood in a dim corner, although not a truly darkened one, as Rose had cautioned. For in those dark recesses of the room she could make out dimly the figures of men and women, close together in intimate conversations. The waltz was played, and she saw Violet sweep by, her red gown swinging out with each step, in the arms of a tall, bulky gentleman with side whiskers. Rose, whom she could pick out by her dress, was in close converse with a short gentleman with a booming laugh. The Vicar, she thought, must be intent on remaining as unobtrusive as herself, for he was nowhere in sight.
So she stood and watched the scene before her. At one moment she saw the marquis dancing with a willowy woman in black; at another, she saw Rose again, this time with their host, laughing uproariously with him. She occupied herself with watching the changing couples for some time. But then her own hiding place was discovered. The aging gentleman she recognized as Old Bertie, his face gleaming with exertion, bowed and without a word hauled her, protesting weakly, off to the dance floor. She was not a bad dancer, she knew, but dancing with Old Bertie was one of the most harrowing experiences she had ever had. He gripped her too closely with his hot, wet hands. He trod upon her foot every other measure, and he clutched her closer to his protruding stomach every time she managed to get a little distance between them. When the music ended, he stood there and grinned at her.
“Right,” he said, mopping his forehead. “Now how about it, eh lass?”
“Oh no,” Catherine said quickly, to whatever he was proposing. And before he could reach for her again, she took advantage of the crowd and slipped away from him to the darkest corner she could find. But upon reaching it, she found that she had intruded upon a couple in intimate embrace, and, drawing in her breath sharply, she muttered an apology and made her way to another recess. Breathing more slowly, she found she had discovered an excellent outpost, very near to a window, and very near to some draperies, in only dim shadows, not absolute dark. She had barely caught her breath, when her heart sank as she saw the gentleman approaching her.
“Old Bertie's in a dither,” he laughed. “He's searching for you everywhere. âWhere's that demned little green gal got to?'” the marquis imitated perfectly in Bertie's accents. “However, don't worry, I won't let on a word. You're quite safe here. But I would suggest standing near to a green drape next time. This golden one sets your gown off too well. Come, dance with me this time. I have ten years on Old Bertie, and he won't trifle with you when you're in my arms. In point of fact, you'll be safer from him there than in the embraces of these curtains.”
In some ways, Catherine thought, waltzing with the marquis was worse than dancing with Old Bertie. For although he was a graceful dancer, and although he did not hold her any closer than was seemly, she was far more aware of his lithe well-muscled body next to hers than she had been of the round mass of the older man's. He drew her near once, and the clean scent of him was sharper in her nostrils than the overheated miasma that had consumed her in Old Bertie's clutches. Far worse, though, was that he said not a word to her while they danced, and when she looked up, he gazed down at her with an unreadable expression. She was relieved when the music finally ended and he walked her back to a dim corner.
He stood next to her, looking down at her still while she searched for some light word to dispel the strange silence that surrounded them. At last, when she was about to begin to tell him some nonsense about what a lovely night it was, he spoke.
“Jenkins is right,” he sighed, so close to her now, she could feel his warm breath on her cheek. “It is far better to find out for oneself. And the question has been troubling me more than it should. For though you do indeed, in this glittering company, look like Bertie's âgreen girl,' the proof is in the tasting, isn't it?”
Before Catherine's mind could register what he said, she found herself in his arms, completely captured there, and being expertly kissed. The shock of his lips, so warm and unexpectedly gentle, quieted her for a moment. The experience was so oddly delicious that she stayed there, savoring it until a split second later the intensity of feeling that arose in her recalled her to her good senses. She was transformed into a fury the moment the realization of his action came to her from far beyond her amazed senses. She struggled free from him and, glaring up into his bemused, newly gentled face, she, her mind whirling with possible methods of retribution, kicked him forcefully on the shin.
It hurt her, she groaned, realizing suddenly the thinness of her dancing slippers, more than it hurt him. In fact, through her fury and the pain of her smarting toes, she saw him throw back his head and heard him roar with laughter.
“Oh, Lord,” he laughed, his handsome face free of his usual cold expression, looking young as a boy's. “You don't kick a man who's just taken advantage of you, Miss Robins, not in the duchess's exalted set. It's just not done. In the first place, it doesn't hurt your attacker enough, and in the second, it's most unheard of. You take your hand, child,” he said, taking her trembling hand in his, “and you put your fingers together and swing. You slap the fellow for all he's worth, if you want to make a point of purity.
“If you do not,” he said, drawing her closer again, “you make some token gesture, such as a weak verbal protest, or perhaps a gentle little kick.” He smiled. “And then, token protest being made and accepted, you submit gracefully to his and your own will.”
And after this astonishing speech, Catherine found herself being held and kissed once again. This time she did not tarry to taste strange new sensations. She pulled free and, taking his excellent advice, swung her hand across his face. He seemed as startled as she was by her action. The sound her slap made, she thought as she turned to look for an exit through a cloud of outrage, should have stopped all the dancers in their tracks, although no one turned or seemed to notice. She raced quietly through the crowd of people and made her way up the great stairs to her room. Once inside, she locked the door and sank onto her bed. Unconsciously, she slipped off her slippers and massaged her aching toes. But it was only her lips, still tingling, that she thought of.
“She tasted sweet enough,” the marquis smiled to Jenkins as they stood on the fringe of dance, “But I'm afraid she wasn't ripe for the picking, I forgot to discuss the going price for green girls this season. That seems to have been my major mistake.”
“It could be,” Jenkins said, “that she hasn't got a price, or leastways one that any in this room can pay.”
“And it could be that I've taken too much wine, out of boredom. And attempted, clumsily, a highly bred doxy, for the same reason. It's just as well, friend, that I didn't find myself entangled with her. For we do have to be up and out early this morning, don't we? There's no more to be got out of this pack of merrymakers. We'll have to be off to Paris tomorrow, now we've made our token stop here.”
“It seems,” Jenkins said, carefully and conspicuously staring at the faint red palm print that still lingered on the marquis' cheek, “that some fruit hangs too high out of reach, even for you. You seem, lad, to have got lashed by some branches.”
“But it happens,” the marquis laughed, rubbing his cheek, “that she was only following my explicit instructions.”
Catherine was furious with herself. She paced her room, for once gladdened that there was nothing to be done during the day in this great, rambling home the Sidneys entertained in. For she did not think she could bear to make polite converse and exchange idle pleasantries when she was so bedeviled by her own thoughts.
It had only been a kiss, she thoughtâthere was no need for the incident to overset her so. But it had. And that was the fact with which she had to deal. She had, she told herself strictly, been kissed before, so there was little sense in making such a pother about it. In fact, she remembered, she had been kissed exactly three times before (she had kept careful track). Once, when she was just fifteen, and Fred McDermott had been seventeen. It had been a hasty little kiss, stolen while they were at a picnic. And had been memorable in that it had excited not her senses, but rather her pity, since Fred had been horrified by his impulsiveness and had spent the rest of that lovely summer Sunday apologizing to her and castigating himself.
When she was seventeen, Mrs. Fairchild's son-in-law, on a visit from Sussex, had taken too much port, surprised Catherine in the hallway of his mother-in-law's house, and delivered an overheated, messy salute upon her lips, along with a great deal of unpleasant fumbling, until she had broken away and run off. But then it had been a shameful incident, and Mrs. Fairchild herself, some months later, was overheard to confide to Jane that her daughter had not picked a “right 'un” and was suffering for it.
The third kiss had come when she was twenty and had gone walking out with Tom Hanley. Tom had been a pleasant-looking chap, an aspiring law clerk on vacation from London, visiting his aunt in Kendall. But that relationship had not gone beyond a few visits. For at their last meeting he had seemed preoccupied and solemn. And when he had left her, he had kissed her onceâone brief chaste kissâand then he had looked at her and sighed deeply. Within a month Catherine had heard of Tom's engagement to a young woman in London, daughter of one of the partners in his firm.
So, Catherine thought, it was not as though she was inexperienced. But nothing had prepared her for the embrace she had received last night. She could scarcely believe how overwhelmed she had been by the marquis' attentions. And she did not know how she could face him again, for surely he must have known how she felt. And if he did, she was sure that it would only reaffirm his belief in her immorality. And as for her kicking him! But in truth she had been outragedâshe had never struck another being since her childhood. She had to do something, and, fool that she was, she had kicked a peer of the realm. And then slapped him. And that, she was sure, was worse.
When the pangs of hunger recalled Catherine to her immediate world, she decided that she must carry on as before. She must assume an icy dignity in the marquis' presence. She must not allow herself to look for him or to scan the company for his presence. For if she continued to be fascinated by him, she would, she chided herself, end up in the same case as Rose and Violet in some fashion.
As Catherine dressed for dinner, she took special care with her appearance. She rang for the little French maid and managed to communicate well enough, even though she realized with sinking heart that her long-ago French lessons were hardly adequate to equip her to ask for fresh water properly. She wore her finest new gown of a deep sapphire blue, just to show him that she had not been overset by him. And brushed her hair and drew it back in a severe and startlingly sophisticated style to show him that here was no little miss to trifle with.
When she went down to dinner, she looked neither to the left nor the right, but seated herself in the manner of a grande dame. She chatted lightly and superficially with the Vicar, who seemed vastly amused at something and who enjoyed her company in a very proper fashion. It was only when the dinner was over and the guests were at their regular pursuits of gaming or dancing, or meeting with one another in darkened parts of the house, that the Vicar, who stood at her side watching the dancers told her that the marquis and his man had gone.
The house party, he told her in an aside, was already beginning to break up, and since the marquis had left, others were beginning to make noises about going on to Paris. “Which much displeases our host,” the Vicar said, “since he needs to keep his house full. Otherwise he is left alone, with only thirty servants or so, a few constant hangers-on, and, of course, dear Lady Sidney.”
Catherine felt deflated. And noticed that the music, dancing, and chatter all around her seemed suddenly less interesting, less enthralling. While the marquis was in evidence she had always felt on the verge of an adventure; now all this newfound splendor seemed oddly flat. And she murmured her sympathies for her host with compassion.
“Oh, don't pity dear Ollie overmuch,” the Vicar said, grinning, “for he has found compensation, as you can see.”
Looking up in the direction the Vicar nodded to, Catherine saw her host, smiling and whispering, deep in conversation with Rose. Rose towered above him by several inches and had to hang her head down to hear his whispered comments. But as they watched, the ill-matched couple seemed to come to some sort of understanding, and Sir Sidney, with a little bow and beaming smile, left the room. Catherine could see him going upstairs. It was rather unusual, she thought, for the host of such a great house party to absent himself from his guests, especially since if he needed anything above stairs, he had a clutch of servants he could summon.
But as the Vicar kept watching Rose silently, with a gentle smile upon his own face, Catherine did the same. And saw that within a few moments of her host's departure, Rose brushed some invisible lint from her skirt and then quietly left the room to go up the stairs quickly in Sir Sidney's wake. “Business as usual,” yawned the Vicar. And Catherine felt her heart sink. It was one thing to know of Rose and Violet's interests; it was quite another to see them in action. Catherine felt deeply ashamed although she had done no more than watch.
Throughout the evening she clung to the Vicar's side like a devoted daughter. Her attendance upon him seemed to afford him great pleasure. And when he pointed out Violet's departure with an ancient viscount, she was so glad of the Vicar's presence, and so determined to stay with him, that he had to gently, and then less gently, hint to her that he wished to absent himself for only a few moments; he would return immediately, but he really had to be alone for a few moments. When she saw that he was gesturing vaguely in the direction of the gentlemen's withdrawing room, she grew dizzy with embarrassment and vowed to stop clinging to him like a limpet.
But when, in his absence, she found herself approached by no less than three other gentlemen with speculation in their bold, assessing eyes, she gave up her resolve and fairly flew to the Vicar's side again when he reappeared. And there she stayed till she saw the duchess making her stately way upstairs to her room.
For the next days Catherine stayed close in her rooms during the day, and took tea with her companions, but said little to them. For she had seen them disappear with such a variety of gentlemen each night that she felt she was not yet able to converse normally with them. She did not want them to see her revulsion, for in all, they were pleasant and helpful enough to her. And yet she could not reconcile their actions with her own standards, much as she lectured herself about tolerance and different values for different persons during the long days that she was alone in her room. At nightfall she would dress with care, for the duchess's eye was sharp, and on the one occasion when she tried to dress demurely and unspectacularly, the dowager had barked that she didn't employ sparrowsâwhat was the matter with the gel anyway? And she would spend each evening in close converse or, at least, in close companionship with the Vicar.
She soon discovered that he thought her situation vastly entertaining, and, further that he really did not care about her predicament at all so long as it afforded him pleasure in observing it. Sadly, she began to discover that he was using her in much the same way that, she had to admit, she was using him. So it was with heartfelt relief that she heard the duchess declare, after a week at Sir Sidney's establishment, that they had tarried long enough. “The company's becoming flat,” the duchess said, sending Gracie about her packing. “We'll take our leave tomorrow. I hear Paris is brimming with fashionables, and I'm eager to beoff.”
The Vicar had made one great sacrifice and was there to see them off the next morning. Their host and hostess were still abed, having made their good-byes in the night. As Catherine prepared to step into the coach with the others, the Vicar stayed her for a moment. There was a vaguely sorrowful look in his eyes as he took her hand.
“Good-bye, Catherine,” he said. “I wonder if we shall meet again? I think not, for I do not go on to Paris. I am one of Ollie's constant hangers-on, you see. I am not one to lecture on morality, I fear, and I cannot offer you any assistance. For not only do I live upon the sufferance of my fellowman, but I am too old, too lazy, and, in the end, too unconcerned with my fellowman and woman now. But I do tell you, for what it is worth, that you do not belong here. Country chicks cannot keep company with parrots and cockatiels, you know. And it is mortally easy to become that with which you constantly associate, by slow degrees. You cannot hide forever, Catherine. And there are all sorts of lures in this wide world, especially for young things. I should know,” he said, shaking his head. “I have set enough. Go when you can, Catherine,” he whispered, bowing over her hand. “And go while you can. Home, where you belong.”
“Thank you,” she said, more chilled by his words than she dared show. “And I will. I promise, as soon as I am able.”
He smiled sadly and then laughed quietly.
“Whatever you do decide, never fear, I shall know of it. For I hear of all thingsâthat is what makes me so valuable a guest. Good-bye, my dear. It was pleasant being needed as a man again for a few days. Good luck.”
He handed her into the coach, and, with a wave, they were off.
“Well you certainly made a conquest,” the duchess grinned before she settled herself to sleep, in her usual traveling mode. “The Vicar don't give a demn for anyone in the world, but he seems to have been taken with you. But he don't spend a brass farthing on a female,” she laughed, and allowed Gracie to tuck her up into a cocoon of wraps for the journey.
This time the duchess was in no hurry. For, she said to her companions as they dined that night in a small wayside inn, she was “shaken to pieces” by the journey and “wearied unto death” by the constant partying at Sir Sidney's.
They traveled on for two lackluster days, and it was only on the final approach to Paris that all of the company seemed to awaken at last. Rose and Violet were in full spate, commenting on the city, on the people they expected to see, and the fashions they glimpsed. Catherine was shocked to see that they did not even notice the poor, whose districts they had to ride through to get to the center of the city. The men and women in rags, far worse than any she had ever seen in England, the hovels in which they lived, and their hordes of huge-eyed starving children were not commented upon at all. But once the carriage drove through the wide white avenues where gentlemen and ladies of fashion promenaded, they noted every detail of every garment, and priced them down to their least penny.
The duchess beamed upon their excitement, but she told them she “had seen the town before.” Yet even she was soon talking about hunting up some dressmakers and getting togged out in “Frenchie fashions again.” By the time they rolled up in front of their hotel, the duchess was quite eager to alight and begin her inquiries as to where the gaiety was to be found.
The concierge was as obsequious as the duchess could have wished and groveled so much before her that she was in high good spirits when shown her rooms, even to the point of not beginning her usual tirade against the sanitation and grace of the establishment until he had bowed himself out of her presence. She had a large and airy chamber overlooking the street, and her companions' rooms were arranged around hers.
The duchess sat back with a grin of triumph.
“Well, gels, here we are in Paris. All dressed up with no place to go. Here, you Violet and you Rose, get yourself suited out fine and go down to the lobby; let the word go out that I have arrived. Then we'll see those invitations pour in. Catherine, you're free to do as you wish. Go tag along with the girls if you like. But be sure to tell everyone that you meet who you are and that the Duchess of Crewe has arrived. That should do it. Now, Gracie, my hair, if you please.”
And sitting back and enjoying her hair being brushed, the duchess closed her eyes and planned a future full of balls and fetes and sensations.
In spite of the duchess's confidence, Catherine was amazed, when she answered the duchess's summons at an unusually early hour before noon the next day, to see her sitting at a little desk, sorting through what seemed to be a dozen invitations.
“Tonight,” the duchess said to her companions, “dress up smartly, for we're off to no less than Count D'Arcy's ball. We've been asked to Lord and Lady Lynne's, and to Madame Martin's but we'd be fools to pass up the count's invitation, for that's the smartest of them all. Bound to be royalty there as well. So do me justice, lassies,” she said, in an unusually gay manner, “and who knows where we may be bound tomorrow night?”
“The old lady's in high alt,” Violet said as they went back to their rooms to pick through their wardrobes for suitably dazzling gowns.
“She thinks,” Violet explained to a puzzled Catherine, “that if she's daring enough, she'll yet get an invitation to an audience with the king. But she's out there, you know. For it may have been possible before all the nobs got their heads lobbed off for being royals. Now the throne's uneasy, I hear, and they don't want too much truck with a dizzy set like the duchess.”
“And what makes you so worldly-wise?” Rose asked cheekily.
“I spent some time with old Ollie, you know, and he had a few words for me.”
“A very few words, I'm sure,” Rose said, laughing.
Catherine colored, but Violet shot back, “Jealousy won't get you anywhere, old Rose.”
“It happens,” Rose said, with suppressed laughter, “that I spent some hours with old Ollie too, and he don't waste much time on talk.”
Catherine turned to her room quickly, so as not to hear much more of their chatter, which was turning more rancorous and more detailed than she wished to hear.
“Catherine,” Rose called, giving Violet an admonitory poke, “do come to our rooms tonight before we leave. We'll have to see if you've togged yourself up in enough style. For when Her Grace gives orders for us to dazzle, you daren't do less or your head will roll.”
Catherine gave herself one last glance in the mirror before sighing and turning to go to Rose's room. She could not, she thought, do better. She wore a high-waisted gown in creamy white satin, and bound her hair back with a pure white ribbon till only a crown of curls relieved the severity. The only touch of color was the azure of her eyes and the little gold pendant she always wore. She felt that if she were going to see royalty, she must dress in a distinguished, but unostentatious manner. The neckline of her gown, she realized, was lower than that of any of her others, but it had looked so perfect just as it had come from Madame Bertrand's that she had not dared tamper with it. Now, glancing in the mirror, even though the slope of her breasts showed daringly it no longer seemed so dashingânot, she amended, shocking at all compared to the dresses of the females she had seen at Sir Sidney's. The Vicar's words about becoming like the company one kept drifted into her mind, but she banished them quickly, and went out in search of Rose and Violet and their opinion of her dress.
When Rose called for her to enter, she stepped in, only to stand stock still and stare at Rose and Violet. For Rose was sitting at her mirror with the top of her gown down, chatting animatedly with Violet while at the same time carefully applying rouge from a little pot to the tips of her breasts. Catherine stood and goggled as Rose looked up. For a moment she looked only at Catherine's gown and cried out, “Oh don't you look a sight! Pure and cool and just lovely!”
And then, when she saw the expression on Catherine's face, she looked down at herself and sighed.
“It's to give my gown a better look, you see,” she said hurriedly, rapidly completing the job of anointing her nipples with carmine, and then blowing upon them and lifting the top of her gown back on.
“It's to give the gentlemen a better idea of the wares,” Violet said languidly.
Catherine looked at Rose in her thin salmon-colored gown and saw that the rouge did indeed emphasize the small part of Rose's bosom that was covered by cloth.
“And,” Violet said, in a cool voice, “to give them an extra treat a little later. If a chap's going to spring for the pleasure of Rose's company, he expects to find something out of the ordinary. And a little color in unexpected places adds excitement.”
Rose got up and looked daggers at Violet. She opened her mouth to make some rejoinder, but before she could, Violet moved.
“See here, Catherine,” she said, walking over to her, letting her drink in the splendor of her spangled black and silver gown, “Rose here and I, we are what we are. And it's no good pretending that we're all jolly little cousins off on a spree. I've been fighting with old Rose here all day, and there has to be an end to it. We can't watch what we say and what we do every moment you're about. We're out of leading strings a long time. I told Rose there's no sense in our having a to-do every time I say something she thinks isn't fit for your ears, for we'll only come to cuffs all day if we go on so. If you're to travel along with us, you'll have to take us for what we are.”
Catherine swallowed hard. And then she spoke.
“I know that, Violet. And yes, you are right, I cannot be an ostrich with my head in the sand. I knew that back when we met and I decided to accompany you. So Rose, there's no sense in fighting with Violet. She's quite right, you know.”
Rose still seemed agitated, but then she had a sudden thought.
“You know, Catherine, it won't be all bad for you. For you will know what you are about. Far more than most young misses do. For there's heaps we can tell you about gentlemen.”
“Oh Rose,” Violet laughed, “now that far I would not go. We really cannot tell this little miss all that we know.”
“Well, not all.” Rose pondered. “But if more young misses knew what we know, fewer gentlemen would have to seek us out.”
“And we'd be at a charity kitchen. Give over, Rose, do. We don't have to instruct Catherine. Not with her looks and style. It's only that we won't have to act so unnatural when she's about, and we'll all get on splendidly.”
Rose seemed satisfied and went back to gazing at herself in the mirror. She adroitly rubbed rouge into her cheeks, applied salve to her lips, spit into a little dish of black and with one finger swept shape and sultriness about her eyes. Noting Catherine's silence, she asked anxiously, “Is what Violet says acceptable to you, dear?”
“Oh yes, of course,” Catherine said, knowing full well that hypocrite that she was, she did not at all relish the thought of hearing all of their confidences. In fact, she wanted to hear none of themâshe only wanted to run to her room and quake. But, she amended, she wanted more. She wanted to be home, safe at home again.
But as the silence in the room became ominous, with Violet smiling at her loftily and Rose looking at herself in the mirror uneasily, Catherine felt the burden of conversation fall upon her and searched for a safe, conciliatory topic.
“You can tell me how to go on,” she said. “For if we are to be honest with each other, I do not know how toâ¦ah, discourage a gentleman, without being rude.”
Violet grinned wickedly. “That's hardly the sort of advice to be asking us.”
“Oh Vi, give over, do; we can too tell Catherine how to go about things,” Rose said, annoyed.
“What you want to know,” Violet went on, “is how to stay out of trouble. And I'm afraid we're poor persons to ask that of.”
“Well, Vi, you're a spiteful thing today,” Rose said, angrily. “I think it's just because Catherine's looks knock ours all to pieces tonight. She hasn't got a spangle nor a feather,” she said, eyeing the profusion of jet plumes set into Violet's elaborate coif, “and still she looks a treat. Well, then, I'll tell you, love. There's things you mustn't do with gentlemen and you'll find yourself safe as houses. You mustn't open your lips when you kiss, for one thing.”
Catherine went pale. This was not at all the sort of advice she had requested, but before she could speak, Violet began laughing.
“Oh Rose, and what of Sir Alistar?”
“True,” Rose said thoughtfully, “for he don't bother to kiss at all. Well, then, Catherine, I should say that so long as you stay upright at all times, you will avoid difficulties.”
Violet held her hand against her bodiceâshe was laughing so richly.
“And what of young Perry and Lord Sulley, then?”
“Oh,” Rose said, “and telling you to keep all your clothes on, which is what I was about to add, wouldn't do then neither, I suppose. Well then, Catherine, I'll tell you the best advice I can then.”
Rose screwed up her face in thought and then smiled triumphantly. “You must never do a thing with a gentleman that you have not done before. And you'll go on splendidly, I'm sure.”
At that, Violet's mirth got so out of control that she was gasping, and even Catherine had to join in.
Rose herself was chuckling good-naturedly. But when Catherine stopped, she decided to turn the subject as quickly as she was able to.
“Am I dressed properly then?” she asked.
“A treat,” Rose agreed. “But perhaps a little too refined. You never know with Her Grace. She wants you to catch all eyes. Here,” Rose said, plucking one white rose from the floral arrangement on her table. “Do put this in your hair, there on top, midst the curls, yes. That looks just as it ought. Now then,” she said, squinting thoughtfully at Catherine.
“Yes, I'm sure I'm right. You do look lovely, Catherine. But who will see you across a room? Not that there's anything the matter with your coloringâit's all milk and cream. But there's the problem. In candlelight, you'll just fade away.”
“You're right, Rose,” Violet said, taking a professional interest. “Footlights and party lights drab out a girl's coloring. A bit of lip salve, a bit of rouge, that's the ticket.”
And before Catherine could protest, they steered her to Rose's dressing table. Rose carefully applied salve to her lips, and though she was sure her furious blush would stay their hands, they carefully applied high color to her cheeks.
“Now don't blink or move,” Rose warned, “or you'll blind yourself. S'truth.”
When Catherine gazed at herself in the minor again, she dared not breathe. An exotic painted creature with darkly lashed huge blue eyes, pink cheeks, and violently red lips stared seductively back at her. Her hands went automatically to a cloth to wipe the vision away, but Rose stayed her.
“No, Catherine. That's just what Her Grace will expect. She'll dress you down if you come pale and ordinary. Now you look just as you ought. So leave it be.”
Rose and Violet accompanied Catherine to get her wrap, so Catherine could not even touch her face though she swore she could feel every gram of the cosmetics lying heavily upon her. They lingered in Catherine's room awaiting the duchess's summons. And when Gracie came to tell them to be ready, Rose took a small vial from her evening bag and went to Catherine's dressing table. She carefully put a drop from the vial in each eye and handed the vial to Violet, who did the same. Catherine saw, as if by magic, how huge and glittering their eyes now appeared to be, just as she had often noticed their eyes to be at night; she had assumed it was due to their excitement and candlelight.
“Belladonna,” Rose explained as they prepared to go. “Gives your eyes a sparkle like nothing else. I didn't offer any to you, dear, for it's a thing you have to get accustomed to. It blurs things up, you know. So when you look your best, you can't see a blessed thing. The lights all dance, and sometimes you can't be sure of recognizing who you're talking to, for you can't make out their face properly.”
“Sometimes,” said Violet cryptically, “that's a blessing, too.” Rose and Violet proceeded to the duchess's chamber with the slow, stately tread that Catherine now saw was necessary for them when their eyes were so unreliable.
The dowager was swathed in silvery gray, with so many diamonds shining at her throat and hair that Catherine felt sure her companions could only see a sparkling blur of her rich attire.
The duchess stared at Catherine. “Now, that's the way I like my companions to look,” she crowed. “You'll have every eye upon you. You're finally getting the hang of it. And Rose and Violet, you two are bang up to the mark. Let's away. Don't wait up, Gracie, for this is to be a late evening.”
Gracie nodded as they left, knowing hill well she dared not slumber till her mistress was safely tucked in bed again.
Catherine tried to sink back into the shadows as she sat in the coach. And she tried to be less aware of the startled looks that James, the duchess's coachman, gave her when she stepped out into the blaze of light and torches outside Count D'Arcy's residence. She felt, as she trailed along behind Rose and Violet, deeply ashamed of her new appearance, and of the spectacular effect it was having upon those who turned to stare at her.
As their little party was announced, all heads turned to the top of the stairs to see the quartet make their way down the grand staircase to join the company. Her eyes almost as blurred and dazzled as Rose's and Violet's, Catherine saw that these were men and women in the most elegant clothes and jewels that she had ever seen. The company was composed of the titled and the infamousâpoets, mistresses, wanderers and actresses, the rag and tag of Ã©migrÃ© Europe, and the foremost pleasure seekers from her own land. All collected together and flashing their eyes and gems and costumes beneath the light of a thousand candles while musicians tried to drown their converse with light music.
Many stared at the haughty Violet and buxom Rose. Many gaped at the regal duchess and her train of demireps, whose reputations had preceded her here. And many gazed with delight upon the delicious child with the figure of a grown woman and the face, even beneath the paint, of a lovely gamine.
Catherine tried to ignore the sensation they had caused and that her employer was obviously reveling in. She stared about her in shame and despairâ¦until her eyes caught and held one familiar face high above the crowd. A face that she had been unwittingly looking for. He had been watching her, she thought in deeper despair, and there was no doubt in her mind as to his thoughts. The marquis looked at her, at her face, at her neckline. His handsome face was immobile, but the contemptuous disdain in his gray eyes was readable even from across the room.
“Sinjun,” complained the petite dark-eyed woman, “you have been neglecting me. You've been here all night and you haven't danced with me once. You were not used to be so reluctant to enter my arms,” she said coyly, tracing patterns with her fingertip upon his sleeve.
“Cecily,” the marquis drawled, “you were not used to be Lady Smythe. Now that you are a respectable married woman, you cannot want to pick up our old ties. What would Alistar say?”
“Oh, pooh,” she fretted, stamping one footâan effect, he noted with amusement, quite lost in the throng of people. “I haven't seen him all night either. He's probably off somewhere with that Italian trollop of his. We have a very modern arrangement, Sinjun,” she wheedled. “We each go about our own business, and no one's the worse for it.”
“Cecily, my dear,” the marquis said, beginning to edge away, “why should you try to reignite an old burned-out flame, when I have seen that devastating M. Dumont there has not taken his eyes off you for a moment?”
The woman wheeled and turned to look for her admirer and, not finding the rapt young face of M. Dumont anywhere nearby, she turned again to rate the marquis for his little jest and found herself standing quite alone.
With an exclamation of dismay, she flounced off to see her husband, to rail at him for his pursuit of foreign females.
“Oh, Lord, Jenkins,” the marquis said in a low voice, when they met at one side of the card room, “for every true rumor, there are a hundred false ones. I have a list of many names now, it's true, but coming here this night has added nothing. For no sooner do I get on the trail of something, when there is an interruption.”
“Your past catching up with you, lad?” Jenkins grinned.
“There's that, but I am quite expert at sidestepping. But more importantly, there's Beaumont. He's here, and he's everywhere tonight. He seems to be dogging my footsteps. And whenever I look into his eyes, I see tumbrels rolling. He suspects everything, but can prove nothing. “
“He can do nothing,” Jenkins said, lifting his glass of wine and holding it to the candle's light. “We're at peace now.”
“Now. At this moment,” the marquis sighed, “but if the scales tip, I would be first on his list.”
“Whose field does he play in now?” Jenkins asked before draining the glass.
“Ah, now that,” the marquis said, shrugging and then pausing as a waiter came close, “is a neat question.” He took another glass of wine for Jenkins and one for himself, and they toasted each other until the waiter drifted off into the crowd and they were alone again.
The marquis began drinking his wine and then stopped suddenly to stare at his glass. “Now that,” he said, “is criminal, such stuff to be even decanted in the land of the grape itself.” He looked around casually, then continued, now sure of their privacy. “If we discover which pockets he has his hand in, we'll know for a certainty which way the wind is blowing. Our estimable commissionerâ¦of what is it now? Taxes, water? No matter, our friend Beaumont is an excellent weather vane. He catches every nuance of the winds of fortune. That is how he has gotten and held his own fortune. Be sure that he will never put a foot wrong. In fact, I think that if we were but privy to the workings of his mind, there would be no need to compile all these names. For whatever the fate of France is to be, be sure that Beaumont will know it a half hour before the king himself.”
“Aye,” Jenkins rumbled, “but as he's not one to give an Englishman the time of day, best keep your ear to the ground.”
“But not too obviously, of course,” the marquis sighed. “Instead I shall ogle the ladies, drink more than is good for me, game for all I'm worth, and submerge myself in every bit of frivolous gossip. There are times, Jenkins, when I long for no more than a cozy fireside. I grow old, I think.”
Jenkins gave a rude chuckle. “Oh yes. I can just see you there, dandling your grandchildren on your knee, graybeard. But in the meanwhile, until you can delight in such homey pastimes, I notice you're spry enough at your job. You haven't taken your eyes off the duchess's newest doxy all night. Is it that you think she holds the secrets of the succession behind those lovely blue eyes?”
The marquis seemed taken aback for a moment and then drawled in the offhand languid manner Jenkins knew so well, “No, that's an altogether different game. Miss Prunes and Prisms has arrived in Paris and finally shows her true colors. Or true paints, if you want to be more exact. She's obviously been after big game all the while. And I'm just curious to see to whom she attaches herself. For there's a lot to be learned from seeing to whom such a pricey little package delivers. Rose and Violet will ply their trade with whoever has the price of a night's entertainment. But these more expensive frigates will only sail off with someone who is prepared to come down handsomely for them. I think our little miss will show us the way the winds of fortune are blowing almost as well as our old friend Beaumont.”
Jenkins glanced around the room before saying dryly, “But she hasn't sailed off with anyone as yet. The last I saw of her, she was trying to blend in with the furniture.”
“She's only waiting for her opportunity, Jenkins. She's after more than her weak sisters-in-trade.”
“You are too harsh on her.” Jenkins sighed, shaking his head.
“Still thinking she is but a sweet little miss caught in the coils of misfortune? That's not like you, old friend. She comes to her first Paris fete, rigged out to the nines, painted and gowned like an actress. Did you see her entrance? She attracted more notice than a queen. The old girl's beside herself with happiness. âThe Duchess of Crewe is a succÃ©s fou,' they are all saying. That little rhyme will be the catchword of the season.”
“Look sharp, lad,” Jenkins said, turning away. “Beaumont's eyes are upon us. He's talking to that waiter. His men must be everywhere here.”
As the marquis drained his glass and prepared to leave, Jenkins smiled and whispered one farewell. “You have to get your mind back on business. Why don't you just meet her price and then you will be able to forget about her and get on with it.”
The marquis walked over to the entrance to the great room where the dancers were whirling about together to the strains of a waltz. He watched them as he spoke with a young sprig just out of Cambridge on his first tour, who was chattering away excitedly. It was possible, he thought with a wry grin, to stand and chat with almost anyone at such an affair without even listening to half that was said. A sage nod, a small smile, or an occasional laugh when the speaker seemed to have delivered himself of a witticism was enough. He was the lofty, cynical Marquis of Bessacarr after all, wasn't he?
As the young man happily prated away, passing on all the secondhand tidbits he had amassed, Sinjun listened with half of his attention. The other half was focused on the amusing little playlets that passed before his eyes.
Lady Devon was playing her husband false with a handsome Austrian. Mademoiselle DuPres was batting her lashes at an old gentleman who had escaped the guillotine and come back to tend his lately restored estates. Mademoiselle DuPres knew, Sinjun thought, that the old chap would now need a wife to help him people his lands again. And HervÃ© Richard, who had been a man of substance and power when Bonaparte had led this land, was jealously watching his brother Pierre, who had been a beggar then and who was now a rich man deep in the Bourbons' confidences. The wheel of fortune had not yet done turning, the marquis thought, and that was why he was here tonight.
The marquis' eyes narrowed as he followed HervÃ© Richard's angry gaze. For his brother Pierre, as stout and overfed as his beloved friend Louis Bourbon, was dancing with Catherine Robins. Pierre smiled and bobbed, his red face beaming, while the girl seemed to be in an agony of discomfort. Was she never done with playacting? the marquis thought violently. She had captured the plum tonight. Pierre was a rich man now, and his presence at court gave him power and influence. And still she acted the shy virgin. But it seemed to be a useful ploy, for Pierre looked delighted with his little prize.
As the marquis watched, Beaumont, as neatly clad and unexceptional a little man as ever, came up to HervÃ©'s side and began whispering to him. So Beaumont had some interest in watching the little playlet as well? Beaumont seemed to be consoling HervÃ©, who everyone knew burned with jealousy of his estranged brother. Now why should Beaumont be interested in HervÃ©? Sinjun's thoughts raced. HervÃ© was dÃ©classÃ© now, abandoned and impoverished. He had not followed his leader into exile, but he was financially and socially as much of an exile as Bonaparte. If Beaumont sought his company, then indeed something was in the wind.
“But, Sinjun, you say nothing. Don't you agree?” the little lord at his side asked.
The marquis recalled himself with difficulty. “Why, I'm sorry, Peter, I was distracted. What did you say?”
“I don't blame you. Not a bit. She's a smasher all right, isn't she? I wish I had the blunt to interest her,” the young man said sadly, looking over to where Catherine danced.
“Now, now, Peter, she's too rich for your blood,” the older man laughed. “And mine too, I think.”
“Never say so,” Peter replied, laughing. “Why, good English gold outweighs French any day.”
The two men laughed, and then the younger, seeing the marquis' distraction, bowed and went off in search of more congenial company. It was good to have spoken with the marquis, for he was a man of the world and one whose name would excite much interest and envy among his friends when he returned home. But he was a strange fellow, after all, so bored that he seemed half asleep, those gray eyes half masted and quiet throughout their whole discourse. Peter essayed the same look as he made his way to the punch and found he almost stumbled against a footman as a result. Practice, he told himself sharply, that would be the answer.
But there was no boredom in the marquis' eyes as he watched the interminable dance go on in front of him. He watched Catherine dip and sway in Pierre Richard's arms. Her figure was exquisite and her face entrancing, even under all the paint. The swept-up dark curls revealed her white vulnerable neck. The marquis found that his hands were clenched. There was no use for it. He was interested in her. He had been from the moment he had seen her. Jenkins was right. Though she might be nothing more than a cyprian, certainly less discriminating than any of the wenches he usually consorted with, he did desire her. And his fascination with her was only getting in the way of his mission here. He must have her and be done with it.
In the morning, he knew, when he paid her, all the mystery would be vanished. He would have known all there was to know of her. Or all he wished to know of her. The attraction was strong, and it was dangerous for him to be so attracted. In the past, he had consorted with women whose conversation amused him or whose personalities somehow made the mercenary side of their relationship less sordid. He did not know if Catherine Robins could even read or write, much less make pleasant discourse. He did not care. For he had no wish to be ensnared by a woman ever again. It would be enough to have her, and thereby end the interest he had in her.
For he could neither gather information nor observe dispassionately when she was about. No sooner did he get on the track of some new development that might be of interest to his cause than she would appear and chase all such thoughts from his mind. For instance, he thought angrily, he should not be watching her dance with Pierre Richard and be as consumed with futile jealousy as HervÃ© Richard so evidently was. He should rather be at HervÃ©'s side now, listening to his spiteful rage, as Beaumont was. For when a man was consumed by passion, he was often indiscreet, and when a man like HervÃ© Richard was being indiscreet, there was a chance that there would be a great deal to learn. No, his fascination with her handicapped him and he grew angry at himself. And so, indirectly, at her.
There was only one remedy he could think of. And he knew that before the night was out, he would have taken it. He was not such a coxcomb as to think he was irresistible. But he was experienced enough to know that she felt the same tug of interest that he did. And he did have money, money enough to assuage her conscience for giving up such a potential honey fall as Pierre Richard.
The dance finally ended, and while Pierre executed a courtly bow, Catherine took the opportunity to dip a sketchy curtsy and begin a hasty retreat to the wall where she had been standing before the weighty Frenchman had sought her out. But before she could return across the floor, she was intercepted by another gentleman. He looked much the same as the partner she had just abandoned, except that he was slightly taller, slightly less obese, and dressed in clothes that were far less grand.
He bowed, and the music struck up again. Before she could leave, he took her hand and led her into the dance. There were gasps and those on the sidelines broke into excited babble as the dancers swung into the first steps. The marquis was not the only one who stared at the dancers now.
And neither was he the only one who made his seemingly unhurried but nevertheless rapid way to her erstwhile partner's side. Monsieur Beaumont also began to make his way through the crowd to the flushed, angry gentleman. But Beaumont, whose legs were shorter, had to stop after getting halfway there when he saw the marquis lean to speak with his quarry.
“Good evening, Pierre,” the Marquis said pleasantly in his perfect French. “I see that the new young English cocotte is becoming quite an attraction. Even your brother cannot resist her.”
The stout gentleman muttered, as much to himself as to the marquis, “But he is a beggar now. What does he think he is doing? It was only through my intercession that he was allowed to stay on in Paris. For he is my brother, after all.”
The marquis smiled sympathetically, knowing full well that Pierre would never allow his brother to go into exile totally, and thus miss seeing his more successful sibling's triumphs in society and at court. Just as HervÃ© had insisted on allowing his Royalist brother Pierre to stay on through his charity, when Bonaparte swept all before him.
“She could not refuse him, poor little sweet,” Pierre said, never taking his eyes from the couple before them, “but I shall tell her, soon enough, that he has nothing to offer her. He forgets himself. It is through my sufferance that he is here at all tonight.”
“Perhaps,” the marquis said with a smile, “he thinks his fortunes are about to take a new turn.”
“What?” Pierre said, distractedly, his attention so focused on his brother, who was whispering into the delightful young woman's ear, that he scarcely heard the question.
“No, no, never,” he said vehemently, his attention reverting to the marquis. “I keep HervÃ© and his wife and children in food and necessities as it is my duty as a brother to do. But I assure you, he won't get an extra sou from me to carry on with a demimondaine. And so I shall tell her, never fear. HervÃ© shall not have her, never fear.”
“Doubtless,” drawled the marquis, watching HervÃ© clutch Catherine closer and shoot a triumphant look at his brother. “But I wonder what he is telling her now? Perhaps he feels he will soon be in clover again?”
“Never!” Pierre barked, his little eyes jealously watching the couple's progress. “For his star is no longer in ascendancy. It shines only on the little island of Elba. Paris is mine now.”
“Perhaps,” the marquis mused. For HervÃ©'s bid at taking away Pierre's new plaything was not unusual. The two brothers were famous in Paris for their competitive relationship. The wags had named them Cain and Cain years before, because, as society said, neither one was innocent enough to be called Abel. Still, this was a daring gesture for HervÃ© to make. And one, the marquis thought, that might not have been made solely out of rage and jealousy. It might have been an ill-advised gesture; however, it might just as well have been only a premature gesture showing that HervÃ© thought the direction of his fortunes was indeed about to change. It was true, as he had told Jenkins, that one might learn a great deal from merely watching clever demireps. For they seemed to gravitate to money and power and point it out as surely as any compass could show the North Star.
When the dance ended at last, HervÃ© made as if to delay his partner, for he had seen how quickly she had fled his brother. But Pierre was quick off the mark this time, and as HervÃ© reached for Catherine's arm again, Pierre approached his brother and signaled forcefully that he wished to speak to him. While the two brothers broke into low and volatile argument, to the amusement of watchers, the girl made her escape. And when the marquis looked away from the snarling brothers, she was gone.
Beaumont looked about him rapidly and then turned on his heel and went into hurried conference with a footman. But the marquis only strolled away, seemingly aimlessly. He smiled to himself as he wandered off into the direction that he had seen the white flash of her gown disappear. An association with her, he thought, however brief, would be of some real value after all. For his own personal interest now seemed to dovetail with his professional interest in the girl. After they had parted, he might be able to work out some arrangement with her whereby she could report back to him on whichever of the two brothers with whom she finally chose to consort. A word from either camp would suit him well. He would have to be sure that he left her with pleasant memories so that she would be willing to cooperate with him. And he would have yet another partner in his inquiries.
He knew she would not fly to the duchess's side, for that was where the brothers would look for her first. Nor would she have gone to Violet or Rose. For both were deep in the process of securing business for themselves at this hour. Thus, the marquis reasoned, if she had disappeared into this section of the house, she must have sought a room where she could be alone to weigh the offers of the two brothers.
The marquis eased open two doors off the main hall before he found her, standing alone, holding her hands together tightly, staring into a fire in Count D'Arcy's unused library.
“What a problem,” he sighed softly, entering the room and closing the door securely behind him. “Two such eligible suitors. And no one to give you advice as to which one to select. HervÃ© is, one admits, a trifle more comely, but after all he has four years on poor Pierre. But then, Pierre has the ear of Louis, and the purse and privilege as well. Yet again, as you surely must have heard, there are all sorts of rumors flying. And it is altogether possible that after one month of bliss with Pierre, you might find that HervÃ© was the one in power after all. His emperor is away just at the moment, but one never knows, does one?”
She turned and stared at him as he came up slowly behind her. Her eyes, he noted with amazement, were filled with tears and she wore an expression of grave despair. Had HervÃ© threatened her then? he wondered.
“I want nothing to do with either one of them,” she whispered. “Nothing at all. I just want to be let alone and stay with the duchess just for a little while longer, just till I can get home.”
As he watched, amazed, tears began to run down her cheeks. He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at them.
“Ah no,” he said in his gentlest voice, “for how can you face the company again if you go on so? You shall ruin the work of art you have created upon your face. See? Although I can repair the damage, I will not be able to recreate the effect, for I've left all my cosmetics home again, alas.”
At his words, she looked up in despair, and began to sob. He gathered her close in his arms and stroked her smooth bare shoulders. When she tried weakly to pull away, he only held her closer and whispered soft words of comfort to her.
“No, no,” he said tenderly, pushing back some tendrils of hair from her face. “What can be dreadful enough to make you weep? It cannot be so terrible, can it? For here you are in the heart of society and you are so greatly sought after. Why, you are a stunning success tonight. So lovely that the world of Paris is at your feet. And you are so wretched? Come, come, tell me what is the matter. It may be that I can help you. For I have come to help you, you know.”
He felt her warm and vital, close against him, and he held her close, whispering all the while, and then he laughed and planted a brief passionless kiss against her hair, which, he noted irrelevantly, had the scent of the rose she wore there.
“No, now you are turning my jacket to ruin. What will Jenkins say? For it is not raining tonight. You will quite turn my reputation with him, you know, for I am not used to reducing females to tears. He will wonder what dreadful things I have been up to, to transmute lovely laughing girls into fountains.”
She drew away, looking ashamed. And after taking his handkerchief and dabbing at her eyes, she looked at him, he thought, with something very much like wonder.
“It's all such a mull,” she said, controlling her voice with effort. “And I'm sorry to have wept all over you. But it has been so dreadful. I did not want to be a social success. No, I did not. I only wanted to fulfill my duties and stay in the background. But then that great fat Frenchman took my hand, above all my protests, and made me dance with him. I didn't want to create a scene, for I thought he could not understand English and my French is so poor. But once we were dancing, I found he spoke English as well as I. And heâ¦he made me the most dreadful offer. That is to say, he supposed me to be something I am not. And no sooner had I gotten away from him when the other took me up. For a moment”âshe smiled weaklyâ“I thought it was him again, but it turned out to be his brother, saying almost the selfsame things.”
“What sort of things?” the marquis asked with a glow of interest in his eyes.
“Promising me all sorts of things,” she said, closing her eyes and waving her hand in dismissal. “Carriages and gowns and jewels. And no matter what I said to both of them, they seemed deaf to my every word and only assured me that they were in earnest.”
“They both promised great riches?” the marquis asked abruptly, an alert look upon his face.
“Yes, yes,” she said. And seeing his abstraction, she said shamefacedly, “I am sorry to have gotten so familiar with you, Your Lordship, and I thank you for trying to set me right again. I shall be leaving now, for even though the duchess is at the tables, I shall ask her to give me leave to return to the hotel. I feel a headache coming on,” she explained hurriedly.
“No, no,” the marquis objected, capturing her hands and smiling down at her. “Let's have none of that. You owe me no thanks, for I have not done anything for you as yet. And let us have no âYour Lordships' please; my friends call me Sinjun, and you are my friend. For we have known each other a long time, haven't we? Only we have let a lot of silly misunderstandings get in the way of our friendship. Tell me, Catherine, what is it you want of this journey that neither Pierre nor HervÃ© can give you? For I am here to help you. We are fellow Englishmen, in a matter of speaking, here in a strange land,” he added, seeing her hesitate.
“I want to go home,” she blurted, looking up at him, an incipient sob in her voice. “That is all. It was wrong of me to come. It is wrong of me to stay.”
“Then why do you stay?” he asked in a low voice.
She hesitated again as he drew her a little closer and said, “Say it, Catherine. For have I not said I am your friend?”
“I must wait until mid March at least,” she said gravely, not looking at him, “for the duchess pays me quarterly. And only then will I have the fare to go home.”
The marquis stiffened imperceptibly, and then he laughed low in his throat. Ah, the little fox, he thought maliciously, it is true. A bird in the hand is worth all of a Frenchman's promises. So be it, he thought, we begin. Yet still he was aware of a strange surge of bitter disappointment. It is only, he thought rapidly, that it was, after all, so simple. Once they begin to speak of money, it always becomes so simple.
“Well then,” he said, the lines of cynicism deep in his smiling face, “that is easy enough to remedy. No need to shed one more wasteful tear. For I have enough in my pocket at this moment to see you home. And more than that in my other coat at home. I shall see that you are able to travel home in style, little one, with even a companion of your own to see you safely arrived. I am only sorry that I cannot be that companion. For I must stay on here awhile longer and cannot now make any plans to leave.”