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"I do not think I care for London," remarked Lady Davenham, as with a frown upon her flawless brow she surveyed the town house drawing room, "although it has been so long since we were last here that I do not perfectly recall. Certainly I do not care for the way this house has been kept up. I'll wager the holland covers were taken off the furniture only moments before we arrived. It is in sad need of polishing." She approached one of the ancestral portraits which hung upon the light-green-papered walls, stood on tiptoes to run a disrespectful finger along the frame. "Dust, just as I expected! Vivien, something must be done."
Lord Davenham turned away from the window where he stood, and gazed somewhat vaguely at his wife. Her attitude was indicative of awaited comment. "Guano," he supplied.
"Guano?" Lady Davenham glanced quickly at her finger. "Sometimes I wonder where you take your notions, Vivien; it is merely dust. Not that one wishes to find dust in one's drawing room; there is no excuse for it, even when one has been rusticating in the country for nigh on a year--still, dust is greatly preferable to bats." She transferred her frowning attention from her fingertip to her spouse. "Why do you think we have bats in our drawing room?"
"Not in our drawing room, surely?" His lordship, a tall well-built man, responded with an abstracted air. "I'm sure I never said such a thing. By the by, I believe the results are very good. I cannot speak with similar assurance about the efficacy of sugar-baker's scum, or hog's hair, and I certainly do not approve of the transportation of Egyptian mummies to Liverpool, where they are ground down into bone meal."
Thefrown cleared from Lady Davenham's brow as if by magic. "You are speaking of fertilizer!" she said.
This flash of enlightenment earned her ladyship no praise. "What else would I be talking about?" his lordship inquired, disarmingly perplexed. "Coke of Holkham has the right of it: 'No fodder, no beasts; no beasts, no manure; no manure, no crops'. It is you who said there was guano in the drawing room."
"I did not! You were not listening to me again--which I do not scruple to tell you, Vivien, is one of your less endearing traits!" Lady Davenham joined her husband at the window. "Admit that you've not heard a word I said."
"Personally," mused his lordship, "I am inclined to agree that no fertilizer exists more effective than that provided in such abundance by the animal population. Still, much benefit has been derived from more exotic materials like lime and chalk, horn shavings and potash."
To this assertion, Lady Davenham did not trust herself to respond. Silence descended upon the drawing room, broken only by the ticking of the long-case clock.
Gradually, the Duke became aware that all was not well with his Duchess; the Duke was not unintelligent, despite his habitual abstraction. "Poor Thea! I shall drive you distracted one day," he confessed, with the whimsy that was his saving grace. "You are very good to tolerate my air-dreaming. What was it you wished to say?"
With a gesture of her expressive hands, Lady Davenham dismissed her husband's gratitude. "Pooh! I'll warrant you were thinking about spading and raking and seeding and whatever else one does to a garden in the springtime. Excellent! While I am busy with our cousin, you will have something with which to occupy yourself. Just fancy, Vivien--after so many years we shall soon be reunited with Malcolm. What adventures he will have to tell us! I wonder if we will find him changed."
Lord Davenham had returned his attention to the window through which he had been observing his gardens below. Thea's pause clearly called for comment. "Watering and pruning," he observed.
Lady Davenham, whose attention was not on the gardens of Davenant House, paused in her contemplation of the neglected drawing room. "What have watering and pruning to do with Malcolm?" she inquired, a trace of irritation in her tone.
"Dashed if I know!" His lordship's own tones were a trifle strained. "I thought you had just asked me what else it is one does to a garden in the spring."
Lady Davenham refrained from pointing out that she already knew a great deal more than she wished to know about gardening--as she refrained from wreaking havoc on her husband's flowerbeds to discover if he was capable of strong emotion, a matter about which Thea had begun to cherish doubts. "It is you who are talking about gardens," she reproved. "Not I! I was wondering if we would find our cousin altered by his adventures--not that the on-dits which have circulated in his absence would encourage anyone in that hope. I would not especially wish Malcolm to reform--it was always a special treat to see him when he was sent up to us in the country when his poor papa despaired over him. No one ever dreamed up such larks as Malcolm--no, or was so much fun!"
Lord Davenham had an aggravating habit of attending to the portions of a conversation that one preferred he wouldn't, as he immediately displayed. "I do not think Malcolm has ceased to have 'fun,' as you call it," he remarked wryly. "Rumor has it that he was nicknamed Le Roué by the Princess Borghese. Do you know, Thea, while standing here I believe I have evolved a scheme by which to improve the system of irrigation troughs. Tell me what you think,"
What Lady Davenham thought, and it was not the first time she had done so, was that there existed a wide disparity between her husband's outward appearance and his inner self. All the Davenants were wildly romantic looking, with unruly black curls, flashing dark eyes set beneath flyaway brows, adventurous noses, and sensual mouths; in times more suited to their bold natures, they had been buccaneers, robber barons, skilled courtiers. Yet here stood the current head of the clan, serene, elusive, and vague, plotting his annual assault upon his flowerbeds. In the person of Lord Davenham, Lady Davenham thought unkindly, the swashbuckling Davenant blood ran thin.
"I think," she said, when the Duke had ceased to speak, "that you are trying to pull the wool over my eyes! It will not serve, Vivien; recall that I have known you all my life. You think that if you ignore unpleasant things they will eventually go away--or be dealt with by me, which is much the same thing. And while I understand that some people believe me to be of a managing disposition, I do not understand why you should recall Malcolm with disfavor."
Thea had not ceased her housewifely tour of their environment, passing censorious fingers over window-sills, poking suspiciously at the furniture, shaking the curtains in search of dust. Dust she had found in plenty, judging by the smudge presently existent on the tip of her adventurous nose--Thea was a Davenant by birth as well as marriage, and very like the family in appearance, regret as she did the fact. As the Duke watched, she stooped and peered under the carpet. "Just as I suspected!" sighed Thea. "Tea leaves."
"Beneath the Brussels carpet?" inquired her whimsical spouse, arching one dark brow. "My dear, that is very bad."
"Not beneath the carpet, on it; they must be spread about and then swept up with a hard brush. That is how it should be cleaned." Thea straightened. "Not that I intend to bore you further with such stuff!"
"As I have been boring you." Though Lord Davenham's tone was kindly, his expression was unreadable. "I have been listening, Thea. You have decided Malcolm is incapable of managing his own affairs."
No Davenant, not even one who deprecated her heritage, emerged from the nursery without an instinctive understanding of worldly things. "I am certain Malcolm manages his affaires very nicely," responded Thea. "You were not boring me precisely, Vivien. Gracious! You are the Duke of Davenham, the head of the family; your preoccupation with estate matters may be forgiven you, I think. I am quite prepared to do so--providing you give me a reason why you do not wish Malcolm to come home!"
Conversation being a trifle difficult to maintain with a lady in constant motion, Lord Davenham detached himself from the window and strolled about the drawing room in his energetic wife's wake. He wandered amid small tables, circumventing several heart-backed chairs. Finding himself entangled with a straight-leg sofa, he arranged himself comfortably thereupon. "I remember Malcolm differently from the way you do, my dear--perhaps because I was eldest. Still am eldest, in point of fact! You seem to have forgotten Malcolm's habit of allowing others to stand the punishment for his deviltry."
This, from the vague and elusive Lord Davenham, was a very long and lucidly expressed viewpoint. Puzzling over her husband's unusual attention to the here-and-now, Lady Davenham seated herself opposite him on a carved-and-gilt settee. "You are severe!" she protested. "You may also be a little envious. Malcolm could sow his wild oats, but since you were the eldest you have always known that it was your duty to many young and secure the succession, as I have always known I would be your wife. Perhaps it may seem somewhat unfair--not to me, as I've no inclination toward adventure!--but necessary to ensure that the line would not die out."
Lord Davenham contemplated the wonderfully shiny boot which he had propped upon one leather-breeched knee. "The line may yet," he remarked.
Thus reminded of their mutual failure to produce the heirs that had been the reason for their marriage, ensuring that the next generation of adventurous Davenants were at least partially legitimate, Lady Davenham also regarded her husband's gleaming boot. "Is that why you dislike to talk of Malcolm? Because he is next in line? But you are a mere two-and-thirty, Vivien. Surely it will not come to that." And then she glanced up from the Duke's footwear to discover a disturbing light in his dark eyes. Lady Davenham had not espied that expression since preparations for the journey had begun. Lord Davenham's habitual abstraction did not usually extend to the marriage-bed. "Vivien--" she murmured, her heart beating faster in her breast.
The expression in his lordship's eye grew even more intense. "Primula vulgaris," he remarked. "Heartsease. Candytuft."
"Primula vulgaris?" echoed Lady Davenham. "How can you speak so to me, Vivien? I am your wife!"
"You are also absurd!" His lordship clasped his hands around his knee. "I may be a trifle absentminded, but I have not forgot who you are, my dear! I don't know why you claim I have. Have I not been talking to you this past half-hour?"
If the Duke had not forgotten her existence, reflected the Duchess, it was because she made it her object to remind him at least once each day. "Sometimes you can be abominably provoking, Vivien! You do it on purpose, I think. All the same, to call me vulgar is to go too far."
Sternly accused, Lord Davenham studied his wife. Enthusiasm for life in general animated Lady Davenham, and an intense curiosity--especially about the details of other people's lives, which she was prone to try and rearrange. "Managing, perhaps; meddlesome, definitely; but not vulgar!" he protested. "Can it be, Thea, that you are hearing things?"
Carefully, Lady Davenham folded her expressive hands in her lap. "I distinctly heard you say 'primula vulgaris,' Vivien."
"Primula vulgaris!" Lord Davenham laughed outright. "Not you, Thea! Bedding out!"
Bedding out? Though Davenants inclined toward such endeavors, conducting their liaisons with verve and élan amid great notoriety, Lady Davenham had thought her husband aloof from such escapades. Could it be that it was not only his wife's embraces that Vivien enjoyed? "Gracious God!" she uttered faintly, shocked to discover how grievously her judgment had erred. "How can you think of--I mean, you haven't got an heir!"
What primula vulgaris and heartsease had to do with his lack of offspring, Lord Davenham had no clue. Puzzled, he looked closer at his wife. She was in exceptional looks, he noted. Her cheeks were pink, and she seemed to be positively fascinated by his footwear.
His boots were worthy of attention, decided his lordship, but surely they had not caused Thea to behave so strangely. She was the perfect wife, managing the details of everyday life with the minimum of fuss. Yet here she was, if not precisely making a kick-up, at least looking distinctly miffed. Lord Davenham could not approve of Thea being made unhappy. He applied his not-inconsiderable intellect to recalling precisely what had been said.
Bedding out? Could Thea have mistaken--but she had always been shy to indicate her wishes--could a simple trip to London release a lady from what her husband privately thought of as the results of a large dose of propriety at a very impressionable age? Vivien could visualize Miss Marlypole, the dragon of a governess who was doubtless responsible for his wife's passive acceptance of the intimate side of married life. That Thea enjoyed their private moments, Vivien was aware. His only regret was that she never, by any gesture, suggested such moments herself.
Yet had she not just done so, no matter how circuitous the manner? A more animated gentleman than Lord Davenham might have clicked his heels together and shouted hosannahs to the skies. Vivien merely made a steeple of his fingertips, in which posture he looked very much like a pensive buccaneer. "You amaze me, Thea! Never in all the years of our acquaintance have you suggested such a thing. Not that it would have been proper to suggest it before the knot was tied, though I wouldn't have minded--but I am delighted with your suggestion, no matter what its inspiration. Shall we retire abovestairs?"
Lady Davenham, grappling with the concept of her husband as a thwarted adventurer, was earning a headache for her efforts. Consequently, she did not grasp the thrust of his conversation, nor understand why he should suddenly suggest that they retire. "Whatever for?" she crossly inquired.
Alas for Lord Davenham's hopes, so abruptly dashed. Not for the first time he consigned a certain governess to writhe in eternal flames. "Have it your own way, my dear; I thought you wished to retire. If you do not, I wish you would not hint at it." He let fall the hand which he had extended toward her. "I will not tease you further! Instead you must tell me if you agree that primula vulgaris and candytuft and heartsease will add sufficient liveliness to the flowerbeds."
"Flowerbeds!" Lady Davenham was aghast at the misunderstanding. Never, during five years of marriage, and a lifetime of acquaintance, had Thea thought of retiring with Vivien abovestairs in the middle of the day. Now that the notion did present itself, she could not banish it from mind.
Well, and why should she banish it? Thea was not quite so passive by nature as her husband thought her; but she felt too uncertain of herself to force her presence on him. Yet was not the purpose of this marriage the getting of offspring? Shyly, she glanced at her spouse.
He was looking not at her, but into a far corner, and the brooding expression on his strongly marked features made Thea catch her breath. "Dibbles and beetles. Pick-axes and rolling stones and caterpillar shears," uttered his lordship into the silence. And then: "Beg pardon, my dear? Did you speak?"
Lady Davenham had definitely spoken, but it would not have been seemly to repeat her exasperated remark. Experience should have long ago taught her, she decided, that when a Davenham's demeanor was most romantic, his thoughts were most mundane. Vivien might look as if he contemplated catching her up in his arms and bearing her in triumph to the connubial chamber, but he had in reality probably been passing through a mental inventory of his potting shed.
Potting sheds! Modesty forbade Thea suggest her husband's interest might be more fruitfully focused on herself. Abruptly she rose from the settee. "Malcolm is approaching thirty. It is time he fixed his affections. Everyone will be mad for him--everyone always has been, and though he may have changed since our last meeting, I doubt it is as much as all that. Do you remember, Vivien, when he sent us the performing bear? How angry everyone was with him, especially the owner of the beast! But how exciting Malcolm made everything seem, even when it was not. And how flat everything seemed after he had left, even though nothing had really changed." Rather wistfully, she smiled. "Which leads me to the conclusion that one should take one's excitement in small doses, if at all."
Had his concentration not been largely directed toward transporting his thoughts from abovestairs into his gardens, Lord Davenham might have deduced any number of surprising conclusions from his wife's remarks. But upon Lord Davenham's impeccably clad shoulders many responsibilities rested, and Thea did not require his assistance in carrying on a discussion, of necessity having learned to converse quite adequately with herself.
Thea moved to stare unappreciatively at her reflection in the pier glass opposite the fireplace. Mirrored in the glass was the feminine version of the dashing Davenhams: dark eyes and flyaway brows, adventurous nose and sensual mouth set in a perfect oval face crowned with riotous thick-curls. Her neck was slender and graceful, and as for the rest of her--well, nature had intended Thea to be voluptuous, and though she might drape herself from neck to fingertip to toe (in this instance, an excessively prim carriage dress of white poplin with a deep blonde flounce), and dine for days on bread and water, she still could not disguise that fact.
Irritably, Thea smoothed her hair. Try as she did to repress those curls, drawing them back into a braided circle, their rebellious nature would not be quelled. Already errant tendrils had escaped to cluster softly upon temples and brow. And why the deuce, she wondered, hadn't Vivien told her she had a smudge?
Rubbing her dusty nose against her sleeve, Thea abandoned the glass. "I do not expect you to do the pretty, Vivien, at least not beyond attending to the observances of civility," she ironically remarked. Not for an instant did Lady Davenham imagine that the Duke could be persuaded, whatever her expectations, to bestir himself. "I know you don't enjoy the social whirl. And I shall not be a penny the worse of it, because I do, so you need not worry that I shall be fatiguing myself to death!"
So pregnant was her ladyship's pause that Lord Davenham roused from his preoccupation with his garden, which was a much more soothing subject for cogitation than the sudden aversion his wife seemed to have taken to himself. Had she not expressed a dislike of excitement? Perhaps she did not mean it. Still, he must not embarrass her with unwelcome overtures.
She was looking at him in a somewhat hostile manner, Lord Davenham noted. "Of course!" he said.
"Of course what?" Lady Davenham acerbically inquired.
"Of course whatever it was you asked me, my dear." Vivien disentangled himself from the sofa and drifted back to the window. "I do not wish to be disagreeable. Tell me, do you truly like those rhododendrons? I am of two minds."
A stranger listening to his amiable prattling might think Lord Davenham had no mind at all. Lady Davenham was not so easily deceived. "I do not understand you, Vivien," she remarked, narrowing her fine eyes. "Did I not know better, I would think you didn't like our cousin."
"Ah, but you do know better, do you not?" With an expert flick of his wrist. Lord Davenham opened his snuffbox, sampled its contents, made clear his intention to let a tedious subject drop.
Lady Davenham rested her lovely hands on the curve of a heart-backed chair and eyed her enigmatic spouse. Would she be disappointed in her dashing cousin Malcolm? It might be better if she were.