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Chapter OneThe truth is frequently ambiguous,
but it is still more dependable than a lie.
Eleventh marquess of Motmarche
Aphorisms, number 23
In the billiard room, the mantel clock ticked softly, its sound muted by the room's furnishings. Thick oriental carpeting. Dark paneled walls. The walls were hung with pastoral paintings, which were not terribly good but were terribly English -- dogs, horses, the hunt. On one wall, heavy damask drapes all but obliterated tall, narrow windows, the only view to the outside. These draperies were a deep emerald green, fringed and tied and tasseled in gold. The fringe and tassels, repeated at the pockets of a billiard table, were the only froufrou in the room. This room was one of several that made up Freyer's, a gentlemen's club on St. James's Street, and it was intrinsically what the newer clubs could only pretend to be-old, masculine, unrepentantly upper-class.
The gold in the fringe and tassels was the worn, dignified gold that spoke of generations. Just as the movements and mannerisms of the men in the room, their very diction, said each was the scion of a long line of progenitors, all of whom had walked these soft carpets, or carpets just like them, since the beginning of time -- or at least since the beginning of taste and decorum. It was the reassuring, upper-class English myth: tradition. The illusion of Wealth perpetual, past and present, as a way of warding off worries for the future. Nonetheless, Freyer's was the oldest and probably poshest of such gentlemen's clubs in London, and Graham Wessit belonged inthis club, at this billiard table, bending over it.
He stood well balanced on one foot, the other in the air. He was stretched out across the green felt, his belly flat, almost horizontal against the table's mahogany rail. His arm was extended more than halfway up the playing surface, in a long white shirtsleeve. (He'd taken his coat off two shots ago when the balls had broken badly and the betting had doubled to above eighty pounds.) His concentration ran down the length of his arm, down the line of his cue stick, past the loose crevice he'd made of his fingertips, to the pristine white of one small ivory ball. This awkward little object, the cue ball, sat smugly at a near-unreachable angle over a clutter of irrelevant, multicolored balls. But it also sat in direct line with a red ball Graham intended to bank and sink.
He was sliding the cue stick back and forth a fraction to feel the balance, taking a last measure against a mother-of-pearl inlay -- a sight -- on the table edge, when the clock began to strike.
Noon. Graham cocked his elbow. A far-off flurry of commotion distracted him for a moment. Out front in the reading room, someone had come in. Someone who was perhaps not a member. The butler handled such things. His voice could be heard. "Now see here --"
The mantel clock struck the third beat and then the fourth in a regular, dependable rhythm. Graham refocused and hit. The tip of his cue made a neat tap against the cue ball. The cue ball, in turn, hit the red, sending it against the cushion. This bright ball cut through a narrow strait, just missing three other balls, and began down the length of the table toward the pocket at Graham's hip. The clock was striking seven, eight, nine --
And the disturbance in the outer room grew loud enough to make Graham look up, frowning. Several voices were added to the butler's, among them a woman's. "I know 'e's bloody well 'ere!"
This incongruous sound circled in the outer room and rose in volume. It seemed to be going through the reading room, gathering force like a tornado. It clanged into a lamp. It opened and shut the door to the adjacent room. Graham had just registered that this storm was moving in his direction when the door to the billiard room, already ajar, burst back on its hinges, rapping the wall with its force -- the force of several people trying to enter at once. A young woman, a very pregnant young woman, clamored out of a confusion of men, all of whom were trying to contain her.
"Now see here, young lady --"
"This is no place --"
She squirmed free, amazingly agile. "You keep yer filthy 'ands --"
Voices overlapped. Where did one grab a pregnant woman? seemed to be the question of the hour. Tilney, the man beside Graham, tried to intervene. "Madam, there must be some misunderstand --"
"Ain't no bleedin' misunderstandin' If 'e ain't in this room, 'e's in another."
Ah, thought Graham, a lady come to fetch her old man. Or, no. Given her manners and speech, a businesswoman come to collect on a sidestepped fee, for she was no lady. She was barely a woman. Like a kitten sadly fat from her first heat, the little creature looked hardly more than sixteen.
For a moment longer, Graham was still more amused than involved. The girl jostled her way through gripping hands and recriminations. She elbowed one man and grabbed another by the collar. She wanted to be in their midst. She was scanning the men's encroaching, remonstrating faces, looking them over as thoroughly as they were trying to turn her about. After a minute of this tussle -- the men would not organize themselves for her inspectionshe clambered up over the edge of the billiard table, standing on it to look down on them all.
Graham had one more instant of time to be awed afresh by the way Fate had singled him out: He was taller than anyone else in the room, darker, lanky; he was also, he knew, by far the handsomest man in the room. Not for the first time, this fact made him uneasy.Black Silk. Copyright © by Judith Ivory. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.