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London, October 1716
In which Our Heroine prepares for battle in the latest fashion and receives an unwelcome blow.
I begin this newest volume of my memoirs with a frank warning. Soon or late, there comes to the life of every confidential agent and maid of honor an order she wishes with all her heart to refuse.
In my particular case, it involved dinner.
For those as yet unfamiliar with these memoirs, my name is Margaret Preston Fitzroy, though I am more commonly known as Peggy. Until quite recently, I was an orphan girl, living in a state of dependency with my banker uncle, his kind but silly wife, and my dear, dramatic cousin, Olivia. This evening, I sat in my dressing closet at St. James’s Palace, trussed up tightly in my corsets and silk mantua, and trying to remember if I’d ordered everything necessary to entertain those same relations in royal style.
“You’re certain the kitchen agreed to the partridges?” I asked my maid, Nell Libby.
“Yes, miss,” Libby answered through clenched teeth. This was not because I had asked her this same question three or four times in the past hour. At least, not entirely. Rather, it was because she had a mouthful of silver pins and was endeavoring to fix my hair in the latest style.
“What about the jugged hares?” I demanded. My own voice was somewhat muffled from my efforts to keep my teeth from chattering. It had begun to rain outside. Even in the windowless dressing closet of my equally windowless bedchamber, I could hear the steady pounding over the roofs. Each drop carried winter’s brutal promise and dragged another icy draft across the wooden floor. My fire was roaring, and I was being positively profligate with the candles, but my rooms remained cold enough that my fingertips had achieved a truly arresting shade of blue. “And the chianti? It’s my uncle’s favorite wine. Ormand did say he’d have an extra bottle laid by for us?”
I don’t believe I had put in as much effort preparing for any court function as I had for this meal. I had spent the better part of the last two weeks arranging for room, food, and drink, all the while assuring the clerks of the household (mostly truthfully) that I could pay for it all and that, upon my sacred honor, my little entertainment would not add extra expense to the royal housekeeping.
Had it been up to me, I would have never laid eyes upon my uncle again. He might have taken me in after my mother died, but we had never warmed to each other. Matters rather came to a head this past spring when he betrothed me to a young man with whom I later shared a mutual misunderstanding. That is to say, I attacked him. To be perfectly fair, though, he did attack me first. This wholly rational argument, however, failed to carry any weight with my uncle, and his response was to throw me out into the street. That the entire unhappy affair ended with my taking up residence in the royal court came as something of a surprise to all concerned. As did the interlude in which I masqueraded as one Lady Francesca, who, it was discovered, had been murdered.
I hasten to add that none of this was actually my own doing or idea. Well, almost none. That is to say, very little.
This admittedly extraordinary run of events had an appropriately extraordinary ending. I now enjoyed a certain amount of royal favor and a post at court. It had not, however, served to mend the rift between myself and my uncle. For my part, I had rather hoped to let that particular matter lie. Unfortunately, my new mistress, Her Royal Highness Princess Caroline, had other ideas.
“Sir Oliver Pierpont is your uncle and legal guardian, Miss Fitzroy,” she reminded me, with a hard tap of the royal index finger against the back of my hand. “Whether or not you relish the relationship. You will make peace with him, or trouble will come of it.”
She was right. More important, she was Princess of Wales. That fact limited the replies I could make to being lectured or poked. I could not, for example, inform Her Royal Highness that I would much prefer to be removed to some place of quiet retirement, such as the Tower.
“I’ve made sure of everything, miss. I promise you.” Libby might have been behind me, but the face she pulled showed clearly in the looking glass on my vanity table. “Now, hold still, or I’ll have this pin right in your scalp.”
“On purpose too.”
“Now, miss, would I ever do that?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“Then you’d better be sure you sit still, hadn’t you? Miss.”
The perceptive reader will see by this exchange that my luck with maids had not improved since we last communicated. When I first came to court, my maid was a large, raw-boned woman called Mrs. Abbott. We had what might be charitably described as a troubled relationship. The fact that I once accused her of plotting murder did not assist matters. Libby, by contrast, was a tiny girl about my own age. She was so tiny, in fact, that she had to stand on a footstool to properly pin and pomade my hair. Her olive skin and dark eyes might have indicated descent from a Spaniard, or a Roman, or a Gypsy rover. Libby pretended ignorance on the matter, and I pretended to believe her.
I might have tried to find a different, gentler person to whom I could entrust the care of my person but for one grave and overwhelming concern: Libby had mastered the New Art of Hairdressing.
It was a dread and terrible time to be a maid of honor, for we found ourselves in the midst of the storm of revolution. For women, the wig had gone out of fashion.
The wig, or more properly, the fontange, had been seen as an indispensable portion of the fashionable lady’s toilette since the days of Queen Anne. Its purpose, as far as I could tell, was to ensure woman’s rigid adherence to the first two of the Great Rules of Fashion. I will set those down here as a warning to future generations.
Rule 1: Any item of dress for ladies must be both more complicated and less comfortable than the corresponding item for gentlemen.
Rule 2: No woman may show any portion of her personage in public without it being severely, and preferably painfully, altered.
The fontange satisfied both criteria admirably. It was an assemblage of horsehair and wire framework pinned and strapped to the lady’s Delicate Head, over which her own hair was then arranged to create sufficient height and approved shape, with the whole topped off by a tall comb or similar adornment. But recently, some daring woman had appeared before the new regent of France with a smooth, sleek head of her own hair on full display. Instead of being shocked beyond endurance, the regent liked it. He liked it, and he said so. Aloud. In public.
Thus are mighty storms generated by the tiniest gust. En masse, the ladies of Versailles cast off the fontange to freely and wantonly display their own tresses. Many were scandalized, but where Versailles’s ladies led, we lesser mortals were condemned to follow.
For me, this all meant an extra hour in front of the mirror. The fontange might have been consigned to history alongside the neck ruff and the codpiece, but Rules 1 and 2 were not to be altered in any particular. My coarse, dark hair could not be shown in public until it had been cemented into orderly ringlets and lovelocks, then pinned with pearls and flowers and other such maidenly adornments. Libby the Sharp excelled at this feat of fashion, unfortunately.
There was a knock at the door. Libby snorted and jumped off her stool. By then, however, the closet door had opened and Mary Bellenden was sauntering in.
“Hello, Peggy. I’ve come for that bracelet you said I could borrow.” Mary was not a friend to me, or to anyone as far as I could tell. She was, in fact, one of the few genuinely careless people I’d ever met. A diamond and a hen’s egg were both the same to the lively Miss Bellenden, as long as they were accompanied by a flattering turn of phrase and the chance to make a good joke.
Without pausing to do more than smile at my reflection, Mary flipped up the lid on the first of the jewel boxes set out on my vanity table and began rooting through the contents. I was not surprised. Mary Bellenden did not believe in pausing for such trifles as permission.
“It’s here.” I pushed a smaller, sandalwood box toward her, trying not to move my head. Libby had resumed her stool and taken up her pins. She held one up for me to see in the glass. It was a gentle reminder that she was in a position to make my life yet more uncomfortable if I executed any sudden moves.
“Thank you for taking my turn at waiting tonight,” I said to Mary, keeping my head rigidly still.
“Not at all.” Mary held up the pearl and peridot bracelet. It was a pretty thing, and I rather liked it. However, this loan was understood to be of long duration. Those of us in waiting to the royal family were kept to a strict schedule. We had three months on duty, followed by a month off, during which we might return to our family homes, if we had them. This may not sound terribly onerous, but we were expected to be in attendance between six and seven days each week. If it was a state occasion, a day could stretch to twenty hours out of the twenty-four. Maids of honor, like the other “women of the bedchamber,” could take a day off only as long as at least two of us remained in attendance. This resulted in the trading of all sorts of favors and small valuables in return for time.
“But poor Mr. Phelps!” Mary fastened the bracelet onto her slender wrist and turned it around, testing how well the gold and jewels glistened in the candlelight. Mary had the alabaster skin, sloping shoulders, and pale eyes expected of the Maid of Honor Type. She carried the looks, and the style, with an ease I envied. “He will be quite distraught when he sees me wearing his gift instead of you!”
“Well, you’ll just have to soothe his spirits, won’t you?” I will not deny that some small ulterior motive guided my choice of which bracelet to “lend” Mary. Mr. Phelps was one of the many court gentlemen I had to tolerate, but not one I wished to encourage.
“Perhaps I will. He certainly has excellent taste.” Mary leaned in toward the glass, touching her patches. This blocked Libby’s view and caused my maid to eye her last silver pin, and Mary’s neck, thoughtfully. “I note you have not yet smoothed things over with our Sophy.”
“As a good Christian maid, I know I should turn the other cheek, but both mine are already burned.” When Sophy Howe thought I was Lady Francesca, she had done her best to make my life miserable. Now that she knew I was a mere “miss” rather than a titled lady, she seemed to take my continued existence as a personal insult.
“And you will have heard by now that Molly Lepell has returned,” Mary went on with a great and obvious show of insouciance.
“Oh? How is she?” I strove to match Mary’s unconcern, and failed. First, because no one could match Mary Bellenden when it came to complete and marvelous unconcern for others. Second, because Molly Lepell had been the closest thing to a friend I’d had at court. Unfortunately, that friendship had been formed while she believed I was someone else. When it was revealed just how thoroughly I’d been lying to her, and the rest of the world, Molly did not take it well. She’d left the court for her interlude at home before I’d had a chance to try to mend things.
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell how she is.” Mary turned a bright eye toward me. “You need to apply to quite a different quarter to find out what little nothings Molly Lepell whispers these days.” I might have been the one engaged in spying for the Crown, but when it came to acquiring court gossip, I was a decided amateur compared to Mary.
“What are you talking about?” My patience was stretched dangerously thin. Miss Bellenden might have nothing better to do than flirt and gossip tonight, but I was under orders to make peace out of a private war with a man I detested.
“It seems that while she was at home and out of our tender care, a certain gentleman quite captured Molly’s attention.”
That stopped all other thoughts dead in their tracks. “Molly Lepell has formed an attachment?” It was Molly who had warned me against losing my heart to any man at court. I found the idea that she might have abandoned her own excellent advice more than a bit disturbing.
“It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? I thought her quite impervious.” Mary fussed with the fashion-mandated three tiers of lace ruffles trailing from her sleeves, making sure they fell in such a way that they would not obscure her new bracelet. “But I know what I saw, and what I saw was anything but impervious.” She tipped me a happy wink. “I fear that with all that’s going on, you’re going to have to work very hard to recapture anyone’s attention, Peggy. I am so looking forward to seeing what invention strikes.” She dropped a quick kiss on my cheek and sailed out of my closet under a wind of cheerful anticipation as strong as the one that blew her in.
“Invention,” snorted Libby. “She knows too much about invention for her own good, that one.”
“She’s all right,” I answered, somewhat distractedly. Mary Bellenden was indeed all right, simply because she was uncomplicated. She sailed through life as well as doorways. Molly Lepell was another matter. She was beautiful, of course, but she was also deeply intelligent and practical regarding court matters. I wondered who had found her heart. I wondered if he was worthy. I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to explain myself to her and to be her friend again.
“Oh, Peggy!” Mary’s voice rang quite unexpectedly from my outer chamber. “You’ve a visitor.”
“What?” I struggled to my feet, ignoring Libby’s annoyed exclamations. “Who? The Pierponts aren’t due for two hours yet . . .” Could it be Molly?
But the youth I caught in the act of straightening up from the bow he made to Mary Bellenden was no member of my family, much less a maid of honor.
“Heaven defend us,” I croaked as the blood drained out of my painted cheeks.
This man was tall and slender with arresting blue eyes set into a hatchet-sharp face. He was the Honorable Mr. Sebastian Sandford. I had met Mr. Sandford last spring, when he attempted unceremoniously to seduce me at a birthday party. When seduction failed, he, with equal lack of ceremony, attempted rape.
He also happened to be my betrothed.