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Candlelight flickered over a gaunt and shabby woman, far from fashionable, no longer young. The servant led her down a dark hallway. "My lord, the lady has arrived."
The chamber was populated with ghostly shapes swathed in Holland covers, cobwebs and dust. In the marble fireplace were neither embers nor ashes, and the silence was that of the tomb. He sat in a satin-backed chair, a decanter on a table at his elbow.
It was the dead of night, March 10. A fitting time to return to England, she thought, this dark midnight of the day that had witnessed the birth of the Emperor Napoleon's long-awaited heir. One hundred cannon shots had reverberated throughout Paris; all the rulers of Continental Europe had rendered homage to the infant King of Rome. Here in London no celebrations were held, nor in Portugal where Wellington battled the encroaching French. "You sent for me. How did you learn my whereabouts?"
The glimmering half-light cast his aquiline features into harsh relief; great pools of dark shadow drowned his pale eyes. "You should not be surprised to discover that I possess considerable tenacity."
"And temerity." Her voice was cold. "I've come, as you wished--though I cannot imagine why you should request such a journey of me, and after so many years." Exhaustion was obvious in every line of her slender, almost emaciated figure. Abruptly he gestured her to a chair.
"It was necessary to speak with you," he said as she pulled off her black bonnet, revealing white-streaked hair. "You've lost your looks. I did not expect that." His words were brutal, shaped by thin and humorless lips.
"How fortunate," the woman retorted with her first trace of feeling, "thatI no longer seek to please you." Thin hands, neatly encased in mended gloves, twitched in her lap. "Have done with this! What do you want of me?"
"To ask a favor." She gazed at him in startled wonder. "One for which you will be well paid."
With faint laughter for his proposed benevolence, she leaned back in her chair. "I wonder what possible thing I might do for you."
"It will be necessary to improve your appearance." On the hand he stretched out for the decanter gleamed a magnificent black opal ring. "It does not suit my purpose to have you an antidote."
An antidote, was she? "Of course your purpose must be mine."
He blew dust from an empty glass. "There is an advantage to it," he continued, as if she had not spoken. "You have so greatly changed that your own brother would not know you now."
She took the brandy snifter from him, cupped it in her palms. "It grows increasingly obvious that you have not changed at all."
Only a slight quiver of his nostrils betrayed that she had pierced his armor. "I want you to return to London. I have need of a female relative who knows how to go on in Society, one whose presence in my home won't cause raised eyebrows, and whose cooperation won't mean favors I have to repay."
So astonished was she by this suggestion that she nearly dropped her glass. "I require no further proof: You are gone quite mad!"
"Consider the advantage to yourself." He gestured impatiently. "It is quite obvious that you are in need of financial assistance--assistance that I can provide. What is required of you is simple enough, and you need not fear you'll be recognized."
"No one would dare recognize me, or recall my history, while I am under your patronage." There was a faint mockery in her tone. "Still king of the castle, I see. What is it you require of this female relative?"
Brusquely, bluntly, he explained.
"I hold to my earlier conclusion," she remarked, when he had done. "You are mad as Bedlam! I am the last person of whom you should ask this thing."
"On the contrary." So brilliant was his pale gaze that it might have blinded her. "You are an excellent choice. Your particular talents will suit me admirably."
"Fiend!" A strange expression fled across her face. "Surely you must realize this could be a dangerous game."
"You were not so timid, once." His voice was cruel. "This bickering is pointless. You have very little choice. Am I not correct?" She regarded him steadily, but spoke not a word. "Shall we consider the bargain struck?"
"And the consequences?"
"Any consequences will be on my head." The black opal flashed fire as his long fingers tapped the chair arm. "An interesting tale you must have to tell, if only you could be induced to confide in me."
She raised her glass as if it were a shield. "To pour my secrets into the devil's ear? I think not! You have secured my compliance in this scheme, though I doubt your motives and suspect that what you have told me is not the entire truth. You can ask no more."
"Can I not?" He glanced up sharply, but saw only the candle's dim image in her tarnished eyes. "You have forgotten a great deal if you think that of me."
Saturday 6 April 1811
I do not know why everyone over a certain age assumes that those less ripe in years are automatically deficient in both wit and hearing, but I found it often so, particularly in the case of one's relatives. It signified not that I was twenty years old, almost of sufficient age to be considered on the shelf, although I must add that my unwed state was due to my father's long illness and subsequent demise and not to any particular deformity of person, for my appearance was generally held to be pleasing enough. With an incongruity that I had learned to expect from them, my worthy elders remarked in one breath that I held various opinions which were most unsuitably strong-minded for a lady of my gentle upbringing and tender years, and in the next murmured vaguely that a particular topic of conversation was unfit for my unsullied ears. I wonder that they did not, at those most interesting moments, send me outside to play!
So it was on that particular morning, when I first heard the name of Lady Sara Cainneach. I can claim no especial foresight, no unaccountable frisson or sensation that someone trod on my grave; though, in view of what later came about, I consider it most disappointing that I did not. If ever a moment called forth premonition, that one must have done! But it seems I am sadly lacking in sensibility. The only reaction roused in me by mention of the lady's name was curiosity, for Mephisto uttered it in a tone that suggested depths of meaning which I could not fathom. Any sort of mystery is anathema to me, much as a red flag to a bull, and I immediately assumed my most innocent expression and listened intently for what might come next.
Our hostess, Lady Penelope, known to the world as Pen, seemed as bewildered as I. This was not an unusual state for her. Pen possessed a heart of gold and a mind filled, to put it kindly, with feathers. She could speak quite knowledgeably of pleasure and amusement, the next rout and her newest gown, but divergence from these subjects left her gasping, like a fish on dry land. This detracted not a whit from her charm, which, coupled with bronze curls, baby-blue eyes, a rosebud mouth and a peaches-and-cream complexion, was considerable enough to prompt London's most notorious rake to offer her his hand and name, allegedly the only honorable act in a long and infamous career. Nor did the marriage founder on matrimony's rocky shoals, despite the dire predictions of cynical friends who expected Sir Jason to cast his frivolous wife overboard within a year. I admit a certain curiosity concerning Jason, curiosity little connected with his profligate past; I failed to see how so notoriously discerning a gentleman could nourish such extreme devotion to a pretty widgeon like Pen. That he was devoted could not be questioned, as evidenced by eight years of wedded bliss with nary an indiscretion remarked by the world, and five extremely lively offspring.
But to continue: Pen evinced blank confusion at her half-brother's remark. (Mephisto was the sole product of the old Duke's first marriage; Pen, and her twin brother, the offspring of a later Duchess, the sixth, I believe.) "Lady Sara Cainneach?" she repeated vaguely, and set down her teacup. "Forgive me, Christian, but should I know the name?"
I'll credit Mephisto with this much: I never heard him make a scathing remark to Pen, or berate her lack of intelligence, despite his legendary intolerance for the rest of the world. Perhaps this is a timely moment to explain that Mephisto had been named not only one of the executors of my father's estate, but also my guardian. It was not a situation that suited either of us overly well. Mephisto was the last person in the world to relish the responsibility of a dependant female of impressionable years, and I was far too independent--not, as he claimed, headstrong--to enjoy being under the thumb, so to speak, of so autocratic a gentleman.
To gaze upon my guardian's cold, harsh features was to understand how he had come by his nickname. His remote and chilling eyes moved to rest on me, and I wondered if any enterprising lady had ever succeeded in rousing a spark of passion in their unfathomable depths. That many had tried I instinctively knew. No man of Mephisto's wealth and position could avoid the ploys and stratagems of the more rapacious type of female.
Mephisto's dark brows twisted into a frown. "The name should not be unfamiliar," he advised Pen, in a voice that warned against further protest. "May I recall the Irish branch of our family to your mind? Lady Sara has kindly agreed to oversee Merrie's debut."
"Oh." Pen retrieved her teacup from a carved gilt side-table, replete with carved strings of bellflower and honeysuckle fluting, and blinked at her half-brother over its rim. "I do not believe I've made Lady Sara's acquaintance, but it is very kind of her all the same." I received a gentle smile. "Merrie must be vastly excited about her come-out."
"Truly, Lady Penelope, you have no idea." I cast Pen a demure look, nicely tinged with shyness, which caused her to regard me most approvingly. Mephisto snorted, and moved to a window-seat with scrolled ends and straight legs. My guardian and I had taken each other's measure upon our first meeting, and neither of us had yet been inspired to alter that initial, unfavorable, impression.
Pen's children invaded the drawing-room at that moment, followed by their harried governess, and I was spared further tedious assurances that I would do quite well in Society and might even take the ton by storm. Mephisto rather spoiled this last prediction by adding the provision that I keep my mouth closed and my face blank. Not that his disapproval worried me. I was well enough acquainted with the world to know that great heiresses are invariably met with superlative kindness, even the plainest of them, which I was not. Nor was I particularly interested in amassing eligible suitors, for I had already met Ninian--but more of him later; it is not yet time for Ninian to enter this tale.
"Tedious brats," remarked Mephisto, observing with distaste the particular specimen that perched upon his knee. "Do send them away, Pen. I wish to speak seriously with you." There was some merit in his request, since the whole troop of young Palmerstons clamored for their mother's attention at the top of their undeniably healthy lungs, while the governess hovered and wrung her hands ineffectually. Pen disengaged herself from various grubby little paws, patted the head of the youngest as one might a favorite puppy, and shooed the lot of them away.
"You want a favor," she remarked, apparently oblivious to the slamming door. "What is it you wish me to do?"
"Plan one of your incomparable soirées." Mephisto's voice dripped boredom; for once, we were in accord. "Meredith will be guest of honor, and thus we will launch her into the world." I shot him a look of extreme dislike, not caring to hear myself spoken of in terms more aptly applied to a great strapping battleship, before donning the requisite air of excitement. This whole matter of my come-out was distasteful to me, and I would have dispensed with it altogether, if only I could. But, since Mephisto would only gain pleasure from an overt battle of wills with me--a battle that, due to my damnable situation, I would likely lose--I acquiesced as best I could and bided my time. As if he could read my thoughts, Mephisto smiled, with singularly blood-curdling effect. "I will of course stand the expense."
Pen's contorted features indicated that plans already tumbled willy-nilly through her mind. "Poor child!" she murmured. "To have your debut delayed so long." I did not care to reflect that I would be sharing the Season with insipid, giggling schoolgirls who were bound to consider me an aged spinster and act accordingly. What pleasure it would be to put their collective noses out of joint! "Your father could not have picked a more unfortunate time to fall ill."
"I doubt that he chose it, Pen." Mephisto was wry. "Nor is it a subject that Meredith will care to dwell upon." I was grateful for Mephisto's interference--my acerbic father had been dear to me and his long illness a grave ordeal--but one glance at my guardian's pitiless face assured me my gratitude was misplaced. Mephisto had no more feeling for me than for the chair in which I sat. I wondered if Fate might be induced to give him the set-down he so richly deserved, and immediately determined to offer Dame Fortune a helping hand.
"Oh!" wailed Pen. "I did not mean that your papa wished to--my wretched tongue! Jason swears I chatter like a magpie. Don't dare say I make as little sense, Christian, or I shall never speak to you again!"
"I should never," retorted Mephisto, "invite such a horrid fate." He had the knack of easy banter, when he chose to employ it, which was seldom. I was intrigued anew by his gentle treatment of his half-sister, who could easily have driven the most sanguine of men to temper, and sanguine Mephisto most definitely was not.
Lady Penelope laughed, an enchanting trilling sound. "You wish me to the devil, and well I know it! But I shall be good and get on with the matter at hand." Immediately she set out upon ambitious and grandiose plans for my entrance into the haut ton, eliciting indifferent agreement and occasional protest from Mephisto, while I sat back, apparently listening with an appropriate humility, and reviewed my frustrating circumstances.
The reader may have observed that I am not short in wit. I knew full well that Mephisto so little relished his guardianship that he meant to get me married and off his hands with all possible speed--an impossible task during-my time of mourning since I could not then be jettisoned into Society. How he must have regretted my great wealth, for without it he could have disposed of me quite easily, without exciting undue comment. Heiresses are a far more noteworthy commodity than impoverished females of gentle birth.
Not that I have ever regretted my fortune! Without it I should probably have been forced to hire myself out as a governess, an occupation that would doubtless have ended in my hurling my charges out an upper-story window or applying my hairbrush to that portion of a recalcitrant child's anatomy which a lady is supposed never to name. Derrière, to be precise. I am not long on patience, nor prone to prudery. No female who grows up in a rural setting can long remain in ignorance of the bizarre rituals indulged in, most indelicately, by farmyard animals. Although I have no great faith that mankind in general is superior to the beasts of the field, I have the utmost confidence in Ninian, who has repeatedly assured me that he intends to employ a great deal more finesse.
My guardian, therefore, wished me alternately married off or impoverished, so that he might be rid of an unwanted responsibility. I did not particularly concern myself with Mephisto's little whims; his wishes were of no consequence to me, except that they were invariably in exact opposition to my own. Perhaps I should pause to explain Mephisto, as best I can. He plays an important part in this tale--far too important, to my mind! For without his infernal interference, we might all have gone on much more prosperously.
The Most Noble Christian Mortimer Carlyle Vansittart, Duke of Denham and Marquis of Rye, Earl of Charnwood, Baron Vansittart of Heywood, Baron Vansittart of Needham, and Baron Vansittart of Aries, is a ruthless, autocratic and cynical man of ancient and honored lineage. I hardly need add that Mephisto is almost universally feared. Of course, I never harbored that particular emotion towards him. Rage, resentment, an unladylike loathing, yes; but it took a far more dastardly man than the dangerous Lord Denham to make my knees knock together with fear, an affliction that my maidservant suffered each time she heard the Duke's gruff voice. But Mephisto will persist in his unpleasant habit of killing his opponents in duels--not that many remain who are sufficiently mutton-headed to challenge him--and ruining others at play, so it is his fault alone that the majority of his acquaintance consider him a demon straight from hell.
My thoughts were interrupted when Jason--Sir Jason Palmerston, to give him all due honor--entered the room. He had just come from riding, and wore the blue coat with brass buttons, leather breeches, top boots and pristine cravat that were de rigeur for that pursuit. Mephisto and I both watched--I with interest, he sardonically--while the reformed rakeshame of London dropped a kiss upon his wife's blushing brow. Said Jason, in a bored tone belied by the doting expression in his brown eyes, which were fixed on Pen's dirt-smudged gown, "The children have been here, I see."
Pen giggled and touched his hand. Their devotion to each other caused me a pang of envy; but Mephisto, a stranger to the gentler emotions, looked even more saturnine. "In full force," Pen agreed, "with Marie traipsing after them and clucking like a broody hen." A small frown appeared. "Do you know, Jason, I fear she doesn't exercise quite the control over them that one might wish."
"Pen," remarked Mephisto, addressing himself to me, "excels at understatement."
Jason regarded his brother-in-law without enthusiasm, appearing to debate whether to take exception to this remark. The men had once been intimates, one reason, no doubt, why Mephisto had so violently opposed Jason's marriage to Lady Penelope. Pen had, however, neatly spiked his guns by steadfastly refusing to wed anyone else, and finally Mephisto yielded, allowing Jason to triumphantly bear his bride to this fine stuccoed house, with its round bow windows and low-pitched roof, in Queen Anne Street.
Jason ungently grasped my chin and forced my face up so that my eyes met his. "Sir!" I gasped, disliking such rough treatment. Jason smiled, and I immediately perceived the reason for his legendary success with the fair sex. He was at the time forty-two, two years older than Mephisto and twelve years older than his wife, but neither advancing age nor abstinence from his libertine ways had dulled his charm. It seemed that Pen was a fortunate lady indeed, and her bemused expression, as she surveyed her husband's muscular back, indicated a full awareness of this fact.
"Not precisely a beauty," Jason announced, and I glared at him. He released me, thoughtfully. "But perhaps something more." Mephisto looked to be on the verge of speech, but heroically refrained.
"Jason, a little less frankness, if you please!" Pen feared my feelings had been wounded and was quick to make amends. "Meredith is an extremely attractive young lady."
She need not have worried: I have spent sufficient time before the looking glass to be aware of both my assets and my deficits, and was consequently unchagrined. At that moment--in my simply cut gown of white muslin trimmed round hem and sleeves with a floral design worked in white embroidery floss, my pelisse of beige Merino cloth, buff-colored gloves and chip straw hat--I was a masterpiece of understatement. Even Mephisto had remarked, in relieved tones, that I looked just like a young girl should.
Jason moved to a serpentine-fronted cabinet of fine elevation and poured himself a brimming glassful of some lethal-looking brew, no doubt the better to tolerate Mephisto's presence in his drawing-room. "The chit will do well enough. You'll have no trouble establishing her, if that's your aim."
"Then our endeavor has your blessing?" murmured Mephisto, as I demurely contemplated the Aubusson carpet. So that the reader may better follow this conversation, I here offer a brief catalogue of my virtues, to wit: curly black hair; deep green eyes, rather large and surrounded by sooty lashes; a heart-shaped face; a delicately formed little nose of which I am rather proud; a mouth that though wide is nonetheless well-formed; and an equally well-shaped chin which only my detractors claim is stubborn. Although it is my great misfortune to stand only five feet tall--I console myself that this is a perfect height for listening at keyholes--Ninian assures me that my Figure leaves nothing to be desired, and it is true that my endowments, though not over-ample for one of my small stature, are just where they should be. Add to this a portion of some hundred thousand pounds and it becomes apparent why Jason's lukewarm praise did not cast me into despair. All the same, I contemplated making him eat his words.
"My blessing?" repeated Jason, as if Mephisto's query had been devoid of sarcasm. "Certainly, if that is what you wish." The men gazed at each other with the utmost dislike and Pen quickly drew their attention to herself, leaving me to reflect upon my guardian's unadmirable character.
In appearance, Mephisto was well enough, with that imperious world-weary air that inspires the less clever sort of female to make an absolute gudgeon of herself. (I shall never understand such creatures, for it was obvious from Mephisto's dissipated countenance that he had already done all in that nature that he cared to do!) His face was intriguing, despite its debauched traceries; his features were stern and almost savage; gray was sprinkled liberally through his black hair. The effect was diabolical, and an excellent portrayal of the soul within. Lest the reader think I draw too severe a picture of my guardian, I must protest that I have tried to the best of my ability to be fair, which, considering Mephisto's abominable treatment of me, is more than he deserves. Every unflattering adjective in existence must have at some time been richly merited by that callous gentleman, and I have magnanimously limited myself to only a few.
Suddenly I became aware of Pen's blue eyes, fixed anxiously on me. "I beg your pardon?" I inquired hesitantly. "I was wool-gathering, I fear."
"Meredith," remarked Mephisto, "has not yet recovered from the rigors of her journey here." His icy eyes inspected me as if I were a not-particularly-appealing piece of horseflesh. "You must bear in mind. Pen, when you make your plans, that she is not robust."
"Nonsense!" I retorted sharply, then recalled myself. The wry twist of my guardian's lips did not deceive me: Mephisto seldom smiled, and was even less often amused. "It is simply the excitement--I am used to a quiet country life."
Jason, glass in hand, had moved to stand beside a dainty composite article, a fire-screen with fall-down front which when open formed a writing-table with an array of pigeonholes, drawers, and stationery cases tucked away in its depth. He observed me with more interest than he had hitherto shown, an interest that I did not find unflattering. "Soon," I added, "I will be myself again."
"An unthrilling prospect," murmured Mephisto, perhaps remembering the occasion when I had kicked him smartly in the shin. "Is there no way in which this dire event can be postponed?"
"Christian!" Lady Penelope was too kind, or too muddle-headed, to comprehend our enmity. "What will Meredith think of you if you persist in such odd remarks?"
"Nothing at all," I replied immediately, then smiled. It would not do for Mephisto to realize that I was an opponent worthy of his mettle. This was not cowardice on my part, but caution: Mephisto's reputation may have been exaggerated, which I've since taken leave to doubt, but no man was so dreaded without some reason. I preferred to lull him, to deceive him into thinking me a demure nonentity. I would boldly secure my own happiness and my guardian's ignominious defeat, once I caught him off-guard. That I had thus far failed to convince Mephisto of either my innocence or malleability discouraged me not one whit.
I leaned forward, the better to radiate sincerity. "I am fast becoming familiar with Lord Denham's inclination toward levity, Lady Penelope. His little witticisms cause me no offense. But what did you wish to say to me? I cannot apologize enough for failing to attend."
"Piffle!" Pen waved an airy hand and was off again, this time in plans for refurbishing my neglected wardrobe, with the unstated objective of bringing all London's eligible bachelors to languish at my feet. Since this was a matter that little interested me, although I had no doubt it would come about, with or without dashing new attire, I left her to it and returned to my reflections.
I daresay I might have liked Mephisto well enough, for his wits were as keen as his tongue, had it not been for the legal control he exercised over both my fortune and me. Though Mephisto was an intimate of my father's, an association founded solely on their mutual interest in government--Papa had been a high-ranking official in the Admiralty, and Mephisto wielded more influence than even the Prime Minister--we had scarce set eyes on each other before the sad events that left me to his reluctant care. That Mephisto meant to sternly and rigorously fulfill the obligations that my deluded father had laid upon him was speedily and painfully made clear. As a result of that previously mentioned interview, I dined for a week upon bread and water in the solitary splendor of my room, and Mephisto spent a fortnight with a richly merited limp. But it is not my wont to brood over the inequities of fate. Since open defiance would not serve, I immediately set about hatching schemes to more subtly achieve my ends.
I beg I will receive no pity for my orphaned state. It is true that Mephisto, Lady Penelope and Sir Jason were virtual strangers to me; I had been among them a scant ten days. However, being plunged abruptly amid strangers is no harrowing experience for a young woman with my particular interests and abilities. To begin with, I am not missish, nor do I possess the slightest sensibility. To continue, I have an incurable curiosity--what my dear Papa called, in a rare moment of jest, a nose for mischief--and a most scientific way of solving the puzzles that people pose to me. Can there be greater satisfaction than unlocking family closets and seeing moldering skeletons tumble out? I think not.
And I must take this moment to violently refute the unkind allegation that I snoop. I do not. I investigate, which is quite another thing. Nor is it true, as others have claimed, that I reap intrigue from hitherto-barren soil. Did I not discover the liaison between our housekeeper and a groom? And solve the mystery of Mrs. Brown's unaccommodating cow? The unfortunate matter of the parlor-maid has no bearing here, and I adamantly deny that she deliberately drowned herself in the village well. It was sheer accident. Girls in that interesting condition are prone to spells of dizziness, and she had the additional matter of her mistress's missing diamond brooch preying on her mind, as well as fastened to her petticoat.
I hoped that Mephisto knew nothing of my proclivities--it was not a matter which my father bragged upon, castigating my inquiries as "meddling," and my behavior as unfitting for a young lady of gentle birth--for I fully intended to exercise my abilities in regard to my guardian as they had never been exercised before. I had simply, in the past, found it advantageous to learn all I could of the people around me. Now it was of paramount importance that I do so. Mephisto stood planted most firmly between myself and what I wanted most in the world. Unless I was, for the first time in my life, to admit defeat, he had to be removed. In short, I meant to blackmail him.