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"Well, my pets, so you are still house hunting," Lady Melvine said. "You must be fagged to death with it. There is nothing so wearing. You know you are always welcome to stay with me, but I see by your little smiles, Dammler, you hope to have your bride to yourself for the treacle moon." She glanced at her nephew and his fiancée, marveling anew at the odd match. Dammler, an eminently eligible marquess, a poet and the most handsome rogue in London. What did he see in this little spinster that he should smile on her so fondly?
"I'm gypping Prue out of the treacle moon, Het. I don't think it's wise to do her out of a house of her own as well. We must stay in town for part of the summer to see to my play, you know."
"Ah yes, Shilla will be opening in September, will it not, your new play? You have rehearsals to attend, I suppose."
"Also some rewriting, costumes and so on."
"And three dozen black wigs for all those harem girls," Hettie added. His play involved his oriental travels that had had their first airing in Cantos from Abroad, a book of his poetry that had catapulted him to fame a year before.
"The cast is dyed," he told her, then hunched his elegant shoulders in a disparaging way that set her looking for a little joke in his words.
"Ah yes, I see it now," she said a moment later. "And soon the die will be cast as well, with your wedding. It seems to me you chose a devilish busy time for it."
"We didn't want to wait," he told her. The eagerness, strangely enough, appeared to be all on his side. But then Prudence Mallow was a perfect oyster. She had to be well pleased with her catch, and anxious to get him to the altar.
"Ourchoices of house seem to be limited to two," Prudence outlined. "We can take Devonshire House with twenty-four bedrooms at a ruinous cost, or an apartment in what Allan calls limbo, meaning Upper Grosvenor Square, with twenty-four square inches. You'd think with the season over and everyone leaving town, houses would be going begging."
"We are thinking of throwing up a tent in Green Park," Dammler said, smiling ruefully.
"We could get fresh milk from the herd of cattle, too," Prudence added.
"I would like it excessively," Dammler took it up. He was always eager to talk any nonsense. "I am pretty good at throwing up a tent from my travels, and could teach you to milk a cow in jig time."
"As you already know how to milk the cow, there is no need to teach me," she pointed out. "You forget we are a busy working couple. You aren't the only one who can read and write. I don't plan to cosset you, you know."
"You see how she treats me," Dammler complained to Hettie, with still that provoking smile on his face. He saw not a fault in his beloved. That she occasionally dashed off a novel set her quite up in her own conceit, Hettie thought. "She'll have me fetching and carrying and acting as footman to tote her volumes to Murray, our publisher."
"You want to trim her into line before you put the ring on her finger," Hettie laughed, sliding in a piece of advice under the guise of a joke.
"I mean to get her well under my legal control before I straighten her out," he replied. "Then the story will change. I have not been unaffected by my little trip around the world. I have taken copious notes on how these matters are managed in the east."
"I expect you refer to harems and such things. You will pray confine your seraglio to the stage, Allan," Prudence told him with a pert smile.
"Yes, Mama," he said obediently, but with a gleaming eye "if you really want me to carry on my amorous intrigues in the full glare of the public eye."
She shook her head at him with a weary sigh. He was quite simply incorrigible. She doubted she could quite control this reformed rake. How she had ever wrested him away from his mistress, Cybele, was still a mystery to her. She was a gorgeous thing, but still he had abandoned her and come running after herself to Bath when she had fled him after a quarrel. "What would you do if you were stuck with such a husband, Lady Melvine?" she asked, smiling.
"I would buy him a chastity belt and hide the key," Hettie answered promptly, then walked off laughing. Maybe it would work out. Prudence was not beautiful and she was not rich, but she seemed to have something that appealed to Allan, some way of handling him that the more attractive girls did not, and really he would require careful handling.
"What on earth is a chastity belt?" Prudence asked her laughing lover.
"You'll find out, the first time I have to leave you after we are married," he told her.
"If it serves the function its name suggests, it is you who will require one. No, not one, a dozen."
"I have one that is as good as a hundred. You." He touched the tip of her nose and folded her arm possessively under his to resume their walk. "Whenever I am tempted... No, I am never tempted. I am cured of all that sort of thing. How would you like to live on a houseboat, Prue? We might buy a fancy yacht and set up house on the Thames."
"Excellent! At midnight I would pull up the gangplank and catch you out every time you tried to sneak home late."
"Then nail it up on the other side and make me walk it, right into the drink, if my breath smelled of liquor."
"How managing you make me sound! I don't plan to measure the level of the decanters. I shall seal them up with wax instead," she added, with an arch smile.
"We'll be too busy working to fall into dissipation. You have your novel to finish and I my play. The devil finds work for idle hands. He's the busiest employer there ever was. Ah, speak of the devil. Here is Uncle Clarence."
Glancing up, Prudence saw her uncle heave into view. A dapper little gentleman of middle years outfitted in the highest kick of fashion, he was a prime favorite with Dammler, who always suffered a fool gladly.
"Not at your easel this afternoon, Uncle?" he asked. Uncle Clarence called himself an artist. He used up more canvas and pigment than all of the real artists of London put together, dashing off a likeness of anyone with nothing better to do for three afternoons than sit for him. Three afternoons was the time required for him to splash up a masterpiece.
"Giving the old eyes a rest," Clarence assured them. "Have you found a place to squat after the wedding?"
"We were just discussing the possibilities of Green Park," Prudence mentioned.
"Aye, that would be nothing new for you, eh, Nevvie? You must have spent many a night under canvas in Africa or America. They would have no houses in America. I can't think why you went there and got yourself all shot up." He just glanced to Dammler's eyebrow, where a slight irregularity at one end was all that remained of a shot from an arrow.
"It wouldn't be the first time for me," Dammler agreed "but this comfort-craving wife of mine wouldn't care for sleeping on the ground."
"Comfort crazy! You have hit it on the head," Clarence told him. "She has got a new chair for her study--a stuffed chair, very fine it is. Blue velvet. Cost me--well, you wouldn't be interested to hear the sum I paid for it. Daresay it would seem little enough to you; still, ten guineas is a high price for a chair, even an upholstered chair."
"You spoil her, Uncle. How am I expected to keep pace with such a high style as you set?" Dammler asked, his eyes twinkling.
Clarence was well pleased with his own comfortable but plain abode, and perceived no humor in this. "You are welcome to come along and be spoiled with her. As for me, I must ankle along home. Your aunt is having us to her little rout party this evening, and I really ought to get in an hour at my easel."
"Don't let us keep you, Uncle," Prudence said at once. "We are off to visit a friend of a half-cousin's wife who might know a lady with a house to let."
"Excellent! There is nothing like close friends when all's said and done. I wish you well. I'll nip along to the corner where I am to meet my phaeton. My new high perch phaeton." He bowed and walked jauntily on, summoning all his courage and physical reserve for the dangerous vault into his high perch phaeton. Since coming into a nephew from the very apex of society, Clarence Elmtree was busy to ape all the more outré modes of the aristocracy.
"Who is he Rembrandting today?" Dammler asked his fiancée.
"Himself. It is all to be laid in your dish, so don't bother laughing at him. Since you gave him that book he has cleared his palette of all his lovely blues and greens and uses nothing but brown and pink. He is after me to stand at the backhouse door with a broom in my hand and my hair falling about my ears, but as I am much too grand for such pastimes these days, he paints himself, like Rembrandt. You have revolutionized his whole technique. No longer does he paint out the warts and moles, but puts them in where nature neglected to do so."
"It was my innocent mention that it took a real artist to make ugliness beautiful that turned him around."
"Hmmm, but I think the ease of filling three-quarters of the canvas with a nice mud-brown helped. He could reduce the sittings to one day if he really wanted to, but has become accustomed to three." She smiled fondly at her uncle's folly.
Clarence had used to paint nothing but da Vincis, but since discovering the ease of a brown canvas with a round pink face highlighted in the center, he was busy making Rembrandt famous. "The fellow can paint no more than a good face, but he does the faces dashed well," he had confided to them. "The hands, now, he has as good as eliminated, and by sticking the subject in a doorway or window he does away with proportion and foreshortening and all the rest of it." For any unartistic critic who voiced a complaint of this technique, he had his setdown ready. "Chiaroscuro," he would announce grandly, and go on to utter some mention of light and shade in a way to show the artist knew what he was about, even if the critic didn't. Subjects were less eager to be done in this unbecoming guise than as Mona Lisa, so that Uncle had often to doff his new jacket by Stultz and don his brown dressing gown to pose for himself. He disliked having such a dull audience, and was more apt to be seen dashing along Bond Street in his new phaeton, or calling on some of the mighty who were soon to be connected to him. He had made a firm friend of Hettie, who adored eccentrics.
"Prue, about this house business," Dammler said, interrupting her reverie. "What do you say to buying one? There are plenty for sale, and so few for rent. We'll be needing one permanently. We'll want to spend some part of the season at least in town each year, and with our writing will often have to come in from Longbourne Abbey. It's a good investment, too. Trevor Place on Berkeley Square is going at a good price. Shall we go have a look at it?"
"It's getting quite late. Why don't I hail Uncle Clarence on his way past and you go on and look at it? If you like it, I'll go back with you tomorrow."
"All right. I see Uncle is coming this way now. I'll hail him down. You'll have to look nimble to clamber in at one leap as Clarence does." He stopped the carriage and turned back to Prudence. "Eight-thirty tonight?"
Dammler stood on the corner, watching them leave. When Prudence turned to have a last look at him, he blew her a kiss, and felt like running after the carriage and going with her. He didn't like to be away from her for a moment. He had wanted to be married in Bath three weeks earlier when they had patched up their differences and become engaged. The romance had flowered from an unlikely professional friendship instigated by John Murray, their publisher. Prudence was a country girl with modest ideas and a brain and pen Dammler envied. He had admired first her splendid novels, then her mind, and only last her body. The polite world thought Miss Mallow had done very well for herself to nab Lord Dammler, but Allan knew he was the fortunate one. He had been bent on a road to self-destruction when he had met Prue. His much-admired poetry he considered melodramatic stuff, flashy wordplay that caught the eye but would not endure ten years. His real interest had been in amusement and women, horses, partying. Now all that was changed. His play to open in October was better than his poetry because he had fashioned his heroine, Shilla, after Prudence.
For once, what was right and good coincided exactly with what he wanted--a good useful life with Prue. He intended settling down to some serious writing and serious reforming. He had got rid of all his flirts and of course his mistress, Cybele. He had ceased to find amusement in any of them after meeting Prudence. She had been appalled at his way of carrying on, though she had tried to hide it, but he meant to show her all that was behind him. Unfortunate that he had inadvertently drawn her a little into his own raffish set, making her known to people that were too fast for her. There had been in particular a Mr. Seville, the memory of whom still caused Dammler's hands to clench into fists. A man-about-town with an unsavory reputation, he had taken to dangling after her, and though he had ultimately offered to marry her, Dammler could never quite believe the fellow was serious. He had said some things to Hettie that did not ring true? some little insinuation that what he had offered was not a gold ring but a carte blanche. But all that was in the past. In two weeks they would be married, and go to Longbourne Abbey for a short honeymoon before returning to London for the play. In his mind he saw himself seated at a desk in a quiet corner of a study, with Prudence across from him writing on her latest novel, Patience. A quiet, useful life.
He shook the thought from his head reluctantly and grabbed a passing hackney cab to go to Berkeley Square to view the house for sale. It was the right size, the right address, and the right price. Needed work, but it was worth bringing Prudence to have a look at it.
He was so weary of looking that he was resolved to have the place unless she took it in violent dislike. But she never disliked anything he liked, or if she did, she was too nice to say so. She was enthusiastic about the house even before she saw it the next morning, and was vastly impressed with the splendor of twelve faded bedrooms, when he was a little afraid it was too few.
"The saloon wouldn't hold above fifty comfortably," he pointed out apologetically.
"Fifty! I'm sure we'd never be entertaining fifty people at once," she answered. Twelve was a largish party at Elmtree's home. It was on such occasions as these that Prudence felt a little trepidation regarding her future. Their pasts were really so very different that there would be a good deal of adjusting to be done, and she foresaw the majority of it would be done by herself.
"For balls you know--but we can hold them chez Hettie. She will adore it. The study is nice and spacious--room for two desks, and not too far apart either, just as I like."
"My two shelves of books will fit nicely right here," she pointed out, making a joking reference to her paucity of books. "And you can put your ten thousand on the other side," she added.
"Shall we put an offer on it then? I'm dog-tired with looking, and the wedding's only two weeks away. Only! That's fourteen days too long to suit me."
She nodded her agreement. "Your days are numbered, Dammler. Enjoy your freedom while you can, for in two weeks you will be leashed, and have to account to me for your time."
"I do already--haven't you noticed? Tonight I have a bachelor's dinner at the Reddleston--some of my friends from Cambridge. I sha'n't stop in later, for the thing will go on till dawn. I'll put a down payment on the house this afternoon, which will involve long and very dull sessions with my banker--if you're sure you're satisfied? The furniture goes with it. Half of it useless lumber, but at least we'll have a table and chairs. And a bed--an item of considerable importance to the more libidinous among us. We can replace the rest by degrees."
"Fine--I like it very much. It's good to have it settled. And you mustn't worry that the owner stripped the walls of paintings. Uncle will splatter us up a bunch of Mona Lisas or Rembrandts--whatever you fancy."
"I'll see you tomorrow then, and we'll come back here and go over the place to see what you want done to it to make it habitable immediately. I'll drop by Hettie's place this afternoon. She'll be dying to hear we're settled at last. She'll want to come around and see it for herself, but I'll close the deal before she begins discovering watermarks on the ceiling and cracked walls. Personally, I don't care if the ceilings are black and blue, as long as the roof stands over our heads."
"You have to see Wills about your play this afternoon, too."
"Not a minute for me to fall into the devil's clutches, you see. From banker to Wills. Come, I'll take you home. I don't mean to let you walk the streets alone, my girl. Satan may have an eye on you, too, now that you've fallen into my orbit."
They went happily off to Grosvenor Square discussing the future, without a single thought that Satan was lurking around the corner, planning the greatest mischief for them.