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Nicholas Lovell, Earl of Ashby, swung his quizzing glass at the end of its ribbon and listened to the rising hum of anticipation from the well of the theatre below him. From his vantage-point in the box he could see virtually the entire sweep of the Theatre Royal, the swirl of colours from the ladies' silks and satins, the subdued gleam on the gentle-men's formal evening wear. As usual the Bath audience had paid hardly any heed to the curtain-raiser, chattering, gossiping and waving to acquaintances throughout it. But now the mood had changed to one of heightened expectation.
Perhaps, he mused, his friends had not exaggerated the charms and talents of the Royal's chief attraction, Mademoiselle Lysette Davide, the sublime interpreter of Shakespeare. And tonight there was the added piquancy of knowing that those privileged enough to procure a ticket would be witness to her last performance of the season. But, no, despite everything, he could not summon up the enthusiasm to join in his friends' excitement. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the gilded chair.
'For pity's sake, Lovell, do wake up and show a bit of interest. The performance is about to start.' George Marlow leaned over and poked him unceremoniously in the ribs with his quizzing glass.
Nicholas raised one dark brow laconically, and resumed his bored scrutiny of Bath society, chattering in the stalls below.
George, persisting in the face of his friend's uncharacteristic ennui, added, 'I tell you, La Belle Davide is well worth the wait.'
'He's right, you know,' Lord Corsham contributed. 'Worth sitting through that tedious ballet for. Have another glass of champagne, old chap. You haven't had enough to drink, that's your trouble.'
The last of the quartet, Sir William Hendricks, whose box it was, peered anxiously at the programme. 'It isn't Shakespeare, is it? Can never understand a word the fellow's on about.'
Nicholas laughed, roused from his indolent mood by the look on his old schoolfriend's face. He well remembered Hendricks's struggle to concentrate on any literary endeavour at Eton, being more enamoured of the sports field and cockpit than his books. 'Don't worryit's not Shakespeare. Why do you bother with a box, old chap? It can't be worth the expense.'
'Well, one does, you know. After all, one never knows when one might want to come alongand I can tell you, ever since we discovered Mademoiselle Davide we've been here virtually every night she's performed.' He sighed gustily. 'If I could just kiss her hand.'
'And the rest of her,' George Marlow remarked, with a meaningful grin.
Nicholas was surprised by his companions' calf-struck demeanours. After all, George had kept a string of actresses for the past few years, yet all the men were behaving like schoolboys whenever this particular woman's name was mentioned.
'So what's stopping you?' he enquired, irritated. 'She's only an actress, and we all know what that means. Enough money and you can kiss her from head to toe, never mind her hand.' It had taken a lot to persuade him to come out this evening. He had only arrived in Bath that afternoon reluctantly obeying a summons from his elder sister Geor-gianaand had had no intention of doing anything but having a good dinner and several glasses of brandy with his brother-in-law Henry.
'Only an actress!' Indignation mottled Sir William's cheeks. 'She is pure, unsullied, a goddessthe Unobtainable!'His companions, equally earnest, nodded solemnly.
They had all of Nicholas's attention now. He swung round away from the stage and regarded the three young men with amused disbelief on his lean features. 'There is no such thing as an unobtainable actress. You three are either getting old or you have all lost your touch!'
'Damn it, Nick,' Lord Corsham growled indignantly. 'No one succeeds with her. It isn't just us. Not even you could storm those unsullied rampartsI bet you!'
'I can't be bothered to storm anything,' Nicholas rejoined with a quirk of his firm lips. 'Look, the curtain's going up.'
He turned away as Frederick Corsham grabbed his sleeve. 'Not even if I wager Thunderer?'
He had all the Earl's attention now. 'Are you serious, Freddie? I thought you'd never sell that animal, never mind wager him.'
'It's a safe bet,' his friend replied breezily, sitting back as the limelights were turned up and the curtain rose on the first scene of The Castle Spectre. 'Even you couldn't do it.' The other two nodded solemnly. They all knew few women could resist Nick's dark charms if he chose to exert them, but they also knew of Miss Davide's formidable reputation for virtue.
'Doneand I haven't even set eyes on the lady.'
At that moment Lysette Davide was standing in the wings having a furious, whispered argument with Mr Porter, the manager of the Theatre Royal. 'I never thought you meant it!' he said. 'I'll raise your fees to to 12 pounds a week,' he added wildly. 'Damn it! That's as much as Mrs Jordan was getting in her heyday.'
'Not now, Mr Porter! I am retiring after this performance and that is final. Now, please leave me!'
Lysette checked her dark wig again, smoothed down her white diaphanous skirts and took a deep, not entirely steady breath. In the three years she had been on the professional stage she had never lost her pre-performance nerves, and tonight, the very night that she was going to declare her retirement, she felt as nervous as a kitten. And the hissed interchange with Mr Porter had only served to make things worse.
Her cue came and she swept on to the centre of the stage, tall, almost regal. The theatre erupted into a storm of applause from all levels and footstamping from the common folk up in the topmost tier.
From the vantage-point of Sir William's box, overhanging the stage, Nicholas had a perfect view of the Unobtainable Miss Davide. And for the first time that evening he was paying attention. It was not just that she was a very beautiful young woman, tall, shapely, elegant, but that she had great presence. While she was on the stage, even when she was not speaking, she held the eyes of all the theatre-goers, and when she did speak for the first time there was a collective intake of breath from the stalls. Her voice was strong, carrying, yet mellifluous, with a slight hint of a French accent.
The play was a farrago of nonsense, of course, a typical fashionable Gothic melodrama, yet she made it sound like Shakespearean verse. For the first time in weeks Nicholas felt his boredom disappear. He had begun to worry about his lack of interest in all his old pursuits. Gambling had lost its excitement, the pursuit of the fair sex had lost its lure, and he had taken to leaving parties early, and more or less sober.
His circle had begun to comment, and the only person pleased with this apparent reform of a notorious rake was his land agent, who found all his correspondence answered promptly and with interest.
The truth was that, at the age of twenty seven, the Earl of Ashby was growing restless with the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure's sake. His sister, the redoubtable Georgiana, had told him he needed to marry and settle down, to ensure the future of the earldom by producing an heir. But, unsettled and restless as he was, Nicholas was damned if he was going to marry one of the eligible ninnies that his sister found for him on a regular basis. And, much as his ancestral estates in Buckinghamshire were beginning to tug at his conscience, the thought of sobriety and conformity with a 'suitable' wife who had neither wit nor conversation filled him with dismay.
His eyes did not leave the tall dark figure as the play progressed. The drama involved ludicrous plots, abandoned orphans and a wicked villain who emerged, cloaked and masked, to seize the heroine, but Nicholas took in none of that. One part of his mind enjoyed the spectacle of Miss Davide's beauty, the other reflected that, if he had to spend a week in Bath at his sister's beck and call, then the pursuit and conquest of such a woman would be more than compensation.
The curtain fell for the first interval and a waiter came in with a tray of champagne and canapés. After the man had departed, all three of his friends turned to Nicholas and demanded with one voice, 'Well?'
Nicholas grinned, stretched out his long legs and raised his glass in a toast. 'To the Divine Miss Davide, and to the three of you for giving me something to do for the next week.'
'You are very confident,' Lord Corsham remarked.
'He's got cause,' George Marlow replied ungrudgingly. 'When has he ever failed with a lady? I don't know how you do it, Nick, but you've got the devil's own luck.'
'Probably signed his soul away to Old Nick.'
'No such thing,' Nicholas protested. 'All one needs is a certain charm, flair all the things you three are so sadly lacking.'
'I shall ignore that slur,' Sir William said amiably. 'And at least you've cheered up. You'd become so damnably sober we were thinking of sending for your physician. We had better set a time limit on this wager shall we say the end of next month?'
The interval ended and the play resumed. Miss Davide, not on stage again until the next scene, sat in her dressing-room as her dresser powdered her shoulders and arranged her fichu. She leaned forward, carefully checking her hairline to make sure no betraying blonde curl was escaping, and touched a cloth to her darkened brows.
'First half went well, ma'am,' her dresser, Florence, remarked. She looked at her mistress's reflection in the mirror, automatically checking the heavy stage make-up which covered the naturally pale skin. She always thought it a pity that Miss Davide covered that lovely mass of blonde hair: soft, it was, like spun gold. And the dark eyebrows made her green eyes look hazel. But the perfection of her features was all hers and owed nothing to the artistry of the stage.
'Thank you, Florence. It did go well, did it not? Still, I will confess I am very nervous about my announcement and Mr Porter is deeply unhappy with my decision. Now, you are sure that you will be content to work for Mrs Scott next season?'
'Oh, it's an honour, ma'am, with her being so well known. But I shall miss you; you've been so kind to me.' Her mistress's slender hand with its long tapering fingers came up and briefly touched her own.
'You will have me crying, Florence. Do not say anything else.' At that very moment there was a knock on the door. 'I must be on stage now. Please bring my handglass and powder.'
Despite it being the middle of a scene, there was another storm of applause when Miss Davide resumed the stage. The second half went by as if in a dream: the villain was vanquished, the orphan reunited with his sister and all ended well.
Lysette took four curtain calls, but then held out her hands to still the applause. 'Dear friends, I have an announcement to make. What I have to say is difficult, for I have valued your loyal support these past three years, but the time has come for me to leave the stage.'
There was a gasp, then a cry of 'No! Shame!' but she held up her hand again.
'I know that what I have said will disappoint you, but my mind is made up. Goodnight, thank you and goodbye to you all.'
She swept a final deep curtsey and left the stage, her cheeks hot, tears pricking the back of her eyes, leaving uproar behind her. For many reasons she did not regret her decision, but that was not to say it was not hard to leave behind the thrill of a life so different from that she had been brought up to. Mr Porter rushed up, red-faced, his arms waving in agitation.
'I never thought you would go through with itnow hear what you have done! They are rioting out there!' He had to raise his voice above the sound of rhythmically stamping feet.
'Get a grip, Mr Porter,' the young lady who until a few moments ago had been Lysette Davide commanded briskly. 'They will have another favourite by next season. Your profits will be assured,' she added wryly. Three years' acquaintance with the theatre manager had taught her precisely where his priorities lay.
Her hand was on her dressing-room door when the stage doorman Stebbings came panting round the corner. 'Are you coming along to the Green Room, miss? There's a dozen or so nobs all wanting to see you, and I won't answer for the consequences if you don't make an appearance,' he said anxiously.
Lysette sighed, very tempted to plead a headache, to get the doorman to give her apologies, but then a sense of duty got the better of her. After all, it was for the last time. 'Very well, Stebbings. But only the most faithful gentlemen who always callyou know the ones.'
She hastily checked her appearance in the mirror, whisked a trace of powder over her high cheekbones and rubbed a smudge of lamp-black from under her lower lashes, then hurried along the dingy corridors, parsimoniously lit by the occasional oil-lamp. Mr Porter was not going to spend money on frills and furbelows behind the scenes, but he had invested in the Green Room, where his actors met favoured members of the audience.
The scene which greeted Miss Davide's eyes as she pushed open the door was a familiar one. A dozen gentlemen clad in evening dress, glasses in hand, were discussing the evening's performance and her astounding announcement, while one or two of the more callow youths glowered at each other in jealous silence from the corners of the room.
As she walked in the room fell silent, then she was surrounded, bouquets and ribboned boxes pressed upon her, and from every side expressions of dismay at her decision and pleas to reconsider rained down. Smiling, nodding, responding with the grace that so marked her, Lysette gave no indication that this was yet another performance.
'Red roses, my lord, they are enchanting!' she was saying encouragingly to the tongue-tied seventeen-year-old heir to one of the nation's greatest families, when the door half opened again and she heard Stebbings expostulating on the other side.
'I'm sorry, gentlemen, but Miss Davide isn't seeing anyone else now.'
'She will see me,' a lazy voice declared coolly, and a tall, dark man strolled in, closing the door firmly behind him.