The Marchesa goes to the theater accompanied only by her maid. She dresses in pure white, without any jewels or powder to compete with her golden hair and blue eyes. In the London society of King George III, this modesty is enough to cause a sensation. Night after night, every bachelor in London sends her flowers, hoping to win an audience with this mysterious, enigmatic beauty, but none have come close to a seat in her box. None of them guess that the Marchesa wears no jewels because she cannot afford them. None of them know that she is not a Marchesa at all. She is Marigold Brown, a poor girl from Gloucestershire who is about to mount the greatest con London has ever seen—if falling in love doesn’t get in her way.
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About the Author
Christianna Brand (1907–1988) was one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age of British mystery writing. Born in Malaya and raised in India, Brand used her experience as a salesgirl as inspiration for her first novel, Death in High Heels, which she based on a fantasy of murdering an irritating coworker. The same year, she debuted her most famous character, Inspector Cockrill, whose adventures she followed until 1957. The film version of the second Cockrill mystery, Green for Danger, is considered one of the best-ever screen adaptations of a classic English mystery. Brand also found success writing children’s fiction. Her Nurse Matilda series, about a grotesque nanny who tames ill-behaved children, was adapted for the screen in 2005, as Nanny McPhee. Brand received Edgar Award nominations for the short stories “Twist for Twist” and “Poison in the Cup”, as well as one for her nonfiction work Heaven Knows Who. The author of more than two dozen novels, she died in 1988.
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Court of Foxes
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Christianna Brand
All rights reserved.
A MINUTE BEFORE CURTAIN-UP on the second act, she came back to her box; and there fell upon the restless house that silence that nowadays, after each interval, greeted her return. A moment of silence as she moved quietly forward, the bouquet in her hand; a moment of silence and then — the rustle of excited whispering, the flutter of laced cambric handkerchiefs in exchange of signals over intervening heads, a voice crying out, hushed but exultant: 'Mine!' And one word tossed between boxes and gallery, grand circle, dress circle, stalls, all eyes on the flowers placed carelessly on the ledge of the box before her: 'Lilies!'
For the bouquet had been sent among a score or more of others and the chance that she carried it would win for its sender, in wagers, a thousand guineas or more.
She seemed unconscious of it all, however, laying the lilies serenely in their place, moving serenely to her solitary chair; lovely as a lily herself, in her lily-white dress, her waiting woman stout and defensive at her shoulder. She wore no jewels, there was about her no single touch of colour; even her lips were pale against a complexion dazzlingly fair, her eyes were a light grey-blue; only, heaped in the high artificial sculptured coiffure of the day — her hair, unpowdered, was the bright lacquered orangey-yellow of marigolds in the sun. In all the fashionable London of King George III, there was not such another flame of hair.
The lights grew dim, the curtain rose, the play continued upon its interrupted way. In other boxes the fashionables laughed and chattered together, the doxies held court, vying with one another as to which should have the greatest number of admirers paraded here to the public view. But the Marchesa Marigelda d'Astonia Subeggio sat quiet and alone and if she attended to the acting was probably the only person present to do so. When the lights went up again she would be gone, slipping quietly back into the tiny flower-filled room behind the box; to return once more after the interval — holding a fresh bouquet. Meanwhile the gallants would be gathered outside in the foyer to congratulate the winner, pay over their debts and lay new wagers as to whose offering would be carried when she came back for the third act. Remote, serene, touched with an exquisite melancholy — knowing no one, admitting no acquaintance, plainly indifferent to the sensation she created, if she was even aware of it — in a few brief weeks she had become the toast of the town.
Two young men strolled into the foyer, entering by different doors, one coming from the auditorium, the other from outside, having only just arrived: the one small, dark, elegant, almost womanish in appearance, the other taller and fair, with friendly clear brown eyes. If they knew one another, they gave no sign of it, though between them there was in fact, despite the difference in height and colouring, some strong touch of resemblance. The darker seemed, indeed, less than willing to admit an acquaintance, avoiding the other's eye, checking his step when he saw him, remaining standing quietly in the shadow of the curtained doorway. The fair man, however, was claimed by a dozen friends, introduced all about. 'David Llandovery of the family of Tregaron' — Dear Dai of Carmarthen they call him, down among the mountains of his beloved South Wales.
The young man laughed, with mock indignation disclaiming. He said, to draw attention from himself: 'What have we here?'
For in the centre of the foyer, two men were engaged in a quarrel, faces flushed, voices increasingly raised; both men of fashion, yet with something about them that spoke rather of the country than of the ton, the one in russet-coloured coat, red-haired, wearing no wig, the other in dark green brocade, powdered. 'Two blades in a passion. This fellow, the red-head — some hick from the shires, I believe, not knowing his manners has sent a jewel of some sort concealed among his flowers—'
The red-headed man overheard at least the last part of the sentence. 'And why not, I say? I've as much right as any to send her a diamond.'
'It's not in the rules of the game to offer more than a bouquet.'
'The game? — what game? Isn't all the world sending her flowers?'
'What lady is this,' said David Llandovery, 'to whom all the world sends flowers? It's evident that I — and our friend here—' he bowed, including the stranger, bent in his own kindly and delicate way upon pouring oil on troubled waters — 'are not fully informed in this matter. I am but very lately up from Wales, passing through town on my way with my family to Europe. And you, sir?'
'From Gloucestershire. Rufus B-Bredon, sir, from G-Gloucestershire.' He spoke with a slight stammer. 'And with as much right, say I, to s-send jewels to the lady—'
'I know nothing of this lady.'
Lord Calne, Sir Harry Stone, half a dozen more, burst into exclamation. 'Why, man — in the white dress! You saw her in her box tonight?'
'I was delayed — am but this moment arrived at the playhouse, to catch the last piece.'
'Ah, then you know nothing of the charmingest mystery in town.' They stood bright as peacocks, all, in their silks and brocades under the glitter of the big central chandelier, a-sparkle with candles; Llandovery indulgently laughing, the two antagonists cooling off, the dark man standing in the doorway behind them, taking no part but drinking in every word of it. 'It's six weeks now since first she made her appearance and since then she's attended two or three times a week, as the play is changed; always alone, always dressed in white, wearing no jewels though she's said to have an Aladdin's Cave of them ...' The speaker paused. He said, losing for a moment the modish flippancy of his tone: 'She has no need of adornment.'
A murmur of assent rumbled through the group: David Llandovery, astonished, saw that here and there a face went a little pale, as though a young heart turned over at that recollected beauty. He said: 'But who is this lady? How has she gone so far unknown?'
'A marchioness — the Marchesa d'Astonia Subeggio.'
'An Italian? That accounts for it.'
'No, no, she's English, but having resided in Venice, it seems, for her husband was an Italian.'
'What — a widow? I thought you were speaking of some young creature—?'
'So she is: married off at fifteen or sixteen, no doubt — the husband it seems was a hundred years old and died within a year or so, leaving her a great fortune.'
'Yet the widow is inconsolable,' said Sir Harry. 'Shuts herself up in her house, goes out not at all except for these excursions to the play, where she's guarded from intrusion by two footmen and a dragon of a waiting woman; refuses all acquaintance ...'
'Need this be grief? The lady is simply particular as to who are her friends.'
'No, for Lord Calne has seen her for himself, the picture of disconsolence. He and half a dozen others now, but 'twas he set the fashion. Didn't you, Calne? — climbed a rail and looked in through a window ...'
Till this moment it had been but an escapade, a piece of bravado to satisfy the general curiosity, a triumph of daring; but in face of the steady gaze of David Llandovery's brown eyes, the adventure seemed suddenly a little shoddy, not the act of a gentleman. 'My intention was simply to follow her home,' said Lord Calne, 'and find out where she lived. All the world was wild to know more of her. I rode after her carriage. A small house — one of the new little houses in South Audley Street. It told me little, however, from the outside and presently, a kitchen boy or some such wretch appearing from a lower entrance, I questioned him and so learned the little we now know. He took me, I suppose, for some lovesick Romeo, for on my exceeding his hopes in the matter of gratuity, he offered that I might catch a glimpse of milady by putting a foot here, and a handhold there, and so gaining a window ...'
'And you did this?'
'Well — yes. The temptation was there and I succumbed to it. But she was but sitting at a table, after all, drooping like a lily, the waiting woman trying to press upon her a glass of wine. "My lady can't sit grieving for ever, my lady is young, she must learn to smile again." But my lady wouldn't smile, just sat there among the flowers — and more beautiful than any of them, drooping like a lily, yes, but a lily crowned with a pollen of gold ...' His voice too for a moment lost its drawl. 'She has some — quality — about her ...'
David Llandovery was puzzled and intrigued. 'Some quality, indeed! — why your very voices falter when you speak of her. And these flowers—'
'It was I that first sent her flowers,' said a new voice, the voice of the man in green brocade who had been quarrelling with the red-head. 'They make a game of it now, but it was I that first fell in love — never having spoken a word to her, simply from seeing her sitting there, so far away, so beautiful, her face so pale, her hair the colour of marigold petals ... I searched all London and at last found country marigolds and sent them to her. The footman received them at the door of her box: he knocked and took them into the little waiting-room behind. I saw the serving woman take the flowers. She looked at my message — saying simply that all I asked was that the lady should accept them — and came to the door and gave me a sort of half-gracious smile and a curtsey, "Compliments and thanks, sir, and I'll give the flowers to milady", and so dismissed me, closing the door in my face. But in the next interval, the lady carried my flowers when she came back to the box.'
'Mr Edgar Frere — a gentleman of some small estate in the Cotswolds — so he modestly claims,' said Lord Calne, introducing the speaker to Llandovery. He added, laughing: 'But otherwise a great boaster. The house rang with his triumphs — so much so that I said to Sir Harry here — you know Harry Stone? — "Damned if I don't send her flowers," I said, "and see if she'll not carry those." "Why then and so shall I," said Harry, "and confound you, for she'll carry mine!" "She'll carry mine," says Mr Frere, "as she did tonight. I shall send her marigolds — for her hair — every night she attends." And he flashes fire and puts his hand to his sword hilt — which however isn't there — and cries out: "What will you wager that she'll not carry mine?" And so the thing began. Half the rakes in town attend the play every night she goes — spies lie in wait to know of it in advance — and twenty, thirty, forty bouquets a night must be in the room behind her box by the time she arrives—'
'And half as many again by the time she leaves,' said Sir Harry. 'Disappointed in the first interval, we spend the second bespeaking another bouquet that may better please.'
'A wench sets up a stall outside the theatre for no other custom. On the nights the lady isn't here, she folds up her tent after the first curtain-up and goes away.'
'But beyond carrying this bouquet or that, the lady gives no sign?'
'No sign. And remains the Unattainable She. The flowers are chosen, apparently, without fear or favour, doubtless at random: names mean nothing, a gentleman with "a small estate in the Cotswolds"—' Lord Calne smiled and bowed to the sender of the first bunch of marigolds — 'appears as much favoured, and as little, as a peer of the realm.' The first bell rang for curtain-up and as they turned to go back to the auditorium, he added: 'What reception a gentleman from Gloucestershire will get who sends what he describes as "a diamond" — we shall see.'
A footman came through the archway, for a moment intercepting their progress. He carried a huge bouquet of mixed flowers, holding it out before him in both hands as though it had been on a tray. The wrapping paper had been disarranged; now there was pinned to it by a magnificent brooch, a small, folded note.
The red-headed man stepped forward. He took the letter, roughly pulling the jewel from the paper and thrusting it into his pocket. Then into an electrified silence, with shaking voice, he read the note aloud.
Marigelda, Marchesa d'Astonia Subeggio, does not accept presents from gentlemen; and from those who offend by offering them, will no longer accept even flowers.
'Well, well, well, a young woman of spirit, it seems!' said the dark young man to himself, still standing watching from the shadows of the portico; and turned and went alone to his place in the stalls. And, 'A paragon of virtue!' said David Llandovery to himself, and also, with his friends, went into the auditorium.
And the bell rang for curtain-up; and she came into the box. A door opened out of a room banked with flowers, the stout waiting woman, sombre in black, passed through, stood aside, handed a bouquet. She took the flowers, came forward, placed them on the broad ledge of the box, near the gilded chair; stood for a moment looking tranquilly down on the hushed, expectant, upturned faces below ...
And a voice whispered out, exultant: 'Violets!' and from stalls to gallery a murmur tossed and tumbled, 'The Marquis wins!' And handkerchiefs signalled regrets, congratulations, promises of revenge, the fans of the ladies tapped impatiently against their palms; in the wings the artists waited, as nowadays they had learned to wait, till the tension should clear and the sibilance of whispering die down ...
They might have waited for ever for all the attention they received from two, at least, of their audience that night.
The play ended, the curtain fell. From the room behind, the waiting woman appeared, picked up the bouquet of flowers from the ledge of the box and stood aside for her mistress to retire. She rose unhurriedly from the gilt chair and pale, beautiful, exquisitely tranquil as ever, stood for a moment before she turned, and looked down once more into the body of the house.
All now was noise and confusion of departure. Up in the galleries there was shoving and jostling for exit, among the gentry below the same was effected by proxy, each with his own footman making a passage for him, crying out his name, trading upon seniority of aristocracy, the henchman of an earl holding back his little party to make way for my lord duke, my lord viscount having in his turn made way for the earl. But out of the chatter and the movement, the cries of 'Make a way, if you please!' two men stood immobile and silent — in different parts of the house but united in total unawareness of the bustle around them, standing staring up at the box where now she stood looking down: two pairs of eyes gazing up into eyes of a clear grey-blue — a pair of brown eyes, gentle and kind, and the bright dark eyes of the stranger who, in the entrance foyer, had stood unseen and listened and held his peace.
Her glance lit for a moment only, upon the brilliance and the darkness — passed on and came to rest upon the heart-filled, spell-bound gaze of Dear Dai of Carmarthen, the Honourable David Llandovery.
Outside the theatre, the darkness was lit with a hundred flares, shifting the black shadows as the bearers pressed this way or that through the throng, guiding their masters to the waiting coaches. Of late the manager of the theatre, alarmed by the crowd that jostled in the entrances to see her more closely as she passed by, had arranged for her to use the private royal entrance — and she came out quietly, a white moth in the white cloak hung over the pure white dress; and softly as a moth proceeded towards her own carriage. But a flare caught the sheen of the lacquer-gold hair, the riot of colour that followed in her wake as her woman and two playhouse servants struggled under the huge burden of the many bouquets; and the news passed back through the mob, 'The lady of the flowers!' The great ladies and the courtesans swept by, their escorts following meekly enough but glancing back over their shoulders as, hurrying a little now, she followed the footmen forcing a path for her; and so at last reached her carriage. The woman waiting bustled in after, crying up to the box, 'Very well, Samuel: drive on!'
But the crowd was dense and as the coachman struggled with the fretting horses, afraid to proceed, a man came forward, forcing his way urgently, ever courteous and yet determined, through the press of the people: and came to the open window and, wordlessly, held out a bouquet of white roses.
The torchlight glittered on the golden head, glimmered on the pale face with the great, shadowed, grey-blue eyes looking back into his. For one moment their hands touched as she took the flowers into her arms.
Dark eyes watched them. Beside the great, ornate Tregaron family coach with its splendid trappings and enormous emblazon of arms, a slender figure stood and took in the whole scene. 'Well — so, my little brother of Llandovery, you and I are to be rivals!' Beneath the foppish coat, the slight shoulders lifted in a shrug, half rueful, half resolute. May the best man win! that gesture seemed to say; and yet with a perfect knowledge from within, of which that best man would be.
She glanced but idly at him standing there. Silent, as the waiting woman chattered of the events of the evening, she drove home, white lids lowered over eyes suddenly warm with dreams: the Marchesa Marigelda d'Astonia with her white arms filled with white roses.
Excerpted from Court of Foxes by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1969 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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