Arabella Beaumont is the fortunate possessor of one of England's most celebrated bodies-with a formidable business brain to match. Her latest venture: transforming a London hotel into a social club for courtesans. To afford the lavish renovations, Arabella needs her featherbrained friend Constance Worthington to repay the fortune she owes her. And now that Constance has a wealthy protector, Pigeon Pollard, she's finally good for the cash.
Alas, the imprudent Constance has also been dallying with Lady Ribbonhat's footman, and a mysterious blackmailer is threatening to tell all. If Constance pays up, there will be no money left for Arabella's renovations; if she doesn't, the cuckolded Pigeon is bound to leave her penniless. But as the case escalates rapidly from extortion to murder, Arabella's life, as well as her fortune, hangs precariously in the balance...
PRAISE FOR DEATH AND THE COURTESAN
"Saucy...the effervescent and free-thinking Arabella is a delightful heroine."
-The Bellingham Herald
"Historical mystery readers fond of arch and ribald takes on the genre will best appreciate Christie's debut."
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Death and the Cyprian Society
By Pamela Christie
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Pamela Christie
All rights reserved.
Imagine, reader, a small, secret room, hidden away from the world; a room so private as to be without windows, its only illumination provided by a few candles and a dirty skylight. A room—well, more of a closet, really—with nothing in it but a bed. And what more would one need? A decanter of plum cordial and two glasses, perhaps? But those are extra!
Now picture an amorous couple in this chamber. Young and comely, the partners murmur softly as they assist one another to undress: White Alençon lace and velvet livery whisper over smooth, young limbs and drop to the floor. Shifting light from passing clouds filters through the skylight, and in the patterns that dance upon the wall, the heads of this couple, close together, form the shadow of a single heart.
Passionate moans. A rustling of sheets. The mingled scents of candle grease and vanilla toilet water, carried aloft by the flaming wicks, rise toward the ceiling, where a row of human eyes peers down at our lovers from behind the loose weave of the burlap wall covering.
Only the occasional lewd gleam of an eyeball betrays the presence of these silent watchers, each of whom has paid half as much again as the pair utilizing the bed—this couple who, all unknowing, has provided an afternoon's entertainment for a collection of dissipated degenerates.
"Well ...? How do I look?" Constance demanded, bursting into the pergola and thrusting her homely face at the younger Beaumont sister. "Am I not beautiful?"
"Of course," said Belinda kindly. "I have always thought so."
Constance flung her hideous reticule toward the opposite bench, causing Belinda's little greyhound to leap aside with a terrified yelp.
"No," she said, "but I mean, especially. Now. Am I not beautiful now?"
To be frank, she was not. With her thin lips and powerful jaw, Miss Worthington bore an unsettling resemblance to men in pantomimes who pretend to be women for comic effect. That her breasts were unusually large only served to heighten the impression, for males invariably exaggerate this attribute when they cross-dress, even when they are not trying to be funny.
"She's had something done," murmured Arabella, making an entry in her stud book.* "Something to her face or hair or something."
"Yes, I have," said Constance defensively. "I've spent the entire morning at La Palais de Beautay!"
"Oh! Have you really?" cried Belinda, and she began to chant from the advertisements:
"'Eyes will brighten, skin will soften. Men will smile, and glance your way often. Eternally Fair'"
"—From cotillion to coffin!" muttered Arabella, under her breath.
"Bell says their claims are preposterous," Belinda explained, "and she is a very clever woman, but the rest of us do so want to believe in miracles, don't we? Well ...?" she asked. "Is it true, then? Are their methods efficacious?"
"Apparently not," replied Constance bitterly. "I have just spent thirty-eight pounds for a series of skin enhancifiers, and no one can tell the difference!"
She plumped down on the bench next to Belinda, heedless of the number of little violet and lavender cushions she squashed or displaced.
"I can see a difference," said Arabella, without looking up.
"Yes. Your sprint through the upper garden has pinkened your cheeks."
"'Pinkened'? Is that even a word?"
"It is now," Arabella grumbled resentfully. Belinda was on the point of leaving for Scotland. The sisters had brought their small occupations with them from the house in order to spend as much of their remaining time together as possible—Arabella, as has been seen, had brought her stud book, and Belinda was knitting an athletic supporter for a gentleman of whom she was fond—and the advent of Constance to their poignant garden idyll had not been welcome.
"Now, Bell," chided Belinda, who was more polite than Arabella was, "La Palais de Beautay is being touted all over town, by some of London's most famous beauties."
"I am one of London's most famous beauties, and I am no tout!"
"Some of them, I said. Perhaps, Constance, as it's a series of treatments, the effects won't be noticeable till your fourth or fifth session."
"This was my fourteenth!" wailed the visitor. "And anyhow, you are not to call me 'Constance' anymore. It's 'Cos - tanze' now."
Belinda blinked. "'Costanze'? Whatever for? The name scarcely suits you!"
"That is what you think!" replied Costanze with withering scorn. "Madame Zhenay, La Palais's proprietor—'la' stands for 'the' by the way did you know that I didn't—thinks otherwise for 'twas she herself gave it me along with this!"
She thrust her jingling red glove at Belinda, as though to punch her.
"Dear God!" exclaimed Arabella, looking up at last and leaning across the table for a closer inspection. "What is that?"
"My new-pink-and-blue-enamel-flowers-and-birds-and-crystals-charm-bracelet-on-a-gilt-chain-with-silver-coinpendant-clasp. Don't you wish that you had one?"
"Not particularly," said Arabella. "I have just donated all my useless and ugly things to the Effing jumble sale."
"It is exceeding pretty," Belinda lied. "Did Madame Zhenay give it you for being such a faithful customer?"
"Well, in a way. She sold me this new-pink-and-blue-enamel-flowers-and-birds-and-crystals-charm-bracelet-on-agilt-chain-with-silver-coin-pendant-clasp for a very reasonable price."
"Bracelets are usually sold in pairs," observed Arabella. "Don't tell me you actually possess two of those monstrosities!"
"No," replied Costanze defensively, "Madame Zhenay says single bracelets are all the rage just now!"
"So she has doubled her profit by selling one to you, and the mate to some other booby," said Arabella. "How much were you charged for this?"
"Twenty-seven pounds. But it is worth a great deal more."
"Oh? I suppose Madame told you that, too, did she?"
"Naturally! Otherwise I should have had no idea what a new-pink-and-blue-enamel—"
"Costanze, dear," said Belinda, fingering the hideous dangly bits. "What do you call this thing for short?"
"There is no short," Costanze replied. "It's simply my new-pink-and—"
"Whilst you are here," said Arabella, "I should prefer that you refer to it—if refer to it you must—as a bracelet."
Costanze sniffed. "Madame Zhenay believes in calling things by their true names and so do I! 'Tis the fashion these days."
"If Madame Zhenay believed in calling things by their true names," said Arabella, "she wouldn't be calling herself 'Mad ame Zhenay'! The woman's probably as common as come-ask-it! I'll hazard she wanted a French-sounding appellation, but not speaking the language and fearing to be found out by the many who do, she has opted instead for an Assyrian spelling. Nobody round here speaks that."
Costanze's intrusion had unsettled everyone, and now that she had apparently run out of things to talk about, an awkward silence fell over the little company. Fortunately, the parlor maid appeared a moment later, carrying a tea tray piled with delicate lavender cups and saucers. For it was a Lustings custom to offer tea to any visitors who stopped by, regardless of the hour, and even if it were only Constance.
"Look at this, Fielding," said Arabella, holding out her visitor's arm to display the gaudy bauble. "What do you think? I'll let you have it for two and six."
The arm's owner squawked in protest.
"No, thank you, miss," said the parlor maid, expertly laying the cloth and setting out the sweet and savory dishes and the little, golden teaspoons. "I don't hold wi' trash such as that."
Her mistress raised an eyebrow. "I think you must be mistaken, Fielding. This bibelot cost Miss Worthington twenty-seven pounds! It is a rare and costly piece!"
"Your friend was rooked then, wasn't she, miss? If you'll excuse me, I'll go and fetch the teapot now."
Arabella gave Costanze her arm back.
"Madame Zhenay!" she sneered to herself.
"Well," said Belinda, not unreasonably, "La Palais de Beautay has made pots of money, so I cannot see that it signifies how the proprietor chuses to spell her name."
"Oh!" cried Costanze. "Pots of money! That reminds me of something I was going to say! Do you remember that forty-six thousand pounds I owe you, Bell?"
"Do I remember it?" Arabella asked. "Do I remember it? Constance, I cannot see your face or hear your voice without being somehow reminded of it. I cannot read the words 'constant' or 'worthy' or 'ton' without speculating on how soon you will be able to repay me."
And then, because this person always had to have things explained in a particular way, she added, "Yes, Constance, I do remember that forty-six thousand pounds you owe me. What about them? Do you recall what I taught you?"
"I ... uh. I am to tell Pigeon everything, and then ask him to write me ..."
"No," said Arabella.
"Write you a checque for that amount. Only it's to say 'pay to bearer' instead of your name. And you are to come and collect ..."
"That is, he is to collect ..."
"I told you, Bell; it's Costanze now."
"What is to happen to the checque, Miss Worthington?"
"Pigeon will post it to you."
Pigeon Pollard was Costanze's wealthy new protector, who was going to be recompensing Arabella for all the money his mistress had scrounged from her over the years. Mr. Pollard did not know he was going to do this, but Arabella, who had kept meticulous records of every penny Constance had ever borrowed from her, felt certain that he would. The payments were to be disguised as his inamorata's monthly allowances, and Mr. Pollard was going to be told that Arabella would be keeping the money in trust for her. After all, if Pigeon was so mad about Constance, how bright could he be?
"Very good, Constance," said Arabella. "Because ...?"
"Because, if I were to bring it here, I should either lose it or spend it on the way over!"
"Très bien," said Arabella, passing her a plate of confections. "That 'stands for' very good. Would you care for a coconut biscuit?"
"Oh, yes! Might I have two?"
"Just this once. Remember, though, you don't want to lose your figure, or you might lose Pigeon, and then where should we be?"
"I hate to think."
"Yes, dear; I know you do."
Fielding returned with the teapot, and Arabella distributed the fragrant libation with a practiced hand.
"Pigeon is such an odd nickname!" Belinda mused, tipping a little scalding tea into her saucer to cool it. "Where does it come from?"
"Oh, from his friends, I expect," replied Costanze.
"No, we know that," said Arabella. "Bunny meant, why? Does he breed pigeons? Or race them? Is he excessively fond of hunting them or eating them? Does he look like a pigeon? Is he an easy mark? Did he return from some exotic locale, speaking 'pidgin'? Or was his wife overheard to have called him that, once?"
"'Speaking Pigeon'?" asked Costanze. "Do you mean to tell me that they have their own language? How interesting! I must ask him!"
"Constance. You will do no such thing."
"No I shall. Indeed I shall! If Mr. Pollard can speak to pigeons he must be able to understand what they answer back mustn't he? And there is a particular question that I have always wanted to ask them!"
"Oh, Lord!" murmured Arabella. "If she asks him whether he can speak to birds, he will certainly drop her, and then I may just go and sing for my money!"
"Not necessarily," said Belinda. "I'm told he loves it when she talks nonsense."
"Well, he would have to, wouldn't he? Even so, there are limits to how much a man can stand, despite his predilections."
Here the reader might well wonder at the Beaumont sisters conversing in this open fashion before the very person they were disparaging, but they knew their friend of old; knew everything there was to know about her, which was not a great deal, and one of those things was the fact that she never marked what people said unless they addressed her directly. Hence, you could sit next to Constance and talk about her in a normal tone of voice to a third party or a roomful of third parties, with full confidence that she would fail to heed you. This was especially likely if she had something else upon which to focus her attention meanwhile, and in this case, like the coconut biscuits absorbing her tea, the process of dunking and eating them had completely absorbed Miss Worthington's powers of concentration.
"For instance," said Arabella, spearing a lemon slice with an exquisite little fork, "what do you suppose it is that Constance has always wanted to ask of pigeons?"
"Why they keep defiling Charles the First?"
"That would be the obvious thing, wouldn't it? No; it has to be something much sillier, even, than that. Something so stupid that neither you nor I could possibly anticipate it. Let us see, shall we? Constance," said Arabella, "what question have you always wanted to ask of pigeons?"
Her guest looked up, a few moist crumbs adhering to her chin. "How they fly," she said, around a mouthful of biscuit and tea.
"How they fly," Arabella repeated slowly. "And why should you want to ask them that?"
"Well so that I may learn to fly too of course! I should have thought that was obvious! Really Arabella you should try to use your head a little more."
Belinda choked on her tea, and had to be thumped on the back for a bit. When she had recovered, Arabella addressed herself to Costanze once again.
"Do you really think I should use my head?" she asked. "Why is that?"
"Because," replied Miss Worthington gravely, "our brains are like hedgehogs. Without regular exercise they simply go to sleep."
Arabella and Belinda exchanged glances.
"Oh!" said Costanze "That is what I was going to tell you! Last night ... I saw a hedgehog! No. No, I didn't. Last night as my brain was going to sleep ... Yes! That's it! Last night as I was going to sleep I couldn't. Not for the longest time. Because I was upset over that letter that came under the door but I'm all right now; I just had to get used to the idea."
"What idea, Constance?"
"Well, someone knows a secret of mine that I never told anybody and they won't tell anybody either as long as I pay them ... pay them ... I forget how much. It's in the letter. So I won't be able to pay you that forty-six thousand pounds because you see I need to pay it to this other person whoever he is because if I don't pay him he will tell Pigeon what I've been getting up to lately with Lady Ribbonhat's footman and then Pigeon will cast me off and I shall be a pauper again."
"What ... did you ... say?"
"Don't look at me like that, Bell! It isn't my fault!"
"Not your fault? You've been having it off with Ribbonhat's footman! How is that not your fault?"
"Oh!" Costanze squawked. "You know my secret, too! That must mean that you wrote that letter! You ... you ..."
"Shut your cock pocket!" said Arabella sternly. "Here it is: Either you find a way to pay me back the entire forty-six thousand pounds by this time next year, and make me a substantial payment six weeks from today, or I will take you to court, and instruct the bailiffs to seize all your convertible property whatsoever. That means all your gowns, all your jewels—excepting that bracelet—the house Pigeon has made over to you, your carriage, and your horses. Do you understand? I have just bought an hotel, and I need that money. I need it soon, or I shall go to debtor's prison. That is where you will be. And if I am there because of you, I will make it my business to pinch, scratch, slap, and cuff you every day, Constance. And when I cannot sleep at night, owing to the fleas, I will come over to your pile of straw and kick you all over, till you are as tender as a veal cutlet!"
Excerpted from Death and the Cyprian Society by Pamela Christie. Copyright © 2015 Pamela Christie. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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