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"Gracious!" said Lady Sweetbriar. "Whatever are you doing, Avery? I mean, of course I know what you are doing, and very glad I am of it, moreover, because you are not the least like any of my flirts in that respect, which has made me wonder if you truly wish to marry me! But if you want to kiss me on the grand staircase of the British Museum, in plain view of anyone who comes along, it is quite all right with me." In demonstration of her liberal attitude, Lady Sweetbriar stood on tiptoe and placed her hands on her companion's lapels, closed her eyes, and prepared to receive his salute.
Looking distinctly sardonic, Sir Avery Clough gazed down upon his captor's lovely heart-shaped face. At almost thirty years of age, Lady Sweetbriar was a bewitching little creature with a tangle of dark curls and skin rendered faintly golden by injudicious exposure to sunlight. "You are a minx, Nikki," he said.
In response to this sally, Lady Sweetbriar opened one twinkling eye. "Am I not?" she cheerfully agreed. "You must not raise a lady's hopes only to dash them, Avery. If you do not kiss me, after clutching me all this time against your chest--I am not complaining about it, mind! Had you not caught me, I would doubtless have tumbled down the stair, so fascinated was I by the ceiling--Just fancy! The Rape of Proserpine! But if you clutch a lady, she must naturally expect that you will next kiss her, and if you disappoint me, I shall be very out of sorts!"
With an appearance less of enthusiasm than exasperation, Sir Avery ascertained that the grand staircase was free of visitors, then delivered a chaste salute upon his fiancée's delightful nose."I hope this is not how you mean to go on after we are married, madam," he remarked.
Lady Sweetbriar responded with a roguish smile to this reproof. "Twaddle!" said she, and tripped gaily up the stair, leaving Sir Avery to wonder whether her cryptic utterance was directed at his criticism, or the quality of his embrace. On the landing she paused and turned, looking contrite.
"I should not tease you, Avery. Of course I do not mean to tell you what you must do--I may be a trifle unscrupulous, and my background a trifle exceptionable, but I am not a managing female. Or at least not odiously so!" As if the three stuffed giraffes displayed upon the landing might eavesdrop upon their conversation, Lady Sweetbriar stepped closer to Avery and continued in a confiding tone: "I do not scruple to confess that I do not understand you! At first I thought you must be smitten, else you would not have allowed me to wheedle you into a betrothal, but since then I have begun to cherish doubts. Perhaps it is a marriage of convenience that you wish. Yet though it will be very convenient for me to have money and position, I do not understand how you may benefit." Her pretty face was anxious. "You do wish to marry me, Avery? I will be the first to admit I am a designing woman--and of precious little use it has been to me in the past! Look at Reuben! Or rather don't look at him, not that you would wish to if you could, because he is dead! As you know as well as I, else we would not be betrothed."
"And that would be the greatest of misfortunes, my dear," Sir Avery responded politely. "Have you noted the man-of-war?"
Lady Sweetbriar glanced obediently at the model of a man-of-war ready to launch, which with diverse other items, including a large marble foot, littered the grand staircase of the British Museum. Then she peeked again at her companion, a trustee of that establishment. Sir Avery Clough was a tall and very aristocratic-looking gentleman of four-and-forty years, whose figure was set off to good advantage by his morning coat of dark blue superfine with plated buttons, striped toilenette waistcoat, canary-colored pantaloons of ribbed kerseymere, and Hessian boots. His hair was sandy, his eyes brown, his manner so detached that it was impossible to guess his thoughts.
In lieu of Sir Avery's thoughts, Lady Sweetbriar contented herself with her own. "What a lucky mischance it was by which we met!" As if in punctuation, she gave her companion's arm a squeeze. "Had I not disguised myself as a boy so that I might attend a prizefight--and what follower of the Fancy would willingly have missed a contest between Tom Cribb, the champion of England, and the Negro, Molyneaux? There must have been quite twenty thousand people present, and not a bed to be had for twenty miles around. Oh, I know I should not have gone, and it is very kind of you not to scold me for it--but I make a prodigious good boy, as even you must admit. You would never have penetrated my disguise had I not twisted my ankle and tumbled right into your lap!" In case Sir Avery had a partiality for that which had brought about their acquaintance, Lady Sweetbriar gave her skirts a little twitch.
Sir Avery evidenced neither admiration nor gratification upon thus glimpsing a neatly turned and dainty little ankle; upon his aristocratic features only faint traces of skepticism could be seen. "A providential mishap, to be sure," he murmured.
Sir Avery's ironic tone inspired Lady Sweetbriar to flutter her outrageously long eyelashes at him. "I would not have done such an improper thing, had I not been feeling so dreary and dull!" she confessed. "I had just discovered how Reuben had left things and I was very cross. Oh, I should have expected him to do something odious, because he was prodigious vexed when he discovered he had married an actress--and I admit that was stupidly done of me, but he was a lordship and dangling at my slipper-strings, and when he threw the handkerchief in my direction, which I did not expect--well, I was very young and it went straight to my head! I married before I had time to discover what a devilish ugly customer Reuben was." Gustily, she sighed. "It is very disheartening to marry a gentleman for his money and then discover it has all been left to your stepson. Not that I begrudge it to Rolf; Reuben made him miserable, too! But I do think I might have been allowed to keep my jewels."
Sir Avery's expression was aloof, his attention all for the stuffed giraffes which presented so unfortunate a contrast with the museum's elegant Palladian interior. "My poor Nikki. Shall I promise to behave less shabbily in case I predecease you also?"
"If you predecease me," Lady Sweetbriar said frankly, "it will doubtless be because your inattention has made someone murderously cross! I do not understand you, Avery."
Similar plain-speaking was not forthcoming from Lady Sweetbriar's fiancé. "Understanding is not a prerequisite of marriage," said that gentleman, moving closer to a stuffed giraffe. "If it will make you feel better, you may convince yourself that it is midsummer moon with me. Or if that will not serve, then recall that I have been an eligible widower for many years."
"Have all the matchmaking mamas had you in their sights, poor Avery? Well, that shall stop immediately we are wed." There was a speculative quality in Lady Sweetbriar's glance. She didn't love her fiancé, more was the pity, but all the same--"I know on which side my bread is buttered; if you give me an inch, I shan't try to take an ell! No, and I don't mean to have flirts either, so you needn't concern yourself with that!"
By this noble sacrifice--for Nikki to have flirts was as natural as for her to draw breath--Sir Avery did not appear especially moved. Indeed, Lady Sweetbriar thought indignantly, he was paying an inordinate amount of attention to a stuffed giraffe's ear. "I didn't intend to concern myself," said he.
"No?" Lady Sweetbriar arched her delicate brows. "Reuben was not so tolerant, I promise you. But he had flirts; why should have I not? At least I didn't set any of them up in little villas, or give them phaetons and such stuff, which I happen to know he did! Though I may have wished to, I never overstepped the line." A delicate blush suffused her golden cheeks. "I should not say such things--but I do not stand on ceremony with you! Anyway, you are the one who let it be known we met in the Horticultural Gardens, which is as big a clanker as any I've ever told! Not that I have the habit of telling clankers, Avery."
"I hope you do not," responded that gentleman, having completed his inspection of the stuffed giraffe. Absentmindedly he patted the beast, giving rise to a great cloud of dust, which inspired Lady Sweetbriar to a sneezing fit. Hastily Sir Avery conducted her into a saloon furnished with a curious selection of miscellaneous objects, among them a vulture's head in spirits, and a stuffed flamingo. "At least I hope you will not tell me tarradiddles. Which reminds me: what do you intend to do about Sweetbriar's jewels, Nikki?"
In a very defensive manner, Lady Sweetbriar clutched in turn at her necklet of twenty different Wedgewood cameos fastened together by gold chains, matching bracelets, and brooch; and at the same time pressed Sir Avery's fine cambric handkerchief to her stinging eyes and nose. I shan't give the jewels back. Any of them!" She sniffled belligerently. "I deserve to keep the blasted things! Never was I so taken aback as when I heard Reuben's will read--because though he threatened often enough to cut me off without a farthing, I never thought he would actually do it! I should have known better! It was ever his object to make me miserable."
With the least encouragement Lady Sweetbriar was prone to dwell at great length upon her cheese-paring spouse's last iniquitous act, a fact regretfully known by all her acquaintance. Sir Avery concentrated his attention on the excellently preserved vulture's head, and withheld comment.
Whereas Lady Sweetbriar could lay no claim to a well-regulated mind, she was no slow-top. "My conversation is very fatiguing, I know," she handsomely allowed. "But it is not wonderful that I should be on the dangle for a fortune, existing as I do on the merest pittance--but if I am a gazetted fortune hunter, I mean to give good value, I do assure you. Which will not be the least bit difficult, for you are handsome, and well-situated, and of the very first distinction, Avery! But I have been doing all the talking! Now you must talk to me."
"Of course, my dear." Sir Avery immediately proffered an accounting of the more pressing concerns of a museum trustee. The floors of the old building were sagging, in many places kept from breaking up altogether only by iron supports, he explained; and furthermore, considerable damage had been caused in the damp basement rooms by dry rot. An unscrupulous dealer had extracted a number of prints from one of the museum's collections, and had sold them to various private parties, which had done nothing to abate the jealous ill will prevalent among the museum's officers. In addition, more and more people clamored to use the Reading Room and to see the private collections, and expressed strident dislike of the strict regulations which were intended to safeguard the great treasures housed therein. About those treasures Sir Avery then waxed enthusiastic, with special emphasis upon the Cottonian library, and the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, and the difficulty of properly cataloguing everything.
"I fear that I am boring you, my dear." Sir Avery's remark caused Lady Sweetbriar to start and look extremely guilty; during his eloquent dissertation, she had been silently grappling with her own difficulties. Not only must Nikki contrive to satisfy an extravagant nature on a pauper's purse, she must also contend with a deuced inconvenient conscience which was prone to dwell censoriously upon the fact that only as a result of severe bamboozlement would a gentleman affiance himself to a female who'd pitched herself onto his lap during a prize fight. "If you do not wish to hear about the Magna Carta and the Codex Alexandrus, you need only say."
The what? wondered Nikki. Nobly she prevaricated: "Oh, no! That is, I was just wondering if I truly am a lady--and I do not refer to those old on-dits that I only married Reuben so I could call myself one! I have never been certain if I am Lady Sweetbriar or merely Lady Reuben, and one doesn't like to ask--not that I care a button for such things!" Curiously she eyed her fiancé, who was himself not immune to gossip; various unkind souls had taken leave to wonder how Lady Sweetbriar had contrived to distract Sir Avery from his antiquities long enough to convince him he wished to re-wed. Roguishly she whispered: "You must admit I made a handsome lad."
But no compliment was forthcoming regarding her current unboyish walking dress of muslin with bishop's sleeves tied with green ribbon, her white satin Spanish hat with green rim ornamented with a demi-wreath of cornflowers, her green sarcenet mantle or ridicule of shot silk or elegant little half-boots. Beseechingly, Lady Sweetbriar gazed up at Sir Avery. "Pray give me your advice. I have been looking at furniture prints all the morning, and I cannot make up my mind. Would you prefer polychrome chintz with floral designs realistically treated in natural colors? Or painted silks imported from China? The latter would go excellently well with an Axminster carpet of Chinese inspiration which caught my eye. You will approve my taste, Avery! Imagine a pattern of pairs of confronting dragons and sacred symbols in shades of gold on a blue ground."
If Sir Avery was annoyed that Lady Sweetbriar had interrupted his preoccupations to discuss a matter so trivial as the stuffs with which she intended to refurbish his ancestral home, he did not say so outright. Instead he led her out of the saloon. "As I have told you before, you must do as you think best. Refurnish the house as you like and have the accounting brought to me. There is no need to consult with me about details."
"No need to bother you, you mean!" No lady who had survived marriage with the uncivil Lord Sweetbriar could take offense at so mannerly a rebuff. "Very well, I shall ask Clytie's opinion instead. How odd it will seem to have a stepdaughter so close to my own age--although I already have Rolf, but you know what he is!" She paused, so that Sir Avery might comment upon her marvelously youthful appearance.
No such comment was forthcoming. Lady Sweetbriar displayed an enchanting little pout. Sometimes she despaired of inspiring her fiancé to enact the ardent swain. Perhaps Sir Avery was shy? Mayhap he feared to cause offense? Somehow Nikki must subtly intimate that a mild display of passion would not come amiss.
"It is the principle of the thing," she said aloud, as she stopped dead in her tracks, thereby insuring that Sir Avery also halt. "No lady likes to feel that vulture's heads and stuffed giraffes are more interesting than she. It is my own fault, I know; I should not have interrupted your work--although why you should want to work, when you are wealthy beyond imagining, is more than I can credit! But that is quite beside the point. I am leaving now, Avery. Pray forgive me for disturbing you." In hope of disturbing her fiancé even more profoundly, Nikki grasped his lapels, rose on tiptoe, and--to the astonishment of several museum visitors even then mounting the grand staircase--awarded him a long and lingering caress. Made aware of the audience, Sir Avery looked even more sardonic than was his wont. Lady Sweetbriar dimpled and giggled and blushed, and tripped blithely down the stair.