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Point of Honour
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom. Indeed, a maidservant or seamstress might eke out her wages with casual prostitution, but a gentlewoman of damaged virtue is often so lacking in resources that dedicated harlotry is her necessary fate. The lower classes certainly provide the greatest numbers, but it is from the ranks of the gentle and nobly born that such courtesans come as understand not only the coarse principles of pleasure, but the nicer distinctions of rank and precedent, and the proper service of tea. The brothel is the lone institution in which persons of every rank mix, and there is no doubt a particular frisson for men in consorting with women better born than they, defiling the edifice of class in the pursuit of pleasure.
The extraordinary range of establishments of prostitution in London of 1810, from the meanest stew to the most elegant house of joy, only bore out the truth that in pleasure, as in all other things, class was no little consideration. Brothels of allsorts, most managed, if not owned, by women, thrived in the city; it seemed that the era would be known to history chiefly for the fashion for venery--and the endless war with Bonaparte. Perhaps a nation under the gentle hand of the Queen Regent was more disposed to look kindly upon such female enterprise--although Queen Charlotte herself would have been horrified by the idea. Still, no less personages than her sons made ample and very public use of these establishments; only the widowed Prince of Wales, nearing his ninth year of mourning, was circumspect in his pleasures. Reformers and clerics suggested that had the King kept his mind and his power, matters might have been different--but the King had been mad for over twenty years, and women of all kinds and conditions continued to take refuge in the only profession universally available to females.
It was obvious to anyone familiar with the large, fine house in Manchester Square, which stood in its own garden, ringed round by a high, ivied fence and an abundance of old trees, that it was run by a woman once of very good family. The house was handsomely kept up, the merchants who supplied the establishment brought only their best, and the ladies of the house were never seen out-of-doors unless sober, respectably dressed, and with a maid in attendance. Further, the occupants of the carriages which stopped by the door were of the highest rank and character, and relied not only upon the quality of the entertainments offered, but upon the discretion which was no little part of the service rendered. To all these qualities must be added this one: that never, except at those moments most appropriate, was there anything about the establishment which smacked of vulgarity. But upon display or behind closed doors, the employees of the house were expected to be as enthusiastic in their pleasures as their customers required. This tension between decorum and license served, as the owner well knew, to heighten a patron's appreciation of both qualities; the house kept by Mrs. Brereton was privily considered one of the finest in the city, and the establishment thrived.
Mrs. Brereton herself was something of an example to her peers. Seduced as a girl by a half-pay lieutenant who had then gone off to die in the Americas, she had been cast off by her family and moved up the social ladder in her amours, carefully saving cash and favors until she was able to open her own establishment. Unlike most Fallen, she had defied custom by keeping her family name rather than take a nom d'amour. She was at least as hardheaded in matters of business as she was gifted in love. And as a matter of business, she treated her employees well, both the women and men who serviced custom--Mrs. Brereton was unusually broad-minded when it proved advantageous--and the servants who maintained the establishment to her rigorous standards. She required of them honesty, discretion, and imagination; she paid well, and was as thoughtful in consulting their preferences as she could be and still turn a profit. Mrs. Brereton saw to it that no stars were among her employees, no whore so famous she eclipsed her fellows and caused quarrels between the patrons. Performer's temperament was not allowed; the efforts of the house, upstairs and belowstairs, were bent upon the satisfaction of Mrs. Brereton's clientele.
Only one spot in the property was free of the overwhelming preoccupation of the establishment. In the garden at the rear of the house was the only place largely untouched by Mrs. Brereton's stewardship, a small cottage tucked away in the northern corner. The cottage was closely covered with vines, and nearly disappeared among the trees and shrubs that surrounded it; only those who knew it was there would have dreamt of finding it. To reach the cottage, it was necessary to go through the house, or discover the door to the gardens which was half hidden in the grape and ivy that covered the wall facing on Spanish Place. In daylight the task challenged the unwary. Now, in dark and rain, it was very nearly impossible.
Torches in doorways sheltered from the rain sizzled and spat, sending plumes of black smoke up to coil greasily under their awnings. In Manchester Square the yellow light from the windowscould not cut the powerful inkiness beyond an arm's length into the street, and in the gutters rainwater roared, sweeping all before it. Around the corner on Spanish Place, no light shone at all, and the man who scurried down it kept one hand upon the garden wall, feeling for the opening in the vines and ironwork. Clad in greatcoat from the Belgian tailor Gunnard, buckskins and top boots, and streaming water from hat to heel, he located the portal, fumbled with a key, and muttered low curses on the gods of weather. After several minutes' unavailing struggle, there was a click barely audible over the roar of rain, and the gate swung open.
The sodden fellow picked his way through the garden and turned, not toward the waiting warmth of the great house, but toward the little cottage in the rear, where a single light flickered yellow in the darkness. The door was unlocked. He made bold to step through, whereupon the Gunnard coat was shed, boots and stockings unceremoniously discarded, leaving a substantial puddle on the floor, and the slouch-brimmed hat which had taken the worst of the storm was consigned to a peg by the door. The figure was revealed to be no man, but a woman: slender, rather tall, and of some eight-and-twenty years. Sarah Tolerance shook down her heavy dark hair and swore, shivering with cold.
A voice rose up from the high-backed settle near the fire. "Come warm yourself, dear. I lit the fire specially for you."
"And helped yourself to my tea." Miss Tolerance pulled on the dressing gown draped over the back of the bench and, under its protective cover, shed her damp breeches. "You might at least pour a cup for me."
"Did I startle you?" The face peering over the back of the settle looked hopeful.
Miss Tolerance shook her head. "I dislike to disappoint you, Matt, but I saw the light from the garden. Who else would visit on such a night? Have you cut any bread and butter?"
"Not yet. There's the buffet spread in the blue salon at the house." Matt Etan turned back to the fire to place the kettle backon the hob. "Wouldn't you rather take your dinner from there?"
Miss Tolerance reached to ruffle the fair hair of her guest. He was young and open-faced, with a square jaw, broad mouth, blunt nose, and good-natured brown eyes, dressed in buckskin breeches and a finely made linen shirt. His shoes and stockings, Miss Tolerance saw now, were drying before the fire.
"Go out into that for a plate of ham and peas? Bread and butter will do me well enough. But why aren't you taking your dinner in the house?"
Matt stretched and made a face. "It's my evening off, and Holyfield is there. He will not take no for an answer, and I haven't the energy to defend myself from him tonight."
"Defend? I thought Holyfield was one of your favored patrons." Miss Tolerance took bread and cheese from the cupboard and cut a healthy slice of each.
"One of the wealthiest, and he's not a bad fellow." Matt shrugged. "Money is money, but before God, Sarah, as we don't rest even upon the Sabbath day, I've a right to an evening of rest"--he descended into the dense accents of the Eastside stews--"and I ain't spending mine on the likes of milord Holyhell." His normal voice, and the genteel accents Mrs. Brereton required of her workers, returned. "But the marquess has no interest in you, so why not delight your aunt and join her for supper?"
"I'd hardly do her credit, looking like a drowned rat. And I'd rather not encounter any of my aunt's clientele this evening."
"I'm sick of the lot of them. I finished a bit of business early this morning, made my report tonight, and it has given me a roaring distaste for men of a certain class. Is that the paper? Be quiet for a few minutes and let me read."
Miss Tolerance took the cup of tea which Matt handed her and sat in an armchair convenient to the fire so that she could prop her feet up on the fender. Then she took up the week's issue of the Gazette. Passing lightly over the society notes, sheskipped the foreign news entirely and turned to the Dueling Notices for the previous month:
By the sword, fatally: Peter, Lord Henly By shot, fatally: Mr. David Pankin By shot, wounded: Sir Vandam Godalming By shot, fatally: Mr. Wallace Strachey ...
Below each listing was a brief descriptive paragraph of the meeting, and in some cases, its putative cause.
"Henly's got himself killed, Matt," Miss Tolerance observed coolly. "The Gazette is not specific upon the point, but I suspect it was a quarrel with Jennaroe over Harriet Delamour."
Matt tsked and bit into an apple. "Little Carrie will be desolated by the news."
"Was he one of hers?" Miss Tolerance asked.
Matt nodded. "I ought not to say; you know how Mrs. B dislikes us to gossip. Any other notables on the list?"
"Peters winged Godalming and their seconds considered the matter concluded. Lazenby cried off the meeting, pleading a stomach disorder--that won't gain him much with Fitch--"
"Lord Fitch?" Matt scoffed. "Whatever could Dennis Fitch find to quarrel with Frederick Lazenby about?"
Miss Tolerance raised one eyebrow quizzingly. "What do gentlemen with more money than sense generally quarrel about? Women, horses, money, cards--the list is endless. Perhaps they fought about you, for all I know. I'm only surprised that Lazenby allowed himself to be cozened into a meeting with a man who is a renowned shot." She returned her attention to the paper, noting the names of two more former clients among the deceased. "Damn, what a plague of killing. Matt, toss me my counts-book, it's just there by your lazy head."
Matt reached around behind him, rummaging blindly among the pile of books and papers on the shelf above the settle. "Is this it, Sarey?" In response to Miss Tolerance's nod, he tossed the book to her, pages fluttering. She caught it deftly, one-handed."What's the matter? Checking to see if one of the dear departed had settled his shot?" He grinned.
"It's all well for you to laugh, parasite. So long as there's a market for your talents, you'll never go hungry. Some of us must needs make a living elsewise," Miss Tolerance said without rancor. "Well, Millward paid his account. In gold, too."
"Such a handsome way to meet one's obligations. Who's the other corpse?" Matt pitched his apple core past Miss Tolerance's knee and into the fire.
"Sir Evan Trecan; wrote a draft on his bank, which the bank has so far declined to honor. Damn, damn, damn."
Matt rolled over onto his stomach and set his chin on his fists. "How does a lowly woman of business dun a member of Parliament--a dead member of Parliament?"
Miss Tolerance sighed gustily. "I shall write a note to his estate. Although if Sir Evan's pockets were as deeply to let as I believe them to have been, his agents will likely laugh at it. At least someone will derive some amusement from the matter. Damn, there's paper and ink spent, probably to no account."
For several minutes, as Miss Tolerance scratched earnestly at her paper, there was no other sound but that of the fire. At last she looked up and cocked an eyebrow. "How does my aunt's business tonight?"
"Brisk, my dear, brisk. Something about a thunderstorm seems to bring out the rake in any number of our notable citizens."
"I don't suppose Horace Maugham has come by this evening?"
"That bore? He rarely comes to us--I think he prefers a lower class of pleasure, and I'm not what he fancies," Matt said airily.
"I didn't expect it, merely wondered. I finished Mrs. Maugham's business this morning and gave her the damning evidence tonight as she was dressing for Almack's." She smiled mirthlessly. "It will doubtless be all over town tomorrow, for it's as Mrs. Maugham suspected, only less savory. Her husband keeps a pair of girls--little more than children--in a cottage near Riversend, on his wife's money."
"Lower class and younger, then." Matt nodded.
"Sisters, not above thirteen. And Mrs. Maugham's thoughts will be all for punishing her husband--she'll bring him to heel, and the children will be cast aside."
"Enough to give you a jaundiced view of marriage," Matt said. "How lucky we are to have avoided it."
Miss Tolerance frowned for a moment, then went back to the paper, turning the page from the Dueling Notices to the city news. "The Queen Regent and her doctors report that the King's health remains good, despite his infirmity--is madness an infirmity, then, like gout?"
"I've heard the Queen will not be left alone with her husband for fear that he will ravish her. At her age?" Matt sounded delighted by the thought. "Marriage is overrated."
Miss Tolerance did not rise to the bait. "The Queen Regent has canceled Thursday's Drawing Room owing to a slight indisposition," she read. "Lady Julia Geddes has moved the venue for her ball to Versellion House, owing to a recent infestation of ladybugs in her own establishment. And hear this! Fevier is running in the by-election for a seat in the House, with Versellion's support. Montroy means to oppose him, and in that I suspect the delicate hand of Lord Balobridge. What great boards these kingmakers play upon! And the vote in the House regarding the question of support for Viscount Wellington's Spanish campaign was tabled for more debate--again. By the time the House votes support for Wellington, the war will be five years over, and Bonaparte long in his grave. The price of corn has risen again. And--dear me: a Mr. James Mondulac was beaten last night as he left his club--Tarsio's, as it happens--and sustained considerable injury. What was that about, I wonder? I believe I shall take my lunch at Tarsio's tomorrow, and nose about to satisfy my vulgar curiosity. If anyone wishes to discuss business, they are more likely to search for me there than here."
"A very respectable ambience that is, Sarey." Matt shook his head.
"Unlike the refined precincts of my aunt's brothel?"
"The membership of Tarsio's is ... variable. At your aunt's,you know the quality of the help"--Matt sketched a bow--"and you know the clientele is impeccable."
"Whereas I collect, the women at Tarsio's are in the main players, poets, and adventuresses. Entirely unlike myself." Miss Tolerance favored her friend with a tight smile. "There are not so many places in London that a ruined woman may comfortably frequent, Matt. There's no reason for your snobbery. Not everyone can be a whore at Brereton's, and it's hardly fair to hold it against Tarsio's that they admit all sorts of people."
"And if I declared you an honorary doxy?" Matt grinned.
Miss Tolerance's expression was carefully neutral, her tone cool. "I should die a pauper, and little honor in that. Now"--she had noted the hour on the pocket watch that rested on her mantel, and roused herself from the firelit comfort of her chair--"I will send you out into the night. I've been abroad since dawn tracking Mrs. Maugham's wayward husband. I need to sleep."
Matt grimaced, took up his boots in one hand and a large, rectangular rain shield in the other. "You're certain you wouldn't prefer I stay? I'm little good to you as a man, but I'm far more agreeable than a copper bedwarmer." He grinned as if he knew what the answer would be.
"Cat! You would do anything to avoid going out in the rain again, wouldn't you? Go!" Miss Tolerance gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the door but did not wait to see him go out into the night. She took up her candle and went upstairs to her chamber.
By the light of the one candle, she brushed her long hair and braided it, exchanged dressing gown for nightshift, and climbed into her bed. While the cottage she let from Mrs. Brereton was rustic in its appointments, the bed was, like all those in the house itself, broad and lushly comfortable. With a small fire in the grate to take the chill out of the air, she would shortly be delightfully warm and sleepy. Except that, as sometimes happened when an assignment was completed, Miss Tolerance found that she could not sleep at all.
At last, irritated, she relit her candle, propped herself on one elbow, and took up Mainley's Art of the Small-Sword. She had read it often before and found it a remarkably soporific work, but should its tranquilizing power fail to lull her to sleep, she reasoned, at least it would reinforce her training. She read until the candle guttered and the book fell from her fingers, but still did not sleep. The best she could manage to do was to lie listening to the thrum of raindrops on the roof and the tap of rain on the window, the small, sharp crackling of the fire, and the slow, even sound of her own breath.
Miss Tolerance woke the next morning to find the sun well advanced in a blue sky; only the gutters, still clogged with leaves, and her greatcoat, still smelling of damp wool and gunpowder, put the lie to the sunshine. She took her time in rising, calling across to Mrs. Brereton's kitchen for hot water, and bathing the last memory of sodden chill from her muscles. Then, with no assignment before her and the pleasant memory of Mrs. Maugham's account, paid in full, to comfort her, Miss Tolerance dressed for the day. As she did not anticipate any activity more taxing than luncheon or a game of whist, she allowed herself the vanity of going out in her new blue morning dress and ivory straw bonnet. She braided her hair, put it up in a coil on her head, and at last took up her gloves, half jacket, and reticule and left the house for Tarsio's Club, in Henry Street.
Making her way through the street past fruitmongers and a clutch of climbing-boys engaged in vociferous argument, Miss Tolerance felt the air sliding around her, warm, thick, humid; the hot breeze which blew from the river did nothing to improve matters. A few tendrils of her dark hair escaped their confinement and curled damply at the nape of her neck; her gloves felt too small and very sticky. She began to think with anticipation of a glass of punch in the cool white confines of Tarsio's Conversation Room.
The footman at Tarsio's, who was an old acquaintance of Miss Tolerance's, greeted her with a mixture of familiarity and respect,hoped that he found her in good health, and regretted that no messages were waiting her.
"I hear there was trouble a few nights ago, Steen," Miss Tolerance observed.
Steen nodded. He was assumed, professionally, to be above gossip, but Miss Tolerance had more than once slid him a coin across a tavern table to acquire some choice bit of information. He had learned to speak freely to her, and was not infrequently the source of new business. "An ugly business, miss," he said now. Several members were crossing the hall to the Billiard Room.
Miss Tolerance waited until the hall was again clear, then asked, "Did it happen close to the club?"
Steen looked mildly affronted. "Would I have let a gentleman of this club be beaten in my sight, miss? It were around the corner, on King Street. By the time we heard the commotion and Corton and I run around to see what was afoot, Mr. Mondulac was lying on the ground and all I saw of his attackers was the soles of their boots."
"More than one of them, then."
"Yes, miss. Might happen there was three of 'em, though I'm sure I couldn't say for sure."
"Ah, well. Thank you, Steen. Oh." Miss Tolerance took a coin from her reticule to press into the footman's hand. "Should Mr. Mondulac be curious as to who his assailants were and wish to pursue the matter, you will stand my friend, will you not?"
Steen permitted himself to smile. "I will, miss." He pocketed the coin.
From the hallway, Miss Tolerance repaired to the Ladies' Salon, where a collation had been arranged on the sideboard in lieu of the more formal noontime meal which was commonly served in the Men's Dining Chamber.
In the Salon there were perhaps a dozen women of all conditions of respectability, Tarsio's one criterion for its female members being that they were sufficiently funded to afford theyearly fee and commons. A recent and notorious author was listening with sympathy to the narrative of a woman Miss Tolerance recognized as the mistress of a well-placed peer; with each nod of comprehension or empathy, the author's highly ornamented bonnet shook violently, with a rustling that could be heard throughout the room. A young opera dancer whose rapid rise had been recently matched by a precipitous fall from public favor entertained three dewy, blinking young men, chatting vivaciously; she was shopping for a protector so blatantly that Miss Tolerance was surprised she had not been politely ushered out. Despite a liberal attitude toward its members, Tarsio's Club did have some standards to uphold.
There were several women seated together at a table enjoying a quiet game of cards; Miss Tolerance nodded to the group but took a seat by herself near the window, drew a journal from the table nearest her chair, rethought the notion of punch, and ordered a pot of tea. She then settled in, intending nothing more than to spend the afternoon reading and dozing, like any of her counterparts in the Men's Reading Room. As she read, however, she listened; before her tea had arrived, she had learned that it was indeed a dispute over the favors of that same Harriet Delamour, who now sat across the room choosing from among her three suitors, that had led to the untimely demise of Lord Henly; that there was a new shipment in of gold-shot silk at the docks; and that at any moment an Oxford scholar could expect to be sanctioned by the archbishop on suspicion of popery. No immediately profitable intelligence, Miss Tolerance thought, but less interesting news had proved valuable before.
After a time she put her feet up on a footstool, folded the journal in her lap and crossed her hands over it, and stared out the window. The affair of Mrs. Maugham had been accomplished with a little less simplicity than she had led Matt to believe; she had left her rooms on Mrs. Maugham's business nearer midnight than dawn, and the dissipations of the night, which had included being chased along a narrow footpath at the riverside by one of Mr. Maugham's lackeys, had taken their toll ofher. It was very pleasant to sit in a sunny window and think of nothing for an hour.
As she disliked to be taken unawares, Miss Tolerance did not move her gaze. She gave a small nod and said, "I am she, sir."
"Madam?" From the sound of it, her interlocutor was not sure that Miss Tolerance was, in fact, awake.
"I am still she, sir. How may I assist you?"
"I am Trux. You have heard my name before?"
Miss Tolerance turned from the window and smiled. "Your name is known in the circles I frequent, my lord." That, she thought, was a nice turn of phrase. He could believe she meant the gentry or the criminal classes, as he pleased.
Trux flushed, bobbing his chin slightly, as if his neckcloth were too tight. Miss Tolerance motioned toward a chair, and observed him as he settled into it. He was stocky, not above medium height, and the fine-knit fabric of his breeches strained across heavy thighs as he sat. His clothes were of excellent quality, but his blue coat was just a shade too bright in hue, the buttons a quarter inch too wide, and his neckcloth was tied poorly in too elaborate a knot. He wore his dark hair cut fashionably short, in a style that made the worst of his features: small, peering eyes, ears that jutted from the side of his head, and jowls already too heavy for a young man's face--she did not judge him to be much above twenty-five. Youth and money, Miss Tolerance thought, but decidedly no taste.
"Miss Tolerance," Trux said. "I understand that you undertake, from time to time, small tasks ... ."
"I do, sir."
"Tasks of a private nature ... ." He paused as if to convey a sense of delicacy.
"I try to keep all my business private, sir. It is not always possible, but I undertake that no disclosure will come from me."
"Rather from the sight of Hermione Maugham throwing a cup of Almack's lemonade into her husband's face?"
Miss Tolerance cocked an eyebrow. "Did she so? Lord Trux,I can but complete my client's assignment. What happens after, I cannot control."
Trux paused to consider this, then nodded. "Reasonable, I suppose. I will be brief, Miss Tolerance. I act as the agent of another, who has requested that I find, or cause to be found, an article of his which is missing." Trux raised his lace-edged handkerchief and delicately blotted the sweat on his upper lip. As he did so, Miss Tolerance noted the dark circles under his arms where the sweat was already soaking through his coat.
"And was this article stolen from your ... patron?" Miss Tolerance paused meaningfully. She had seen all too many people who pretended the work they required was not to be done for themselves.
Trux frowned and shook his head. "It was not stolen, no. The article in question--"
"A fan, Miss Tolerance. A very old, antique fan, an heirloom of my friend's family which he rashly gave away as a token ... a token of ... that is, he was young--"
Miss Tolerance nodded. "It is not an original story, my lord. A young man is smitten with a young lady, and gives to her as a token of his affection some item which he ought to have left home in its drawer. These tokens are more usually jeweled necklaces or brooches that the young man has no right to pledge, but I suppose an antique fan is as good a gift as any other."
"The fan was his to give," Trux said defensively.
"Well, then, what is to prevent him from going to the lady now and asking for its return?"
"The situation is a delicate one."
"Is this a sort of delicacy I should understand, so as not to bruise its tender flesh?" Miss Tolerance asked dryly. "I frequently find that the more particulars I am acquainted with, the more delicately I can perform my task."
"I'm afraid the particulars are not within my power to give, Miss Tolerance." Trux looked smugly pleased to be able to deny her something. "I can tell you only that the fan is delicatelymade, of ostrich skin painted with a copy of an Italian landscape, stretched upon golden sticks that are studded with rubies and brilliants. The lady we believe to be in possession of the fan is--" Trux stopped. "But you have not yet agreed to undertake the commission."
"Very true, my lord. I would be happy to perform this small task for you. I must warn you, however, that as I am a woman alone in the world, I must charge a good fee for my work."
"We are prepared to pay." Trux paused; she watched as he did a sum in his head, saw his cheek twitch in displeasure, then watched him, as she fancied, revise the sum. "We offer you two guineas for recovery of the fan. Plus expenses," he added kindly, as if offering her a special treat.
Miss Tolerance did a calculation of her own, guessing what Trux's original sum was to have been. "Obviously your patron little understands the nature or the expenses of work such as mine, my lord. I regret to inform you that the cost for such an errand would be three guineas a day, in addition to any reasonable expenses I should incur. I will, of course, produce a written summary of such expenses when the commission is completed."
Trux frowned. "That's a great deal of money. We could as easily hire a Bow Street man--"
"It is a delicate commission, sir? Finesse is expensive."
He shrugged and nodded. "As you say. The woman to whom you should apply for the fan--"
"Can I expect that she will simply release it to me?" Miss Tolerance asked in surprise. "Then I truly do not see why you or your patron could not save yourselves some money, hire a chair, visit the lady in person, and have the matter done with."
"We do not expect that she will part with it without remuneration," Lord Trux said stiffly. "You may offer her up to five hundred pounds. If she requires more than that, you will kindly let me know by directing a note to my attention at my club, Boodle's. I will let you know how to proceed."
Miss Tolerance nodded. On the table at her side, the cup and the teapot stood, both quite cold. She raised two fingers quietlyto summon a waiter, and gestured to summon a fresh pot of tea. "Shall I ask for another cup, my lord?"
Trux shook his head. "My business is almost concluded. The lady to whom you must apply is Mrs. Deborah Cunning. Her last address, so far as my friend knows, was Richmond."
"And how long ago was that?" Miss Tolerance asked. Trux did not answer. She sighed. "I see. Is that another of those delicate details about which I must not inquire? You tie my hands, my lord, and make my task doubly difficult."
Trux stood. "From what I have heard of you, Miss Tolerance, I do not believe that a little difficulty will keep you from earning your fee."
Miss Tolerance rose likewise. "It is kind in you to say so, my lord. May I ask from whom you heard of me?"
"Your name is known in the circles I frequent, ma'am." Trux tilted his chin up slightly, with the air of one conferring a killing blow.
Miss Tolerance laughed, a full, delighted sound that rang through the hush of the room. The heads of the card players, of Harriet Delamour and her followers, turned toward the unexpected sound; Lord Trux looked embarrassed and angry.
"Very good, my lord. Well, I shall send reports of my progress to you at Boodle's. If the task is as simple as you seem to believe, it should be concluded before too long." She extended her hand.
Lord Trux took it, but looked uncertain whether to bow over it or shake it as he might have a man's. Miss Tolerance decided the matter by shaking his hand and withdrawing her own. He turned to go, then turned back again. His eyes gleamed with malice.
"I must say, Miss Tolerance, you seem a very genteel sort of woman. I cannot understand how a lady of good family, no matter what her past, could arrive at such a pass, and in such a position, as yours."
Miss Tolerance smiled. "Society offers a woman like myself very few choices, my lord. Some become whores, some madams or hatmakers. I became an investigative agent. In the end it isall the same: a woman who can fall no farther has little choice but to go into business for herself."
"I see," said Lord Trux, who clearly did not see at all. He bowed, bade her good afternoon, and left.
Copyright © 2003 by Madeleine E. Robins