The tall, young gentleman with long, fair hair and aquiline features lounged impatiently before the looking-glass. He drummed his long, slender fingers on the dressing-table to quell his annoyance.
The longcase clock in the chamber next door had just rung eleven, yet his shoulder-length peruke was still resting in the same place it had an hour ago?on its stand instead of on his head. His valet, the little Frenchman who was busying himself in a corner, would never allow himself to be rushed.
Philippe withdrew from the Boulle armoire and returned with a familiar object draped over one arm. His eyebrows raised in a soupçon of hope, he dropped to one knee to display it.
"Would Monseigneur condescend to wear his new satin cloak this evening?"
Gideon gave it a look that conveyed his disgust. The offending garment, a voluminous cloak with three large shoulder capes, all in deep sapphire Duchesse, was precisely the sort of showy tog he abhorred.
"No, Philippe. I will not condescend to wear it this evening ... nor any other evening, so you will please refrain from holding it out for my inspection."
As Philippe's face sagged, Gideon Viscount St. Mars gave an involuntary laugh. "No one but a damned popinjay would be caught out in the street in a rig like that! I cannot conceive why you persist in wasting my allowance on things I would much rather eat than wear."
"But, monsieur! I have already explained myself with such perfection, if monsieur would but listen. It is precisely the shade of blue?though monsieur refuses to wear it?which will bring out the colour of monsieur's so-beautiful blue eyes."
"Blue eyes be damned!" Gideon muttered, feeling a rush of heat to his cheeks. He tossed a hasty glance in the mirror and was reassured by his glowering expression and the harsh contours of his face. "I have told you I will not be dressed like a petit mâitre at Versailles. I am an English gentleman, not a French courtesan."
"So much is evident, Monseigneur."
"Well, you don't have to agree with me in that dismal tone of voice. I am not completely loathsome, I hope?"
"Mais non, non, non! Monsieur is blessed with a noble countenance and a pair of shoulders one can only call magnifique. It is tout simplement that monsieur fails to take advantage of his splendid physique."
"I took advantage of my splendid physique when I rode ventre à terre to arrive in time to dress for the ball. You should be pleased with me."
"O là! As if monsieur has given me half the time I require to make him présentable!"
"If you would stop lamenting that damned blue cape, which I have instructed you to burn, I should be dressed and at Lord Eppington's house already."
"Very well, Monseigneur."
Philippe's shoulders drooped, but Gideon noted that he folded the cloak and carefully placed it in the armoire to bring out at a later date, when he might find his master more tractable.
Gideon grinned at his impudence. The heir to an earldom must have a valet, though he would happily have managed without if Philippe did not entertain him so.
Right now, Philippe had forgotten about the cape in his absorption over Gideon's maquillage. A nearly imperceptible layer of white paint, a faint colouring of rouge, and a dusting of fine powder were all the cosmetics Gideon would allow, although his resulting pallor when combined with a grey-powdered wig made a touch of red all but essential to his lips.
"And the patches, Monseigneur?" With a long-suffering sigh, Philippe held up his porcelain box with its assortment of shapes and sizes.
"Two," Gideon said.
"But two!" The little valet's resignation crumpled. "But, monsieur! My reputation will be ruined if you do not wear eight at the very least!"
"Two," Gideon repeated firmly. "And none of your hearts or crosses, mind."
Philippe drew himself up like a martyr, the box clasped like a stake to his heart. "Very well, monsieur le vicomte." He was truly offended now, as his flared nostrils revealed. "It shall be precisely as you wish, but I hope you do not live to regret the advice Philippe has given you when Mademoiselle Mayfield decides to marry the Duc de Bournemouth instead."
Gideon turned in his chair so rapidly that Philippe took a hasty step backwards. "You little imp! What the devil do you know about me and Isabella Mayfield?"
"I know nothing, monsieur. And I fear I shall know nothing at all if monsieur refuses to listen to Philippe."
Gideon fixed him with a glare fierce enough to make a stronger man quail, but Philippe knew his master too well to be afraid. In order to keep his position, however, he endeavoured to look contrite.
Reluctantly, Gideon restrained his temper. "Cut loose, you noisome piece of bait! What do you know about Isabella Mayfield and the Duke of Bournemouth? And how do you come to know it?"
"Quand même--"with an exaggerated shrug, Philippe grew very French? "one may be a mere servant, monsieur, and yet not be completely hors du courant."
"By that, I suppose you to mean you have been talking to someone else's servant. Is that it?"
"My lips are sealed."
Gideon would have laughed at the improbability, but he could not allow his valet, or any other servant for that matter, to gossip about the lady he intended to wed. He could do nothing to prevent rumours from spreading outside his own household, but he exercised a considerable authority over his own staff. And, in this case, he would use it.
"You had better seal those lips, or you will have to find another pair with which to eat your dinner. Do you perfectly understand me, Philippe?"
"Oui, Monseigneur." The Frenchman lowered his voice to a confidential whisper. "But, since we find ourselves alone, would you not wish to hear what Philippe has heard?"
Gideon's usual dislike of gossip warred with a distressing curiosity. He could not deny that the pairing of Isabella's name with the Duke of Bournemouth's had caused a nasty turn in his stomach. "Very well." He feigned an indifference he could not feel, which would not fool Philippe for a moment. "Get on with it, curse you, so I can get to the ball."
Philippe took up his hare's foot to brush a tiny speck of powder off Gideon's cheek. The eagerness in his tone did nothing to calm his master's anxious pulse. "Bon! It is said that his Grace is expected to offer for Mademoiselle Mayfield very soon, and that the lady is not at all averse."
"Nonsense! You may tell your sources that the lady would never dream of marrying that dried-up roué. And, besides, that she will soon be affianced to me."
"Exactement! That is precisely what I said, monsieur le vicomte. I could not allow Monseigneur to be so insulted."
Gideon gave a short laugh. "Defended me, did you? Damn, if I won't raise your wages for that!"
"Monsieur is too kind." With a scattering of grey powder, Philippe clasped the hare's foot to his chest, but he did not refuse the offer.
Instead, turning deadly serious, he moved closer to bring his lips to Gideon's ear.
With black eyes meeting blue ones in the mirror, Philippe spoke in a portentous voice. "If monsieur will please but consider, the Duc de Bournemouth is not so old that he cannot attract a younger lady with his wealth?monsieur must trust Philippe on this. And monsieur le duc is a grand seigneur who knows how much the elegant wig and the skillful placement of a patch can please a beautiful lady."
Gideon knew what his servant was about. He wanted to use his master's jealousy to get his way. At the same time, Gideon had heard those rumours himself, and he knew how much Isabella valued a fine appearance. If she did not care so much for fashion, he would never let himself be painted at all.
"Oh, very well," he said. "Three patches, or I don't suppose I shall ever get out of this house. And you may choose the shapes you wish and put them wherever you like. Just hurry, blast you! I would like to appear at Lord Eppington's house before midnight."
Philippe was hardly appeased by the thought of a mere three patches, but he went speedily to work. "Monsieur would have been at the ball already if he had not arrived so late and in such a state as I hope never to see him again."
"I had business with my father." Gideon's curt reply was intended for a warning that this was one subject Philippe had better not broach.
The object of Gideon's visit to Lord Hawkhurst had been the very lady they had just discussed. And the recollection of the argument he had had with his father over Isabella brought a tightness to Gideon's throat.
He had been summoned home three days ago?he had thought?to acquaint his father with the latest attacks on the former Tory ministers. The news Lord Hawkhurst sought was not to be found in the prints, for King George had ordered all justices of the peace to execute the laws against printers and publishers. Knowing how desperately his father wished to keep up with his country's affairs, Gideon had put aside his own engagements to visit White's Coffee House, a Tory stronghold, to hear the version of events his father would want.
The news was not good. The Whig Parliament had threatened the former ministers with impeachment, and nothing Bolingbroke, their leader, could say to justify his actions as secretary of state had managed to turn the Whigs' temper. Even Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester and a confidant of Lord Hawkhurst, had reason to be afraid. He was believed to be the leader of a group that had planned to proclaim the Pretender as James III at the moment of the late queen's death.
Gideon could not send anything controversial through the post. It was said that all letters were being opened. So he rode down into Kent, travelling the more than seventy miles from London to Hawkhurst rapidly by stages. After a wearying day in the saddle, he arrived at Rotherham Abbey, where his father resided in exile from Court, to discover that the earl had already retired for the evening, exhausted by the gout.
If he had known that gossip had carried his intentions to wed into Kent, he would have been more prepared for the vituperative anger he'd faced. As it was, he was blind-sided by his father's wrath.
Gideon presented himself in his father's library early the next morning when, according to their ancient ritual, he went down on bended knee to receive his father's blessing. It was at that very moment when he, with bowed head, was humbling himself, that Lord Hawkhurst charged him with the rumours he'd heard?that his son and heir had formed the ludicrous intention of offering for a girl who was "nothing better than the latest toast of the Kit-Kat Club."
When Gideon, feeling the heat beneath his neckcloth, confessed to his feelings for Isabella, he was treated to a display of anger such as he had never witnessed, a tirade in which Isabella, her family, and her morals were reviled in every possible way.
His temper flared, and he gave in to the need to defend the girl, his passion for her lending a loudness to his voice. "If you do not refrain from speaking of her in this manner, my lord, you will live to regret it!"
"Do not threaten me, sir!" Lord Hawkhurst bellowed, loudly enough to rattle the panes in their glazings.
"I have done nothing more than express my outrage for your unwarranted insults to Mrs. Isabella in the manner they deserve."
"Unwarranted?" Lord Hawkhurst leapt too eagerly on the word. "Do you tell me these rumours are unfounded, my boy?" The gleam that sprang into his eyes made Gideon feel more furious for the guilt it provoked.
Gideon loved his father, and he did not usually allow Lord Hawkhurst's rages to rouse him to such an alarming extent. But whenever he even thought of Isabella, his pulse drummed so furiously that he could scarcely think at all. All he could do was struggle to conceal the intensity of his desire, so as not to make himself the laughing-stock of London.
Weeks of such frustration had fed his impatience. His father's taunts had heated his blood, so now he was stretched so taut as to be beyond all reason.
"I say unwarranted," he bit back, "for you have judged Mrs. Isabella sight unseen. You cannot imagine the goodness of the angel you have maligned."
"Bah!" His father's craggy brows snapped together again. "Don't talk to me of angels, boy, when you have been trapped by a pretty face and a handsome pair of breasts, whose owner knows well how to use them to distract you from her faults."
"I warn you, Papa?"
"You dare to warn me? I have my spies, sir. I have heard of this girl. They say she is a flirty piece. The rage of the town ... Ha! As if that were enough to make her a fitting countess for my son!"
"Isabella is more than fitting. She will grace our house."
"She may?" his father's words were only briefly deceiving? "until her bloom wears off, and then what? What can she bring to this family besides her fleeting beauty? Her mother is no better than a harlot herself?a gamester who came near to ruining that fool Mayfield, who was a fop and Whig besides! The girl has no dowry to speak of from what I hear."
"Her dowry is adequate. You above others know that I have no need to wed for funds."
"Adequate? Need? When have I ever given you the notion that a portion of three thousand pounds is enough to gain admission to this family? For such a paltry sum, I wouldn't accept her if she was the Virgin Mary herself! And if she's inherited her mother's tendencies, I can assure you she is far from that. I will not allow you to be caught by a buxom figure. You can find your fill of those in Drury Lane. And above all?"
As his father paused to gather his breath, Gideon braced himself for the words he knew would come.
"? I will never permit a son of mine to marry the daughter of an accursed Whig!"
Gideon winced as his father launched into another tirade, not about Gideon's betrayal, but about his duty to their party. It was a theme he had been lectured upon all his life.
But for once he had heard enough of his father's diatribes. He refused to allow Lord Hawkhurst's bitterness to rule his heart.
So, in a terrible calm, he asked, "How do you mean to stop me, my lord? I will not have my love for Isabella sacrificed on this altar of yours. I intend to wed her, and so I ask you?how do you plan to stop me?"
At his quiet words, Lord Hawkhurst grew so enraged, Gideon thought he would surely burst a vessel. The flesh on his face turned a purplish hue.
"I shall withhold your allowance," Lord Hawkhurst blurted finally. "That should bring you to heel."
Despite the tension between them, Gideon nearly smiled. Every time his father was the least bit annoyed, he threatened to withhold Gideon's allowance. The problem was that Gideon possessed a sizeable fortune of his own, derived from an estate in France, which had been bequeathed to him by his maternal grandfather. It would suffice to maintain him and a wife in a comfortable style. Given this, as well as his disinclination to waste money on vices, and Lord Hawkhurst's threat lacked punch.
"I hate to inform you, but you have done such an admirable job in raising me that I save much more money than I spend. It will be a very long time, I fear, before this deprivation can cause me any hardship."
Lord Hawkhurst's expression had begun to relax, and his tantrum might have ended there if Gideon had not perversely added, "So, I shall have to marry Mrs. Isabella without your blessing."
This last statement was a leap of faith, since Gideon had not yet proposed and Isabella had not yet accepted. But Lord Hawkhurst did not know this, and his age-lined face hardened again.
"Then ... it is over, sir. But I warn you, St. Mars, that that Whig's daughter shall never enter this house."
They parted on that hostile note. As Gideon left by way of the antechamber, James Henry, his father's receiver-general, glanced up from his work to give him a condemning look. Enraged by this impertinence from his father's favoured servant, Gideon strode quickly past the white-faced stares of the liveried footmen, who waited in the hall for their master's orders and stormed out of the Abbey.
His anger, which was normally quick to fade, remained with him throughout the long, cold journey back. Changing horses at the posting houses he had used on the way down, he pushed them each so hard over the deep Wealden roads as to cover them with mud and sweat. The last horse was his, a fine, handsome bay with a great deal of strength. When he saw how badly he had tired it, he walked it over London Bridge instead of taking the horse ferry at Lambeth.
It was long after dark by the time he guided his exhausted horse through the shops and the traffic on the bridge, only to find that the City streets were more than usually teeming. In spite of the bitter March air, men spilled out of the coffee houses and taverns, discussing?some in shouts and some in whispers?the day's disturbing news. Bolingbroke, Viscount St. John, had tried unsuccessfully to justify his actions before Parliament in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht. Mr. Walpole, the paymaster general of the armed forces?and an up-and-coming force?would chair a Committee of Secrecy to investigate the former ministry and its dealings with France.
Such an investigation, Gideon knew, was likely to turn up Bolingbroke's communications with the Pretender, for like many careful men he had hedged his bets, publicly welcoming King George while secretly encouraging James Stuart.
Gideon had learned this from remarks his father had let drop while bemoaning the lack of leadership in the Stuart cause. But the Jacobites must be aware of it as well, for those in London had clearly been roused.
He passed an alehouse known to be a Jacobite haunt and heard an itinerant singing man booming out the words of an old and treasonable ditty.
The Baptist and the Saint
The Schismatick and Swearer
Have ta'n the Covenant
That Jemmy comes not here, sir
Whilst all this Pious Crew do plot
To pull Old Jemmy down ...
It was not the deposed James II, but the new Jemmy, his son?the Pretender, James Francis Stuart?who inspired them now. The working people would never tire of the rowdy verses that poked fun at the Whigs and Dissenters, the German, and the Dutch, which dated from the time when James II had been overthrown by the Dutch William of Orange. Even with George of Hanover securely on the throne, the treacherous songs were still sung.
Their harmless words could only rankle Gideon's feelings now. Bitterness gnawed at his tongue when he thought of how his father's political sentiments had driven them apart that morning. Their confrontation had confirmed his fears, that the politics practiced by Isabella's father would count much more heavily against her than a lack of dowry or her mother's morals. Gideon had known all this, and the state of his father's mind was the reason he had not informed him of his wish to marry Isabella.
Lord Hawkhurst lived at his country estate rather than play the hypocrite to Hanover George. Even if he had not chosen to absent himself from St. James's, his Majesty had made it abundantly clear that Lord Hawkhurst and other High Church Tories would not be welcome at his court.
Lord Hawkhurst was a Cavalier of the old school, who would rather draw his sword on a Whig than speak civilly to him. If he would seldom remain in a room that a Whig had entered, he was unlikely to permit his son to marry one. Gideon did not agree that his father's politics should decide whom he could wed, especially when Isabella had no professed opinions of her own. She was young and had no interest in the country's affairs. Even if she had, Gideon had grown so weary of the political strife tearing his country apart that he had made up his mind that party politics would not rule his life as it had his father's.
Now that his temper had had time to run its course, however, he regretted upsetting his father at a time when he had suffered so much disappointment. Lord Hawkhurst had been among the men who had gathered in Kensington at the time of Queen Anne's death to wait for their Tory friends in government to proclaim James III as king. But the party leadership had failed them. The Whigs had moved faster, taking their places as regents to hold the throne for George's arrival nearly two months later. Gideon did not know how his father had survived the blow of seeing the Pretender's best chance wasted through hesitation. He could only be grateful that Lord Hawkhurst's fiery opinions had never led him to take a rash part in one of the rebellions that had occurred in previous years.
He hoped for a chance to repair the breach between them. And he consoled himself with the knowledge that Lord Hawkhurst's tantrums never lasted long. If past experience was to be his guide, he would receive a new summons in a pair of days, bidding him come for a reconciliation. Still, he could not convince himself that Lord Hawkhurst's opinion of Isabella would undergo as rapid a change.
While Gideon would permit no faults to be ascribed to her, he had to admit that her mother, Mrs. Mayfield, might have merited his father's opinion. A shrill voice and the occasional hint of hardness in her eyes had blighted a once-famous beauty. The Honourable Geffrye Mayfield, a man of impeccable lineage, was said to have eloped with her within a month of their first meeting, an unseemly haste which had given rise to speculation. But whatever the reason for it, Lord Stokely, Mr. Mayfield's father, had cut his son off with barely a groat. If Mr. Mayfield had not secured a position at Court with the help of a maternal relative, his family would have suffered much.
But Isabella was so far superior to her mother in every way that Gideon believed it grossly unfair to hold Mrs. Mayfield's sins against her. He had no fears on the subject of Isabella's fitness to be his wife. Last autumn, he had returned from three years' study abroad to find her joy and innocence a welcome contrast to the cynicism and experience of the ladies at the European courts. But in spite of her artless youth?or perhaps because of it?she had raised a desire in him such as he had never known, not even in his earliest encounters with women. He knew he must not marry just to satisfy his carnal desires?the Church was very clear on this subject?but he could not help yearning for the moment he could make her his.
Consumed by these thoughts, Gideon had ridden back to Hawkhurst House, across from Green Park in Piccadilly, still in such a foul humour as to speak curtly to the new boy in his stables who was slow to take his reins. Normally quick with a smile for his servants, he had soon regretted his angry tone and resolved to go out of his way to speak more kindly to the boy in future. But he had been so anxious to see Isabella, to have her smile reward him for his loyalty, that he had not bothered with such a trifling matter then.
Now Philippe's insinuations about the Duke of Bournemouth increased his impatience. His need to speak with Isabella deepened with every passing moment, so he resisted his valet's more elaborate attempts to arrange his long, powdered wig.
Eventually, clad in a knee-length coat with large, turned-back cuffs and matching waistcoat in peach-coloured silk with elaborate brocade, a pair of silk inexpressibles, a fall of long, blond lace at his throat, clocked silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, a gold-hilted sword riding at his hip, and a three-cornered hat, Gideon was at last able to leave his house. He had already sent word to have a fresh horse saddled, aware that riding to the ball would get him there sooner than taking a chair. In truth, he still had an edge to his passion to work off before seeing Isabella.
Stepping out into the wide courtyard of the house, he spied the stocky figure of Thomas Barnes, his groom, walking his mare. Noting the scowl on the face of the man who had guided him and watched over him since his fourth birthday, Gideon smothered an impatient sigh. He was sure to get a sharp scolding, both for his abuse of the horse today and for his intention to ride out unaccompanied so close on midnight.
No moon was in evidence, and the small bit of light that might have been expected from the stars had been smothered by a layer of cloud. On a night like this, the streets would be thick with thieves, eager to strip an unwary man. Tom would be sorely displeased. But Gideon was not in the mood to take a scolding, not after the one he had received from his father.
"Good evening, Tom." Affecting not to notice his servant's scowl, Gideon reached to take the reins.
"'Tis more good morning, my lord."
"Do you think? I have not heard the clock strike, but perhaps the chimes are off. You must remind me to have them checked."
Gideon's irony was seldom lost on Thomas Barnes, who snorted. "Your lordship knows full well what time o' the clock it is, and what your lordship's asking for t' be riding out at such an hour."
"Now, Tom, you must be aware by now that I am a man fully grown, and as such I may keep the hours I like."
"If you are so fully growed, how come your lordship don't know there's footpads wandering these streets just a'waiting for a pigeon like your lordship to pluck?"
"A pigeon? Tom, I fear you do not flatter me."
"No. Nor I won't be flattering your lordship neither till you shows a bit of the sense your father give you."
Reins in hand, and reaching for the saddle, Gideon froze. His words, when they came, were very low. "Thomas, this scolding will have to cease or I shall be forced to find a groom who does not seek to remind me that he instructed me to hold the reins. It is quite beyond my limits to have you pull a prosy face in front of my friends."
"I don't see no friends about," Tom mumbled, as he bent to give his master a leg up, but he threw Gideon up into his saddle without further comment and made the final adjustments to his straps. There would be no point in remonstrating further when my Lord St. Mars took on that tone.
Not that Gideon's voice had betrayed anything more than a wry amusement, but Tom had sensed the steel underneath. And his experience told him that nothing would shake St. Mars from his reckless course when he took the bit between his teeth.
Tom could not be certain why his lordship was in such a pent-up mood of late, but he had a fairly good notion. He had ears just as keen as that fancy French valet's. And, knowing both my Lord Hawkhurst and his tantrums better than the Frenchy did, Tom could well imagine the scene that had just transpired at Rotherham Abbey. His sympathies were divided fairly equally on this occasion, but no words of his would improve Master Gideon's disposition. And it was not for a servant like him to tell my Lord St. Mars whom to wed.
"Foolish is as foolish does," he muttered to himself as he helped his master's diamond-buckled shoe into its stirrup. "And I wonder how he thinks he's going to look, struttin' about her ladyship's ballroom after a ride in them fancy clothes?"
Tom followed Gideon's horse to the immense wrought-iron and gilt gate that shielded Hawkhurst House, with its thirty rooms, its stables and its outbuildings, from the roughness of the city streets. He moved past him to swing the heavy gate open, and Gideon walked his horse through it. There was no more need for talk. Gideon knew the risks he took and had no patience with his servant's worries. For his part, Tom knew that he would not sleep until his master was safely home that night.
The night was as black as the depths of a well, the park uncannily empty, the street immensely quiet, as Tom swung the gate closed. Gideon turned in the street. "On my return, I do not wish to find you manning this gate. The porter will let me in. It is, after all, his job."
Tom was on the point of responding when he heard a horse coming slowly, then faster down the darkened street, its iron-shod hooves ringing sharply on the cobblestones.
With a sudden worry, he swung the gate open again, starting forward just as the shadowy form of a rider came within view.
Gideon swiveled in his saddle to peer at the approaching figure. "What the?"
The stranger was hurtling towards him like a kite diving for its prey. Tom strained to make out the man's face, but nothing could be seen on this moonless night except a black, fluttering mass riding swiftly towards them, its features shrouded or obscured. He had an uneasy impulse to reach for his master's reins, but Gideon stopped him, spinning his mare, one hand reaching for his sword.
"A word with you, St. Mars!" the rider called out, easing up on his horse.
Gideon released his hilt.
It's a messenger, Tom thought with relief?a relief still tinged with a nagging anxiety. A messenger belike from the Abbey and Gideon's father.
Then, as the stranger's horse moved within the circle of light cast by the gate's one lamp, the figure, which was swathed in a long black cloak, began to ride at Gideon again at full tilt.
He wore a Venetian mask. His head was covered by a long, black hood. A glint of steel flashed in his hand.
"Master Gideon, your back!"
Gideon's horse spun on its two hind hooves, knocking Tom aside. As the rider flew past, he raised his weapon and slashed. Reaching for his own sword too late, Gideon jerked with a cry. His horse reared and twisted, flinging him hard to the ground.