The Dowager Countess deCoventry would not, in the normal way, have been caught dead at the Pantheon. This pleasure dome in Oxford Street had fallen sadly from its glory days in the last century, when the nobility vied for admission, to become the haunt of rakes, rattles and lightskirts.
Her escort, Coffen Pattle, said, "If that ain't just like Luten to go throwing his party in a vice den. If it wasn't for Denise, I would not have come. Feel like a dashed man milliner in this sheet, I can tell you."
"Never mind, Coffen. Everyone looks outlandish at a masquerade," the countess replied, as she peered from the window of his carriage at the other masqueraders entering the Pantheon. She counted three lady shepherdesses wearing silken gowns of a sort never seen on the back of a real shepherdess, two gentlemen in the doublet with slashed sleeves, silken hose and duck-billed shoes of Henry VIII, a sprinkling of French court gowns--but no other Cleopatras to compete with herself.
"It was kind of Luten to hold this benefit ball for Denise Leblanc," she said. "How could she support her four children, now that she is too old to dance?"
"She might have thought of that when she had 'em without benefit of a father," Coffen grouched.
"They had a father, Coffen. I think you mean without benefit of a husband."
"Don't be tahrsome, my dear. You know what I mean."
"It is you who are tiresome. It takes two to--"
"I know about the birds and the bees. I was just thinking. You don't suppose Luten ..." He lifted an eyebrow in question.
The countess replied in a voice Beau Brummell had compared to a cello heard in a velvet tunnel, "I shouldn't think so." Coffen, less inclined to hyperbole, thought it was a nice soothing voice. Reminded him of the warble of a thrush. "Denise is a wonderful dancer," the countess continued, "but not pretty."
"A face like a monkey. Pity, for her legs ain't bad."
"Nothing but diamonds of the first water for Luten, you must know. He arranged this benefit ball because he felt sorry for her. He's ashamed of his generosity and is holding the do at the Pantheon to lend it a raffish air."
"Aye, that sounds like him. He wouldn't want to be accused of being softhearted," Coffen replied, satisfied that they had plumbed the little mystery.
It was no mystery why he and the Dowager Lady deCoventry were attending the ball. They were members of the Berkeley Brigade, a collection of young Whig aristocrats who lived on Berkeley Square. They were the acknowledged leaders of the ton, led by the dashing Marquess of Luten.
As Beau Brummell had held sway in the previous decade, so Luten was now looked to in matters of style. His horses and carriages, his jackets and coiffures were copied assiduously by his followers, but his real power was in Parliament, where he daily waged unholy war against the King's ministers. Mouldy and Company, the Whigs called them, and fought them tooth and nail for reform.
Pattle's carriage drew to a stop in front of the domed building, they alit and entered the splendid rotunda with its colonnade and glazed dome. The place was done up in the Italian style with frescoed walls and ceilings and a superfluity of statues copied from antiquity. Diffused lighting shone from antique vases hanging on gilded chains from the ceiling and from others atop marble pillars.
They joined the costumed throng moving up the stairway to the painted ballroom. Amidst the babble of excited voices, the haughty accents of Mayfair mingled with Cockney slang and the nasal twang of minor actresses imitating their social superiors. The building, said to hold seventeen hundred, was packed. Lady deCoventry looked around for Luten, who had kept his costume a secret. As his estate, Southcote Abbey, bordered on Sherwood Forest, however, she felt he had probably come as some character from the Robin Hood legend.
When they reached the top of the stairs, Coffen said, "I am going to wet my whistle." As he spoke, his crown of laurel leaves slid over one ear, lending him the abandoned air of a satyr. He was supposed to be Julius Caesar, but had only chosen this disguise as he had forgotten to hire a costume, and a sheet lent itself to the role. There was little of imperial Rome in his actual person. He was short and stout, with a ruddy complexion, blue eyes and mud-colored hair cut in the Brutus do. Even in a toga, the words "John Bull" were written all over him.
"I knew this branch wouldn't stay in place," he said, shifting it back up on his head with an impatient hand. "You had best come with me, Corinne. There's no saying what lowlife coves are hiding behind this collection of masks. I shouldn't be surprised if there ain't a few Tories amongst us."
As he spoke, she espied a tall, broad-shouldered gentleman in a green shirt and matching inexpressibles standing off to the side, surveying the throng. He wore a hat with the brim tilted over one eye and a long feather trailing behind. A quiver full of arrows and a bow were slung over his left shoulder. A black mask covered his upper face. He had one arm placed lightly over a woman's shoulder.
The countess peered to see if she could recognize Luten's companion. She was a statuesque woman with flaming red hair, wearing a black domino. A feathered mask hid her upper face. The countess didn't recognize her at a glance, and she would not satisfy Luten to stare. She knew he had spotted her, because he removed his arm from the woman's shoulder, said something to her and began walking across the room. The countess felt a little thrill of triumph.
"You go ahead, Coffen," she said. "I've spotted Luten."
"Have you, by Jove? What's he wearing?" She pointed to Robin Hood. "Ah, the outfit he wore at his own masquerade party last autumn. Not like Luten to pass up a chance for a new outfit. I leave you in good hands, then."
Coffen went off in search of wine. He had a fair notion that Corinne and Luten were mad for each other. Both too proud to admit it, of course, but one day they would grow tired of snipping and snipping at one another and get shackled. Taking them a dashed long time to get around to it. Corinne's husband had been dead for three years. Some said it was marrying a lady young enough to be his daughter that had put old deCoventry in his grave. She hadn't managed to give him an heir either, which was surely the reason the old gaffer had married her.
Whatever the cause of deCoventry's demise, it had left Corinne in the peculiar position of being the Dowager Countess deCoventry at the tender age of twenty-one years. The earl's heir was his younger brother, already shackled to a lady who was not tardy to establish herself as Lady deCoventry. So here was Corinne, a dowager at twenty-four. Lord, how she hated it. Her friends--all except Luten--had begun by calling her Countess Corinne, now shortened to Corinne. Luten never failed to throw in her face that she was a dowager. Spiteful of him, but that was Luten all over.
Coffen had soon established himself abovestairs in a private box with a bottle of port to pass the time. From this vantage point he looked out on the throng below. The place was so crowded you couldn't swing a flea. Costumes of all colors, dominoes, mostly black, everyone smashed together in a human macedoine. He spotted Cleopatra and Robin Hood waltzing along the edge of the floor.
Corinne's disguise as Cleopatra was well suited to her native endowments. Her whole mien was imperious. For the masquerade, she had followed an illustration found in a book on theatrical costumes. To a plain white gown with a draped skirt she had added a golden border edged in a Greek key design and layered around her neck a quantity of "gold" pinchbeck jewelry set with colored glass. Another of the necklaces she wore on her head, with a gold medallion hanging awkwardly on top of her mask. All of her jewelry was not imitation, however. To add the final note, she had worn, for the last time, the deCoventry pearl necklace. This fabulous item had been brought home from Madras by a deCoventry nabob stationed in India in the last century. It was a long rope of perfectly matched pearls retrieved from the Gulf of Mannar, each one a full fifteen carats. Old deCoventry boasted their lustre was so high they seemed to glow from within, but they looked to Pattle like any other pearls, only bigger.
The necklace was entailed with the estate jewelry, and would soon grace the wattled neck of the current Lady deCoventry. It seemed unfair, when George had paid for it out of his own pocket. His papa had given the pearls to a lightskirt despite their being entailed. George had hunted them down and bought them back for ten thousand pounds, against the advice of his lawyer, who told him he might get a court order and seize them without expense. There was a problem about the statute of limitations, however, and rather than risk losing them, George had paid. He wouldn't have done it if he'd ever thought Corinne would have to give them up. He fair doted on her.
Corinne was unaware of the eyes ogling her as she went to meet Robin Hood. Her crow-black hair was arranged in the Egyptian style with a fringe on her forehead. She didn't intend to wear her mask all evening. Her brilliant green eyes were obscured by the necessary mask, but they might have belonged to an empress. These attributes, her grandmother once told her, had first appeared in the family in the seventeenth century, after some Spanish sailors had found refuge in Ireland from the sinking of the Spanish Armada. The whole family were as proud as Spanish grandees, but unfortunately not nearly so wealthy.
Luten described her as Black Irish, a term she never did quite understand, but felt instinctively was a slur on her origins. She had been raised in genteel poverty on her papa's estate in County Cork. Lord deCoventry was the absentee landlord of a neighboring estate, which he visited from time to time in an effort to jack up his revenues. He had developed a mad passion for Corinne Clare on one of his visits, and bought her from her papa for five thousand pounds. With no better offer in sight, Corinne had accepted her fate. The match had proven relatively successful, despite the disparity in their ages. Corinne was seventeen at the time, one third of her husband's age. He was an undemanding spouse, and she was so charmed with the luxurious life of a London countess that she tolerated any personal inconvenience without complaint. The tears she shed on his death, while not copious, were genuine.
As Robin Hood advanced toward her, she acknowledged his gallant bow with a small smile. Instead of curtseying, she pulled an arrow from his quiver.
"How very like you, Luten. Pointless. There is no head on this arrow." On this jibe, she slid the arrow back in the quiver.
Robin Hood's lips opened in a smile. In the shadowed room, she saw only the flash of white teeth. The orchestra, which had been in brief abeyance, struck up a waltz. Without speaking, Robin Hood drew her into his arms and began dancing. The waltz, while considered racy, was usually performed with a discretion that was lacking on this occasion. Her partner drew her tightly against his chest and began swirling toward a dark alcove at the end of the room.
"This is not a race, Luten," she said sharply. "You nearly capsized that shepherdess and her partner."
When she received no reply, she took a closer look at her partner and wondered whether he was Luten after all. He was the same size and general getup, but something was different. Luten wouldn't hold her this close, for one thing. Unless he had been drinking ... She discerned a faint aroma of brandy. He waltzed her into the alcove, drew the curtain closed behind them and pulled her into his arms.
She gave a startled leap. "You must be bosky, Luten!" she exclaimed. He didn't say a word, but a gentle, amorous hum from his throat confirmed her suspicion. She felt a trembling excitement and waited to see what he would do next.
One of his hands moved up to brush the nape of her neck, sending shivers along her spine. His fingers felt rough, excitingly so. Then his dark head came down and he kissed her. It was no gentle brushing of the lips, but a real kiss that sent the blood racing in her veins.
The excitement of his brandy-soaked lips provided a strong distraction as his fingers found the clasp of the necklace and unfastened it. The pinchbeck jewelry acted as insulation as his fingers moved so adroitly that she didn't feel the necklace leaving her neck, or realize that Robin Hood had palmed it. The pearls disappeared without a sound into his pocket while his lips nibbled seductively at hers.
Then as suddenly as he had kissed her, he drew back. "Now I must go. Adieu, and many thanks, Cleopatra."
That was when she knew for certain that the man was not Luten. His voice was not a silken drawl, but an uncultured voice. She reached for his hand. "Who are you?" she demanded.
A deep chuckle was her only answer as his rough fingers withdrew from hers and he disappeared through the archway, the long feather on his hat bobbing. He was soon swallowed up by the throng of waltzers. She was angry at the fellow's impertinence and embarrassed that she had not only permitted that kiss, but enjoyed it, even if he wasn't Luten.