Countess deCoventry, Corinne to her intimes, sat tapping her dainty fingers on the arm of a striped satin settee in her mansion on Berkeley Square. How very like Coffen to be late! He knew she wanted to leave Pilchard's rout early. If they arrived too late, he would want to stay until dawn. She had a dozen things she ought to be doing: notes to be written summoning the Friends of the Orphans to organize their annual charity ball, a duty call on Lady Jersey to arrange for tickets to Almack's, a note requesting Signor Fratelli to perform at a musical soiree, to say nothing of reading that dreadful book Reggie had written.
A frown never sat long on her pretty face, however. Beau Brummell, the rogue, had told her her beauty was a mirage. Like the shifting pattern of a flame or the constant movement of water, it was animation that riveted folks' attention and earned her the reputation of an Incomparable. Still, her mirror told her that her raven curls looked very well against her creamy complexion. Her eyes were undeniably large, and of an unusually deep green. If her nose was neither dramatically aquiline nor retrousse, it was a good straight nose with delicately carved nostrils.
She rose, showing off an elegant figure encased in a pomona-green evening gown. It was a daring innovation to abandon the empress style currently in vogue and wear a gown that showed off her trim waist. Luten, she thought, would like it. Her butler, peering in from the hallway, cast an appreciative eye at the figure. Black had long harbored a secret passion for his mistress.
Satisfied that the gown was a success, she began to think of the other dozen things she had rather be doing than twiddling her thumbs while waiting on her cousin, Coffen Pattle. There were plans to begin making for her coming marriage to Luten. Should she try a new coiffure? With her wedding approaching, matters of toilette loomed large in her mind. She rather liked the cherubim do the ladies were wearing this Season. The tousle of untrammeled curls rioting over the head was interesting.
"Oh what the deuce is keeping him!" she said impatiently, and flouncing back down on the sofa, she picked up her book, Byron's poem, Childe Harold.
Lady deCoventry had not always lived such a pampered life. As Corinne Clare, she had been born and raised on her papa's farm in Ireland, where her days were more likely to be spent picking berries or shelling peas than driving about in a fine carriage. All that had ended seven years before when Lord deCoventry had visited his farm that neighbored her papa's and chanced across Corinne, tearing through the meadow on her bay mare, with her black hair streaming over her shoulders. It was that old cliche, love at first sight for him. Corinne had never claimed undying passion for her aging husband, but he had been kind and generous during the four years of their marriage, and at his death, he had left her well provided for.
He had turned her out in the first fashion, polished her manners and her taste in literature, art, and music, presented her at Court, told her to call a duke and duchess "Your Grace," not "milord" or "milady," and even told her which knife or fork to use at the grander banquets. Done it all without once making her feel inferior.
These vague thoughts drifted through her mind as she waited for Coffen, with the open book on her lap. After a while she began reading and was soon engrossed. When she heard the door knocker, she shook herself back to the present.
"Good evening, sir," Black said.
"Is your mistress in?" a fluting voice inquired. Not the voice of Coffen, but of her friend and neighbor across the street, Sir Reginald Prance, Bart. She frowned; Prance had decided to go to the rout in his own rig. Black apparently nodded, for Reggie's voice continued, "No need to show me in. I am familiar with the route."
As he sauntered in, Sir Reginald's eyes did not see the manifold charms of Lady deCoventry or the new gown, the classical workmanship of Adam, the splendor of Persian carpets, nor the artworks decorating the walls--all items that would normally have interested this demanding dilettante. His attention was focused on a book. The wrong book!
He scowled. "Aha!" He had caught Corinne dead to rights, with her head sunk into a copy of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
He wished someone would round up all the thousands of copies of that appalling book and throw them into the Thames. They littered every saloon in London. He had come to hate the very sight of those leather-bound volumes. What folks should be reading, only they had no taste, was the Round Table Rondeaux, his own stirring stanzas in blank verse on the knights of the Round Table. He had spent months, on and off, studying up all the history of Arthur, dux bellorum, and giving himself a headache thinking up rhymes. Try rhyming dux bellorum! Or Sir Galahad for that matter, without sinking into farce.
Anyhow, his book, full of exciting historical stuff, sat gathering dust behind the counter since milord Byron had come pouncing on the scene to steal his thunder with his demmed Eastern poems, full of pirates and pashas and brigands.
Corinne tore her eyes from the book and glanced up. "Just having a peek to see what all the clamor is about, Reggie," she said.
"It has more to do with Byron than the poems," Reggie said, trying valiantly to subdue the edge of rant that tinged his tone. "Dashed fellow is the perfect embodiment of his hero. A jaded cynic and world traveler, his soul burdened with nameless crimes. Handsome--if you care for that rather vulgar, obvious type of good looks--and a baron to boot. The ladies are all running mad for him." What chance had a mere baronet whose sole travels were from Land's End to Tom O'Groats? Lady Caroline Lamb had made an utter ass of herself over Byron, dressing up like a page boy and hounding him through the streets of London. Prance had always had a secret tendre for the fey charms of Caro Lamb.
Looking at her caller, Corinne had to admit the disparity in the appearance of the two poets. Reg was an elegantly slender dandy with the lean, narrow face of a greyhound. He had allowed his dark hair, usually brushed forward in the Brutus do, to grow longer, perhaps in emulation of Byron. With the best will in the world, she could not call him handsome, but only elegant. Even the elegance was so meticulous as to border on the foppish. The amethyst in his cravat exactly matched his plum-colored jacket. The narrow stripes in his cream waistcoat echoed the shade.
"I see you're reading his book!" he said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Bought it, did you?"
"I tried to get it at the circulating library, but the six copies are reserved for months ahead. It was a regular scramble at the book stalls--for both your books," she added hastily, when Reg's pink cheeks turned an alarming purple that matched his jacket. "This doesn't hold a candle to your book," she lied loyally. Even as she spoke, her eyes returned hypnotically to the page, and a smile drew her lips upward in appreciation.
"Lord Byron has corrupted the morals of every lady in England," Prance announced. His real chagrin was that this wholesale corruption could not be placed in his own dish. His publisher (and Byron's), John Murray, had thought his rondeaux "a little broad." Broad, good God! He had not even mentioned Lady Guinevere's carrying on with Sir Lancelot. If his reference to the camp followers trailing after the knights was broad, Byron's stuff was licentious. No other word for it. Prance knew, because he had devoured every line, his eyes growing greener as the reading progressed.
He could not even claim youth for the inferiority of his own rondeaux. To set the cap on his humiliation, he was an ancient twenty-seven, three years older than Byron. Of course, he hadn't got a limp to elicit pity and aid sales.
"Toss that trash aside and let us go," he said testily.
She closed the book, carefully marking her place. "I am waiting for Coffen. He wanted me to visit someone with him before the rout."
"Who?" Prance asked at once. "Odd he did not invite me along."
"We didn't know you planned to come with us."
"I changed my mind. I told him so. Who is he visiting?"
The three were virtually inseparable. The fourth corner of the quartet was the Marquess of Luten, presently in the country arranging for the disposition of a small farm that had been bequeathed to him by the death of a cousin. Jointly they were known as the Berkeley Brigade, as they all lived within yards of each other on Berkeley Square. They were the unofficial leaders of the young ton. Luten, their captain, was a member of the Whig shadow cabinet in the House of Lords.
"I don't know. It has something to do with seeing some paintings," she said.
"What paintings? Whose? You know nothing about art. He should have spoken to me."
"He didn't say who."
"Can you not bear to put the book down and let us discuss it?" Lord, he sounded like a nagging wife. He was turning into a whiner on top of everything else. "Whoever it is will sell him some inferior work--fleece him alive. Pattle wouldn't know an oil painting from a Renaissance intaglio."
She hastily set the book aside and glanced up, to find Reg studying her. He had been practicing Byron's famous "under-look" in his mirror, and was trying it for the first time in company. The look drove the ladies into a perfect frenzy when Byron did it. It was achieved by keeping the head down and gazing up through long lashes. He lacked the length in lashes, but he fancied he could curl his lip as cynically as anyone.
"Have you got something in your eye, Reggie?" she asked.
He glared. "No. Get your pelisse. We'll call on Coffen. Byron's cantos will still be here when you get back," he added with heavy irony.
They were interrupted by the sound of scuffling in the hallway. The heavy, dragging step heralded the approach of Coffen Pattle. His usual toilette included mussed, mud-colored hair, a rumpled jacket, and quite possibly a stained cravat. Were it not for the ruddy complexion and blue eyes, they would scarcely have recognized him in the exquisite apparel before them. His hair had been coerced into order by a lavish application of oil. A white cravat of unusual size and intricacy lifted his chin an inch higher than usual, and his jacket was unwrinkled.
"Coffen, don't you look fine!" Corinne said.
He blushed. "Sorry I'm a tad late," he said, bowing and nodding. "Raven, my valet, had a spot of trouble with my cravat. Tarsome business, trying to turn out in style."
Prance pouted. She had not praised his toilette! But then elegance, like sweets, grown common lose their delight. "What is the occasion for this grand toilette?" he inquired.
"La Comtesse Chamaude," he announced in reverent tones, as if he were saying "His Majesty, the king."
Corinne gave a start of alarm. "What! How the devil did you meet that dasher?"
She knew Lady Chamaude was a French countess of a certain age, though she was remarkably preserved. The lady admitted to thirty, but as gossip claimed she had been a widow upon her arrival at Brighton twenty-odd years previously, this claim was treated with a large sprinkling of salt. She had been smuggled out of France during the revolution and had hung on to the fringes of Society ever since. Recently she had managed to inveigle her way a little inward, due to the good graces of Lord Yarrow, according to rumor. Lord Yarrow was married, but his wife was invalidish and did not interfere with her lord's pleasures.
"Why, one may meet her anywhere nowadays. I ran into her at the exhibition at Somerset House this morning. Henshaw dragged me along to look at some pictures. Chamaude is mad for pictures. Knows all about key-roscuro and composition--a regular connoisseur. She knew Henshaw a little and stopped us out of the blue. Said if I liked French art, she had something that might interest me."
"Since when have you acquired an interest in French art?" Prance asked.
"Since I met Chamaude."
"Odd you did not invite me along."
"Three's a crowd," Coffen replied, unfazed.
"So much for arithmetic."
"You, Corinne, Chamaude--does that not make three?"
"I daresay it does, but I had mentioned when I was at the gallery that I was taking Corinne to a do tonight, and the comtesse said why didn't we stop in en route. So that's what we're doing. We'll meet you at Pilchard's."
"She'll try to sell you something," Prance said. "I had best go along to protect you."
Prance never neglected an opportunity to meet an interesting character, especially a slightly declasse one. His own reputation was a sovereign preventive against scandal. He ushered Corinne and Coffen into the hallway. Black lovingly placed a mantle over her ladyship's shoulders, and they were off.