The boredom that so frequently troubles me was, for the moment, joyously at bay. With an expression of good humour firmly in place, I hurried out of the small art gallery in Pall Mall and turned in the direction of White's Club.
I had a mission and meant to accomplish it.
"Mr. Brummell! Oh, Mr. Brummell!" A young woman seated in an open carriage frantically waved her lace handkerchief with one gloved hand, trying to capture my attention. Above the noise in the street, she called to her driver. "Stop, coachman, do stop! I wish to speak with Beau Brummell."
Her servant obeyed the command, guiding the horses across the cobblestones until the carriage came to a halt by the curb.
So great was my desire to reach White's, that for the barest instant I considered ignoring the woman, whom I recognized as Lady Kincade. I immediately discarded the idea.
It would never do for me to shun her. If I did, and the slight was observed by a member of Society, or the Polite World as it is sometimes called, a calamity Lady Kincade did not deserve might ensue. No one would send her cards of invitation to their dinners or parties, thinking I had found her less than acceptable.
Absurd, you say? Well, privately I agree with you. But why should I not revel in the power the English aristocracy of 1805 has given me? I am only human, you know.
Besides, Lady Kincade is a pretty butterfly of a girl, hardly out of the schoolroom and newly married. She wants to cut a dash among the Beau Monde and make her husband proud.
Of course, she should never have boldly hailed me in the street that way, but, somehow the sight of her cherry and white striped gown, matching cherry-colored bonnet, and the face of an angel, made one forget such things.
I stepped to the door of her carriage, swept off my tall hat and bowed. "Good afternoon, Lady Kincade. What a brave girl you are, facing a chilly late September day in an open vehicle."
She giggled. "La, Mr. Brummell, you know we ladies feel it is not fashionable to be seen in a heavy wrap. And I will suffer any inconvenience to be stylish."
That was a fact. Her pale flesh had a bluish cast and bumps from the cold. I repressed a desire to hand her my greatcoat.
"My husband and I are on the point of leaving the city for Brighton, even though there are still people in town."
By this Lady Kincade did not mean that London only had a few souls haunting its streets. Quite the contrary was true. Scores of men and women populated London. Lady Kincade referred to those genteel people in the highest circles who tended to drift off to their country estates after the social season was over.
Her lips formed a pout at the thought of missing any London entertainments, but then her face cleared. "Kincade has heard rumors that the Prince is going to the seaside town and we want to be ahead of the crowd." She looked at me expectantly.
"Wise of you, I am sure," I said casually.
She clapped her hands in a youthful display of enthusiasm. "Then the Prince must intend on going to Brighton. You are his closest friend and would know his plans," she said with a delighted smile. She reached over and picked up a package from the seat beside her. "I beg that you will indulge me with another favor and examine this cloth I just purchased."
I dutifully spent the next few minutes pondering whether the marigold silk or the honey-yellow crepe would be better with Lady Kincade's complexion. Inspecting the costly materials, I became caught up in their beauty.
At length she said, "No wonder you are the arbiter of fashion and called 'the Beau.' You possess the most exquisite taste, Mr. Brummell. I hope I shall see you before long in Brighton."
"Surely Fate will not deny me the pleasure, my lady," I told her and, with a last bow, I strolled away.
Yes, she did flatter me to no end, I suppose. Manfully, I contrived to suffer through it. Nevertheless, I turned onto St. James's Street where I was less likely to be waylaid by any female. Ladies simply do not parade up and down the street where gentlemen's clubs are prevalent. Should a lady walk or drive her carriage past these male sanctuaries, she would be inviting comment on her person. Very fast behavior indeed.
Fading sunlight filtered through the fog and soot that perpetually plagues London. I gave a mental nod of thanks to my indispensable valet, Robinson. He had had the foresight to lay out my black velvet greatcoat when I told him I intended to visit Talbot's art gallery. My bones detest cold weather.
On the other hand, I cursed the sedan-chair maker who had assured me my new vehicle would be ready two weeks ago. I have no patience with those who make promises they cannot or will not keep. When all is told, a man is only as good as his word.
I vowed then and there that if the merchant failed to produce the chair shortly, word would rapidly spread through London that Beau Brummell had declared W. Griffin, Sedan-chair Maker to His Majesty King George III, unfashionable.
I am not stretching the truth when I say a merchant would sooner spit on a duke than have such an adjective applied to his place of business by me. En garde, Mr. Griffin!
Arriving at my destination, I slowed my pace and ambled into that exclusive terrain of four hundred and fifty privileged gentlemen, White's Club.
We gather here not just for convivial conversation, but also to discuss topics of a broader scale: politics, literature, science, drama.
White's is, of course, still a good place to read one of the myriad of newspapers kept there, or to place a wager in White's famous Betting Book as to, say, which opera dancer might bestow her favors on which peer of the realm first. Important matters, you understand.
I stood for a moment, no longer, or I risked being hailed by another acquaintance, on the threshold of the club's morning room. I looked among the potted palms, the dark, heavy furniture, and the green, baize-covered tables where fortunes have been won and lost, searching for my friend, Petersham. He was not among the card players, where he could usually be found.
I did not trouble myself to step back to the billiard room. Only on rare occasions can the viscount be roused to such a vigorous activity as billiards.
I lifted my Venetian gold pocketwatch by its chain and checked the time. Petersham never leaves his house before six in the evening. It was fifteen minutes past six.
"Delbert, has Lord Petersham arrived yet?"
The footman sprang from his place and bowed his white-wigged head. "He has, Mr. Brummell. His lordship is abovestairs in the coffee room. And, sir, 'He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar.'"
I paused a moment. "Othello. Thank you, Delbert." Trust White's to have a footman who quotes Shakespeare. Though he continues to try, Delbert has not yet caught me out.
I handed Delbert my hat, my walking stick with the gold lion's head, my kidskin gloves, and my greatcoat, then ascended the stairs.
Here I found the languid viscount in a leather armchair next to a comfortable fire reading a copy of The Gentlemen's Magazine. I eased myself with practiced grace into a matching chair. I am blessed with reasonable height and a frame still lean, despite the zeal with which I appreciate fine cooking.
Shaking my head with mock dismay, I asked, "When are you going to shave, Petersham? Or are you hoping to flap those things and fly?"
Viscount Petersham tossed the magazine aside and patted his side-whiskers complacently. "Bothers you, don't it, that I'm not one who will follow your fashion dictates." He favored me with one of his famous winning smiles. I may have a highly sought-after smile myself, but it is really nothing out of the common way. Petersham's whole face brightens when he grins, delighting the recipient.
"A gentleman should be clean-shaven. Are you hiding something under that forest of hair?" I asked in a teasing tone. Then, because I am, sadly, a perfectionist, and one with the added burden of having a sharp eye for detail, I could not resist adding, "Oh, and by the way, the left side has been trimmed shorter than the right."
I knew he would not take this observation badly. He and I first met back in the late l790s when we both served under the Prince of Wales in the Tenth Light Dragoons. Some of the officers had made sport of Petersham because, although he is a tall and handsome fellow, he is not known for his physical strength and in fact suffers from asthma. I cannot stand a bully and often found myself coming to Petersham's defense. Our resulting friendship has grown over the years.
"Something to hide? I?" the viscount replied with false severity. He stroked his whiskers as if checking for the uneven length I had mentioned. "Why, I am the most amiable and blameless of men. My foremost passion in life is snuff boxes."
I signaled a footman to bring a bottle of claret. Petersham had given me exactly the opening I needed. "Speaking of snuff boxes, I saw a particularly charming one this afternoon."
Lord Petersham dropped his hands from his whiskers, instantly alert to the news. This is a lad who has a different snuff box for every day of the year. True gentlemen disdain smoking tobacco, but the taking of snuff is a fashionable habit, one, if I might add without seeming immodest, that I have helped raise to an art form.
At the moment, I did not miss Petersham's air of excitement. Indeed, I had counted on it. "A precious little gold and enamel box with an uncommon scene portrayed on the lid," I elaborated. "It looked to be Venus as a mermaid reposing on a shell done in mother-of-pearl. Matched black pearls adorned the four corners of the box."
The viscount actually exerted himself to lean forward in his chair. "Whose was it?"
I took a sip of claret before I answered, savouring the flavour. There is no better liquid refreshment. Unless, of course, it is aged brandy, a good Madeira, or canary wine. My motto is, "When your spirits are low, get another bottle."
But, back to the matter at hand. I replied to the viscount's question. "Who the box belongs to is a puzzle, Petersham. You see, I was at Talbot's Art Gallery when I noticed it. Mr. Talbot has acquired a private collection and the snuff box is among its contents. He is about to put it up for auction." I saw a flash of recognition cross the viscount's face.
"Must be Sidwell's. I heard he was running short after high play at the gaming tables. It don't surprise me that he's resorted to selling off valuables."
Nodding as if in possession of this information all along, I took another sip--very well, perhaps it was more of a gulp--of wine.
Petersham stared off into the distance. "I know that Sidwell, like you, is mad for paintings. But I never thought the old cove would have such a prime snuff box. Say!" he cried suddenly, turning back to me with a look of horror dawning on his face, "You wouldn't be thinking of bidding on it, would you?"
"Rest assured, my friend, that while you know I collect the occasional snuff box, I would never bid against you." Then, as if the matter held little interest for me, I said, "Though, now that you mention it, there is a painting I am half inclined to bid on."
Petersham took the bait. "Which one?"
"A lovely Perronneau, which would enhance my modest collection. It is of a girl and her kitten. I have a fondness for animals, you know, and own a few of Stubbs's paintings of dogs, foxes, and horses. I feel I should like the variety of having a painting depicting a cat."
Petersham supported the idea without delay.
We looked up from our conversation as a particular confidante of Petersham's approached us. The man, whom I had seen about, and of whom I had a vague recollection, was Lord Munro. He was of average height and possessed very pale, almost white-blond hair which he wore in a wispy style. He lingered a few feet away from where we were seated, his gaze on the viscount. Just precisely what their relationship is, I have no idea. Sometimes it is better not to inquire about these things.
Petersham excused himself and rose. He spoke to his friend in a low voice, his lips close to the other's ear. Lord Munro placed a possessive hand on Petersham's sleeve, then he nodded and moved away.
"Sorry for the interruption, Brummell," Petersham said, returning to his seat. "Munro is feeling neglected and wanted to make plans to see the fireworks tomorrow evening at Vauxhall Gardens. We haven't been to Vauxhall for a while."
Petersham and I resumed our chat and discovered we were both to attend the same musical party later in the evening. After we parted, I felt exhilarated at having accomplished the first part of my mission. I had no doubt the viscount would make my desire to own the Perronneau painting known in aristocratic circles. That would increase the odds that I would be the sole bidder. No one in the exclusive Mayfair area of London in which I run tame would think the painting important enough to bid against me.
Devious, you say? Well, I admit I can be sly in getting what I want. And, lest you think me a cad, I confess I did feel a twinge of guilt over my methods. But really, what harm had I done? Petersham benefited by our conversation as much as I did. He gained the knowledge of the existence of a snuff box sure to send him into transports of joy.
See there, one can justify one's selfish ways if one but tries.
I must tell you, though, that even years after attaining my position in the Beau Monde, it still amazes me that I have risen to such heights. That a Society which eschews association with anyone whose family cannot trace illustrious roots back to the time of William the Conqueror would bow to the opinions of a twenty-seven year old man with no aristocratic lineage--and worse, no immense fortune--astonishes me.
But then, who am I to question their judgment? I keep my doubts well-hidden, preferring to present a fearless, completely independent demeanor to the public lest they topple me from my invisible throne.
After all, this is what my father had wanted for me. When he sent me off to Eton all those years ago, his sole hope was that the aristocratic connections made there would enable me to become somebody. If he were alive today, perhaps he would be pleased with the end result. Perhaps. It had never been easy to please Father. And since he and Mother had died within a year of one another when I was fifteen, my opportunity to gain their approval was gone.
Even so, I often envision what my parents, especially Father, might think of my present position in the Polite World. Possibly he would appreciate the fact that despite my guiding influence over fashion, there is nothing to call attention to myself in the way I dress. Unless one counts elegant perfection. But, truly, once I finish the long daily ritual of bathing and dressing, dubbed The Dressing Hour by myself and my valet, I give no further thought to my appearance.
Until, that is, it is time to change clothes again.
My doctrine is simple. I have a violent dislike of extremes and of vulgarity. I believe in good tailoring and demand excellent cuts to my clothing. I wear little jewellry other than my father's watch, which hangs from a chain attached to my waistcoat, and my quizzing glass. The latter is a circular magnifying lens of moderate proportions that I wear suspended from a long, slim black cord around my neck.
Up until recently gentlemen's clothes have been characterized by fussy, frilly, and elaborate stuff. When my friendship with the Prince of Wales helped open Society's doors to me, I soon replaced what was regarded as fashionable for gentlemen with a smooth, sleek, uncluttered look.
A heady triumph.
Another thing I take pride in accomplishing is maneuvering the ways of Society toward cleanliness. I shudder every time I think of, or am forcibly reminded of, the custom of covering oneself with perfume to conceal unpleasant odors. Ugh! Cleanliness, after all, can only promote good health. Dirt must lead to diseases. I cannot understand why everyone does not accept the idea.
At any rate, I was in a good mood when I entered my house in Bruton Street.
The ground floor contains a modest hall, which leads to a nice sized bookroom. Here, the best editions of chiefly French, Italian, and English literature line the shelves. It is a warm chamber where I can spend hours indulging in two of my favourite pastimes: reading and letter-writing.
Down a narrow corridor to one side are the stairs leading to the kitchen. Robinson's sitting room and bedchamber are on the other side. The upstairs boasts a large drawing room, larger in fact than some town houses, I am pleased to report; also a dining room and my bedchamber. It is the perfect arrangement for a gentleman about town.
Robinson met me on the stairs. He promptly reversed his direction to follow mine. "Good evening, sir."
"Hello, Robinson. Getting devilishly chilly outside."
"Yes, sir. Fires are burning in all the rooms. I know how you dislike the cold."
"Very good." As I said, he is an excellent manservant. He knows it, too, the devil.
"Andre has instructions that you will be dining at home this evening. He is preparing his recipe for chicken in mushroom and wine sauce."
I breathed a sigh of anticipation. What is better than good food, well prepared and well presented, accompanied by an appropriate wine? Very few things indeed. Andre, while he costs the earth, knows his craft. His skill in preparing lobster patties, another of his many specialties and my particular favorite, is most appreciated. I make sure he is rewarded and remains content in his position. Needless to say, invitations to the small, but exquisite, dinners I occasionally hold are coveted and not just for the company of yours truly.
We entered my chamber. A tented bed with ivory silk hangings dominates the room. In here I have every appointment a gentleman of fashion might desire, and a few more. Very well, more than a few. For sequestered from prying eyes are my most prized possessions, including my best Sevres porcelain pieces.
I walked over to a crescent-shaped side table and ran a caressing finger across the surface of a recent Sevres acquisition. It is a tortoise-shell plate with a parrot painted in the center. I am cheered simply by gazing upon the delicate, fragile piece which is representative of the best art man can accomplish.
While, for the most part, I am happy with the life I have achieved, there are times when I feel my cherished art pieces are my only real friends. Society expects much of me. I am to be witty, have the best of manners, be expertly dressed and remain ultimately cool at all times. In front of my Sevres porcelain, I may wear my older silk dressing gown and slouch.
But I grow maudlin. I do have true friends--Viscount Petersham, whom you have met, Lumley "Skiffy" Skeffington, Scrope Davies, "Poodle" Byng, her Royal Highness the Duchess of York, whom I am privileged to call "Freddie," and, great heavens, the Prince of Wales himself.
Realizing I had remained silent for several moments, I turned around and saw Robinson observing me curiously. I straightened my shoulders. "Was there anything in the post to interest me?"
Robinson flipped through a dozen folded vellum squares before selecting one and handing it to me. "The Duchess of York's weekly missive, a trifle late, sir."
"Oh good. I shall read it now before I dress for dinner. The naughty girl has taken her time writing, and after I sent her two long letters. Ungrateful little wretch," I declared with no small measure of warmth.
Frederica, daughter of a Prussian king and married to King George III's second son, the Duke of York, is one of my most cherished acquaintances. She is also my closest female friend.
What must you think of such a slow correspondent?
I can only imagine you are justifiably cross with me for not answering your last letters. But I console myself with the reminder that you are much too kind to ever remain out of charity with me for long.
I trust the reason for my delay in writing may also hasten your forgiveness. My dear Minney has had her pups. Five of the most darling little creatures, George, all soft black fur and big brown eyes. At last we can determine who the scamp was that got her in a family way, and thereafter paid no particular attention to her. It is my precocious boy, Legacy, who is the indifferent Papa. But, never fear, we shall bring the rascal about. Rather than giving him the run of the estate, I have sequestered Legacy with his new family and have high hopes for their future. Old Dawe tells me that yesterday, when he took Minney her food, Legacy actually let her have a good portion of it after devouring the lion's share himself.
This, by the way, brings the count of dogs at Oatlands up to one hundred and seven. I expect to be quite occupied here for the rest of the week, but I shall not fail to write again within the next few days.
Yours, ever, and truly,
Still chuckling over the antics of Freddie's treasured pets, and contemplating what gift I could take them on my next visit--a leather ball? a length of rope knotted at both ends?--I stripped off my clothes and eased myself into the copper tub Robinson had filled with hot water. Ah, now that felt good.
How could members of Society disdain immersing themselves in water? Some actually believed one could become ill by doing so. How ridiculous.
I wished I could indulge in a good long soak, perhaps read the rest of my correspondence, but I needed to get on with the preparations for the evening. Exiting the tub, I dried myself with a soft cotton cloth, donned my Florentine dressing gown, and sat at my dressing table.
Robinson ceased building up the fire and came to attention.
"I shall be attending the Perrys' musical party directly after I dine, Robinson."
With these words, The Dressing Hour officially began.
Robinson whisked himself over to one large wardrobe and pulled open its mahogany doors. Inside, snug in their appointed places, nestle my selection of evening clothing. With few exceptions the pieces are dominated by my preferred costume of dark blue coat, white waistcoat, and black breeches.
Robinson extracted one of the superbly tailored coats, a deep slate blue color, and laid it reverently on the bed. He selected a fine white lawn shirt, a pair of black, silk-lined Cassimere breeches, and a luxurious white brocade waistcoat.
"Are those the new breeches Meyer made for me?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," Robinson answered, bringing the garment for me to inspect.
I ran my hand expertly over the soft material, studying every seam and button. To better scrutinize the lining, I turned the breeches inside out. Tailors vie for my custom because if they please me, they gain the business of scores of stylish gentlemen, thus enabling them to line their own pockets with money.
The lining appeared satisfactory, yet something bothered me about the breeches. I turned them right side out. A frown creased my brow as my gaze fell on the two buttons spaced a few inches apart on the waistband.
I drew in a sharp breath.
"What is it, sir?" Robinson asked, alarmed.
"These ... buttons ... do ... not ... exactly ... match," I said in a voice faint from shock.
It is difficult to say which of us was the more unnerved. Robinson seized the offending garment from my fingers and examined it himself. "Reprehensible! We shall speak most severely to Mr. Meyer." He swiftly folded the breeches and consigned them to the bottom of the wardrobe to be dealt with later. "Now let us put the disturbing incident behind us and continue," he suggested in a bracing tone.
Robinson chose another pair of breeches and laid them out for my approval. I went over them with painstaking precision and could find nothing amiss.
You feel I am overly critical? Not at all. Dressing is an art. You would not want an artist to paint your portrait showing you with a blemish on your face, would you? I rather thought not. Why should clothing not be equally flawless?
At the washstand, Robinson filled a Chinese bowl with warm water and assembled the shaving supplies. He said, "I heard from Lord Culver's man that his master has resorted to wearing false calves."
This intelligence was undoubtedly shared in order to distract me from the Disaster of the Breeches, but it did not.
"Sir, you must unclench your jaw, else I will accidentally cut you with the razor."
I contemplated the sharp blade and thought of Meyer's throat. What if I had gone out in public dressed in breeches with mismatched buttons? My reputation would be in tatters. I could almost see Father's look of disapproval.
With only a light whiff of Floris's citrus scent clinging to my freshly shaved face, I began the nerve-racking chore of dressing. Robinson and I have a mutual goal: perfection. Nothing less will do.
Tonight, this resulted in Robinson removing one starched length of white linen after another from the wardrobe. Every one of our attempts at tying the perfect cravat failed. It cannot be said at whose door the fault for this could be laid. Robinson did his part in winding the starched cloth around my neck, and I carefully lowered my head to arrange the folds. Robinson tied the ends into an intricate knot with the skill of an artist. But, the least error on either of our parts could ruin the whole composition, and a new cravat must be produced.
Standing in the center of a sea of discarded linen, I felt my temper rise. When yet another attempt resulted in an unsatisfactory outcome, I said, "Oh, devil take it, Robinson, get another neckcloth."
The valet moved to the wardrobe and suddenly stood
Looking up to see what had rendered him immobile, I saw there was only one remaining length of cloth in the wardrobe.
Our eyes met.
"Is the laundress coming this evening with clean linens?" I asked between my teeth.
Robinson swallowed. "I am afraid not until the morning, sir."
I sighed. "Well, I suppose we had best get this one right."
Several tense moments followed but, happily, with Herculean efforts we at last achieved success. I found myself relaxing enough to remark, "We may soon have another treasure to add to our walls. A painting."
Robinson's deft hands helped me into a faultless pair of breeches, my waistcoat, whose buttons matched to a shade, and the slate blue coat. The latter was no easy task since, once donned, the coat had to fit without a single wrinkle.
"How wonderful, sir. May I inquire as to the nature of the painting?"
"A lovely Perronneau, Robinson. It is painted in shades of pale blue with touches of ivory and grey. The cat looks especially lifelike."
"A cat, sir?" Robinson pursed his lips in a gesture well known to me. It indicates my fastidious valet's disapproval. Robinson's golden blond hair, expertly combed in the short Brutus cut, seemed to stand on end at the very mention of a feline.
"Come now, man, we have birds on our porcelain and paintings of dogs and horses," I said, slipping into thin, black shoes. "A cat would be a welcome addition. Besides, I should be able to obtain the painting for an excellent price. It is owned by Lord Sidwell, and I believe he is in need of funds."
I let the words drop in an offhand manner and waited. Robinson did not fail me.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, his clear blue eyes glowing with excitement. "You know how I abhor repeating gossip, but ..."
I barely managed to restrain an outright snort at such utter nonsense. Robinson prides himself on his league of chattering valets, butlers, underbutlers, footmen, and maids who can always be depended upon to talk about their lords and ladies. Heaven knows Robinson's knowledge of the latest news rivals the Morning Post, and his propensity to share it is equally fervent.
"Do go on," I encouraged him shamelessly.
"Well, sir, it seems Lord Sidwell is preparing to, er, retire to his country estate. It is said he needs to take himself away from the temptations of London, especially from the gaming tables." Robinson lowered his voice. "There is talk that he might even be forced to sell his town house."
Now that was distressing news. I paused in the act of arranging my hair with one of Floris's smooth-pointed combs. Robinson took the comb and finished my hair. Then he pulled out a bottle of Eau de Melisse des Carmes lotion and began rapidly massaging it into my fingers.
I wanted the painting, make no mistake, but I felt a twinge of pity for the old man who was forced to part with it. Gambling fever ran rampant through London, and sometimes I feared going too far myself. Tradesmen could be put off, but a debt of honor, such as a gaming debt, must be paid at once.
Finished with the hand cream, Robinson put the top back on the bottle and stood waiting for my pronouncement.
I gazed into the tall mahogany-framed dressing glass. A convenient article, it rested on castors and could be moved about the room at will. The dressing glass had two brass arms, each containing a lit candle. In this light, I studied the full length of my appearance critically, not missing a single detail. I made one final adjustment to the folds of my cravat. Robinson pulled a square of linen from his pocket and wiped his brow. By now you may have realized that The Dressing Hour is a bit of an understatement.
Content, I turned to leave the room, vigorously pushing aside thoughts of ruin at the gaming tables. I need not worry. Such an ignominious end would never befall me.
For if one got too deeply in debt there were only two alternatives. Flee the country. Or place a pistol to one's temple and pull the trigger.
And death, social or actual, held no appeal for me.
Little did I realize how much a part of my life it would soon become.