The Duke of Dunsmore charged into his fiancée's saloon on Berkeley Square, his eyes starting from their sockets, to make him appear even more witless than usual.
"Myra, I have just heard the most awful thing!" he exclaimed, in an epicene bleat. The duke stood near the summit of society, but he stood on the shoulders of giants. It was his influential family and his vast fortune that accounted for his preeminent position. Neither his talents, his looks, nor his industry were sufficient to raise him above the rank of valet.
The three Newbold ladies stared at him in alarm. His fiancée's mama, Mrs. Newbold, was the first to recover and demand to know what he was talking about. "The duchess has come to town!" she said, and fell back against the sofa cushions in dismay. This was a polite way of saying that the duke's wedding to her elder daughter was off. The duchess had been safely tucked away at her castle in Scotland during Myra's courting of the duke. It was assumed the mama had some more eligible lady in her eye for her eldest son.
"Eh?" Dunsmore said in confusion. "No such a thing."
The color seeped back into Mrs. Newbold's blanched cheeks. "You frightened the life out of me, Duke," she said, attempting a smile. "Whatever has you in such a pelter?" Her next thought was that Bonaparte had escaped again. She could accept this minor disaster without flinching.
"Griffin is back!" the duke gasped, and stumbled to the sofa, where he sat, panting, and clinging to Myra's fingers.
"Oh no!" Myra said in a strangled whisper.
"Impossible!" Mrs. Newbold exclaimed.
"Is he really?" Miss Alice said, with a trembling smile of joy.
"I heard it on Bond Street just now," the duke assured them. "They say he looked like a wild beast when he lunged down the gangplank of the ship that brought him home. It was a Royal Navy vessel. His skin had turned black, his hair was down to his shoulders, he was carrying a spear and leading an orangutan on a chain. What are we to do?"
His Grace looked helplessly from his fiancée to her mama. He was not one to court excitement, and took no pleasure from the sensation his announcement caused. Questions were fired at the poor man's head until he hardly knew whether he was coming or going. He could not tell them where Lord Griffin had been, or how he had revived from the dead and reached England, but on one dismal point he was certain. Griffin was back.
"Just like Robinson Crusoe!" Alice said, and received three rebukeful glares.
"Griffin was not shipwrecked on a desert island, Alice," her mama informed her "though it would have been just like him. We knew he reached Brazil. I felt at the time he went that he had no business sheering off when he had just offered for Myra."
"And she accepted him," Alice pointed out, with a mischievous glance at Dunsmore.
"But that was five years ago!" Myra wailed. "He is supposed to be dead. No word for over four years. He never wrote a single line after the first few months. I was sure cannibals had eaten him, or some such thing," she said with an air of injury.
"It is pretty clear to me he hasn't a case to stand on," the duke said. "What did he say in his last letter?"
"He said he was trying to get someone to take him to the Amazon jungle."
"They don't grow coffee in the Amazon jungle, do they?" the duke asked. "Was that not why he went to Brazil, to set up a coffee plantation?"
"No, no," Alice said. "He was going to collect specimens for his botanical garden. You know how the Griffins have always loved horticulture. He only told the government people he was interested in coffee to facilitate getting his passport validated. Dom John was encouraging that sort of settlement, you must know."
Her listeners--blinks of confusion told her they knew nothing of the sort.
"Who the deuce is Dom John?" the duke asked.
"He is the Prince Regent," Alice told him.
"Eh? No such a thing. Prinny's name is George, not Dom John."
"The Prince Regent of Portugal. He sought refuge in Brazil when Bonaparte invaded Portugal. He is eager to get industry going in Brazil. Do you not read the journals, Duke?"
"I read something about it," Dunsmore said vaguely. "Of more importance, what are we to do about Griffin?"
"You won't have to do anything, Duke," Alice said. "Griffin will marry Myra."
Mrs. Newbold gave her younger daughter a murderous glare and said "Hush up, you foolish child."
Myra squeezed her fiancée's ineffectual fingers and said "You will have to tell him that I am marrying you, dear."
The duke, no model of manliness at the best of times, looked like a frightened rooster. His hair was a lank, lackluster blond, his skin pale, and his eyes a watery blue. He was a tall, ungainly concern. Neither Weston's tailoring nor his valet's grooming could make his six feet of skin and bones look better than merely passable.
Alice would have felt sorry for him, if her attention had not been directed at her sister. How could Myra prefer this man milliner to Griffin? It was incomprehensible how her sister could have agreed to marry two such different gentlemen.
Griffin was a regular corsair--tall, dark, outrageously handsome, dashing, and daring. Dunsmore, on the other hand, was a fool. But an extremely wealthy fool, of course, and a duke to boot. Competition had been fierce to become the next Duchess of Dunsmore. Five years was a long time to wait for a fiancé, and Myra had been peeved with Griffin for going to Brazil in the first place. If it had been her, Alice thought to herself, she would have rushed the wedding forward and gone to Brazil with him, as he wanted.
Myra had been only seventeen at the time; Mama thought seventeen too young to marry. She also thought it just as well that Griffin leave the country until it was time for the wedding. She trusted her daughter implicitly, but she did not trust the dashing Griffin an inch where ladies were concerned. Mersham Abbey, Griffin's country seat, was adjacent to Newbold Hall in Kent.
Myra had been faithful to her memories for five years. The mischief only occurred during the last month, when Alice was taken to London to make her debut. Myra had come along, of course, and was the acknowledged belle of the Season. Her romantic history and her beauty had caught society's imagination, and before she knew it, she had caught the duke. All the attention had gone to her head. There was no point denying Myra had changed. She gloried in her newfound attention, and seemed determined to make up for those five wasted years.
Mrs. Newbold's mind was running in other channels. She had just thought of another tremendous problem. Griffin's cousin and heir, Lloyd Montgomery, had already taken over Mersham Abbey. "I wonder if Monty knows," she said.
"Oh, it is too horrid!" Myra exclaimed, stamping her dainty foot. "Griffin is spoiling everything. My wedding is only a month away. You must speak to him, Duke, and tell him I am marrying you. I don't want him coming here, pestering me."
"Surely he would not expect you to have waited five years," Mrs. Newbold said, but she said it doubtfully.
"He will certainly call on his fiancée at least," Alice assured them. "Unless he has married someone else himself in the meanwhile," she added uncertainly.
"Who would there be to marry in Brazil?" her mama asked. "Nothing but pickaninnies."
"Oh, Mama! Don't be a peagoose," Alice said. "All the Portuguese nobles are there. Their court has moved to Rio de Janeiro."
"Where do you hear such things?" her mama asked, with a frown of disapproval.
"I read the journals, Mama." She had read any article on Brazil with particular interest since Griffin's departure. Although she had barely reached her teens when he left, she had not been too young to succumb to his charms. Many a night she lay awake, imagining Griffin had chosen her, instead of Myra. And now he was back! Myra was engaged to the duke--any wonderful thing seemed possible.
"Perhaps he hasn't written to me because he is married, and is ashamed of himself," Myra said hopefully. "Did you hear Griffin was alone when he jumped down the gangplank, Duke?"
"No, he was with a orangutan. I did not hear he had a lady with him. It would have been mentioned."
"You had best go to him right away, Duke," Myra said, rising to hasten him off before Griffin should come, with his spear and long hair and ape, to terrorize her. She shivered to think of having to deal with such a ghastly apparition.
She had been flattered at his offer when she was young and foolish, but since meeting Dunsmore, she had come to realize what sort of gentleman just suited her. With Griffin, it had been the attraction of opposites; with the duke, it was like drawn to like. Dunsmore was quiet and easy to get along with. He never wanted her to go hunting, or urged her to take the reins of his curricle. Indeed, he did not like the open carriage at all. He did not pester her with talk of philosophy or politics, except for the Corn Laws. He was on a government committee studying the Corn Laws. Certainly he would never ask her to go sailing off to Brazil. He was a real gentleman.
The duke rose and stood, wiping his chin with his long fingers. "Yes, quite. Er--what should I say, Myra?"
"Tell him we are being married next month."
"That is inviting slaughter. I mean if he insists he still wants to marry you... I mean to say, you were engaged to him first."
Myra's pretty face screwed up. She threw herself on Dunsmore's chest as the tears gathered in her eyes. "Oh, Dunny, you must not let him come here! I could not bear it!"
Alice crossed her arms and watched the performance, then said impatiently "For goodness' sake, Myra! He cannot make you marry him. Tell him you have changed your mind, if you have." Her scathing glance at the duke spoke of her own feelings in the matter. "I daresay someone has told him by now that you are marrying Dunsmore. It has been announced in all the journals."
"That is true!" Myra said, blinking through a mist of tears at her duke. "It is the talk of the town."
"The thing to do," the duke said, adopting a firm stance "just sit tight and do nothing. Wait and see what Griffin does. Mean to say--he will have read the papers. Next move is up to him."
Myra nodded, happy to spare the duke such misery as a confrontation with the awful Griffin. "But if he tries to see me, Dunny, you must be here to stand by me, or there is no saying what will happen." She had indeed no clear picture of what Griffin might do, but that spear featured in it somewhere.
"We could make a dart to Dunsmore Castle," he suggested shamelessly.
Myra considered this a moment. "Scotland is so far away, and we are to be married at St. George's on Hanover Square next month. I have my wedding clothes being fitted ...No, we shall stay and confront him, Dunny." She squared her shoulders and smiled bravely at the duke. "After all, Griffin is a gentleman."
"Or was," the duke said less bravely, thinking of that spear. He envisaged it as being six feet long at least, one end festooned with feathers, the other dripping with blood.
He took his leave, promising to return for dinner. He spent the remainder of the afternoon at Manton's shooting gallery in Davies Street, purchasing a gun and trying his hand at a wafer. His ears rang from the explosions, and his lungs burned from the smoke. He did not hit a single wafer, but he shot out a window and narrowly missed shooting Joe Manton. Manton said, when the duke left, that he had seen many poor shots in his life, but he had never before seen a man who did not know which end of the pistol the bullet came out of.
Myra and her mama drove by the back streets to the modiste who was doing Myra's wedding clothes. They took three armed footmen with them, and drew the curtains of their carriage, congratulating themselves that it was not the same carriage they had when Griffin left, and he would never know to see it that it was theirs. They made it safely to the modiste and back without attack. Upon their return, Alice informed them that Griffin had not called.
She had spent a weary afternoon looking out the front window, waiting. She hoped Griffin would come when she was alone, so that she might give him a picture of how things now stood, to save him the pain of Myra's defection. In her romantic young mind, she envisaged his eyes steaming into hers, as he realized that it was her he had loved all the time. Indeed, he had only stayed in Brazil because he could not jilt Myra. As soon as the jungle drums had brought word of her betrothal, he hopped the first frigate home to claim his true love.
Lord Griffin spent the day incommunicado at his London residence, being shaved and shorn and fitted for a new jacket. He wanted to look his best to reclaim his fiancée. He did not read any journals, or entertain any callers who enlightened him as to her recent doings. He spoke to a few specialists in botany, but they were not members of the ton. Their conversation had to do solely with horticulture. It was not until that evening that he called at Berkeley Square and turned the Newbolds' life all topsy-turvy.