“Not even Brummell could outdress you today,” said Lord Worth one morning upon seeing his wife enter the breakfast room. She was in good spirits, having lately received an order from Bond Street, and she currently sported a gown of diaphanous yellow and a mint jockey-cap with the most charming jonquil trim; it showed off her golden curls to handsome effect.
That the Earl had gifted the hat to her himself after seeing her glance at it one too many times in the milliner’s window had not exactly recommended it further to her notice, for he had accented his generosity with, “I thought I’d better subdue this offending object before I began to resent its ability to hold your attention.” Judith had rejoined that Worth’s impertinence was insupportable and she would not suffer to wear it even if he’d commissioned the best haberdasher in France to trim it himself. She had then proceeded to find an excuse to don it every day since, and they were both well pleased with themselves.
“If you were to invite Mr. Brummell to join us some morning he might be able to comment upon it himself,” she teased. But Worth, flicking open his snuff box, failed to reply immediately. The omission did not escape his wife’s notice.
“We haven’t had Brummell join us in ages,” she said. “And he was apt to present his card above three times a week.”
“If Brummell wanted to be seen, he would be,” said Worth dryly. “Depend upon it, if he’s hiding away in a gaming-hell somewhere, it’s because he wants to be there.”
“Then you see him regularly, still,” she said. “At your clubs.”
“Aye,” said Worth. He took a delicate pinch of snuff in a way that signalled further talk of Brummell would go unanswered.
That gentleman had arisen in an irritable humor, an increasingly habitual case of the blue devils made worse by his first stylist’s failure to properly set his forelocks despite quite well over half an hour dedicated to the task. Eventually, resigning himself to his fate, he had dismissed the hapless hairdresser, who had devolved into an apoplexy of apologies and insistences that Mr. Brummell’s hair was alarmingly thin of late, and set about grooming himself.
Alarmingly thin hair thus quelled and tamed at last, he had set forth to conquer London as per usual.
Several hours later he sat languishing in the front room at White's, Lord Alvanley and Mr. Pierrepoint flanking him.
"This is a highly irrelevant tangent to the main point, Alvanley," he was saying, gesturing irritably towards the other with his cane. "By rights His Royal Highness should no more be welcome at the kind of ball we're proposing than that great coat you're wearing should be welcome outside of a stable."
Alvanley glanced down and sniffed unconcernedly. "And yet I believe the increased fashion for lowered coattails lies at none other than your doorstep."
"My dear William," Brummell retorted, "not for one second would I pair my wholly justifiable need to obscure the figures most men cut in pantaloons with the regrettable influence of my lord Byron upon society."
"He's certainly influenced your society," said Alvanley shrewdly. "Is it true you gave him a lock of your hair in exchange for a poem?"
Brummell fidgeted, running his fingers over the crooked sixpence he had fastened to his watch fob earlier in the season.
"Do you suppose there'll be any play today or not?" he asked. To his left, Pierrepoint, roused for the first time in several minutes, snorted.
"Good god, it's only half-past noon," he said. "Your appetite for sport will have us all under this table before any of us have a chance to fall into our cups."
"And then I suppose they shall call you all the bow window set," said Brummell, executing a rueful bow.
"Will you bow to resuming this conversation, I wonder," said Alvanley.
"Which is that, pray, the one about my scandalous affair with Byron, or the one about that horrid coat?"
"The one about the Prince Regent," said Alvanley.
"That is no conversation at all," said Brummell. "The Argyll Rooms are entirely too fashionable, and this masquerade far too au bon ton for His Royal Flatulence."
Alvanley eyed him for a moment. "Trimming it awfully close to the candle, Brummell," he said finally.
"I should be very much surprised if our dear Prinny even took notice," said Brummell.
"A masquerade ball featuring half of court and the most fashionable demi monde in the city?" echoed Alvanley. “And you expect him not to catch wind?
"Well, and what if he does," said Brummell irritably. "Unless you're concerned His Highness might trouble himself to come to White's and unseat each of us from this table, we are still the last word in society, are we not? And, moreover, we are the hosts."
"Be that as it may," said Alvanley mildly, "there's one angle you've forgot."
Alvanley took what Brummell thought to be a very deliberate sip of port. "I wouldn't be in your shoes when you break this plan to Worth," he said, "for all they are the finest Hessians in London."
It fell to Charles Audley to break the impending scandal to Worth shortly after driving over straight from Watier’s later in the week, Lord Sheridan having given him the whole of it.
“Your man Brummell has thrown down his whitest glove to the Prince, looks like,” he reported over sherry in Worth’s study. Judith, seeing Audley fairly chomping at the bit with impatience to deliver his news, had graciously declined to keep them at the whist table all evening, but it had still been too long for Charles, who was rarely in possession of news from the bow window set before his brother.
“I never claimed him for myself,” said Worth.
“You won’t have even the chance to do that if he keeps this nonsense up,” said Charles. “Of course I know it’s Brummell and all, but I’m dashed if I know what he’s about.”
“You’ve yet to say what his most recent sin is,” Worth replied.
Charles looked startled, then grinned. “I suppose I thought you’d’ve heard it already, given how half the town’s talking of it. But of course you and Ju have only just been married and I suppose you’ve been occupied.” Worth took a well-timed sip of sherry and waited for Charles to continue.
“But you must have heard he and the Regent have been on the outs lately, and now he and Alvanley are hosting that masque at the Argyll Rooms and Brummell’s telling everyone who’ll hear him that he flatly refuses to invite the prince.”
“And what has Alvanley to say about it?” inquired Worth.
“Confound it, that’s just it, they haven’t done anything. The invitations go out in the morning according to Sheridan—I suspect you won’t be attending, of course—” the earl acknowledged this with a demure bow of his head—”and they’ve all signed their names to it. You know Pierrepoint, never lifts a finger against Brummell. And between you and me, I’ve always rather thought Alvanley the sort who’d prefer to see Brummell dig his own grave. After all, if anything happened to Brummell he’d get the head spot at White’s, wouldn’t he?”
"Alvanley is hardly the type to abandon his friends," Worth said.
"Well you wouldn't have said that of Brummell, would you, and now look," Charles retorted unthinkingly—then thought better of it upon seeing his brother's expression darken. He went a bit red around the ears and hastened to add, “Oh, I know it’s all speculation, but it all seems too reckless. It’s a damn shame you aren’t one of the hosts. I suppose it’d be too shocking, you being married and all, but I’d’ve liked to have seen Brummell try to float the idea past you.”
Worth sipped his wine. "You know as well as I that when Brummell gets a thing in his head he can no more be moved than the prince himself."
"One would have thought them perfect for each other," Charles snorted.
"For a time, I suppose they were," Worth replied.
"What are you going to do?"
"Well—" Charles faltered. "I suppose I thought you might devise some sort of plan to stop him."
Worth raised an eyebrow. "I?" he said. "What have I to do with it?"
"You're as much his friend as Alvanley," said Charles in some surprise. "Surely you—"
"Knowing Brummell for nearly two decades has made me acutely aware that if you want him to be certain of his doing the very thing you don't want him to do, the first course of action is to make him aware you disapprove of it. I'd advise you to put the whole thing out of your mind and pay no heed to anything you hear. Nothing deflates Brummell faster than having his exploits ignored."
Charles frowned. "You'd let him make an ass of himself and the prince?"
"My dear Charles," Worth said, "Pleasure will be paid one time or another, and I believe the two of them have wanted this tête a tête for some time now. I don't know what you think I could do other than incite Brummell to greater belligerence."
"You're not thinking of cutting him," said Audley, looking shocked.
"Of course not."
"Well what other recourse will you have if he's setting out to disgrace himself?"
Worth raised the other eyebrow. "You presume the Regent could sink Brummell?"
Charles stared at him. "Of course, what else?"
Worth chuckled. "If Brummell actually does give the prince the cut, he'll be more in-demand than ever." He helped himself to a pinch of snuff from his finest Sèvres box. "Depend upon it, it would take more than the heir apparent to unseat Brummell."
Audley deflated a bit after that, perhaps disappointed his news hadn’t produced a more expostulatory reaction from his brother. Worth, however, grew more solemn and contemplative, and Audley quickly grew tired of holding the conversation up primarily by himself and took his leave.
After a few minutes’ further contemplation, so, too, did the earl himself.
It was late when Worth called at the residence on Chesterfield Street, where he was nonetheless admitted with all the civility due to any morning caller. But Brummell looked, as always, as if radiant spring winds had crept into his room and slowly nursed him awake to the dewy glow of the sun only moments before. Still, upon entering the immaculate drawing room, Worth saw that his friend was tireder than he had first thought. He spoke barely above a whisper, and rubbed absentmindedly at a light blemish just above his gloved left wrist—a lapse of perfection he would never have allowed under more alert circumstances, or in different company.
The Beau’s rooms, much like the Beau himself, were drawn in the finest fabrics and to the most modern taste. Stepping foot in his friend’s private quarters always struck Worth a bit like walking into an exotic menagerie: the visual delights were carefully arranged and exquisitely arrayed, but nevertheless he could never forget that he had just entered an enormous cage.
He seated himself while Brummell remained standing, one hand outstretched over the mantle of the lit fireplace. It was an obvious pose, but its studied casualness reminded Worth how rarely he saw his friend truly at ease.
It had, he reflected, been a good many years.
"What brings you here, my dear earl?" queried Brummell lightly. "What cause have you to tear yourself away from our dear country lass with the voluminous—" at a sharp glance from Worth, he ended—"fortune," with a slightly sardonic smile.
“You know why I’m here,” said Worth.
"Indeed," smiled Brummell. "Spreading a bit of on-dit at this late hour, and with my lord Worth of all people? How delightful."
"No such thing," said Worth. "I've come to ask what you mean by it."
Brummell tutted. "Doing it too brown, Worth. Come to remonstrate me? Surely you know better. That's far beneath such a light touch as yours."
"Somewhere along the path to my marriage," Worth sighed, "My closest acquaintances seem to have decided that I am a man of innuendo. I am not." He flicked open his snuff box with as much deliberate one-handedness as ever Brummell had managed to underscore his point. Brummell looked on appreciatively, but made no interruption. "Were I not aware that Judith has made you one of her closest confidants, I would suspect you of teasing me," Worth continued, "since you must know, as she has not yet fully apprehended, that I never employ veiled meaning."
"I do know it," said Brummell simply. "I would say we are opposites in that regard, except that I know full well when I am seen clean through."
"I have always seen you quite plainly," said Worth.
"Then perhaps it should be for me to ask you," said Brummell. "What do I mean by it? What could possibly be my motive for so blatantly snubbing the heir apparent?"
"Particularly when you two have been sparring like spurned lovers for years without incident."
"Why must it be any more complicated than that?" asked Brummell. "Prinny surrounds himself with sycophants and I wish to eat toad no more. Ergo, a lovers' quarrel ending acrimoniously for all."
"You would hang your own reputation over a petty piece of insolence?"
Brummell scoffed. "Do you call it insolence to end false friendship?"
"I call it more than insolence to send such a superfluous mark of disrespect to the crown," said Worth. "Self-sabotage doesn't become you."
"Pray tell, what does become me, my dear Julian? Obeisance? Simpering flattery? Letting the Regent pit his tailor against mine season after interminable season while we laugh about our old days in the Tenth together?"
"This isn't about your friendship with the Prince, however it may have soured," Worth snapped.
“Then what? Have I wounded your pride? My good man, if I’ve offended your political sensibilities, I do apologize. I hope you won’t give me the cut direct, but if you do, I wish you’d let me play the Cytherean at least once before you go. It’s obvious you haven’t had a good buggering in far too long, and Judith would make such a fetching cuckold.”
“Enough,” Worth said, rising from his chair, and Brummell stilled, meeting his eyes across the room. "I'm not some fresh-faced flat you can gammon with Spanish coin. You think I don’t know the French disease when I see it?”
Brummell did not move from his position next to the mantle, but he straightened subtly, as though all his clothes had just been re-starched.
“You think I don’t know the purpose of those high collars? The affected movements? Why you keep such an excruciating daily toilette? Why you never remove your gloves, never talk louder than sotto voce? Why you've yet to take a wife?"
A pressing silence fell between them for a moment, and then Brummell answered with all his usual faint wryness, "Well, you know what they say. A night with Venus, a lifetime with mercury.” He paused, and then added, “Or in my case, potassium iodide with mercury infusions.”
Worth felt the stiffness slowly fade from his shoulders, and yet he would not have traded the tension that had been kneading them a moment earlier for the heavy weight that now settled over them.
The smile Brummell sent Worth might have held a smattering of regret or apology in it. "I suppose this means I've no chance to play your bit of muslin after all. Ah, well. There's always Lord Byron. Or a corner near Haymarket." He flipped open his Sèvres box casually. "Or Byron on a corner near Haymarket."
He went for a light pinch of whatever was inside the snuff box, and Worth got a whiff of the blend he had customized for Brummell over a year ago, shortly before Worth's infamous trip out of town to view a certain prize-fight.
"It's time I made you up something new," he said. "I think a drier leaf this time around."
"There's an innuendo if ever I heard one," Brummell remarked, shooting him a glance.
"There's every chance you'll be cured."
"While I suspect if anyone could be cured, it would be myself," said Brummell, "I find to my daily horror that I seem to be aging. If the illness doesn't get to me first, the mercury poison will." He gave an indifferent shrug.
"And then what?" queried Worth. "Is all this a ploy to hasten your own madness? What possible good could come of snubbing the very friends you're most apt to need later on?"
"You have far more faith in Prinny's affection for me than I daresay he warrants."
"And this is how you plan to dispose of whatever feeling for you he still has left? By alienating the person most able to help you?"
"Help me," echoed Brummell in outright incomprehension. "I am Beau Brummell. I need no one's help but my own."
His words rang in the air between them for a moment, until Worth said, softly: "You confound me utterly."
At this, Brummell seemed to relent. He flipped his snuff box closed and crossed the room to where Worth still stood. He laid his hand on his friend's arm, the gesture as crafted and delicate as ever, but somehow sincere for all its artificiality of movement.
"Your concern does you every credit," he said, smiling sadly, "but you must know it can only be wasted on a man who has made a lifetime of succeeding through displays of the utmost indifference."
"And yet," said Worth, covering Brummell's hand where it rested on his arm, "I had not thought you so indifferent to me."
A look passed between them before Brummell seemed to relax and shake it off. “If my dear earl intends to seduce me onto the straight and narrow path he is regrettably behind the times,” he said. “A pity, for both our sakes. Had you made an honest man of me when we were still young I'd have been ever so faithful. No courtesans or bad poets for me. Alas, at this late date, I find your innate Tory loyalties have advanced further than I ever suspected. Tsk, tsk, very unattractive.”
"You know better than to accuse me of playing politics," said Worth, withdrawing his hand. "You could snub every royal from here to Belgium and I'd shake your hand. But I won't watch you commit suicide by degrees. I won't be privy to your self-destruction."
"You've a fine method of showing your loves," Brummell smiled. "No wonder Judith thought you hated her all those months."
"Nothing of the sort," Worth insisted. "But you insult my taste by devaluing yourself so badly.”
Brummell looked arch. "I?" he said. "Insult the taste of such a Corinthian? Rather say I had stood in Piccadilly clad in nothing but a Stewart banner than stooped to impugn the aesthetics of my lord Worth. Rather broadcast my decision to retire to Manchester than live out my days as a critic of someone with that many knots in his cravat. Insist that I—"
Worth kissed him.
For all Brummell was a casual flirt he rarely moved beyond light-hearted teasing, so Worth was surprised and unsettled to find him as skilled in this art as he was in all others. Brummell did nothing so gauche as melt into the earl’s arms, but he placed his fingers into the delicate folds of the neckcloth he had been mocking just moments before and pulled Worth an infinitesimal amount closer.
And yet, when he finally released him, Worth felt all the weight of the evening pressing closer still.
They stared at each other for a moment, Brummell’s lips still parted slightly, his breathing shallow. Up close Worth saw that he did distinctly look tireder, but his eyes were fiery, either from lack of sleep or some feeling altogether more intense.
“I suppose I shan’t have the honor of seeing you at my little soiree,” said Brummell, his words clipped.
“I’m afraid my wife and I shall be detained elsewhere,” Worth rejoined simply.
Brummell ran a hand lightly over his mouth, and Worth forced himself to draw his gaze away from the movement of his fingertips over the lips he had just kissed. For a moment he thought Brummell was about to respond with another barbed quip, perhaps a suggestion to detain him where he was a bit longer—and in that moment Worth could not have said what his response would have been; but Brummell only took a hesitant step back, and then another, and said calmly:
"Then I shall see you at White's."
He summoned a footman to collect the earl’s things and call for his carriage, and said casually as Worth was being helped into his coat, “Should you change your mind, of course, you may expect your invitation tomorrow morning.”
“And His Highness?”
Brummell gave an elegant shrug. “If he decides to grace us with his presence, I suppose he shall be welcome. But I consider it entirely my prerogative to decide who to invite to any party I host. It is expected of the Beau, after all.”
“You forget,” said Worth, as the butler opened the door for him, “I knew you when you were still George.”
Brummell followed him onto the stoop. “And will you know me when I am nothing?” he asked, closing the door and leaning too casually against it.
Worth pulled on his gloves. “I shall know you, in the end, as a better man than you pretend to be.”
“Lofty words for someone seeking to politely distance himself from my company.”
Worth turned and fixed him with a look. The gas lamp affixed beside the door cast its flickering beam upon Brummell’s face, giving it a strange amber pallor, an aura of otherworldiness.
“You've yet to take a wife in all these years,” Worth said, “despite being the most eligible bachelor in the city. Despite it being the easiest, likeliest, and most respectable way of paying your debts.”
Brummell played with his watch fob, the one which held his quizzical crooked sixpence. “Alas, I suspect my tastes are far too exacting to afflict upon any of the worthy ladies of London. It’s all very unfair.”
“Do you really think I know you so little?” said Worth. “You do it out of kindness. From a wish to spare any potential wife the hardship of sharing your particular burden.”
Brummell sniffed and looked bored.
“I shall know you,” said Worth, placing his hat on his head, “always.”
Brummell remained standing on the step as Worth entered the carriage. When he looked back before driving away, Brummell still looked after him, the gaslight casting his long shadow onto the pavement.
“Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?”
It was unseasonably warm that July, so there was nothing suspect in the Earl of Worth’s decision to retire to the country with his wife and the new Mr. and Mrs. Taverner a few weeks earlier than was his usual custom. Mr. Brummell being notorious for his dislike of hunting, it was equally natural for him to politely decline Lady Worth’s invitation for him to come spend part of the fall with them. There followed a particularly harsh winter, so that it was nearly nine months before Judith had occasion to see her friend again.
He still occupied his place at the head of society, and she was delighted to meet with him at Lady Jersey’s ball one tepid evening in April.
“My dear countess,” he said in his quiet way, bowing over her hand. “You look a vision.”
“As do you, Mr. Brummell,” she said, amused. “I see your quarrel with the Regent has not sullied your reputation with your tailor.”
“Well, one does try not to damage the really important relationships,” he said with a wink.
“Have you seen much of Lord Worth since our return to town?” she asked. Her husband had sent his apologies and cried off for the evening after a long day of meetings with his steward.
"Once or twice," said Brummell. "I hear he’s been very preoccupied with Captain Audley's news from the field.”
"Oh, yes," said Judith, and then, eager to share Charles' exploits, she gave him a summary of the contents of her brother-in-law’s latest letter.
"I've no doubt if anyone could oust Napoleon from his hiding places it would be Audley," Brummell said kindly. "Have you any hint of his going into battle?"
"Not yet," she said, "although I believe Wellington is preparing to pledge his support to Prussia."
"My lord," said Brummell, looking alarmed. "I do hope they sort this unpleasantness out. One does so like to return to the continent now and again."
"You're not thinking of going abroad?" she said in surprise.
Brummell looked contemplative. "It never hurts to have a safe port of call," he said with a mock air of mystery, amusement playing about his lips. Judith laughed.
"You say that, but you know it would not do, sir," she said. "You could no more feel at home outside London than my husband could set up house in the Pyrenees."
Brummell gave her a smile. "I live in hope," he said, "that we shall all of us remain together in this great city for many years to come."
And giving his crooked sixpence a toss, the Beau gave her a bow and went in search of his next winning streak.