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Prodigal Wits, Bootless Rhymes

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Paris was terrifically dull in January 1930 for several reasons, none of which Ros thought were particularly reasonable or fair.

December, rather than being crisp and snowy, had been mild and drizzling, and that atmosphere of malaise persisted into the New Year. By then the American financial crash had crept over to Europe, and for the first time in a decade the City of Light was shy about entertaining. The only people giving proper parties were the royals – and even they were economising, since everyone knew the king was hundreds of pounds in debt.  

Rosaline Lenoir did not have to economise: she had inherited one of the largest private fortunes in France when she was twelve. But nor did she care to throw parties: a hostess had to talk to everyone, even the dull people – and worse, it was rude to go to bed early if all the interesting people had left.

On one grey Tuesday morning, Ros had gone so far as to take out all her holiday dresses to see if it was worth going to Portugal for some sun, when the maid brought in a creamy thick white envelope with encouragingly jet-black ink. The contents were pleasing: The Duke of Brabant cordially invited her to his daughter’s coming-out in Bruges, on the fourteenth of February.

“Oh, wonderful!” Ros said. “Please fetch some writing-paper, Lise.”

“Are we going?”

“I am. You can do what you like.” This was superfluous, since Lise usually did just what she liked, which is why Ros had hired her.

Lise raised an eyebrow. “I thought you thought the duke of Brabant is a lecherous bore,” she said.

“He is,” Ros said, analysing her dresses, “but I’ve been dying to get into his library ever since Louisa mentioned he’s got a great thick lovely illuminated copy of the Roman de la Rose. Let’s air out the dark pink taffeta, I think, and the green satin, and – and the blue silk, please.”

***

She was right: the duke of Brabant was boring, although what as a fifteen-year-old she’d read as lechery, she now took to be amiable overcompensation: he spent most of the evening in frivolous conversation with a gay young man from Nova Scotia. To his daughter, Ros presented a curtsey, her compliments and a whocking pair of Belperron earrings. The girl seemed to be taking it all in nicely and not overwhelmed by anyone handsome and useless, which was reassuring.

Her social formalities accomplished and a glass of Roederer in hand, Ros was just about to go hunting for the library when she heard her cousin Faulconbridge, and turned around to greet him. But it wasn’t her cousin at all: the voice she recognised was coming from a stranger, a tall, gawky, angular young man with an animated face, a small crowd of listeners and an offputting sense of self-satisfaction. It really was uncanny. He disparaged her cousin’s affection for older women – which had always been one of Ros’ favourite things about him – and the listeners chuckled, and rearranged themselves.

Ros attended for a minute or two, then decided she disliked him immensely. Although he was quite funny, which was annoying, his jokes were horrible – he turned over everyone she knew in Paris, skewered them, unpinned them and unpacked every foible. And no one was laughing with pleasure: each chuckle had a slight undercurrent of tension, so slight she didn’t think even they realised it was there. While this was true of most parties Ros had been to this season, the people here were rich enough to not be bothered about trifles like the financial crisis. No, they were worried about what would happen when they left his company and he turned that gimlet eye and mouth on them.

This would not do. It was unbalancing the room, and provoking anxiety. Ros picked up her coupe and walked over to the band, and told them the duke had instructed her to instruct them to start a bit of informal dancing.

At the first blast of the trumpet, the room dispersed into pairs almost immediately, with an almost audible sigh of release. Ros was pleased to see the young man look dismayed. Now – who was he, and why was he here? He certainly didn’t seem to be interested in making love to the heiress of Brabant, which implied at least some personal fortune; and he didn’t seem to have any friends.

Never mind. With everyone happily occupied, Ros was free to look for the famous library: and it was just where a library should be, at the back of the house, on the side where the garden was. She set her glass on the drinks holder outside the door, pushed open the wood door – the wallpaper was even dark hunter green, which was the perfect colour for libraries. Ros found her quarry, and spent a deliriously happy hour in a leather armchair, her dancing shoes kicked off on the floor beside her, picking her way through de Lorris and de Meun. The heavy book nested nicely in her lap, dimpling her silk dress.

“Oh, maybe I should have tried to get him at fifteen after all,” Ros said regretfully, petting the spine as she returned the book to its place.

When she stepped back outside, her glass had been re-filled – how wonderful! – and Ros walked back to the ballroom slowly, where she took a moment at the top of the steps to take in the room. She leaned her arms against the marble banister and felt very content indeed.

All happiness is fleeting, of course.

“I don’t fancy his chances, do you?”

It was the man from earlier, naturally. No one else would intrude with such clarion consonants, afraid she might miss a shade or syllable of what he was saying. He gestured down at the dancing, where the duke of Alencon was doing his best leading off with the girl of the evening. “He reminds me of a dragonfly, you know, all pointy and shimmering – although I’ve never heard a dragonfly roar like him. Such a large voice from such a slender chest! I wonder where he keeps it – probably in a safebox in Switzerland with the other family jewels.”

Ros laughed. She couldn’t help herself: the duke was famous for pleading poverty when everyone knew he was frantically packing away money against some undescribed, unexpressed catastrophe. “There’s that smile!” Ros’s face dropped immediately, on instinct, and he laughed again.

“Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad. Listen, do you fancy a dance? I was expecting to see a few mates here but I guess they decided it wasn’t worth the candle –“

I can’t imagine why, Ros thought but did not say. But she couldn’t bring herself to beg off: it had been much too long since she’d danced at a proper party, she was still in a good mood from the library and she knew her blue silk looked wonderful in motion. She held out her hand, and he swept her down the ballroom stairs with the enthusiasm of a very tall Labrador.  

Oh well – at least he’d be the kind of show-off that made her look good. Or so she hoped.

***

Ros had only a light headache in the morning, an unexpected pleasure. After breakfast she went to the hall telephone and asked to be put through to the French palace, but Louisa was unavailable. Ros remembered her friend mentioning her father’s health, and felt guilty she hadn’t asked about him before she left Paris. She liked the old king; he’d been friends with her mother and very kind when she died, inviting Ros to live at the palace as Louisa’s lady-in-waiting while her estates were sorted. Well, she’d try calling again when she got home.

Lise was waiting at the Paris house with a cup of hot wine. “Was it awful?” she asked as the driver brought the suitcases into the hallway.

“Mmm,” Ros said. “Well, the library was good.”

"I knew it," Lise said, with some satisfaction.

She so enjoyed being right about things.