Should they whisper false of you,
Never trouble to deny;
Should the words they say be true,
Weep and storm and swear they lie
-Dorothy Parker, “Superfluous Advice”
“Dammit, Holmes! I am rather fond of what is left of my eyesight,” I winced as my husband lined my eyes with black kohl.
“I assure you, Russell, that my fine motor abilities are still sharp enough to keep me from poking your proverbial eye out. Hold still.”
I relented and contemplated whether helping each other put on elaborate disguises formed as routine a part of other people’s marriages as it did in mine. Probably not.
“There. I’m sure that’s sufficient for you to pass muster in any flapper brigade,” my husband finished with a flourish and handed me back my spectacles.
I put them on and looked in the mirror. Except for my glasses and my height, there was little in my reflection that spoke of Miss Mary Russell, lapsed Oxford theologian and erstwhile partner to a husband that most people regarded as more fiction than fact. An obscene amount of rouge and greasepaint, more suited to a trod upon the boards in the West End than a evening in the Mayfair mansion of a young duke, adorned my face. My still short blonde hair had been elaborately styled in tiny spit curls and topped with a small collection of red beads and feathers commonly referred to as a “fascinator.” Who or what it was intended to fascinate, I hadn’t a clue. My dress, also crimson, seemed to hold more beads than fabric, and made a jangling racket whenever I moved. It was an ensemble not at all suited to an evening’s espionage. But then again, it was not my job to play the spy tonight.
“You look loverly, my dear Mary. No man could resist you. Not even one as dimwitted as the Duke of Cavendish,” Lord Peter’s voice broke in. This younger son of a duke and sometimes colleague of my husband’s was to be my entrée into said soiree.
“Are you sure he’ll take me as bait? Even with my spectacles?”
“I personally always make passes at gals who wear glasses,” his lordship winked, the look effortlessly charming on his foolish face. “As for old Ernie, he’s always been a fool for blondes. His first governess was blonde. It’s all dreadfully Freudian, I’m afraid.”
Holmes affixed the last of his fake moustaches with a bit of spirit gum and stepped back to admire his handiwork. He had already added a few layers of paunch to his wiry frame. I daresay my husband never met a rôle he didn’t like. Tonight he would be posing as one of the downstairs staff. All the better to have access to the Duke’s private rooms.
“Just once, Holmes, I would like us to conduct an investigation where you are required to get pinched and pawed by some filthy-minded dowager.” My husband shrugged in response. I fumed. This was hardly the evening I had wanted at all. I had been looking forward to resting by the fire, perusing a recent edition of the collected writings of Rabbi Akiva while Holmes smoked his odious shag tobacco. “Why is it so dreadfully important that we investigate this duke and be dragged out to London in the dead of January?”
“King and country, Russ. King and country,” my husband replied. “A number of peers…or children of peers, ‘Bright Young Things,’ you might call them, have recently had their misdeeds show up in the tabloid papers.”
“Or have been blackmailed to keep their secrets out of said papers,” Lord Peter explained.
My husband nodded. “The scandal-mongering seems to coincide with the social calendar of one Ernest Rumpold-Smythe, Fifth Duke of Cavendish.”
“While I can understand why the House of Lords might have a bee in its bonnet about this, it hardly seems like the security of the Empire is at stake,” I said, not even trying to camouflage my annoyance.
“Mycroft believes they are also selling information to the Germans, including the goings on of the Prince of Wales and a married American textile heiress,” Holmes said.
“Well, that’s bound to come out eventually,” I remarked.
“Look on the bright side, Mary, it’s bound to be a smashing good party, isn’t it? Last time I went to one of these, the Countess of Wexford took a sponge bath in the punch bowl.” Lord Peter’s words did little to lighten my spirits. If anything, they seemed to bring on a nervous headache.
“One more thing, Russ,” my husband beckoned. He looped a long string of garnet and gold beads around my throat. “The pièce de résistance.”
“Isn’t it a bit like gilding the lily here, Holmes? I should hardly think this costume calls for more beads.”
My husband smiled one of his mysterious smiles and bent to plant a kiss on the satin fingers of my opera gloves. “Enjoy your evening, m’lady,” he affected in an obsequious twang. I scowled.
His lordship’s motor whisked us post-haste from the warm haven of the Diogenes Club to Cavendish’s townhouse. Though it was going for half-past ten o’clock, we were unfashionably early. I accepted a cocktail from a silver tray, its cloyingly sweet taste barely masking the large quantities of gin mixed in. If I wasn’t careful, it would have me bathing in the punch bowl myself tonight.
Lord Peter whispered to me, “Wherever did old Sherlock find you, Mary? On an island full of well-read Amazons? He must give me directions sometime.”
I laughed. His lordship was nothing if not a harmless and incorrigible flirt. “Try Oxford by way of Sussex and San Francisco.”
“What’s to become of poor blighters like me if dashing older chaps like your husband keep marrying all the pretty girls? It doesn’t seem sporting.”
I have heard many such comments since I married my husband, from people far less kind than our aristocratic friend. And yet, because he was a friend, the comment stung all the more. I changed the subject. “Anything you can tell me about the Duke of Cavendish?”
“The man’s mad about motor cars, owns nearly a round dozen of them. He collects women like other chaps collect postage stamps- rather likes ‘em on the fragile, broken-bird side of things.”
I frowned. Were Holmes and Peter the only men I knew who preferred the fair sex to be made of sterner stuff?
“I’ll take my leave of you now, Mary, my girl. Wouldn’t want to scare off our quarry. If you need me, I’ll be tickling the ivories.”
As the night wore on, the party increased in volume and raucousness. The amount of clothing worn by the female guests seemed to be in inverse proportion to their rank in Debrett’s. I did my upmost to throw off my dour bluestocking ways, to mix, mingle and observe this rollicking cadre of bon vivants. Having lived through the deprivation and loss of the Great War myself, I could understand how a class of people would want to drown their ghosts in gin-soaked hedonism. I had traveled with the flapper set before back in San Francisco, at a dark moment in my life when I, too, sought escape in utter frivolity. And yet, here on my own shores, among my peers in age and social standing, I had never felt more alienated. I was undoubtedly bright and relatively young. But, I would never make a very good Bright Young Thing.
At about a quarter past midnight, our dashing host locked eyes with me. I did my best to project doe-eyed helplessness, which must have worked, for he soon sauntered over with the predatory manner of a lion stalking a wounded gazelle. The Duke of Cavendish was dark of hair and eye and seemed to fancy himself an English Valentino. “I do hope you’re enjoying my hospitality, Miss Russell. How strange to see you without your illustrious husband in tow,” he purred.
I suppose it was not too surprising that he knew of me. Despite our best efforts, our marriage had made ripples in the society papers. “My husband is at home, recovering from a cold. It is very…refreshing to be out among the smarter set, Your Grace,” I lied, remembering my rôle.
Cavendish smirked knowingly and refilled my nearly empty glass with champagne. “That’s a diplomatic way of putting it. No need to be ashamed, Miss Russell. Half the marriages in here are shams,” he said breathily in my ear.
I resisted the powerful urge to remove my dagger from my garter and lodge it in the young duke’s spleen. A murder trial would be terribly tedious- though prison might leave time for me to actually catch up on my scholarship. “I don’t know what you’re implying,” I demurred.
“If you weren’t already an heiress in your own right, one would think it was for his money. Ah, but you know what the analysts say…about little girls wanting to marry their fathers.”
“If I had wanted to marry my father, sir, I could have married an American tycoon only twenty-three years older than me, rather than a cold-blooded Englishman nearly forty years my senior,” I retorted, all pretensions to vulnerability thrown aside.
The arrogant young man had the nerve to chuckle. “Well, there’s that vaunted Somerville College wit one is always hearing about. I was wondering when it would make its appearance.”
“Wit, Your Grace, is like caviar- one shouldn’t go spreading it about like marmalade.”
“You are quite the firecracker, Miss Russell.” He drew closer, a panther-like gleam flashing in his dark eyes. “And you intrigue me. Perhaps we could continue this conversation somewhere more…intimate,” he hinted, with no degree of subtlety whatsoever.
Just as I was about to give Cavendish the slip, the music abruptly changed from the jittery ragtime tempos that had been playing all evening to the smoother, mellow tones of a waltz. Almost immediately, a firm hand clamped over the duke’s shoulder and gently pulled him backward. “I doubt Miss Russell would want to go as far as the hors d’oeuvre table with you, sir, much less somewhere more intimate,” a familiar dry voice remarked.
“Unhand me, old man!” Cavendish sputtered pompously.
“If you will excuse us, Your Grace, my wife and I are urgently needed in the ballroom.” Holmes deftly slipped his hand in mine and whisked me in the direction of the dance floor, leaving the odious Duke quite flabbergasted. We settled in to the gentle rhythm of the waltz and the familiar feel of his body against mine.
“Exercising your husbandly rights, Holmes? How absolutely primitive of you.” I was grateful he had arrived when he did. Though, I would not reveal it for all the tea in China. “I take it you found what you were looking for?”
“Yes.” He winked at Lord Peter seated behind the piano, who smiled in return.
“Am I to understand then that our Duke of Cavendish is guilty? Because he certainly seemed to be trolling for information during our conversation.”
“He is…with a little help from one of his staff.”
“Holmes….you’re not seriously telling me the butler did it.”
“The valet,” he amended. “They were in ‘cahoots’ as they say. Cavendish would fish for information upstairs among the guests, while his man would rifle through their rooms to confirm his suspicions. The duke spent his ill gotten gains on motor cars, the valet on a small cottage in Banbury.” My husband spun me outward in perfect time with the music, only to pull me closer on the return. “You know, in my day, Russell, when a woman wore red, it was said she meant business.”
I snorted ungracefully. “Thankfully we are not in ‘your day,’ Holmes. The amount of exposed ankle in the room alone would have given everyone apoplexy.”
A twinkle appeared in his sharp grey eyes. “Did you figure out the secret to your birthday present?”
The waltz had now quickened to a foxtrot, yet Holmes and I stayed still, slowly swaying together at the edge of the parquet floor. “I was rather occupied in fending off the advances of a wolfish young aristocrat this evening. What does the necklace do? Please tell me the garnets are filled with arsenic.”
“I shall try to remember that for next year,” he chuckled softly. “Had you examined it more closely, you would have realized that the beads are strung on a chain of piano wire.”
“Piano wire, Holmes. Honestly.”
“Have you not read my most recent monograph on the twenty-seven uses of piano wire? Tut-tut, Russell.” I rolled my eyes at him. He knew very well I hadn’t. “Happy birthday, wife,” he murmured into my hair.
“My birthday came and went hours ago,” I said with a sigh, briefly allowing my head to rest against his shoulder.
“I shall endeavor to make it up to you, Russell. Perhaps I should start by telegraphing the society editor at the Sunday Flash that His Grace has fallen victim to the French disease,” Holmes deadpanned.
I smiled wickedly. He really did know me too well.
Later that night, as I leaned against my husband’s lean body in the backseat of the hired cab, my cold limbs basked in the warmth and feel of his touch, a welcome haven from the bracing January cold. I had known the touch of his mind far longer, since I was scarcely more than a child. And if I were to be honest, it was the touch I valued more. And that was what would always make us seem suspect, the thing the world and even some of our dearest friends would never understand.