Sir Tristram Shield, having a propensity to grant his lady anything she wished, was consequently in a disgruntled frame when at last they retired that night, Lady Shield having expressed a desire to attend the opera.
It was not the opera that so disturbed Sir Tristram’s peace, it was the inevitable tangle of carriages afterward. They did not reach their quiet house in South Audley Street until the clock chimed the half hour after two; he could not help pointing out that they could have walked home faster.
Sarah, Lady Shield, agreed with her customary tranquility, and had almost succeeded in restoring him to a better frame of mind by the time they retired.
But it seemed no sooner had he blown out the candle when unprecedented noise issued up the stairs from the hall below. As among the voices there rose accents familiar to both, Sir Tristram uttered a sigh of exasperation.
To avoid a recurrence of his splenetic humor, Sarah rose, and reached for her robe. “I believe that sounds like Eustacie,” she murmured. “I shall see what is amiss. There is no need for you to rise, my dear.”
“Thank you,” Sir Tristram said sincerely. “I fear that if I go downstairs, it will be to commit murder. And I would not see your reputation smirched by the spectacle of your raving lunatic of a husband being brought to the gallows.”
“You would not hang. Any judge would sympathize completely,” Sarah rejoined as she held the bedside candle down to the banked fire, for though it was May, the weather was still chill.
Smiling, she lit her way downstairs, where she found the porter, still with his nightcap on, holding a lamp and scowling at a fashionable young blade who could not be any older than sixteen. Sarah looked around, certain she had heard the unmistakable French accent of her young friend Eustacie de Vauban, now Lady Lavenham.
Then the young gentleman addressed her. “Peste! Sarah, tell this imbecile that it is—that is, to let me enter!” Those desperate accents were indeed familiar.
Sarah’s surprise lasted only moments. “Thank you, Hobson,” she said with what dignity she could muster under the circumstances. “I will see to, er, our guest.”
She opened the door to the drawing room and led the way in. As she lit a candelabra, she waited until the porter’s door shut behind him, then turned to the forlorn figure standing on the fine carpet in the middle of the room. “Eustacie, it is you, I take it.”
“Mais oui, c’est moi. Oh, Sarah, my life is ended. I was going to hurl myself into the Thames, but I found myself here . . .”
“You did very well,” Sarah said calmly, as she moved to stir up the dying fire. Her dear Sir Tristram would issue orders for fires to be lit in every room his lady might choose to occupy, an extravagance that had made her exclaim against it, but she was glad of it now. “Sit down, and tell me what happened.”
There was no use in requesting Eustacie to begin at the beginning, for it was never going to happen.
“There was a horrid man, so affreux! I think he wished to rob me, or something, but I ran away.”
“And Ludovic could not defend you?” Sarah asked, surprised that Eustacie’s fire-eater young husband was not by, or had he dispatched the miscreant, and was now on the run again?
“He was not there.”
“I was alone, you perceive.”
“I am beginning to,” Sarah encouraged. “How did you come to be alone, and where is Ludovic?”
“Du vrai, at his club, where else should he be?”
“Where else indeed?” Sarah asked, reminding herself that asking two questions together of Eustacie always led to more confusion. “So you were alone. Whither had you gone alone?”
“But to Ranelagh, naturellement!”
Ranelagh—the masquerade. A picture was beginning to emerge at last, but with significant gaps. “It is not Twelfth Night,” Sarah observed. “Yet I perceive you in, ah, en masque.”
“It was very clever, do you not think?” Eustacie turned from side to side, flaring her coat skirts. “It is the dress of Emilie’s brother, from last year, for he is too much grown. She gave it to me before she departed into the country.”
‘Emilie’, Sarah knew, was Lady Emily Jerningham, another newlywed, and nearly as sad a romp as Eustacie.
Sarah tried again. “Does Ludovic dislike the Gardens?”
Eustacie’s thin brows snapped together over her black eyes. “Peste! He says, it is no place to take one’s wife. I ask myself, who else would one take, if one is married?”
Sarah sighed. It had taken six months to get Lord and Lady Lavenham to the altar—an unconscionable length of time considering the mutual enthusiasm shared by the affianced pair. But a surprising number of obstacles had been put in their way (once the tenth baron had been cleared of a crime he had not committed), many by the couple themselves.
There had been some misadventures, most of which, Sir Tristram had exclaimed when put to the extremes of exasperation, was due to Eustacie’s complete incomprehension of narrative logic. Trying to get a set of facts from her is like running a steeplechase with a herd of cats, he had once said in her private ear.
It would be unfair to lay most of the delays at Eustacie’s door, but at times like this, Sarah was ready to take her young friend by the shoulders and shake the story out of her.
The creak of a floorboard somewhere above reminded her that the house was full of sleeping people. “Stay,” she said, lowering her voice. “I myself will prepare a bedchamber for you, and look out something for you to wear.”
“Is not my dress fine?” Eustacie put out a neat foot and admired the buckle on her shoe. “I find I like this dress very much. One can run, and gentlemen do not stare so rudely.” Her brows drew down on the word ‘gentlemen.’
Sarah was tempted to ask what Eustacie meant by such dire emphasis, then bethought herself of the likely response—which could compass anything from sealing wax to the moon—and she left precipitously, before a servant might be roused by unprecedented noise, and set up a clack.
She picked up her candle and sped noiselessly upstairs. Eustacie, thus left alone, felt all her worries crowd in with the shadows, so she occupied herself in lighting another branch of candles, and, finding nothing to do, decided to search out another log.
She picked up one of the branches of candles and started into the hall, halting when she heard noise. She gazed up the stairwell, surprised to find a masculine shadow thrown against the wall opposite Sarah’s bedchamber, which was familiar from the weeks Eustacie had stayed in South Audley Street before her marriage. Sir Tristram must be awake, and seeking his wife.
She hastily retreated into the drawing room. The wide double doors still being open, she thought about closing them, but would that not draw attention? She remembered that Sir Tristram’s book room lay behind the door opposite. She had never stepped inside it, but surely it would be the perfect place to hide, for Sir Tristram would not seek his wife there.
She took up the second branch of candles and opened the door. Very different from the musty library she envisioned was a decidedly masculine chamber— framed sporting prints of various kinds on the walls, and a pair of dueling swords mounted over the fireplace. In a marquetry cabinet on the other side of the room lay a pair of gold mounted pistols. Against the two adjacent walls stood the expected shelves of books, all fine-bound, with gilt lettering.
Eustacie looked around in wonder, thinking that Ludovic might like just such a room. She had envisioned something very different for Sir Tristram, whom she was used to thinking as (so Ludovic put it) a capital fellow, but a dull dog.
Though she had been careful to close the door behind her, she had no notion that the owner of the house, upon stepping into the drawing room, was not pleased to perceive the uneven flicker of light beneath the door to his book room, where he was wont to store money that he had occasion to disburse.
Sarah having unaccountably not reappeared, and the clock having chimed half past three, he’d donned his robe, fetched a pistol from his own bedchamber, and set out in search of his wife.
Now he flung open the inner door, and, discovering (as he thought) a young thief standing between the marquetry cabinet and his escritoire with its locked drawer, he leveled his pistol.
The intruder whirled around, the candles flaring and streaming, sending shadows skittering about the room; finding a pistol leveled at her head, Eustacie gave a faint shriek, and dropped the candelabra.
Six licks of flame fell onto the expensive Turkey carpet.
Eustacie gave a louder shriek. Sir Tristram, having recognized the voice, if not the clothing, shouted, “Stand aside.”
But Eustacie, gripped by guilt, began stamping wildly, uttering disjointed imprecations the while.
Neither heard the rap of the knocker from the street through two thicknesses of doors. The porter, having complained bitterly to his wife about unaccustomed goings-on, was still awake. He opened the front door, to find himself pushed aside by a gentleman who smelled strongly of spirituous liquors as he dashed past, muttering, “I saw lights above. Your master and mistress must not yet be abed. No, I’ll find ‘em myself.”
He then heard a familiar cry, and exclaimed, “Eustacie?”
It seemed to be coming from the drawing room. He flung open the doors. No, it was coming from the room opposite!
And at the very moment that Sir Tristram and Eustacie dashed together to put out the fires, Ludovic crashed through the door.
Startled, Eustacie tripped, and fell into Sir Tristram’s arms.
Ludovic, recognizing her distraught face in the firelight reflecting through the drawing room door behind him, gave a cry of rage and hurled himself at the treacherous hound clasping his wife.
Halfway there he perceived the pistol Sir Tristram still carried, and launched himself at the mantel. With a ringing of steel, he pulled down one of the blades and shouted, “En garde, you cur!”
Sir Tristram, perforce, set Eustacie firmly aside and snatched up the second sword. It took two neat blows for him to get inside Ludovic’s guard, and as Eustacie shrieked, knocked aside the blade, gripped Ludovic by the wrist, and bore his arm inexorably down.
Ludovic was chagrined to discover that his cousin, whom he'd assumed would be decrepit at the advanced age of two-and-thirty, demonstrated no senility whatsoever. Cursing loudly, he dropped the blade.
As steel rang, Eustacie flew to his aid, pounding with her fists upon Sir Tristram’s arm and she berated him in exceedingly idiomatic French.
It was this scene that Sarah entered upon.
With a brisk step she snatched up a flower vase from the drawing room, and cast its contents onto the smoldering rug. The fire extinguished itself with a hiss and a dreadful stench, the water splashing over the feet of the three frozen into tableau, astonished faces turned her way.
“I believe we could all do with a cup of tea,” Sarah suggested.
Ludovic fixed a fiery eye on his wife. “Fiend seize it, why are you dressed like that? And what were you doing in my cousin’s arms?”
“I was not in his arms. It is a thing inconceivable! And as for these clothes, du vrai, you gave me the notion yourself!”
“Me?” Ludovic gasped. “I’m damned if I did!”
“Mais oui! When you were Lucy the maid. I bethought me, that was ver-ry clever, and if you can compass it, well, then why not I?”
Ludovic clutched his head, new clouds of powder flying everywhere.
Sarah interposed herself. “If I might make a suggestion, I shall take Eustacie with me into the kitchen. There is no need to disturb the servants.”
Her gaze met her husband’s fleetingly, and as she drew the faintly protesting Eustacie out of the book room, Sir Tristram moved to the cabinet and drew out some of Nye’s best brandy and a pair of tumblers. Then hesitated. “It seems to me that you’ve enough in you already. Perhaps I ought to fetch you a tankard of porter.”
Ludovic waved a hand. “I want nothing—the reek from that devilish carpet is sobering enough.”
Sir Tristram exerted a super-human effort, and refrained from pointing out that this ruinously expensive carpet had been an excellent example of its kind before he and his Bedlamite wife had entered the room uninvited.
“We can sit in the drawing room, then,” he said, not without a hint of irony.
Ludovic was not so castaway as to miss it. Speaking much more mildly, he said, “I came home, and she was not there. I did not know what to think! I went round to ask that chit Emily, but the house was shut up. Porter said they’d left this afternoon for the country.”
“Did Eustacie not tell you where she would be?”
“I thought she was staying home.” Ludovic frowned at the fireplace, then turned his indignant blue gaze upward. “I never was one for the sword, but if I’d had my pistols—”
“Yes, you could have put a hole in me. In the meantime, I have yet to discover why we are entertaining either of you, when I should like to have been asleep. Am I to understand you lost your wife?”
“No! Yes. I don’t know what it was, or quite how it came about. She had been pestering me about some trumpery masquerade—Ranelagh, you know. Oh, it was good enough for kicking up larks along the avenues when I was single, but damme, it don't answer if you are a married man. And what else is there to do? It’s a take-in, paying down good money for indifferent food, a pack of violins caterwauling, and crowds of Cits and blackguards, and then you walk smash into all the people you least wish to see.”
“You could not escort her once, that she might see that herself?”
“I thought she understood—I told her she could go to the Devonshire squeeze, if she had a hankering for company, but she gave me to believe she preferred to stay home to read some dashed book or other. What was I to do? So I went to take a look-in at Brooks’, and when I got home, she was not there.”
Sir Tristram waited, and as he expected, out it came. “This was hard on a thundering row over her wanting a landau, and that after she lost five hundred guineas at loo.” Ludovic sighed. “She’s got no notion of money. At first I found it charming. Proof she was unworldly. But no longer. Laugh if you like, but during the years I had to live free trading, I learnt the value of a guinea. I don’t intend to be a damned cheese-paring rascal of a husband, but I don’t see any use in throwing a fortune away on carriages we don’t need, and high-stakes gambling, when she don’t even enjoy it, for when she loses, she goes into floods of tears.”
“Quite so,” Sir Tristram said dryly.
“The thing is, I don’t seem to be able to explain it sufficiently to Eustacie, ‘thout her taking snuff. There’s no need to tell me to be calm and rational,” Ludovic added quickly. “I’ll admit I’m a trifle hair-trigger, but I never set out to be one of those bad husbands in a farce, making a prodigious noise over trifles.”
Ludovic laced his fingers together and pressed his thumbs against his temples. “Truth is, I don’t know that I want to find out why she’s dressed like that, or what she’s done. I’ll only get angry, and . . . how did you manage her, before I came along?”
“I didn’t,” Sir Tristram stated.
“Mind, I only became acquainted with her a few days before you did. I knew of her much longer—as she knew of me. But in the time we dealt directly with one another, she never failed to do the exact opposite of what I wished, even—especially—after I explained calmly and rationally what she ought to do. It was even worse for the Beau, though he did his damndest to wheedle his way into her fortune. The only person she listened to,” Sir Tristram said as he leaned down to place a log on the remains of the fire, “was you.”
* * *
In the kitchen, the two ladies had lit lamps, and Sarah succeeded in stirring up the kitchen fire as Eustacie poured water from a jug into the kettle for heating. Sarah hunted up half a loaf of bread, which she set out to be sliced, as they waited for the water to boil.
For a time silence reigned, then Sarah said, “Before the various interruptions, I believe you were giving me your reasons for attending the masquerade thus attired.”
“Was it not clever of me?” Eustacie preened. “I wished to go to Ranelagh, about which I have heard, oh, so much! But Ludovic would not take me, so I bethought me, why not go myself? But then I thought, it is not so nice being a young lady alone. I remember this from my adventure with the Headless Horseman, and though it turned out to be Ludovic, and that was in the woods, and one is not likely to find Headless Horsemen in London—that is, if such existed—fi donc! I tangle myself.”
“I believe I comprehend,” Sarah said encouragingly. “You thought to escape unwanted attentions by assuming male dress for your masquerade.”
“Bien entendu! And I could even dance the male parts, which I thought might amuse me. And so it did, oh, much. There were young ladies who flirted with me with their fans! I tipped my hat, so. It was fort amusant.”
“Very,” Sarah agreed solemnly, her grey eyes a-twinkle.
“But I did not know what things cost, you see, and everywhere there are people holding out their hands. And so, when it was time to return, I did not have enough for the chair—and they set me down in a horrid place, and I must walk. Then there were wicked footpads, and men who called out things at me that I do not comprehend. I ran away, until my side quite hurt. When I got home, I planned to slip in at the garden so no one would see me, the way I went out. But I found it locked! Perhaps it was locked against me a-purpose! I was going to cast myself in the river, but the air was disagreeably cold, and I thought the waters would be so very much worse, and so I came away here.”
Sarah said gently, “But surely there is another reason to go off without telling Ludovic where you were?”
Eustacie laughed, kicking her feet against the high stool she perched on. “He did fly to my rescue with such panache, did he not? Ah, but I thought I should never see that again. He has been so . . . so—” Eustacie fluttered her hands and turned down her pretty mouth.
“When first we affianced, he gave me whatever I wished. Epatantes! One day my chamber was filled with roses, because I said I missed the scent from the garden at Lavenham Court. He ordered the prettiest phaeton, tricked out in my favorite blue. When I lost my garnet bracelet the first night I played, and afterwards I cried, he said my tears made him want to hurl himself from a mountain, and next day, he brought me a bracelet made of diamonds.”
“But these extravagances—so wonderful during courtship and one’s honeymoon—cannot go on forever. Is that what you want?”
“Ah, I care nothing for those things! Except the roses. But he no longer said the things he did before we were married.” Eustacie wrung her hands. “So I asked him to buy me a carriage, so I would know he still adores me, but instead he talked and talked, oh, so reasonable. Did he swear to hang himself if I frowned? Or hurl himself from a mountain if I weep? No, he explains. I could shut my eyes, and he would be Sir Tristram. Only worse!”
“And so I think, Ca se voit! If he does not seek to please me, I shall please myself. I say very well, I shall sit in my room with a book, and he says, As you wish.” Eustacie finished on a tragic note. “Once I had power, but it is gone, c’est fini, tout cela.”
Sarah took Eustacie’s hands. “I comprehend! But you are wrong if you think you have no power. Did he not demonstrate that just now? There is much poetry and song about the power of a woman during courtship, but that does not end after marriage.”
“I think it does,” Eustacie said sadly.
“Some women scold to keep their power. Others set the servants to spy upon their husbands, and then treat them to scenes of retribution when they come home. Some weep quarts of tears in an attempt to keep him on his knees, promising endless flowers and jewels. And some women, like their men, end up seeking consolation elsewhere.” Sarah glanced sideways, to discover a thoughtful quirk to Eustacie’s brows. “Then there are those who find another way, one that is pleasurable for both parties.”
Eustacie waited, but when Sarah did not speak, she recollected a moment she had witnessed earlier: Sir Tristram emerging from his wife’s bedroom.
Eustacie frowned at her fingers. The Shields had, like most fashionable couples, each their own bedchamber and dressing room. Eustacie had never spared the elder couple a moment’s thought beyond their calm wishes for her to sleep well, when they had all parted at night, before she married Ludovic. If she had thought of them, she would have assumed they would part outside their doors, as they had with her, and each retire quietly to their individual rest.
Seeing the so-phlegmatic Sir Tristram exiting Sarah’s bedchamber had caused her to assume he went from room to room seeking his wife, but what if, in fact, he had been in there all along?
This was a very new idea, that a couple of such advanced age—Sarah must be near thirty!—could know anything of passion.
“Nom d’un nom,” she breathed.
“Precisely,” Sarah said. “Ah, the water is boiling. Will you set the tea things on the tray, while I pour it out?”
* * *
When the tea had been drunk, Sir Tristram and Lady Shield left the dishes for the servants to discover in the morning, and saw their much-sobered guests to the door. Both Lord and Lady Lavenham insisted that they needn’t spend the night in the chamber Sarah had prepared, Ludovic thoughtful, and Eustacie with a sparkle in her eye and a certain anticipatory curve to her lip. They could get home quite well, they both protested—it was only a step.
Their hosts did not endeavor to dissuade them beyond a polite degree, and so, once more repaired upstairs.
As soon as they reached the bedchamber, they retailed their respective conversations, at the end of which Sir Tristram said, “You didn’t.”
Sarah had just finished recounting the last bit of her tête-à-tête with Eustacie as they carried the tea things into the drawing room, at which time she had besought Eustacie to invite her along the next time she experienced a desire to masquerade as a man.
“Of course I did,” Sarah rejoined. “Would you not prefer she ventured out in my company, rather than alone?”
“I had not considered that. But, my dearest Sarah. Male dress?”
“I think it would be vastly interesting.” Sarah turned her head on her pillow, smiling at him. “Perhaps you ought to try one of my gowns.”
Sir Tristram uttered a short laugh.
“What is it, my love?”
“I was just reflecting on how you never cease to surprise me.”
“That I might wish to try breeches and a waistcoat? Or see you in one of my gowns?”
“No, it is how you can walk in upon yet another scene of madness, with swords cast down willy-nilly upon the smoking ruin of my rug, and hair powder everywhere, as Ludovic curses, Eustacie is in hysterics, and I am on the point of tearing out my hair, and you observe that we should all be the better for some tea. If I must climb into one of your confounded gowns to please you, well, then, you’ll have to choose one that I won’t spoil.” He paused, then added reflectively, “Besides, I find in me a decided wish to see you in breeches.”
“Ah, but I insist upon being a la mode—it must be pantaloons.”
“The next time we go into Berkshire, you shall have your masquerade,” he promised.
Her answer was unspoken, causing him to gasp, and then let out a laugh.
She smiled, and blew out the light.