A Poisoned Season
For Xander, who prefers
his books read aloud
At last the secret is out
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the teacups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there's never smoke without fire.
Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
Cast of characters
Lady Emily Ashton ("Kallista") — Daughter of Earl Bromley, widow of the Viscount Ashton (Philip), and a scholar of Greek language and art
Colin Hargreaves — A gentleman of independent means who is frequently called upon by Buckingham Palace to investigate matters requiring discretion
Cécile du Lac — A French woman of a certain age, an iconoclast and patron of the arts
Ivy Brandon — Emily's childhood friend, a perfect English rose
Robert Brandon — Ivy's husband, an up-and-coming politician and very traditional gentleman
Margaret Seward — Daughter of an American railroad tycoon, a Bryn Mawr-educated Latinist with little tolerance for society's rules
Lady Catherine Bromley — Emily's mother, wife of Earl Bromley, former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria
Charles Berry — A gentleman newly arrived in London who claims to be a direct descendant of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI
Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge — Childhood friend of Emily's whose twin goals are to avoid marriage and to be the most useless man in England
David Francis — A gentleman and patron of the arts
Beatrice Francis — David Francis's wife
Lady Frideswide — A terrifying society matron bent on seeing her daughter married to the Duke of Bainbridge
Lettice Frideswide — Lady Frideswide's daughter, who is not in the least interested in marrying the Duke of Bainbridge
Lord Basil Fortescue — Queen Victoria's most trusted political adviser, widely considered the most powerful man in the Empire
Mrs. Reynold-Plympton — A lady who takes great interest in politics
Lady Elinor Routledge — Longtime friend of Emily's family, widow of the Chancellor of the Exchequer
Isabelle Routledge — Lady Elinor's extremely romantic daughter
Lord Thomas Pembroke ("Tommy") — the Viscount Langley, eldest son of the Earl of Westbrook
Lady Elliott — A devoted friend of Lady Bromley's and one of London's most fiercely judgmental society ladies
Michael Barber — A sculptor
Jane Stilleman — Beatrice Francis's maid
Molly, Bridget, and Gabby — Maids at the Savoy hotel
Meg — Emily's maid
Davis — Emily's incomparable butler
There are several things one can depend upon during the London Season: an overwhelming barrage of invitations, friends whose loyalties turn suspect, and at least one overzealous suitor. This year was to prove no exception.
Having recently come out of mourning for my late husband, Philip, the Viscount Ashton, I was determined to adopt a hedonistic approach to society, something that I imagined would involve refusing all but the most enticing invitations and being forced to cull disloyal acquaintances. This would allow me to enjoy the summer months instead of trudging from party to party, feeling like one of the exhausted dead, finding myself the subject of the gossip that fuels young barbarians at play.
However, it became clear almost immediately that my theory was flawed. Declining to attend parties proved not to have the desired effect. Instead of dropping me from their guest lists, people assumed I was in such demand that I was choosing to attend events even more exclusive than their own, and there are few better ways to increase one's volume of invitations than by the appearance of popularity. So for a short while — a very short while — my peers held me in high esteem.
It was during this time that I found myself at the home of Lady Elinor Routledge, one of the finest hostesses in England and a longstanding friend of my mother's. By definition, therefore, she was more concerned with a person's societal standing than with anything else. Despite this, I had decided to attend her garden party for two reasons. First, I wanted to see her roses, whose equal, according to rumor, could not be found in all of England. Second, I hoped to meet Mr. Charles Berry, a young man whose presence in town had caused a stir amongst all the aristocracy. The roses surpassed all of my expectations; unfortunately, the gentleman did not.
When stepping into the garden at Meadowdown, one was transported from the gritty heat of London's streets to a sumptuous oasis. For the party, lovely peaked tents were scattered between hedgerows, trees, and beds of flowers, ensuring that guests would never be more than a few paces from refreshment, and the sounds of a small orchestra wafted through the grounds. Young ladies flitted about, their brightly colored dresses competing with the flowers for attention and rarely losing the battle. The gentlemen, turned out in dark frock coats, were elegant, too, keeping their companions well supplied with ices, strawberries, or whatever delicacies might catch their fancy. Et in Arcadia ego. It would take little effort for one to imagine in this scene an eligible prince, all courtesy and ease, graciously bestowing his favor on those around him. But there was no such gentleman at Lady Elinor's that day. The only prince present — if he could be called that — was a grave disappointment.
The romantic ideals swirling around the heir to a throne are seldom capable of surviving close scrutiny. In the case of Charles Berry, these ideals hardly stood observation from afar. His appearance was not unpleasant, but his manners were dreadful, and to say that he was prone to drink more than he ought would be a very diplomatic statement indeed. The young ladies who followed his every move with admiration happily ignored all of this; they were captivated by the notion of marrying into a royal family. The situation was rendered all the more ridiculous when one considered the fact that the throne to which Mr. Berry aspired no longer existed.
"I hoped he would be more handsome." Cécile du Lac formed opinions of people quickly and rarely changed them. We had known each other for less than a year, but she had become one of my closest confidantes almost from the moment I'd met her, despite the fact that she was nearer in age to my mother than to me. She watched him as she continued. "And he lacks completely the generous spirit one likes to find in a monarch. If he could not claim a direct relation to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, society would hold him in much less regard."
Almost from the moment Louis XVI's son and heir had died in a French prison during the revolution, rumors that the boy had escaped began to circulate. Now, nearly a century later, gentlemen were still coming forward, insisting that they were descended from Louis Charles. Charles Berry was the most recent to make the claim, and his story was filled with enough details to convince the surviving members of the Bourbon family to accept him as the dauphin's great-grandson.
"Don't judge him too harshly," Lady Elinor said, moving her hands gracefully in a gesture designed not to emphasize her words, but to show off the spectacular ruby ring on her right hand. "He's led a difficult life."
"Do you know him well?" I asked her.
"He was at Oxford with my son, George, although they didn't move in the same crowd. George has always been very serious. He takes after his father." Lady Elinor's husband, Mr. John Routledge, had been a steady if somewhat humorless man, who served in the government as chancellor of the exchequer until his death some years ago. George, who was much older than his sister, had taken a position in the diplomatic corps and had been stationed in India for so long that I could hardly recall what he looked like. "Let me introduce you. I think you'll find Mr. Berry most charming."
The gentleman in question stood not far from us, surrounded by several very eligible heiresses whose mothers watched, hawklike, from a safe distance, eagerly trying to gauge which girl garnered the most attention from the purported heir to the House of Bourbon. I wondered if any of them gave even momentary consideration to what it might be like to actually be the wife of such a man. None of the mothers tried to hide her irritation when Lady Elinor pulled him away.
"How do you find London?" I asked after the introductions had been made.
"A wonderful city. But I must admit that I long for Paris. I have great hopes, you know, that my throne will be restored."
"Really, Monsieur Berry?" Cécile asked, incredulous. "I had no idea the Third Republic was in danger of being replaced by a monarchy."