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Authors: Anne Perry

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Next to Mrs. Walters, Lord Byam disengaged himself from his group and turned towards them.

“His interest is long-standing,” Charlotte contradicted. “It is his decision to stand for Parliament which is recent.”

“A nice distinction,” Anstiss observed with relish. “Don’t you think so, Byam?”

Byam smiled, a warm, natural gesture. “I take your point, Mrs. Pitt. Still, it is a pity if it has required so much of your time you have had no opportunity to refresh yourself with theater or music.”

“Oh I have, my lord.” Charlotte did not wish to appear too earnest or single-minded. She racked her memory for any acceptable affair she had attended, and stretched the truth by a few years. “I did a short while ago see a delightful performance of a light opera by Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan. Not quite Verdi, I confess, but a charming evening.”

Mrs. Walters raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.

“I agree,” Eleanor Byam said quickly. “We cannot be indulging in great tragedy all the time. I saw
Patience
again last month. I still found it highly entertaining, and so many tunes stayed in my mind.” She glanced at her husband.

“Indeed,” he agreed, but he looked not at her but at Anstiss. “Did you not find the whole plot and the humor of it delicious—knowing your opinion of the aesthetic set?”

Anstiss stared somewhere over their heads, his eyes bright with inner humor, as if he took some point deeper than the mere words. “Mr. Oscar Wilde should be flattered,” he replied lightly. “His wit and his ideas have been immortalized and will be sung and whistled by half London, and done so without their knowing why.”

“Particularly the song about the silver churn,” Byam said quietly, smiling and looking at no one in particular. He
hummed a few bars. “Magnetism is a most curious quality. Why do some have it, and some not?”

“Are you talking of metals or people?” Anstiss asked.

“Oh either,” Byam answered. “The mystery is equal—to me.”

“Rather an effete young man, I heard,” Mrs. Walters said with a quiver in her voice. “Do you approve of him, Lord Anstiss?”

“I admire his turn of phrase, Mrs. Walters,” Anstiss replied carefully. “I am not sure I would take it further than that.” His tone was very slightly condescending. “I was referring to his characterization in Bunthorne. Mr. Gilbert was making satire of the aesthetic movement, of which Mr. Wilde is the leading light.”

“I know that,” she said crossly, and blushed.

Anstiss flashed a look at Byam, then they both looked away again, but the understanding had been there, and in Byam’s face a spark of sympathy.

“Of course,” Anstiss said soothingly. “I said it only to explain my own feelings. I am not personally acquainted with Mr. Wilde, or with any of his admirers, for that matter. I have read a little of his poetry, that is all.”

“I prefer the classical theater.” Mrs. Walters now chose to take a completely different line. “Don’t you, Lady Byam? I saw Sir Henry Irving in
Hamlet
recently. That was truly inspiring.”

With a quick smile at Anstiss and a glance at Eleanor Byam, Charlotte excused herself, making a remark about her duty to other guests, and retreated, leaving the field to Mrs. Walters.

Charlotte spent the next half hour exchanging polite inconsequentialities with almost everyone she had not yet spoken with, passing by the table several times to make sure it was still in good order, watching the band to ascertain they were indeed sober, about which she had some doubts, and snatching an opportunity to report to Jack on the general success of the evening.

By midnight she was again walking with Great-Aunt Vespasia in a pleasant and companionable silence. They had reached the balcony beyond the main ballroom and came
upon Lord and Lady Byam standing beneath the Chinese lanterns, the soft light casting a warmth over them and making Eleanor, with her dark hair, look faintly exotic.

Greetings were formal and very polite, then conversation passed quickly through the trivial to common interests, which of course were centered on the political scene. Not unnaturally the matter of future elections arose. Neither Jack nor Herbert Fitzherbert were mentioned, but a great deal of subtle reflections were made and more than once Charlotte caught Eleanor’s eye and they smiled at each other.

“Of course the matter is very complex,” Byam said quite seriously, but without the pomposity that Charlotte found most trying in some people who held high office. “One can seldom make a financial decision that affects only one group of people or one interest. I think some of our would-be reformers do not appreciate that. Money represents wealth, it is not wealth itself.”

“I don’t understand you,” Eleanor said with admirable candor. “I thought money was perhaps the most obvious form of wealth.”

“Money is merely paper, my dear,” Byam explained with a small smile. “Or at best gold, a comparatively useless commodity. You cannot eat it, or clothe yourself in it, nor will it serve any other of life’s requirements. It is pleasing to the eye, and it does not corrupt with time, as do lesser metals; but it is less useful than steel, and immeasurably less useful than coal, timber, cotton, grain, wool or meat.”

“I do not take your point.” Eleanor was not yet satisfied.

At that moment they were joined by a young man with hooded, brilliant eyes, a strong nose and the most remarkably beautiful, curling, deep auburn hair, which was ill cut at present, and far too long. He plunged in to answer the question without hesitation, and without waiting to be introduced.

“Money is a convenience by which civilized man has agreed to make bartering immeasurably easier, but it is a mechanism.” He held up long, sensitive hands. “And if our agreement fails because one party possesses all the goods that are worth bartering, then the means itself is useless. A loaf of bread is always a loaf of bread. It will feed a man for so many days. But a piece of paper is worth whatever we
agree it is worth, no more, no less. When the agreement fails, we have financial anarchy.” He looked from one to another of them. “That is what happens when we lend money to people at exorbitant rates, and pay them too little for their goods or their labor, so they can never earn sufficient to repay us. The fact that we begin with the advantage enables us to set the prices we will pay, and keep the debtor always in our power.”

“You sound passionate about it, Mr….” Vespasia said with interest; indeed her hesitation because she was unaware of his name did not carry the criticism of his manners that Charlotte would have expected.

“Peter Valerius.” He introduced himself with only the faintest blush for having intruded in such a fashion. “Forgive me. Yes I am.”

Charlotte, as hostess for the evening, introduced the others, remembering to speak of Vespasia first, as the socially senior member, and herself last. She could not recall meeting Mr. Valerius as he came in, but she could scarcely ask him now if he had been invited.

“I think usury, whether local in one man to another, or international in one nation to another, is one of the vilest practices of humanity.” He turned to Charlotte. “I hope trade and banking practices will be subjects to which Mr. Radley will turn his attention?”

“I am sure he will,” Charlotte said quickly. “I shall draw his attention to it myself. He is highly sensitive to social wrongs—”

“It will not win him his party’s approval,” Valerius warned her, seeming hardly aware of Lord Byam’s presence almost at his elbow. “He will win himself few friends, and certainly no chance of promotion to office.”

“I don’t think he is aiming or hoping for high office,” she said candidly. “It would be more than good enough to influence those who do.”

He smiled suddenly and vividly. In his intense face the gesture was both charming and startling.

“And you will no doubt learn Mr. Fitzherbert’s views in the matter,” Byam said wryly.

“But of course,” Valerius agreed with wide eyes. “Is this not what these very delightful social gatherings are for? To
learn who believes what, and who is prepared to fight, how hard, and at what risk?”

“Very blunt,” Byam said ruefully. “I see why you do not run for office yourself, Mr. Valerius.”

Valerius colored very slightly, but he was not deterred. However before he could pursue the subject any further they were joined by a duchess like a galleon under full sail, followed by her three daughters.

“My dear Lady Byam,” she said in a penetrating contralto. “How perfectly delightful to see you. Is this not a magnificent ball?” She lowered her voice only fractionally in what was apparently meant as a confidence. “And I really do believe this is Mrs. Radley’s own house! At least Lady Bigelow swears it is. So many ladies hire other people’s houses these days, their own not being suitably impressive, one never knows.” She opened her pale eyes wide. “How can one possibly assess someone if one does not even know if the furniture belongs to them? The whole of society is coming to pieces.” She leaned forward. “I must learn more about this Jack Radley. Who is he, do you know? I must admit I know nothing about him whatever.” She seemed oblivious of the rest of them, and Charlotte caught a gleam of amusement in Lord Byam’s eyes, but no malice.

Eleanor drew in her breath to reply, half turning toward Charlotte as if to introduce her, but the duchess plunged on.

“He isn’t radical, is he?” She stared fiercely. “I can’t abide radicals—so unreliable. What does Lord Anstiss think? Perhaps I shall give a ball myself. I shall invite Mr. Radley, and of course Mr. Fitzherbert, and see for myself. Shall you be at Henley this year?”

“Oh indeed,” Eleanor replied. “I love watching the boats, and if the weather is agreeable it is a delightful way to spend a summer day. Shall you, your grace?”

“But of course. I have three daughters still to marry, and as we all know, regattas can be splendid for that.” She nodded meaningfully. “Lord Randolph Churchill proposed to Miss Jerome after only four days’ acquaintance at the Cowes regatta.”

“I heard the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough were very much against it,” Eleanor replied. “Although of course that
was some time ago now. And it did not prevent the marriage.”

“Well she was an American,” the duchess pointed out reasonably. “And not everyone is prepared to marry an American, no matter how beautiful she is or how much he may need the money. I am not at all sure I should. But I shall certainly be at Henley, you may depend upon it.”

She glanced around for the first time to make sure her daughters were still with her. On assuring herself they were, she resumed the conversation. “And that is one place one may be reasonably certain one will not run into the fearful Mrs. Langtry. All over London ladies are obliged to invite the wretched creature, or the Prince of Wales and the whole Marlborough House set will not come. It is too bad.”

“I would rather forgo the privilege than be obliged to invite someone I did not care for,” Eleanor said candidly.

“Well of course one would,” the duchess agreed tartly. “But we cannot all afford to. Your position is assured, and you have no daughters to marry. I cannot indulge myself so. The duke, may the Lord bless him, has neither wit nor influence to obtain a position in the government, and I am obliged to society for all my entertainment.” She screwed up her face in an expression of intensity. “Have you any acquaintance with Mr. Oscar Wilde and that very eccentric set? I hear they are quite marvelously amusing, and of course pretend to be very wicked.”

She lifted her shoulders. “Young Fitzherbert told me it is all a pose. He associated with them, before he agreed to stand for Parliament, but he had to give it up. There is a fine marriage proposed. Her mother is delighted.” Her voice cooled and her face lost its enthusiasm. “Quite a feather in her cap. Though I admit Odelia—if that is her name—is a handsome enough girl and knows precisely what to do, what to say, and how to dress; always an advantage. Don’t you think so, Mrs….” She turned to Charlotte, her wide blue eyes full of inquiry.

“Mrs. Pitt,” Charlotte supplied. “Mrs. Radley is my sister.” She thought she had better explain herself before anything further was said which might prove embarrassing. “Indeed, there is always an advantage in being well taught, and biddable.”

The duchess looked at her with acute perception.

“Pray do not humor me, Mrs. Pitt. I fear I have overstated my case. It is good in brides; it becomes a bore in a married woman.” She snorted very slightly. “No one ever had any pleasure out of life being biddable. I think I shall inquire more into Mr. Oscar Wilde. If I am forced to entertain the disreputable, I had rather it were a man, and a wit, than a harlot any day.” Her eyebrows shot up. “What on earth use have I for yet another beautiful woman of amenable virtue? I am pleased to have met you, Mrs. Pitt. You must call upon me some time. Lady Byam. Come Annabel, Amelia, Jane. For goodness sake, child, stop gazing at that fatuous young man. He is nobody at all. Jane! Do you hear me?” And without even seeing Peter Valerius she swept away again as if all sails were set and the wind behind her.

Charlotte looked at Eleanor and saw in her face humor, exasperation and a relish in the wide eccentricities of people. No words whatever were necessary, or would have been appropriate.

With a smile Charlotte excused herself and went to ascertain that the guests were still enjoying themselves and that the band was still more or less in tune, the refreshments had not yet run out, and no scandal was brewing amid the flowers or in the shaded corners where young couples were sitting in the long pauses between dances.

It was half an hour later and nearly one o’clock when she came across Herbert Fitzherbert and his fiancée, Odelia Morden, in one of those softly lit spaces provided for just such a purpose. Odelia was sitting in a corner chair half shaded by a huge potted palm, its exotic leaves throwing a dark pattern over her creamy shoulders and the pale billows of her gown, satin glimmering as if moonlit, petticoats like foam around her. It crossed Charlotte’s mind to wonder if she had arranged herself so artistically on purpose, or by happy chance. Perhaps it was one of the arts the duchess had referred to.

BOOK: Belgrave Square
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