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Authors: Rosemary Stevens

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Death on a Silver Tray

BOOK: Death on a Silver Tray
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DEATH ON A SILVER TRAY

 

Rosemary Stevens

 

Chapter One

 

The boredom that so frequently troubles me was, for the moment, joyously at bay. With an expression of good humour firmly in place, I hurried out of the small art gallery in Pall Mall and turned in the direction of White’s Club.

I had a mission and meant to accomplish it.

“Mr. Brummell! Oh, Mr. Brummell!” A young woman seated in an open carriage frantically waved her lace handkerchief with one gloved hand, trying to cpture my attention. Above the noise in the street, she called to her driver. “Stop, coachman, do stop! I wish to speak with Beau Brummell.”

Her servant obeyed the command, guiding the horses across the cobblestones until the carriage came to a halt by the curb.

So great was my desire to reach White’s, that for the barest instant I considered ignoring the woman, whom I recognized as Lady Kincade. I immediately discarded the idea.

It would never do for me to shun her. If I did, and the slight was observed by a member of Society, or the Polite World as it is sometimes called, a calamity Lady Kincade did not deserve might ensue. No one would send her cards of invitation to their dinners or parties, thinking I had found her less than acceptable.

Absurd, you say? Well, privately I agree with you. But why should I not revel in the power the English aristocracy of 1805 has given me? I am only human, you know.

Besides, Lady Kincade is a pretty butterfly of a girl, hardly out of the schoolroom and newly married. She wants to cut a dash among the
Beau Monde
and make her husband proud.

Of course, she should never have boldly hailed me in the street that way, but, somehow the sight of her cherry and white striped gown, matching cherry-colored bonnet, and the face of an angel, made one forget such things.

I stepped to the door of her carriage, swept off my tall hat and bowed. “Good afternoon, Lady Kincade. What a brave girl you are, facing a chilly late September day in an open vehicle.”

She giggled. “La, Mr. Brummell, you know we ladies feel it is not fashionable to be seen in a heavy wrap. And I will suffer any inconvenience to be stylish.”

That was a fact. Her pale flesh had a bluish cast and bumps from the cold. I repressed a desire to hand her my greatcoat.

“My husband and I are on the point of leaving the city for Brighton, even though there are still people in town.”

By this Lady Kincade did not mean that London only had a few souls haunting its streets. Quite the contrary was true. Scores of men and women populated London. Lady Kincade referred to those genteel people in the highest circles who tended to drift off to their country estates after the social season was over.

Her lips formed a pout at the thought of missing any London entertainments, but then her face cleared. “Kincade has heard rumors that the Prince is going to the seaside town and we want to be ahead of the crowd.” She looked at me expectantly.

“Wise of you, I am sure,” I said casually.

She clapped her hands in a youthful display of enthusiasm. “Then the Prince must intend on going to Brighton. You are his closest friend and would know his plans,” she said with a delighted smile. She reached over and picked up a package from the seat beside her. “I beg that you will indulge me with another favor and examine this cloth I just purchased.”

I dutifully spent the next few minutes pondering whether the marigold silk or the honey-yellow crepe would be better with Lady Kincade’s complexion. Inspecting the costly materials, I became caught up in their beauty.

At length she said, “No wonder you are the arbiter of fashion and called ‘the Beau.’ You possess the most exquisite taste, Mr. Brummell. I hope I shall see you before long in Brighton.”

“Surely Fate will not deny me the pleasure, my lady,” I told her and, with a last bow, I strolled away.

Yes, she did flatter me to no end, I suppose. Manfully, I contrived to suffer through it. Nevertheless, I turned onto St. James’s Street where I was less likely to be waylaid by any female. Ladies simply do not parade up and down the street where gentlemen’s clubs are prevalent. Should a lady walk or drive her carriage past these male sanctuaries, she would be inviting comment on her person. Very fast behavior indeed.

Fading sunlight filtered through the fog and soot that perpetually plagues London. I gave a mental nod of thanks to my indispensable valet, Robinson. He had had the foresight to lay out my black velvet greatcoat when I told him I intended to visit Talbot’s art gallery. My bones detest cold weather.

On the other hand, I cursed the sedan-chair maker who had assured me my new vehicle would be ready two weeks ago. I have no patience with those who make promises they cannot or will not keep. When all is told, a man is only as good as his word.

I vowed then and there that if the merchant failed to produce the chair shortly, word would rapidly spread through London that Beau Brummell had declared W. Griffin, Sedan-chair Maker to His Majesty King George III,
unfashionable
.

I am not stretching the truth when I say a merchant would sooner spit on a duke than have such an adjective applied to his place of business by me.
En garde
, Mr. Griffin!

Arriving at my destination, I slowed my pace and ambled into that exclusive terrain of four hundred and fifty privileged gentlemen, White’s Club.

We gather here not just for convivial conversation, but also to discuss topics of a broader scale: politics, literature, science, drama.

White’s is, of course, still a good place to read one of the myriad of newspapers kept there, or to place a wager in White’s famous Betting Book as to, say, which opera dancer might bestow her favors on which peer of the realm first. Important matters, you understand.

I stood for a moment, no longer, or I risked being hailed by another acquaintance, on the threshold of the club’s morning room. I looked among the potted palms, the dark, heavy furniture, and the green, baize-covered tables where fortunes have been won and lost, searching for my friend, Petersham. He was not among the card players, where he could usually be found.

I did not trouble myself to step back to the billiard room. Only on rare occasions can the viscount be roused to such a vigorous activity as billiards.

I lifted my Venetian gold pocketwatch by its chain and checked the time. Petersham never leaves his house before six in the evening. It was fifteen minutes past six.

“Delbert, has Lord Petersham arrived yet?”

The footman sprang from his place and bowed his white-wigged head. “He has, Mr. Brummell. His lordship is abovestairs in the coffee room. And, sir, ‘He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar.’“

I paused a moment. “
Othello
. Thank you, Delbert.” Trust White’s to have a footman who quotes Shakespeare. Though he continues to try, Delbert has not yet caught me out.

I handed Delbert my hat, my walking stick with the gold lion’s head, my kidskin gloves, and my greatcoat, then ascended the stairs.

Here I found the languid viscount in a leather armchair next to a comfortable fire reading a copy of
The Gentlemen’s Magazine
. I eased myself with practiced grace into a matching chair. I am blessed with reasonable height and a frame still lean, despite the zeal with which I appreciate fine cooking.

Shaking my head with mock dismay, I asked, “When are you going to shave, Petersham? Or are you hoping to flap those things and fly?”

Viscount Petersham tossed the magazine aside and patted his side-whiskers complacently. “Bothers you, don’t it, that I’m not one who will follow your fashion dictates.” He favored me with one of his famous winning smiles. I may have a highly sought-after smile myself, but it is really nothing out of the common way. Petersham’s whole face brightens when he grins, delighting the recipient.

“A gentleman should be clean-shaven. Are you hiding something under that forest of hair?” I asked in a teasing tone. Then, because I am, sadly, a perfectionist, and one with the added burden of having a sharp eye for detail, I could not resist adding, “Oh, and by the way, the left side has been trimmed shorter than the right.”

I knew he would not take this observation badly. He and I first met back in the late l790s when we both served under the Prince of Wales in the Tenth Light Dragoons. Some of the officers had made sport of Petersham because, although he is a tall and handsome fellow, he is not known for his physical strength and in fact suffers from asthma. I cannot stand a bully and often found myself coming to Petersham’s defense. Our resulting friendship has grown over the years.

 “Something to hide? I?” the viscount replied with false severity. He stroked his whiskers as if checking for the uneven length I had mentioned. “Why, I am the most amiable and blameless of men. My foremost passion in life is snuff boxes.”

I signaled a footman to bring a bottle of claret. Petersham had given me exactly the opening I needed. “Speaking of snuff boxes, I saw a particularly charming one this afternoon.”

Lord Petersham dropped his hands from his whiskers, instantly alert to the news. This is a lad who has a different snuff box for every day of the year. True gentlemen disdain smoking tobacco, but the taking of snuff is a fashionable habit, one, if I might add without seeming immodest, that I have helped raise to an art form.

 At the moment, I did not miss Petersham’s air of excitement. Indeed, I had counted on it. “A precious little gold and enamel box with an uncommon scene portrayed on the lid,” I elaborated. “It looked to be Venus as a mermaid reposing on a shell done in mother-of-pearl. Matched black pearls adorned the four corners of the box.”

The viscount actually exerted himself to lean forward in his chair. “Whose was it?”

I took a sip of claret before I answered, savouring the flavour. There is no better liquid refreshment. Unless, of course, it is aged brandy, a good Madeira, or canary wine. My motto is, “When your spirits are low, get another bottle.”

But, back to the matter at hand. I replied to the viscount’s question. “Who the box belongs to is a puzzle, Petersham. You see, I was at Talbot’s Art Gallery when I noticed it. Mr. Talbot has acquired a private collection and the snuff box is among its contents. He is about to put it up for auction.” I saw a flash of recognition cross the viscount’s face.

“Must be Sidwell’s. I heard he was running short after high play at the gaming tables. It don’t surprise me that he’s resorted to selling off valuables.”

Nodding as if in possession of this information all along, I took another sip—very well, perhaps it was more of a gulp—of wine.

Petersham stared off into the distance. “I know that Sidwell, like you, is mad for paintings. But I never thought the old cove would have such a prime snuff box. Say!” he cried suddenly, turning back to me with a look of horror dawning on his face, “You wouldn’t be thinking of bidding on it, would you?”

“Rest assured, my friend, that while you know I collect the occasional snuff box, I would never bid against you.” Then, as if the matter held little interest for me, I said, “Though, now that you mention it, there is a painting I am half inclined to bid on.”

Petersham took the bait. “Which one?”

“A lovely Perronneau, which would enhance my modest collection. It is of a girl and her kitten. I have a fondness for animals, you know, and own a few of Stubbs’s paintings of dogs, foxes, and horses. I feel I should like the variety of having a painting depicting a cat.”

Petersham supported the idea without delay.

We looked up from our conversation as a particular confidante of Petersham’s approached us. The man, whom I had seen about, and of whom I had a vague recollection, was Lord Munro. He was of average height and possessed very pale, almost white-blond hair which he wore in a wispy style. He lingered a few feet away from where we were seated, his gaze on the viscount. Just precisely what their relationship is, I have no idea. Sometimes it is better not to inquire about these things.

Petersham excused himself and rose. He spoke to his friend in a low voice, his lips close to the other’s ear. Lord Munro placed a possessive hand on Petersham’s sleeve, then he nodded and moved away.

“Sorry for the interruption, Brummell,” Petersham said, returning to his seat. “Munro is feeling neglected and wanted to make plans to see the fireworks tomorrow evening at Vauxhall Gardens. We haven’t been to Vauxhall for a while.”

Petersham and I resumed our chat and discovered we were both to attend the same musical party later in the evening. After we parted, I felt exhilarated at having accomplished the first part of my mission. I had no doubt the viscount would make my desire to own the Perronneau painting known in aristocratic circles. That would increase the odds that I would be the sole bidder. No one in the exclusive Mayfair area of London in which I run tame would think the painting important enough to bid against me.

Devious, you say? Well, I admit I can be sly in getting what I want. And, lest you think me a cad, I confess I did feel a twinge of guilt over my methods. But really, what harm had I done? Petersham benefited by our conversation as much as I did. He gained the knowledge of the existence of a snuff box sure to send him into transports of joy.

BOOK: Death on a Silver Tray
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