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CHAPTER ONE

London, October 1716

In which Our Heroine supervises a period of general mourning and is unexpectedly reunited with certain acquaintances, both welcome and unwelcome.

 

In order to place events before my reader in proper order, I fear I must begin at that most solemn of affairs — my uncle’s funeral reception.

“How terrible it all is for you, poor child!” The latest woman in black to arrive in our caught up Olivia’s face in a vice consisting of her powdered cheek and gloved hand and squeezed.

“Thank you for your sympathy,” murmured Olivia as she extricated herself. We had rehearsed this and several other useful phrases that morning while lacing each other into our stiff black dresses. It is unfortunately the case that persons at such a melancholy reception are not required by Custom to keep a polite distance. Custom does however require that those upon whom such vigorous sympathy is lavished make a show of appreciation.

This is neither the last nor the least funereal matter to be governed by the iron dictates of Custom. For instance, Custom also declared that bereaved women should not walk with the hearse or attend the burial. Therefore, my father and any other gentlemen mourner who may, or may not, have actually known him could accompany Uncle Pierpont’s earthly remains from church to burying ground. At the same time, my aunt who was merely the one who had borne his children, managed his household and stood by him through thick and thin, was required to sit in a parlor, dressed and veiled in unrelieved black and receive a crowd of ladies while trying to be polite about the death of her husband.

She looked nothing less than shattered.

Olivia stood beside her mother’s chair. My fair English rose of a cousin did not look shattered. Neither was her visage pallid, wan, drawn, or any other dolorous adjective generally deemed appropriate for such occasions. My cousin instead looked increasingly furious. This worried me. Olivia never had overmuch control of her tongue at the best of times.

“Oh, poor Delphine!” The black clad matron turned to my Aunt Pierpont and squeezed both her hands with the same energy she had expended on Olivia’s face. “He was such a good man! You must be prostrate with grief!”

My visibly-not-prostrate aunt murmured some answer. This was my cue to insert myself into the conversation.

“May I offer you a cup of punch?” I kept my tone gentle and melancholy while leading the woman away before Olivia could dredge up any remark not on the list approved by Custom. This was my chief funereal function — to keep the line of arrivals moving and make sure no one was left without brandy punch, cake, cold meats, or someone with whom to converse while we waited for the men to return from seeing Uncle Pierpont laid to rest.

I set our latest mourner milling among the others so she could join in the conversation about such pious topics as the coffin and the decorations which her fellow mourners all carried on in hushed tones.

All, that is, except one. Unfortunately, this one also happened to be my uncle’s mother.             “You’ve spent too much!” The Dowager Mrs. Pierpont shouted as she stumped back across the threshold from dining room to pallor, having consumed what was approximately her twentieth slice of ham. “What is all this nonsense?” She swung her stick out and caught one of the lengths of plain black stuff that covered the parlor mirror. The poor parlor maid, Dulcey, squeaked like she’d been struck, and ran to steady cloth and mirror.

I spared a selfish moment to be thankful that this pious and thrifty woman was my grandfather’s second wife, and so no blood relation to me. My mother, Elizabeth, had been borne of his first wife.

Aunt Pierpont had no such consolation. This woman was her late husband’s mother, her own mother-in-law, and therefore could not be ordered off the premises, or sent up to bed without supper. My aunt’s remaining option was to clutch her black handkerchief more tightly and murmur. “I only wanted to do what is decent.”

Old Mother Pierpont snorted. “Decent? It’s frippery! My son needed no fripperies in life! What’s the point of throwing away good money on ‘em now he’s dead? Never a lick of sense in you, Delphine,” she added, lowering herself carefully into the empty chair at my aunt’s side.

“But dear Grandmother,” said Olivia from between clenched teeth. “You know we paid for none of it. You should be pleased at all the savings.”

Olivia’s words might have been laced with as much vinegar as sugar, but they were also the truth. My father, Jonathan Fitzroy had neglected to serve advance notice of intent to return to my life. Now that he had returned, however, he proved, most considerately, to have plenty of money at his command. This granted him the ability him to pay for a funeral service, coffin, carriages, plumes, gloves, announcements, several men of assorted stations in black coats, black draperies with which to adorn the reception rooms, and all the other trappings deemed necessary for conveying the box from parlor to church to burying ground so that the family might take suitable pride in the status of the dead.

The dead, I rather imagine, do not care, but they have no say in the matter.

Whatever reply Old Mother Pierpont meant to make to my cousin’s rejoinder was cut off when the new footman opened the doors again. This time, he revealed a pair of richly but soberly clad young women whom I recognized — instantly and entirely unexpectedly. In fact, had I been walking, I would have stopped in my tracks.

“Peggy,” murmured Olivia. “Aren’t those Molly Lepell and Sophy Howe?”

I nodded in mute response. Against all expectation, my sister maids of honor had arrived.

Like me, Molly and Sophy were in waiting to Her Royal Highness, Caroline, Princess of Wales. They might share the same court position, but these two were in many ways opposites. Molly was the epitome of the maid of honor “type.” Like myself, and the fourth of our clan Mary Bellenden, she was smallish and dark-haired with sloping shoulders and pale skin. Looking at us together, Molly, Mary and I could all have been taken for sisters, or at least cousins.

This made sense in a rather unflattering way. Our chief function after all, was to be ornaments to the court, therefore we reflected the taste of those who selected the ornaments.

Sophy Howe was the exception to the maid of honor “type.” She was the tallest of us by several inches, and easily the thinnest, although thanks to some expensive and well-constructed corsetry she managed to appear well curved where it was considered to count the most. Her hair was quite golden. This shade, as near as I could tell, was entirely natural to her. The same could not be said for the pallor of her face. That exquisite mask of cosmetics and powder disguised a mind more calculating than any mathematician’s, and it did not take a second glance to see those quick, glittering calculations were now being leveled against me.

It was, however, Molly Lepell who stepped up first to our little receiving line. “Hello, Peggy.” She leaned in to brush her cheek against mine. “I couldn’t stop her, so thought I better come as well,” she whispered as she let me go.

This was the final point of distinction between these two maids. Molly Lepell was my best friend at court.   Sophy Howe may not have been my worst enemy, but she had most definitely applied for the post. Unfortunately, in these circumstances, I was as nearly as helpless to do anything about Sophy as my aunt was about loud, blunt mother-in-law.

Nearly, but not quite.

I swallowed a number of unpleasant thoughts, stepped straight into Sophy’s path, embraced her and breathed words of sisterly welcome into her delicate ear.

“Make any sort of show, ask any inappropriate question, and I will pitch you out onto your derriere.”

Sophy hugged me back, hard. “Why, Margaret, one might believe something was not right here.”

I smiled as I pulled away and answered only with my eyes. Had Sophy been able to read that message, she would not have been able to repeat it in polite company.

I turned to my aunt. “Aunt Pierpont, here are Molly Lepell and Sophy Howe. They are also in waiting to Princess Caroline. Molly, Sophy, may I introduce my aunt, Lady Delphine Pierpont, and Mrs. Amelia Pierpont, and I believe you know my cousin Olivia.”

Aunt Pierpont glanced up. “So kind.”

Molly smiled softly and curtsied, then moved on to make similar gestures to Olivia.

Sophy took my aunt’s hand. “Such a tragic accident,” she murmured. “It must have been such a terrible shock. How terribly fortunate there were so few persons in the house at the time.”

Old Mother Pierpont thumped her cane. “Ha! Sloth, that’s what it was! Sloth and idleness. If those serving fools — not to mention these two — had been home as they should be, the thing would have been smothered in a trice! But oh, no! Our fine miss must be gadding about the town, getting up to who knows what fancy tricks!”

Sophy arched her perfectly plucked brows and turned to Old Mother Pierpont, clearly fascinated by her succinct assessment of the family’s misfortune.

“It was indeed most tragic,” I said. Partly this was because I could see my aunt’s chin tremble behind her veil. Partly it was a desperate attempt to keep both Old Mother Pierpont and my cousin quiet.

“We must take this as a lesson that life is brief and fragile,” announced Molly, in an attempt to help end the conversation. “We can none of us know when the final blow will fall.”

“I know where the first blow will fall,” muttered Olivia.

If Sophy heard this, she entirely failed to take the hint. “I’m sure Sir Oliver was a most diligent man,” she said to Mrs. Pierpont. “And that everyone did their best. A simple mistake with a with a candle, no doubt…?”

“Ha!” Old Mother Pierpont snapped and thumped. “Candle! Not likely and who was there to do their best, I ask you? Not a one of ‘em at their post, not one of ‘em worth a bent farthing! But you’ll see.” She nodded sagely. “You’ll see what’s what when it all comes down to it.”

“Oh, I’m certain of that,” replied Sophy. “The truth will out.”

“And that is a great comfort this time of trial,” announced Olivia through clenched teeth. “Especially coming from one who…”

“Oh, dear, Olivia, you have gone quite pale.” I caught up my cousin’s elbow. Over her shoulder, I shot a glance at Molly, attempting by sheer force of will to urge her to get Sophy out of the house, or at least out of receiving line. “Come, let me get you your salts. It has all been too much…”

Spouting this and many other untruths, I dragged my cousin out of the parlor, up the stairs and into her room.

“Ghouls!” Olivia cried as I slammed the door shut. “All of them! Nothing but a flock of ghouls!” She plumped herself down on the edge of her bed and folded her arms. “Can one disown a grandmother, Peggy? She’s always been awful, but this is beyond the limits!”

I couldn’t disagree with this sentiment. At the same time, it wasn’t Mrs. Pierpont who was uppermost in my thoughts as I sat beside Olivia. That position belonged to Sophy Howe.

When she’d walked into the parlor, I’d assumed Sophy had come either to gloat, or satisfy her unwholesome curiosity. Possibly both. Now, though, I was less certain. Just before Uncle Pierpont’s death, Sophy had been trying to ferret out some information about his private bank, and about me. Now she was here at the funeral, trying to draw out the spiteful and talkative Old Mother Pierpont about the fire.

Sophy had also recently taken up with my former betrothed, Sebastian Sandford.

“Peggy?” said Olivia. “You’ve got that look on your face. You’re worried about something.”       I pulled my mind back to the present and did my best to wipe “that look” off my face. “I’m just worried about your mother,” I told her, which was true. “But, it will be over soon. Dr. Wallingford will come back with the men. He’ll say a prayer and we’ll have supper, and then we’ll be able to shove the whole pack of them out the door.” Politely, of course.            But even once that door closed, it wouldn’t really be over, and we both knew it. Nothing regarding Uncle Pierpont’s death would be over today, or for many months to come. Sophy’s presence here and her insinuating questions were grim proof that rumor’s regarding Uncle Pierpont and his business dealings had flown abroad.

Olivia screwed her face up tight with the effort to hold back the tears, but in vain. My cousin’s strength deserted her, and Olivia began to cry. I gathered her at once into my arms and held her close.

“I don’t know what to do, Peggy,” she wailed. “He was my father…he was my father and he was a villain and I don’t know what to do!”

Her words were garbled, but I understood her perfectly. We are told daily that the dutiful daughter loves her father without stint, measure or question. Olivia did not love her father thus. Sir Oliver Pierpont had been a hard, taciturn, unpleasant man who would go to extremes to enforce his will upon his household. Arguments between them were frequent, and a few days before his death, Olivia had walked out of his house, intending never to return.

For all that, he remained her father. No sermon or homily yet written could make sense of the confusion between what one should feel and what one does feel upon such a loss of such a person.

“It’s all right, Olivia.” I murmured. “You don’t need to do anything. Not right now.”

“But mother’s all alone down there with those…those creatures.” Olivia pulled herself away, and wiped at her eyes and nose with the heel of her hand. “And Grandmother. I have to…”

“I just told you, you don’t have to do anything.” I handed her the kerchief I had tucked up my sleeve against just such an emergency. “Stay here, be prostrate for awhile. I can keep the creatures at bay.”

“Even grandmother?”

“I shall turn upon her the full force of my maid of honor courtesies,” I lifted my chin in the loftiest of fashions. “Should that fail, I’ll get Templeton to pour gin into her punch; hers and Sophy’s. Once they pass out, we can hide the bodies in the cellar.”

This earned me a wan smile, and a squeeze for my hand. “Thank you, Peggy.”

I pressed Olivia’s hand in return. Then, I stood and let her see how well I could assume an air of grave and pious dignity before I glided slowly from the room.

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