Read The Magnificent Masquerade Online

Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

The Magnificent Masquerade

Prologue

One day, without any apparent provocation, Lord
Birkinshaw decided to marry off his daughter. This decision was astonishing,
for the girl hadn't reached her eighteenth birthday and was not yet
"out." However, the idea did not, as his wife later accused, come to
him "out of the clear blue sky"-in fact, he'd retorted, the sky
hadn't shown a scintilla of blue that whole dank day-but was the result of the
confluence of several minor incidents which seemed to him to lead inexorably to
that rather major decision. "And if you want the truth," he told his
wife roundly, in strong defense of a position which, no matter how
insupportable, would not be changed once he'd taken it, "that row we had
this morning might well have been the incident that touched off the entire
matter."

This was not quite the truth. Although the
argument with his wife had been somewhere in the back of his mind, the incident
that triggered his astounding decision had occurred later that afternoon, at
his club. It started with, of all things, the loud, clear ejaculation of a
curse. Someone had shouted "Oh, damnation!" and the sound had
reverberated shockingly throughout the club's high-ceilinged rooms. It was not
that the words themselves were shocking (for many more-salacious epithets had
been uttered thousands of times over the gaming tables), but that the rooms had
been so remarkably still a moment before.

Afternoons were always rather quiet at the
gentlemen's clubs on

St. James
Street
. Although one could find gamesters at their
play at any hour of the day or night, their numbers were few in the afternoons,
most gentlemen reserving themselves for the headier excitement that filled the
gaming rooms during the evening hours. In the afternoons, there were often more
gentlemen dozing in easy chairs in the clubs' lounges than could be found at
the gaming tables.

This was certainly true that rainy January
afternoon at White's, the formidably fashionable club at Number 37. The famous
bow windows (which Raggett, the proprietor, had installed five years before, in
1811, and in which the Dandies of London so frequently exhibited themselves
while they eyed the female strollers on the street below) were on this day
completely deserted. The dining rooms were also empty, and only one table was
in use in the gaming rooms. So unpleasant was the weather that only a handful
of gentlemen could be found snoozing in the lounges. One of these was Thomas
Jessup, Viscount Birkinshaw. He'd folded his hands over his protuberant
stomach, stretched his legs out before him, covered his face with a
handkerchief to indicate to anyone who wished to converse with him that he was
not to be disturbed, and had gone to sleep.

If one is to understand fully the progression
of events, one must realize that Lord Birkinshaw was not compelled to venture
out in the rain to nap at his club; he had a perfectly satisfactory town house
in

Curzon Street
in which to make himself comfortable. His town house contained a perfectly
satisfactory sitting room which in turn contained a perfectly satisfactory
armchair in which he could quite comfortably snooze. But his town house also
contained his wife, and it was to escape her carping that he'd taken himself
out in the rain and made his way to his club.

On this day the subject of his wife's diatribe
had been their daughter. The chit was in her fourth year at Miss Marchmont's
Academy for Young Ladies and evidently causing as much commotion there as she
had when she'd been living at home. Just the other day, he'd received a bill
from Berry Brothers for a half case of French wine and several dozen pastries
which had been delivered to the school. His wife, puzzled by the bill, had sent
a letter of inquiry to the headmistress of the school, a horsey-faced female
named Marchmont. The reply had come this morning. His daughter, it seemed, was
the culprit who'd ordered the wine and the sweets. The minx had managed to
smuggle them into the school in a laundry basket! Then she and her cronies had
held a midnight party up in the school's attic and had become quite boisterous.
They were, of course, promptly discovered, but by that time they were all
tipsy, and even as they were led off to bed they could not be prevented from
singing bawdy songs at the tops of their voices.

However, in her letter, the headmistress had
assured the parents that they had no cause to upset themselves over the
incident. The matter was not of any serious concern. They should not, she
warned, make too much of it, such as deluding themselves that the incident
signified in their daughter an incipient addiction to alcohol. There was
nothing more significant in the incident than an outbreak of youthful high
spirits.

The girls had been appropriately reprimanded,
their daughter in particular, and she'd accepted her punishment in a spirit of
good sportsmanship. The letter concluded with the statement that their
daughter's tendency to youthful prankishness did not in any way keep her from
ranking above average in her scholastic standing.

As far as Lord Birkinshaw was concerned, that
should have been that. The end of the story. To him, the matter was nothing
more than a rather good joke. But his wife did not agree. She'd spent the
morning nagging at him about it. "The girl has to be taken in hand,"
she insisted. "Youthful prankishness, indeed! She's almost eighteen. It's
time for her to put by that sort of nonsense! Do you know what will happen when
word gets out that Kitty is the sort of creature who tempts her friends to
drink and carouse? No bachelor worth a fig will come near her! Do you want your
daughter to end her days a dotty old maid?"

But Lord Birkinshaw didn't see what he could do
about it. What did his wife expect of him? Did she want him to take a whip to
the girl? After more than an hour of such haranguing, he did what any man of
sense would do-he banged out of the house.

His wife, he told himself as he walked to his
club through an icy rain, had an uncanny knack of cutting up his peace. The
disturbing feelings she'd generated remained with him all through his walk and
even after his arrival at White's. It took him several minutes to unwind before
he was able to sleep. And even then he found no peace-his dreams, too, were
affected. He found himself immersed in a nightmare in which he was hosting an
enormous wedding feast at which the guests were gorging on unbelievably huge
quantities of
Berry

Brothers' pastry and the most expensive French
champagne, his wife was glaring at him from the far end of a table a half-mile
long, his daughter (the bride) was swinging drunkenly from the chandelier, and,
worst of all, he himself, having forgotten to put on his britches, was parading
around the room in his smalls. It was then that he heard someone say, quite
loudly and from very close by, "Oh, damnation!" He sat up with a
start. That voice had certainly not emanated from his dream. He pulled the
handkerchief from his face and found himself staring at Lord Edgerton, seated
just opposite him. "What's that?" he asked, the last vestiges of his
dream dissipating into the air. "Did you say something, Greg?"

Gregory William Wishart, Earl of Edgerton, was
another regular member of White's easy-chair set, although he was much younger
than most of them. Only five-and-thirty, Edgerton was the head of a household
even more troublesome than Birkinshaw's. With a dithery mother, a brother who
was always getting into scrapes, and a sister who was convinced she teetered on
the brink of serious illness, Edgerton, too, used the club to escape the
tensions of his household, at least whenever he came to town from his Suffolk
estate. At this moment, he was holding a letter clutched in his right hand,
while his left supported his forehead, the fingers buried in a mass of dark,
gray-streaked hair. "I'm sorry for waking you, Birkinshaw," he
apologized. "It's just this deuced message I've received from
Cambridge
. My brother's
been sent down again."

"You don't mean it! What's the boy done
this time?"

"They don't say. But it must have been
deplorable. The last time Toby was sent down, he'd been found running a
gambling den in a room right behind the chapel! This must have been worse, for
this message informs me that it's for good this time. I'm afraid the Honorable
Tobias Wishart's muffed his last chance. Dash it all, I'd like to give my
deuced brother a good thrashing!"

"I know how you feel, old fellow. My wife
was saying the same thing about our daughter. Practically suggested I take a
whip to the girl."

"Oh?"

"Yes, a whip! What a wild, trouble-making
minx she is, to be sure. Seems the chit bought champagne, had it smuggled into
the school somehow, and then she and her cronies all got drunk as lords."

"Good God! Did they send her down,
too?"

"No, they didn't, for which I thank my
lucky stars. Don't know what life'd be like if she were sent home. We'd
scarcely pass a day without a crisis. Last time our Kitty was home the to-do
she stirred up was unbelievable. First she made eyes at one of the footmen, who
promptly lost his head over her and had to be sacked. Then she ran up a bill at
Hoby's for nine nine, mind you!-pairs of boots. Then she decided she wanted to
prepare a Charlotte Americaine with her own hands and caused such a stir in the
kitchen that we almost lost our cook. And, finally, she borrowed her mother's
emerald brooch and then sold it to a cent-per-cent and gave the money to help a
friend elope to Scotland, which brought the friend's parents to our house in
such a state that I feared they would commit murder-and all this, mind you, in
a mere three days' time!"

Lord Edgerton grinned, although he shook his
head in sympathy. "Amazing, isn't it, the mischief youngsters can concoct
these days? I sometimes feel, when I compare myself with my brother, that I and
my generation must have lacked imagination. I don't think we were capable of
concocting such scrapes. Toby, when he was home for his school holiday, ran up
a bill at Tattersall's for over a thousand pounds, made some poor young lady
fall into hysterics at the dinner table by telling her that the wine she'd just
drunk was really a love potion, and scandalized Lady Jersey by appearing at
Almack's in his riding clothes. And, I may add, that's the week he believed
himself to have been a model of good behavior!"

Birkinshaw snorted. "Young scamp! He needs
to be legshackled, that's what he needs. Once a fellow's leg-shackled, you know,
he's less likely to carry on. Responsibilities, you know. Marital duties.
Having to please someone besides himself. Having someone who'll call him to
account-who'll demand to know where he spent his time or his money. Having
someone who'll expect him to show his face at dinner and all that. You ought to
find him someone, Greg. Someone who . good God! Oh, I say! Greg, my boy, I
think I'm about to give birth to a splendid idea! A really splendid idea!"

"Are you indeed?" Lord Edgerton
laughed. "And what idea is that?"

"Marry your brother to my daughter! It'd
be the answer for both of them. Each one has enough spirit to tame the
other!"

"Come now, Birkinshaw, you can't be
serious. Your daughter's just a child! A mere schoolgirl, isn't she?"

"Turning eighteen this week. Her mother's
planning a comeout for her next season. We can make it a wedding instead."

Edgerton eyed the other man thoughtfully.
"What do you mean? Are you suggesting that we arrange the whole thing
ourselves? Without consulting the parties involved?"

"If we consult them, it'll never come to
pass. Youngsters like ours don't ever agree to do what's good for 'em. We
elders know best about these things. I've never approved of offspring making
their own decisions on the subject of marriage anyway. All they do when one
broaches the subject with them is moon on about finding someone who engages
their affections. Affections, indeed! As if falling in love is anything more
than a temporary fit of insanity! Stuff and nonsense, all of that love rot.
When it comes to wedlock, anyone under the age of thirty should be made to
follow parental instructions."

Lord Edgerton looked dubious. "I don't
know, Birkinshaw. It's something I'd have to think over..."

"Think over? What can you want to think
over? I tell you, Greg, it'd be the making of both of them. A perfect solution
to our problems. Even my wife would agree that it's an ideal cure for her
worries about ..." But at that moment Lord Birkinshaw's expression clouded
over, for an important objection suddenly occurred to him. "Hang it all,
now I think of it, I don't suppose she would ... ! Oh, well, perhaps the idea
is a bit hasty."

"Hasty? Have you thought of some
impediment?"

"It suddenly occurred to me that my wife
might not see the matter as I do. She has great plans for Kitty, you know.
Expects her to make an advantageous match. These women don't think a fellow's
even eligible unless he's very well to pass. Hate to say it, my boy, but I
don't think she'd consider your brother-what's his name? Toby?-I don't think
she'd think Toby a promising prospect, his being a second son and all that
..."

"As to that, Birkinshaw, I've given the
second-son problem a good deal of thought. I don't approve of the practice of
settling one's entire fortune on the eldest son and letting the younger ones
drift off without a penny. It's a downright crime to ingrain in the younger
sons the habits of luxury and then abruptly cut them off from the wherewithall
to indulge them. I won't do that to my brother. I intend to deal fairly by him.
I plan to settle twenty thousand pounds on him. That would give him a quite
satisfactory income, and, in addition, he'll some day come into a very
substantial estate from his mother."

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