Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield
My Lord Murderer
surveyed the hall with ill-disguised boredom. Dancing was not to Lord Jamison’s liking; in fact, it was he who had first been heard to utter the now-famous epithet that dancing represented society’s sanction—in public, vertical expression—of what were essentially private, horizontal desires. (Fortunately, the remark had been so widely and inaccurately repeated that its author’s identity had been forgotten.) He regretted already that he had let his sister persuade him to attend her ball. The hour was still early, but he had already discovered that the card games in the side rooms were insipid (his sister never permitting anything more daring than silver-loo), the buffet tables were overcrowded, the champagne too tame, and the dancing—well, enough said on the subject of dancing. He should have known that his sister’s annual ball would be no livelier this year than it had been in the past. But he knew he dared not take his leave for yet another hour.
Lady Hester Selby’s balls were always popular with the polite world of London, Lord Jamison’s views notwithstanding. Those who knew described them as “regular squeezes.” Her ballroom was one of the largest in London, a tremendous, cavernous place boasting three enormous French chandeliers which hung from the high ceiling on long brass chains, sixteen windows set high on the side walls, and a dance floor made of the finest oak parquet. Two rows of graceful, fluted columns ran along two sides of the dance floor, separating the dancers from those who only wanted to watch, to sit and chat, or to promenade around the room. Well-laden buffet tables were set up at the far end of the room, and no less than six small alcoves were set aside for cards.
But although his sister seemed always to have made provision for the entertainment and satisfaction of her other guests, she invariably did something to render
uncomfortable. This time it had been a Miss Calisher. He had no sooner arrived when Hetty had taken his arm and pulled him to the sofa where Miss Calisher and her mother were seated. The girl was pretty enough, but she had an aggressive manner and a loud, too-ready laugh. He had been forced into an interminable country dance with her. And as soon as he’d restored her to her mother, Hetty was back again, urging him to meet another of her wallflowers. This time he’d been adamant.
“But Drew, why do you think I invited you?” his dear sister had asked. “I need you to brighten the evening for a few of these young ladies. There are never enough desirable bachelors to go around, and what’s the good of my having a brother who’s rich, single and so devilishly handsome that all the silly geese simper over him, if he won’t put himself out a tiny bit to make his own sister’s ball a success?”
“I’m not in the least concerned with the success of your ball, and not a bit moved by what you probably think are flattering remarks,” he had told her roundly. “And if you’ve invited me just to use me in this odious way, it’s the last you’ll see of me at your annual squeezes!” And he had turned his back on her and walked to the nearest card room.
Now, with more than an hour to go before midnight (when he could feel safe in taking his leave), Drew leaned his broad shoulder against a nearby column and sighed. He thought briefly of slipping out quietly without taking leave of Hetty at all, but he dismissed the urge. She would descend on him first thing tomorrow and subject him to more than an hour of recriminations. Better to stand here until midnight than to face her on the morrow.
He looked across the room. There was Hetty, greeting a newcomer at the doorway. Drew’s boredom dropped away. Who was that
creature his sister was welcoming? The lady at the door was taller by a head than his diminutive sister, and her hair had a bronze-gold color that seemed to glow from some inner, suppressed life. It was pulled back somewhat severely from a pale, oval face whose features were strong yet perfectly proportioned, mature yet youthful. She wore a darkly-colored dress—but who cared to notice the dress?—cut low across softly-sloping shoulders and an exquisitely-modeled bosom. When she turned her head to greet a few acquaintances who were beginning to circle around her, Drew glimpsed a warm smile and the sparkle of eyes surprisingly dark in that pale face.
Hetty was leading her across to the row of sofas and chairs that Drew secretly called the Dowagers’ Circle. The two ladies were followed by a number of people who had recognized her and were hurrying over to greet her. Who on earth
she? How was it he had never seen her before, when obviously she was quite well known? He was almost tempted to cross the floor himself and demand that Hetty make him known to her. But no, he thought, she would probably turn out to be as insipid as the rest of this gathering. He would simply while away his enforced hour of attendance by watching her from a distance.
The lady seated herself. Hetty bustled about her solicitously, and the partly-deaf Lady Ogilvie, who was seated next to her, leaned close to hear the conversation. Now Freddie Knightsbridge was bowing to her. Drew leaned back against the pillar comfortably and grinned. It was not often that Freddie, prematurely grey and awkward in conversation with women, could be roused to play the gallant. Drew would enjoy watching him make a cake of himself on the dance floor. But the lady was shaking her head. She would not dance with him. Poor Freddie was bowing and walking away slowly, looking awkward and disappointed.
The lady was now smiling and chatting with Lady Ogilvie. Drew could see that her dress was a dark purple, much too dark a ballgown for such a young woman. Had she just come out of mourning? That would explain why she wasn’t dancing. Now his brother-in-law, Lord Selby, approached her. Again she smiled and shook her head. Lord Selby bowed politely and turned to Hetty. Drew could see Hetty gesturing toward the dance floor. He could almost hear her: If you were willing to appear on the dance floor with someone else, why not with me? Drew laughed out loud as his portly brother-in-law shrugged and permitted his wife to lead him to the dance floor, reluctance manifesting itself in every step he took. It wasn’t often that Hetty could so maneuver him, but fate had dropped him into her hands that time!
Good heavens, was that Lambie Aylmer approaching the lady in purple now? Not Sir Lambert Aylmer, the greatest fop, the biggest bore, the flattest flat in the room! The poor woman would be in for it now. She was about to be struck by “Lambie the Leech.” Drew watched in amused fascination as Sir Lambert bowed and scraped and begged and wheedled to no avail. The lady remained firm. Sir Lambert pulled up a chair. Drew could almost feel, from his vantage point across the room, the restrained annoyance of the lady as she shifted closer to Lady Ogilvie and turned away from Lambie. But Sir Lambert leaned toward her, interrupting the ladies’ conversation every half-minute. The lady made a gesture to the buffet table. Clever girl, thought Drew. She’s sending him away to fetch her some refreshment. Now she’ll get up and make her escape.
As he had anticipated, the lady rose. But Lady Ogilvie took her arm and detained her with a question. Before the exchange was over, Lambie was back with two glasses. The lady was caught again. Drew felt he could almost hear her sigh as she sat down again.
“There you are, Drew,” said a voice behind him. “What on earth are you staring at with that stupid grin on your face?”
Drew turned to find his friend, Wystan Farr, looking at him curiously through his quizzing glass. Drew laughed. “I look a fool, do I? Well, never mind. Just cast your eyes over there, Wys, and see what Lambie Aylmer has leeched on to.”
“There in the Dowagers’ Circle. See him?”
“Oh, yes. Now, I—” Wys suddenly drew in his breath in a gasp.
“Yes, I quite understand,” Drew said, amused. “She
take one’s breath away, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, but that’s not why I … er … Drew, old fellow, don’t you know her?”
“The lady in purple? Never saw her before in my life, I assure you. But never mind that now. Just watch our Lambie! She can’t rid herself of him, try as she may.”
But Wys was staring at Drew with a strange, arrested expression. Drew noted it with a flicker of surprise, but his mind was on the lady across the room. “Tell me, Wys,” he asked musingly, his eyes on the lady and her comic tormenter, “shall I bestir myself and rescue the fair damsel?”
Wys shook his head in alarm. “No, no, Drew, please! Not your affair at all. I wouldn’t go near her if I were you.”
Drew stared at him. “What’s the matter with you, Wys? It shouldn’t be too hard for me to find a ruse to separate her from her unwanted companion. What’s your objec—?” But before he could finish his sentence, his eye was caught by a movement of the lady in purple. “Oh, she’s getting up. I wonder if she’s leaving? Look at that, Wys! The Leech is still after her! This is too delicious—I must get her out of this. I’ll see you later.”
“No, Drew, you can’t! You don’t realize who she is!” Wys called urgently. But Drew was already crossing the ballroom, out of hearing. Wys shook his head worriedly and followed as quickly as he could, skirting the dancers clumsily and treading on more than one offended toe.
The lady in purple was walking purposefully on the outskirts of the dance floor, closely followed by Sir Lambert, who was determinedly impeding her progress by asking her questions which necessitated her turning to answer them. Drew placed himself directly in her path, and when she turned back from Sir Lambert’s last question, she found her way blocked by a tall, smiling stranger. “Ah, there you are, my dear,” Drew said to her familiarly, taking her arm and placing it cosily over his. “I’ve been searching for you all evening!”
The lady started. “What?” she asked uncertainly.
Drew went on smoothly. “Now, I know you are not dancing, but you cannot have forgotten your promise to me the last time we met.”
Sir Lambert, close behind her, looked at Drew with shock and anger. “My God!” he said in a choked voice. “Not
Drew noted that Lambie’s reaction was especially nonsensical, even for Lambie, but chose to ignore it. Smiling down at the lady, he asked, “You haven’t forgotten, have you?” and gave her the briefest wink of his eye.
The lady’s eyes sparkled mischievously. She flicked a glance at Sir Lambert, then looked down at the floor demurely. “Forgotten?” she asked tentatively.
“Your promise! You said you would grant me a waltz the very next time we met. And, my dear, here we are, and I hear that a waltz has just begun. So, without further ado—” And with that, Drew swept her firmly toward the dance floor without a backward glance at the sputtering, apoplectic Sir Lambert who stood staring after them.
A moment later Wys was beside Lambie, shaking him. “Where are they, Lambie? Tell me, where
Sir Lambert pointed a shaking finger to where Drew, with smiling grace, was taking the lady into his arms for the waltz. Wys clapped his hand to his forehead in despair. “Too late!” he groaned. “Too late. We’ll just have to let whatever happens happen.”
On the dance floor, the lady in purple was smiling up at her handsome rescuer as he twirled her lightly around the room. “Do you always dance off so brazenly with strangers to whom you’ve not been introduced?” she asked in mock severity.
“Yes, always. I sweep them off their feet before they have time to think better of it,” Drew answered with a grin.
“And for a
? It’s infamous of you!”
“Why not a waltz? This isn’t Almack’s, you know. We need not have the permission of a patroness here.”
“I think you deserve a good scold for your abominable manners, especially to Sir Lambert,” the lady chided.
“Do you? I thought rather that I deserve a kiss.”
“Yes, indeed! For ridding you of the man. I’d been watching you for quite a while, you know. Never have I seen a lady so in need of rescuing.”
“I may have needed rescuing, I’ll admit. And I’ll admit to a sense of gratitude for your effective, if unconventional, action in my behalf—”