The hush in the dressing room was total as Mr. Jonathan Blysdale, his countenance grim with concentration, completed the intricate tying of his neckcloth and set an emerald pin in the center of its snowy folds. His valet, awaiting at a respectful distance the issue of this, the third, attempt, released a sigh of relief and lay the two unused lengths of starched muslin he had been holding at ready upon the bed before stepping forward to assist his master in easing into the russet brown coat he had chosen to wear for the Countess of Dewsbury’s rout party that evening. Smoothing the coat across the fine, broad shoulders, the valet scrutinized his master’s person in the large gilt mirror and nodded with satisfaction. Nothing could be more faultless than the form-fitting coat, the green and gold striped waistcoat, the cravat tied in a perfect Trone d’Amour, and the immaculate buff breeches worn over white stockings with black evening slippers.
Mr. Blysdale, his slate blue eyes surveying his reflection quite as critically as his valet, turned his head to the side and said, “That will do, Hindley. Thank you.”
The valet bowed and, almost in the same movement, bent to pick up the two mangled neckcloths that had been discarded on the floor.
Mr. Blysdale slipped his watch into his waistcoat pocket, took up his hat and gloves from the dressing table and, reaching for his cane, said, “Don’t wait up for me. I plan to go to my club afterward.”
“Very good, sir,” said Hindley, while forming the intention to be hard at work polishing or pressing or what need be in order that he might be still up when his master returned. That a gentleman of Mr. Blysdale’s quality should put himself to bed was not to be thought of, no matter his antecedents, but neither should it be thought that Hindley was above his station and wiser than his master.
Unconcerned by the deep doings of his valet, Mr. Blysdale strode from the room and down the curving staircase of his London townhouse, accepting the assistance of the butler in donning his greatcoat against the April evening chill.
“The carriage is waiting, sir,” said the butler, returning the cane to his master.
“Thank you, Stomes. I’ll be back late. Have the hallboy sleep here on the bench. No need for you to be up half the night just to let me in. Good night.”
The butler bowed him out, reflecting—not for the first time—that for a man who came from trade, his master certainly had the way of a gentleman born about him.
Seated in his well-sprung and lavishly upholstered carriage, Mr. Blysdale considered that being a gentleman had its advantages, but there was no denying it was excessively expensive. Little had his father known, in desiring better for his son, just how much of his hard-earned wealth would go toward items that, to a tradesman, were mere luxuries, but to a gentleman were necessities. The coach, the horses, the driver, the townhouse and all its attendant servants and expenses—all were necessary to the success of a young man who wished to make a mark in Society. The fine coat and waistcoat, the tailored breeches and the jewels—all must be used to advantage if Mr. Jonathan Blysdale, son of a London merchant, and first of his line to achieve both an education and a foot on the Social ladder, was to continue on the path his father had set him.
And Mr. Blysdale was bound and determined to continue this path. Not for nothing had he endured snubs and slights all through his Harrow days, scoring the highest marks despite the bullying and loneliness, and earning himself a place at Merton College, Oxford. There, he had distinguished himself for his stubbornness in adhering to the rules, insisting on regular study heedless of the prevailing opinion that he was a great gaby, for one need only get hold of a string with which to cheat on the exams, and one’s time could then be very much more agreeably spent.
Jonathan had never much cared for the pastimes his more carefree associates thought agreeable, and so he had little trouble in disregarding their advice. This did him no disservice, for his independence and intelligence had won for him great respect; indeed, in spite of a rather solemn manner, he was generally well-liked, held to be a great gun, and to possess excellent bottom. He held a magnetic sort of fascination for young men of aspiration but inadequate spirit. While many sons of nobility and gentry looked at him down their noses, or at the very least askance, those others who had been obliged, like himself, to work to gain admittance to the university rallied around him, and after a year, he found himself the tutor of a handful of high-born young gentlemen whose dependent situations obliged them to value education more than dissipation. His fierce determination to succeed at all costs, and make them succeed with him, along with a natural aptitude for sport and a willingness to relax once his duties were done, won him their lifelong loyalty and friendship, and enabled him to set his foot securely on the Social ladder as his father had hoped he would.
Stepping from his carriage after it had wended its way through the crowds of other vehicles waiting to disgorge their passengers in front of Dewsbury House, Mr. Blysdale entered the stately mansion and surrendered his greatcoat and hat to one of the many footmen inside the door. He ascended the stairs and greeted Lady Dewsbury, who stood at the door of the front saloon, which opened onto a drawing room and another saloon to accommodate her many guests.
“Blysdale!” she cried, offering her hand and her cheek to him. “How delightful to see you, my dear. And looking so fine! I wish you will teach Tindon to tie his neckcloth, for he never can achieve such a masterpiece as you are forever sporting.”
“Is he here, ma’am?” asked Blysdale, with the smile he reserved for his old friends.
“Oh, certainly, certainly! He is somewhere about the rooms, monopolizing the attentions of some hapless young lady, no doubt! You know his way!”
Blysdale did know his friend’s way, and smiled his sympathy before bowing to the countess and continuing unhurriedly into the saloon. He scanned the room, taking note of those persons with whom he was acquainted and to whom it behooved him to speak during the course of the evening. There was Sir George Spurdon, Dean of Merton College and Mr. Blysdale’s mentor; and there was Lady Gwinthwaite, whose son, a true friend in his Harrow days, had been killed at Genappe. One or two others deserved his notice, but the rest would do with a nod and a smile, or a polite how-do-you-do, while Mr. Blysdale seized such opportunities to enlarge his circle through advantageous introduction as he deemed appropriate.
He discovered Lady Dewsbury’s son and his old schoolmate, Peter, Viscount Tindon, in a corridor off the drawing room, speaking in dulcet tones to a wide-eyed brunette whose giggles belied her discomfiture, but whose shrinking attitude and darting glances at the doorway to the drawing room did not.
“Playing off your old tricks, eh, Tindon?” inquired Blysdale, taking the young lady’s hand from his friend’s grasp and bowing over it. “Pardon me, ma’am, while I extricate you from his lordship’s clutches.”
“Blysdale! What the deuce—” demanded his lordship.
Mr. Blysdale ignored him. “The air is rather warm just here, ma’am, and you appear somewhat flushed. May I return you to your party for refreshment?”
Her blushing murmurs were indicative of agreement, and they turned to go.
“See here—Wait! Lady Serena, allow me to take you wherever you wish to go,” said her former cavalier, reaching for her hand, but it was moved beyond his reach.
Mr. Blysdale gazed blandly at him over his shoulder. “I believe your offer comes too late, my lord, and so you must take defeat with a good grace.”
“No, that’s too bad of you!” exclaimed Lord Tindon as they walked away. “Do not trust him, Lady Serena! I swear he is up to no good!”
But the lady had gone unhesitatingly with her rescuer, and his lordship was left to curse his friend until, presently, Mr. Blysdale reappeared alone.
“Really, Blysdale, you’ve no honor at all!” Lord Tindon cried.
“And you do, luring innocent maidens into dark corners?”
“I’d no need to lure her! She came willingly enough, for there was no danger!”
“No danger in a secluded corridor, out of sight of her chaperon?” countered Blysdale.
“I had taken her to see a painting by Turner, just here in the hall.” But Blysdale cast him a wry look, and his lordship balled his fists, his brown eyes flashing. “You will paint me a scoundrel, but I am nothing of the sort!”
“Next you will insist it was she who pulled you into the alcove. I trust you meant to communicate to her your intentions.”
“My intentions were of the purest—this time,” declared his lordship. “I could no more impose on Lady Serena than I could you, for she is a lady of quality, and the sweetest creature, besides being the granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk!”
“Then she is not for the likes of you,” replied Blysdale, “such a dullard as you are. Did you not see her distress?”
Lord Tindon spluttered at this, but Blysdale went on ruthlessly, “If you cannot perceive that your attentions are unacceptable, you ought not to dispense them so freely. Come, make yourself useful and do the pretty. I wish to be made known to some of your mother’s guests.”
Ignoring his friend’s protests, Blysdale towed him into the next room, snatching a glass of champagne from a passing footman and thrusting it into his irritated friend’s hands with a request that he “drink it and stop ragging.” This first Tindon did, but it was some time before he ceased his bitter animadversions against any and all upstart tradesmen who had the impertinence to think themselves better versed in the rules of propriety than a born and bred nobleman. This censure Blysdale bore with a smile, leading his lordship to a group of young people whose lively conversation had interested him as he had passed through previously.
At length, soothed by the champagne, Lord Tindon resigned himself to Blysdale’s will and made the introductions with punctilio, while Blysdale exerted himself to please. It was no difficult task for him, blessed as he was with a quick eye and discerning taste, and his excellent education and good breeding furnished him with unlimited resources with which to make himself agreeable. They moved about the room, renewing old acquaintance and making new, until Blysdale’s attention was caught by a vision of loveliness just entering the saloon.
She was a tall, elegant young woman, with dark hair and large, grey eyes that took in the room with one measured glance. Her beauty was uncommon but undeniable, with her aristocratic nose and alabaster skin, and grace to complete the whole. As he watched her, Blysdale suspected that she was well aware of her incomparability, but the idea of it did not harm her in his eyes.
“Who is that lady?” he said quietly to Lord Tindon, who stood sipping champagne at his side.
“Where?” said his lordship, following his friend’s gaze. He started back. “Oh, lord! The Countess of Gidgeborough! You don’t want to meet her, I tell you!”
Taking Blysdale’s arm, he turned him swiftly round, but Blysdale looked back. “That beautiful creature is Lady Gidgeborough?”
“Beautiful? Are you daft?” Lord Tindon peeked over his shoulder and straightened. “Oh, you mean Lady Athena! I thought you referred to her mother, the terrifying Dragon beside her.”
Blysdale now perceived the small, unlovely woman walking with Lady Athena, who resembled her daughter very little, except in her weighty presence, which instantly dominated the room. She surveyed the company in majestic detachment, quite as Lady Athena had, but her manner was more oppressive, rendering her terrifying, whereas Lady Athena’s grace and beauty softened and justified her, and made her a fascinating subject.
“Is Lady Athena a dragon, as well?” asked Blysdale, watching both mother and daughter closely.
“Oh, not precisely! That is, the old lady’s rubbed off on her a bit—bound to, being her mother—but I don’t imagine that would signify with you, sauce box that you are. Come to think on it, she may very well level you, which I wouldn’t mind being present to witness, after the way you’ve used me tonight! I’ll make the introduction.” He ducked back behind his friend as the two ladies advanced. “But not until they’ve separated, and we can get Lady Athena alone. Regular Tarter, Lady Gidgeborough.”
“You know her ladyship well?” inquired Blysdale, allowing himself to be drawn off into the crowd.
“As well as I wish to. She and my mother are thick as thieves. Can’t understand what Mama sees in her, though. Withers one with a glance. Can’t do anything to suit her.”
Blysdale’s brow rose. “You didn’t happen to try your tricks on Lady Athena at any time, did you, Tindon?”
“Not on your life!” Lord Tindon cast him a horrified look. “Wouldn’t live to tell the tale! Besides, Lady Athena’s above my touch.”
“But she is your social equal, is she not?”
Tindon gave a choking laugh, “You’d think it, but she wouldn’t, nor would anyone believe it. Just look at her!”
Blysdale was looking at her, from his vantage point across the room. She moved gracefully among the guests as if she were a goddess, her very presence demanding their homage. And it was given, though not always freely. He could perceive reticence among many of her admirers, an uncertainty to give what may be rejected. Shaking hands here, bestowing a smile there, entering into conversation with a chosen few, she carried herself with the ease of one who knew her own worth and was assured that none would forget it. Blysdale smiled to himself. Here was a woman who could match him.
As soon as the dragon detached herself from her offspring, Blysdale seized his friend’s arm, leading him over to where the Lady Athena sat conversing with three other young ladies. Their conversation was short, for one of them jumped up, apparently in high dudgeon, and went to stare, arms crossed over her chest, out a window.
“It’s always her way, I warn you,” said Tindon in an aside, as they came near the group. “She don’t have scruples to hold her back from speaking her mind. Too high in her own opinion for that.”
Blysdale’s smile grew. “The lady is more intriguing by the minute. Come, they’ve ceased their chatter—introduce me.”
A gentle push brought Lord Tindon to the ladies’ table, and he said, after a nervous cough. “My lady, Miss Marshall, Miss—erm—” He blinked helplessly at the lady in question, but she merely stared back, her eyes flicking from his face to Blysdale’s and back again while she swallowed convulsively. His lordship cleared his throat. “Yes, well, good evening! May I present my school friend, Mr. Jonathan Blysdale?”
The three ladies regarded them in various states of curiosity, but Blysdale’s gaze was focused on Lady Athena. He gained the impression that her imperturbable grey eyes—without leaving his face—had taken in his whole person, but he could not determine if she liked what she saw. Her gaze held his for a long moment, and then she opened her mouth.
But just as she began to speak, her tongue-tied companion suddenly blurted out, “Slougham!” and then, with a horrified glance at her companions, subsided into blushful mortification.
Lady Athena, with a slow look at her friend, said, “Iris, you refine too much upon your recent accomplishment of speaking two words to a gentleman in company. Pray do not attempt an encore. One word is enough! You have already given Mr. Blysdale a disgust of your manners.”
“Athena!” cried Miss Marshall on her other side. “It is no such thing, I am persuaded! Mr. Blysdale could not be so unfeeling. Pray do not heed Iris, sir. She is merely unaccustomed to company, and—”
Mr. Blysdale held up a hand, smiling. “No need to apologize for your friend, Miss Marshall. Miss Slougham, I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
He returned his attention to Lady Athena, whose countenance bore all the hallmarks of pique. He could not be certain, but he fancied she was more affronted by his smooth denial of irritation than by her friend’s blunder.
Her gaze transferred to Lord Tindon, who blanched perceptibly. “Where did you find your friend, Tindon? I have not heard of the surname Blysdale, and I confess to great curiosity as to his antecedents.”
Tindon opened his mouth, shut it again, and then said haltingly, “School, my lady. Oxford. Merton College. That’s where I found him—where we met.”
Her eyebrow quirked up infinitesimally as she returned her gaze to Blysdale and appraised him anew. “Oxford? Very proper. But he cannot have been born there.”
“Certainly not, my lady,” said Blysdale, with a benign smile. “Merely my connection with this tongue-tied fellow. My people are from Essex.”
Something flashed in her eyes and she said, pointedly turning away from him to his lordship, “Your friend is impertinent, Tindon. You may wish to inform him that to force an introduction is ill-mannered, and will not serve him well. My mother is beckoning. You will pardon me.”
Rising majestically from her seat, Lady Athena brushed past Mr. Blysdale, leaving a sputtering Lord Tindon and an apologetic Miss Marshall in her wake.
“Pray do not heed her, Mr. Blysdale,” begged Miss Marshall, looking regretful. “She is merely overwrought.”
“If that’s so, she’s been overwrought the whole of her life,” muttered Tindon, seizing another glass of champagne from a passing footman.
Miss Marshall was obliged to stifle a giggle. “Shame on you, Tindon. She has her moments, to be sure, but you must comprehend that just now she is laboring under the weight of a misunderstanding.” With a nod of her head, she indicated the other young lady who was still gazing stormily out the window. “It will soon blow over, and then Athena will be herself again.”
“All the more reason to avoid her, I tell you,” said Tindon, tugging at Blysdale’s arm to drag his attention away from the departing Lady Athena. “She’s hot at hand, my boy. Above your touch as well! Leave off and come away!”
Mr. Blysdale’s gaze flicked back toward where Lady Athena now stood with her mother, his expression far from offended. In fact, she fascinated him all the more from having snubbed him.
Turning at last to his friend, he smiled sweetly. “Your solicitude does you credit, Tindon. I shall take it under consideration, depend upon it, but now, I must take my leave of you. Miss Marshall, Miss Slougham, it has been my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Bowing to the ladies, Mr. Blysdale turned and walked placidly to Lady Dewsbury, spoke a few words of thanks and parting, and was gone.