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Authors: Judith Ivory

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

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BOOK: Black Silk
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At twelve, Graham destroyed the gardener’s shed while hiding there with forbidden firecrackers. These ignited coal oil, and Henry’s shed went up in smoke. At fourteen, he was taken to hospital for having imbibed a poisonous quantity of gin—one and a half bottles in two and a half hours. By eighteen, his “attitude” determined his life once and for all: He was thrown out of Cambridge, which was saying something, since Henry had enough pull there to keep Kublai Khan walking the corridors of St. John’s. By nineteen, Graham had appeared on the London stage, a brief fling that helped him financially; after the university incident, his guardian cut off all funds. Graham Wessit was crowned irredeemably wild.

Gossip and Scandal moved in. These two ogres hadn’t let him alone since. If he took a new mistress, if he fell from a horse, he might see it in the back pages of the newspaper the next day. For the most part, Graham had come to take this abuse philosophically, the way one adjusts to rude relatives who’ve become permanent house guests. Still, it was a little alarming to see his infamy appear in the flesh, to watch it
scramble onto a billiard table and confront him with its awkward, pregnant belly—as if it could not only come to life but could now multiply.

“Would you like to break?” William asked. He had racked the balls. Over the next twenty minutes, he proceeded to lose Graham’s ten pounds and another ten in personal notes to Graham and the three other men who picked up their cues.

The men took turns shooting and lamenting, consoling each other over the necessity of dragging hysterical pregnant women from tabletops meant only for games. She had put a scuff on their green wool. They meant well. In their way, they each wanted Graham to know they were on his side.

“Ghastly,” one said.

“Unconscionable,” said another.

Graham bent over the table. He dropped a yellow-striped ball into the far corner pocket.

“Why Graham?” someone asked sympathetically.

“Because he’s ripe.”

“Because she thinks he can afford to help.”

William dropped the last item of this list on Graham just as Graham was taking his next shot. “Because, all protests aside, she probably expects something, having paid him her due.”

The ball went wide of the pocket by six inches. Graham stood up.

“Well, that’s irrelevant,” the next man defended him. “A girl can’t just walk into a gentlemen’s club and expect, because of one night…”

Graham put his stick down and walked out.

Chapter 2

By a name I know not how to tell thee who I am.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Romeo and Juliet
Act II, Scene ii, 53–54

Three weeks later, the matter of the lunatic with the twins had become a bit more difficult to walk away from. Graham stood under the burden of it, waiting in a large, overfurnished office at Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court.

He stared bleakly out a window. A fire crackled behind him, making the room where he stood warm and dry. Outside people sloshed through mud and puddles, through the dark, quiescent promise of more rain. With two fingers, he wiped a circle in the humidity on a windowpane. He could see people running, trying to reach their destinations before the imminent downpour came. Everyone seemed to be moving, glancing toward the sky; everyone, he noticed, but a single person.

A woman stood at a distance. Framed by the window, she was the only part of the picture that appeared not to be trying to escape something. She was standing in the walk not forty feet away from him, talking to someone above her on the steps.

Graham fixed his eyes on her, oddly disturbed that he should be more aware than she of the coming storm. All was movement around her. Kinetic eddies of people. Billowing cloaks and skirts. Nervous shiftings of horses and carriages. He could feel these tremors in his bones, like an arthritic prescience for weather gone wild.

He tried to stretch this tension out of himself. He reached his arms upward and out onto the wall on either side of the window, but this relieved nothing. He stood there, feeling doomed, while the woman outside—her calm, head-nodding dialogue—began to annoy him. Why couldn’t she see, at least, that it was about to rain? he wanted to ask her. But of course there was no way to penetrate glass, to leap the bed of cyclamens, the civilized patch of lawn, the shin-high topiary hedge, to shake her by the shoulders if he must; no way to make her feel his own dread. She never even looked his way.

He wiped the glass again and watched. He could see nothing special in her. Her black dress blew in the gusts, darting, snapping, its hem a foot above the hedge one moment, calm and out of sight the next. Hide and seek. This became the pervading fascination, the whipping skirt with a mind of its own. And the curious woman, unmindful of everything around her, of even the tug of heavy, jerking fabric.

Behind him, down a hall, several men were mumbling. Their voices rose and fell on the tides of legal rhetoric. Graham felt in fact rather at sea: Not three days after the incident of the billiard table, the idiot girl had filed suit. Much to Graham’s disbelief, she had brought formal charges against him for paternity.

He had laughed at first. What incredible cheek. How could the girl imagine that she would gain anything by such an insupportable lie? Graham had turned the matter over to his lawyers with all the righteous irritation of a man maligned without cause.

There had been two court hearings since then, the first of which had not been particularly pleasant. Graham’s barrister couldn’t seem to keep the court from referring to Graham as “the notorious earl”—a label Graham found not only prejudicial but also offensive to his taste. There was
certainly more to him than this vapid summation; he was more than some upper-class, mustachioed villain who wickedly seduced innocents. All the same, the next morning he had shaved off his rather fashionable mustache. He now stood barefaced and less
chic
, but more open to inspection.

The offhand bias of the first hearing, however, had only hinted at the disaster of this morning’s, the second. Virtually every pleading his side had presented had been denied. The other side’s complaints were entertained at length and with grave consideration. The matter had been set for trial. Graham was astounded. He was about to be tried for something he didn’t do by a judge who, at every breath and in the tritest terms, pronounced him depraved. An award in the girl’s favor loomed as a sudden and real possibility.

Graham had come immediately from this hearing to Inner Temple, feeling that such a desperate situation required a desperate remedy: He stood in the chambers of one Arnold Tate, Queen’s Counsel. There, with his own solicitor and barrister at his back, Graham waited. Tate was overdue. Graham wanted the Q.C. brought in as lead on this lawsuit that already looked lost. An hour ago, he had moved heaven and earth, the sullen barrister at his back, and twenty pounds sterling into the pocket lining of a magistrate to obtain a certificate for two counsel, in mid-legal-stream as it were.

Graham had remembered Tate from a matter some years back and had the sort of grudging, ambiguous faith the loser gains for the winning counsel: Having been in court once before, and now looking at two losses for two, Graham was determined to reverse the trend. Nothing seemed more appropriate than to have the man who slew him in the first do battle for him in the second. Still, Graham was nervous. He was impatient. He was intimidated by memory, by finding himself in the midst again of so many bewigged and robed counselors sailing all around, it seemed, like black death ships under full, important sail.

Out his window, he watched the foul weather gather. He and his lawyers had been dodging small showers all morning, but now the elements were summoning something much larger.

His solicitor asked if Graham wouldn’t care to sit, then told him he was not to worry.

“No,” Graham thanked him. “Your advice and counsel have proven worthless so far, if not outright dangerous. I’ll stand.”

The solicitor fell silent.

After fifteen minutes of unrelenting gloom, Graham became aware of a little drama taking place outside his window. To his surprise, he recognized Arnold Tate was a part of it. Seeing him, Graham raised a hand to rap on the windowpane. But instead a ring on his finger made an unplanned clink on the glass, which turned both solicitor and barrister toward him abruptly—and Mr. Tate not at all. Tate was on the steps to the building. He seemed of two minds as to whether to descend the stairs. He stood, as if poised for a spry run down them, talking haltingly to the stones in the walkway below.

The woman in black was on the walk, listening.

 

“You needn’t.”

“But I want to,” she said.

“Against the advice of counsel.”

She simply smiled in response.

“Henry never intended things to become so difficult. He would understand.”

Still the smile, but she had turned her face away from him. She looked young, with regular features and fair hair.

“I wish you would listen—” Tate tried again. “That part of the will—” he said. “I don’t think Henry was thinking quite right.”

“Then you agree with William: He was not of sound mind.”

“Of course I don’t.”

“Then one must assume Henry asked with reason.”

“Undoubtedly, but I could do it. To request that you deliver it personally—”

“Is a small enough thing to ask.”

Tate sighed.

Clouds rumbled distantly. The weather dwarfed the lawyer’s stature. Outside his book-lined office, he was an insignificant smear of color—yellows, reds, and browns on the grey steps to a grey building. The woman in black was part of the darkening sky, her strength of purpose as palpable as the smell of rain in the air.

After a moment, he said, “All right, you’re going to take the box to him, as the will asked. But remember he’s a black sheep, if ever there was one. Don’t be misled by a glossy exterior.”

“Ah.” She lifted her head and gave an ironic little smile. “He is handsome.”

Tate made a gust of objection through his lips, the sound of a middle-aged, slightly paunched man trying to minimize such an attribute. “Just don’t be misled by that.”

“I won’t be. Nor put off by it.”

“Handsome men don’t have to account for themselves as often as they should.”

She thought about this. “You’re probably right.”

“And he’s worse than just handsome. He’s selfish. Unruly. A breaker of rules, a builder of nothing.”

“You don’t like him, I take it.”

“I didn’t say that.” Tate paused, frowning. “He’s rather likable,” he corrected. “But he’s also one of the most frustrating, directionless young men I have ever met. Not your sort at all.”

“Ah, young, too.” She smiled and looked down. “Young and handsome. No, definitely not my sort.”

Tate pulled a glum mouth, then contradicted himself. “Actually, he’s not so young anymore. He must be approaching forty.” After a pause, he added, “He’s one of those men one doesn’t expect to age very well: perpetually eight years old. He has no vocation, no avocation, no occupation—except drinking and gambling and women. He consorts with a married woman, an American.”

She laughed, gently shaking her head. “Arnold. Having impugned the man’s character, you are now trying to slander his taste as well. Stop being so smug.” She continued to smile, not meanly but with a kind of teasing forbearance. “If the man is shallow or dissolute or immature or whatever you’re trying to say, I’m sure I’m not so stupid as to miss it. And in any event, I’m only delivering a harmless little box Henry wanted him to have.”

The lawyer clamped his mouth shut.

They stood in silence; Tate, frowning with a tight mouth, she, looking down, trying to minimize her faint, intransigent smile. Then Tate’s expression slowly began to change. His mouth too began to turn up at the edges until his expression had quite surprisingly broken into a wide display of artificially even teeth.

“How did Henry ever tolerate you?” he said. “You’re pigheaded, do you know that?”

“Thank you.” She gave him a sly, sidelong glance.

“And you make me feel foolish.”

Though foolish in a good way. She made him feel young; it was written all over his toothsome countenance.

He stood there beaming, the color rising in his cheeks. A distinguished man in late middle age, embarrassed by the pleasure he took in a young woman’s smiling and cajoling. He looked at his shoes, at the sky, trying to regain his balance, his superior posture.

In the uncomfortable silence, he asked, “Did you ever meet him?”

“Whom?”

“Netham. Graham Wessit.” He made a face. “This handsome young man you are going to meet. On such feeble introduction.” He nodded toward a box she was carrying. It was black like her dress, barely definable except where her hand wrapped around its sides.

“No.” She let her attention drift. Her smile became vague. “Do you know,” she reflected, “the one time in twelve years of marriage that Henry did go to visit this cousin, he refused to take me along. It was the only time we were separated. And the night he left, our roles reversed themselves so peculiarly, as if
he
were the child—with clubhouse secrets he was dying to tell, but didn’t dare share. He was so cryptic, apologizing that he couldn’t behave ‘more admirably.’” She stopped, frowning for a moment, as if something were amiss. Then she shrugged this off, laughing. “
Henry
, more admirably. Can you imagine?”

“He didn’t want you to go. He wouldn’t now.”

“Yet he’s
sent
me with the box.”

“That
silly
box!” Tate made an imaginary throwing-away with his hands. “Henry left the man nothing else. That should tell you something.”

“He slighted more than his cousin. Will it be all right, Arnold—truthfully? William is so angry.”

The lawyer became more erect. “In Henry’s own words, his high regard for you will be ‘declared as tangibly as a husband can make it.’” Tate shook his head. “An incredibly huge bequest—there is no precedent for a woman inheriting so much. But you will have it.” He smiled. “The probate court will uphold Henry’s true intentions. We will have William’s claim dismissed in no time.”

She contemplated this for a moment. “In no time,” she repeated. She looked at the attorney. “It’s all very crass from
one angle, isn’t it? I wish he weren’t dead—I miss him, but here I am arguing over his estate.” She gave a short laugh. “At heart, I’m still a butcher’s daughter.”

The lawyer blinked, then fell clumsily into just-remembered protocol. “I’m so sorry about your father. It must be dreadful to lose both a father and a husband in so short a time.”

“It was easier with my father.” Her gaze turned to the folds of her skirt. “Henry was there. We talked. He helped so much. I didn’t get along with my father, did you know that?” But then with a mock brightness and without waiting for an answer, she continued. “You should have seen the funeral. By far the butcher’s grandest social event.”

“He wasn’t exactly a butcher—”

“But he was. He killed and dressed animals, though on a rather large scale. You see?” She looked up and opened her arms. “He was so clever at it, he married one off to a marquess.”

She was suspended for a moment in that balletic position of raised arms. As if music had stopped for a count of three.

It felt like that many heartbeats for the man watching from the window. Graham leaned closer, fascinated, transfixed. The woman’s open arms seemed to remove status, station, even in some way her female gender. She seemed to shed everything in those moments, everything and anything limiting or superfluous to simply being human. The hint of a perfect, unself-conscious candor affected Graham, the way great beauty suddenly moves something in one’s chest; the way profound horror quakes the soul. He couldn’t decide if he was enormously attracted or almost squeamishly repelled.

Then the moment was gone. Shyly, the woman folded her arms back over a solid item she had lifted. Just as she was tucking it back against her, Graham noticed her gesture
had put the black box she had been carrying into clear view. It was square, thin, the size of a box of handkerchiefs, and easily held in one hand. Then this too disappeared, lost in the shadows of the woman’s arms.

 

A few minutes later, the rain broke, like a curtain descending. The view beyond the window became no more than a blur of people scrambling for cover. Water was pounding against the glass when Graham heard Arnold Tate’s voice in the outer office. He said something to his clerk, then entered the room Graham occupied.

“Who was the widow?” Graham asked.

Tate responded as if Graham were still twenty, his age when they had last spoken. “You should be ashamed to ask.”

BOOK: Black Silk
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