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Authors: Judith Ivory

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

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BOOK: Black Silk
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“What’s her name?”

“Channing-Downes. Lady Motmarche. The late marquess’s wife. Does that sound familiar?”

Graham’s own reflection in the window glass looked back at him, briefly startled. “Of course,” he answered.

“Give me a moment,” Tate said, as if to cut off all further discussion, “while I put her papers away and have a look at your legal brief.”

Five minutes later, Graham sat in the vacant chair between his solicitor and barrister. He wedged himself into it, folding and bending a body never meant for the narrow, curved design. In uncomfortable situations, Graham became particularly conscious of his own height and doubly conscious of it when he saw others fidgeting and standing up straighter.

Tate rose and pushed his chair in, as if he would stand for the whole proceeding. Then he stretched, got books out from a case behind the desk, and laid them out on the desktop, three, four, eight, more; fortification.

Tate was a balding man of perhaps fifty-five, of medium height, with a tendency to carry slightly more than medium
weight. He was squarely built and bluntly shaped with small feet and short, spatulate hands. He had to strain at the high shelves, the heavy law. Graham could have spanned several volumes at once with his long fingers.

“Shall we begin?” The Q.C., in a valley of books, aligned papers on the desk.

Graham had a sense of the past repeating itself. The barrister still seemed the adversary. The sound of his voice—mellifluous, Olympian, full of sincerity—worked undoubtedly to his professional advantage, but it was not reassuring. It implied that truth could afford to be questioned.

Graham claimed one last trivial digression, a curiosity he couldn’t quite dismiss. “Her complete name,” he said, “I should know—” He could vaguely recall old letters, bits of remembered conversation, and these memories made him want to smile for some reason. “You didn’t tell me her first name. I’m sure Henry told me once, yet I can’t recall—”

Tate looked up, his cheeks puffed as if he might blow Graham away.

“It is a sound, virtuous, old name,” he said. Then his cheeks sagged, as did his head. “Her first name is Submit.”

Submit Wharton Channing-Downes. The name sang like a musical crescendo of English social mobility at its most fluid. Submit herself, however, would have been the last person to call her given name “sound and virtuous,” albeit old. It was Puritan, and thus it was suspect. Faith, Charity, and Prudence might occasionally work in the kitchens of large houses, but they did not sit at the dining room tables with Elizabeth and Anne.

The name in the middle, however, picked up purpose and direction. Submit’s maiden name was not beautiful, but practical and easy to say, like a song to which everyone knew the words. Wharton, via John Wharton, was repeated and known; it had worked to be where it was. John Wharton had built himself the largest abattoir in southeast England. In his hands, it had run at a huge profit that allowed him many luxuries, not the least of which was to attach his name to that last: Channing-Downes. Not one but two thin, blue refinements of melody, harmoniously—and in hyphenated hyperbole—ending the name on one rich, protracted note of triumph. The marquess. A name as old as the title itself. For Henry Channing-Downes was not just a marquess but the primogenitary descendent of
the
marquess, the very first. Four and a half centuries ago, Robert Channing, earl of Sherborne, had married a king’s younger, untitled granddaughter, Sophia Downes. The king had been so pleased with Robert’s choice that he had extended the earl’s district to the frontier, to the mark or march—and then extended the earl’s title to reflect this elevation. He designated Robert a marquess, an honor specified to be above all other earls. The Channing-Downes
patent predated all others, the very title itself being invented to honor the name.

All of this did the woman attached to the name little good as she bolted for cover. The widow of an august peer could get just as wet as anyone else in a rainstorm.

Submit Channing-Downes let down the veils of her bonnet. Meager as they were, they were the only protection to which she currently had access. Thunder clapped. Then she spied across Middle Temple Lane a carriage, a double salvation, offering both cover and transportation.

Submit grabbed up two handfuls of black skirts and broke from a trot into a dead run. She got to the vehicle just as the clouds opened up. As the first large drops splattered her shoulders, she hesitated. The carriage was empty, which was good; but it was driverless, which was not.

A voice called out, “Ho, ma’am!” She looked around to see a man, the driver, waiting for his next fare from under the overhang. He signaled for her to get in, then disappeared inside the building—it was a pub. He had gone in presumably to pay his bill. The wind gave a strong gust, lifting her crinoline to the point of almost carrying her away. She grabbed hold of the coach door handle, using it like an anchor, then yanked on it and heaved herself up.

Inside, she lifted her veil and wiped at her face with dry gloves she retrieved from her pocket. The gloves did small good. The wind had penetrated the hat’s veil, sifting rain into a mist that left her face wet. Her shoulders were wet as well. Her right sleeve, the last part of her to gain shelter, was soaked. God help the hems of her skirts.

She could hear the rain beating from all angles, pounding against the leather and wood of the carriage. The rain echoed within her little hollow of dry air in a continuous cacophony. The vehicle itself rocked slightly from the barrage. Submit began to spread herself out into the little space. She took off her soaked and sagging hat, shrugged
out of her shoulder cape, and found a carriage blanket. Then damp, wrinkled, and breathless from her mad dash, she leaned back into the cushions and let out a sigh of satisfaction. Another calamity averted. As the time stretched out, she even began to feel content, listening to the storm raging around her on all sides. She liked a good storm, so long as she was sheltered, dry and secure inside.

Indeed, she could have conceivably felt less than dry and secure. She had spent the morning with a barrister, discussing how to put a roof back over her head: William Channing-Downes had not only contested Henry’s will, he had also put Henry’s properties, including her home in East Anglia, into the custody of a probate court. Distribution was withheld indefinitely. His case had been so forceful—a force Submit didn’t quite understand yet—that she had been evicted from her home. This put at her feet three very considerable losses in a very short time. The roof over her head. Access to a sizable wealth. And the worst by far, Henry Channing-Downes, her slightly cantankerous husband, forty-three years her senior, with whom—though few would understand or believe it—she had been very much in love.

It was in isolated moments such as this, in the midst of a rainstorm, that she could grow not precisely despondent or grief-stricken, but very, very quiet. It occurred to her that without Henry, without his silly goads and puns and clever pomposities, without his infinitely loving, spurring encouragements, she might never live life as richly again.

Submit was interrupted from this thought by a banging somehow different from all the other outside noise. Not all the knocking and pounding on one side of her carriage, it seemed, was coming from nature’s hand. Someone was yelling and hammering on her carriage door.

Another fare, she thought; someone who had seen her get in and wanted to share. Carriages would be scarce in this
kind of storm—it was quite possible that her driver, along with a great many others in London, had decided to weather the worst of it from inside a pub. There was plenty of room, and she was in no hurry, she supposed. She cracked a window—a woman didn’t “share” with just anyone who asked; thieves could play on compassion. She shielded her face with one hand while holding the leather closure with the other. Lightning lit up the street for a moment, and thunder boomed in response. This sound cut through the air with the same sort of jarring surprise with which Submit recognized the person standing out in the rain.

“William?” she called.

The man outside raised his hands to his mouth. “I want to talk to you,” he shouted.

She did not particularly want to talk to him. She was astonished even to see him here. But she leaned forward and released the latch. The door opened, and the upper portion of William Channing-Downes was suddenly framed by the opened panel. He stood squinting at her, trying to peer into the dim carriage, while water ran off the brim of his hat.

“Submit? Is that you?” He seemed unsure suddenly as he hunted for a sign of her in the dark interior.

“What do you want? How did you find me?”

His face was dripping with rain, his eyes narrowed—he couldn’t seem to believe in his own good luck, or else perfect connivance. His mouth hung open, as unlatched as the wet, gaping carriage door. He said nothing more for a few moments. Then his lips quickly reshaped themselves into a smile, an expression that could only be termed bizarre in view of the plastering he was taking from the rain. He took his hat into his hands and drew himself up.

“Why, it is you, my dear! I thought so when I glimpsed you from Fleet Street. How are you?”

Submit always found something mildly entertaining
about William. Having never cultivated any orientation but expediency, he had all but obliterated any sense of what was natural. As in this case: his willingness to stand not merely in rain but in sheets and torrents so that he might exchange pleasantries with a woman he was cheerfully planning to divest of virtually everything she possessed.

 

For years, Submit had tried to find something, anything, that she could like about William. She had conducted this search for the sake of Henry, who had tried all his life to find something likable in his son and failed. Submit had discovered, however, that whether she liked William or not was of little consequence, even to William: He himself would have been much happier to inspire jealousy or fear. The crux, in recent years, had become not how to like him but rather how to keep rein on her own rampant sense of superiority and contempt.

The best that could be said for him was that he possessed a kind of unblenching charm—disasterproof, humiliation-proof, and, as today, waterproof. He could run it out onto his face when he wanted it and tuck it back into the pockets of his sagging jowls when he did not. After forty years of training, this odd pleasantness served well enough for him to have a moderate standing as a gentleman. His father had seen to a gentleman’s education and, when he was alive, a comfortable trickle of money, which William managed like a gentleman—that is to say, not at all, since gentlemen did not dirty their hands with such matters. His chief occupation was spending; his secondary, gambling; his third, inveigling new creditors. He had little affection for anything other than money and what it would buy. And upon Henry Channing-Downes’s demise, that was what the father had left the son: a secure principal on which to draw income; a small—yet what could already be termed dwindling—fortune. The only thing he possibly valued above money
was something Henry couldn’t leave him: status as a gentleman of title.

For Henry’s only son was Henry’s bastard; so far as Submit understood, William had no claim on any title. She attributed his various legal moves as merely device, meant to cause her maximum aggravation. William had been raised among people of power. He knew the system and how to use it to leverage his way into a larger settlement—which she was probably going to give him, though she wasn’t sure how much would satisfy him right now. Exactly what was enough, she wondered, to make a misbegotten son stop wishing for legitimacy?

“Do come in out of the rain, William.”

She moved to the far side of the carriage, tucking her feet and skirts up into the darkness on the seat beside her. As he entered, she watched him trying to locate her by her voice. The brief, muted light showed nothing but her damp shoes abandoned on the carriage floor. As he closed the door, the carriage became cavelike, rank with humidity, the smell of wet leather, damp satin.

“I thought you might not ask.”

“I was getting wet.”

“I shouldn’t think that would bother you, having felt the warm flow of love in the form of piss in the bedsheets.”

Submit made a sound of disgust, then let the remark go. The concept of dignity meant as much to William as it did to a stone boulder—and he would roll right over anyone who allowed his incredible insults to give offense.

He removed his coat and hat, then blotted his face with a handkerchief. “Is there a blanket?”

There was an extra one folded on the seat beside her. She couldn’t resist throwing it at him from the dark.

He made a startled noise as it hit him in the face. Then he began arranging it over himself. He took perhaps a minute with this before he asked, as if he were making small talk,
“How are you getting on? Word filters to me that you are at a hostel.”

“A woman’s boardinghouse. Griffin’s on Chaney Circle.”

“I know. I went there first. That’s how I knew to look for you here.”

“Then why do you ask?”

“Are you comfortable there?”

“I would rather be home.”

He snorted. “In
my
home.” He settled back into his corner of the carriage. “So, you find that gauche, insensible William is not without friends?”

“I find you are not without confederates.”

“The same.”

“Then you are pitiable as well.”

The beat of rain dominated briefly. Outside, there was a distant series of thunderclaps.

“What do you want, William?”

“Are you pregnant? You should know by now—”

She laughed.

“I would be more delicate—” William was mildly put off course by the laughter. He collected himself and continued. “But then, you are not a stranger to the particulars of breeding, your family having made a science of cows. Well?” he asked. “Are you?”

She didn’t answer his rude question. “You have petitioned for a title?”

Through a circuitous route of petitions and politics, William might gain himself a courtesy title or perhaps, by the longest stretch of the imagination, one of Henry’s lesser honors. The marquess had an earldom or two, a viscountcy all trivialized by the marquessate. All this was of course contingent upon there being no legitimate issue.

“I’ve found I can petition if you will sign an affidavit. If you will only be gracious about all this—I have an offer for you.”

“Someone’s given you hope?”

“Perhaps, though the Home Secretary won’t allow anyone to even speak on my behalf, so long as there’s a chance Henry might have left an heir.”

“Let’s hear your offer.”

He cleared his throat. “You withdraw any claim on that old stone castle in East Anglia, that hasn’t even so much as running water at a pump valve. That, and all the property connected to it. Then I will leave the way clear to the cozy little London house with all its conveniences—Margaret is virtually sobbing that I want to move her from it; you would be much happier there. Then we split the rest.”

It took several seconds for her to digest the meaning of this. “You want Motmarche?” she asked incredulously.

“What else?”

She relaxed, again laughing. “You are petitioning for the title of marquess of Motmarche?”

“I am petitioning for them all.”

It took several seconds more to take this in. She said finally, “I don’t know what to say in the face of such bald, blind—and unrealistic—ambition. For goodness’ sake, William, you want more money than Henry left you. Eventually, you want to put the word ‘lord’ before your name. I will do what I can for you on both; I’m more than willing. But I—”

“I want Motmarche.”

She laughed again. It was involuntary. It was making her almost giddy to hear this said out loud. Of course he wanted Motmarche. He would just as soon have everything. “Well, I don’t see how you’ll get it,” she said. “You haven’t a claim in the world.”

“Unless I had the title.”

“Which no sane man in the world would promise you.”

He made a smug sound, down his nose. “True. Henry promised it to me.”

“Oh, for the love of God—”

“He did! All my life I lived as his son, as he wanted. I lived my life as his legal heir, and he knew it! He never once stopped me or told me otherwise—”

BOOK: Black Silk
5.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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