Read Black Silk Online

Authors: Judith Ivory

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

Black Silk (4 page)

BOOK: Black Silk
6.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“Because he didn’t need to. The world will stop you. Henry didn’t need to tell you the obvious.” She leaned toward him in the dark. “But I am going to tell you something obvious, just for the record. See if you can understand this, William: Motmarche is my home. I lived there with your father, not unhappily, for almost half my life. His books are in the study. My piano is in the music room. Everything familiar to me is there, the games, the teacups, the silly rug by the fire with the holes. Everything I have done or acquired as an adult is in that house. And I am entitled by law to live out my days there, with or without children. Apply for the baronage in Devonshire. I’ll help you there. It’s grand. Its rental properties are lucrative—”

“It’s not enough.”

“You’d be happy there.”

“You’d be happy on Charlotte Street.”

She frowned. To pretend they were plotting each other’s happiness was, at the very least, dishonest. She spoke plainly to him: “
You
have lived in the house in Bayswater for as long as I have known you. I don’t want to exchange dwellings with you. I don’t want to exchange anything with you. Not with you, nor Margaret. And the will left
all
the properties to me. I have told you, you may stay in the London house, and I will stick by that if you will drop the stupid abeyance eviction. But I must tell you, my lawyers are filing similar papers this week to have you out of Charlotte Street. I am going to fight you on this, William. If you don’t stop this nonsense, I shall turn every bolt I can reach. That castle, which happens to be in the middle of your coveted marquessdom, is all I have left, and I won’t give it up just so you can paint a coat of arms on your carriage.” She punctuated this with a brisk
churning movement of wool and silk and crinoline and sat back into the dark.

There were two or three minutes of stuffy silence.

William sat like a baffled hound, as if he were sure he’d been on the right track, but now his prey seemed to have doubled back on him. “Of course,” he started, “if it’s that you mind your change in status to the Dowager Marchioness, there might be some sort of accommodation—” He stopped, apparently able to see that this wasn’t the way, either. He was suddenly alert. Even in the dark William’s nose for a person’s financial fix was excited by the subtlest discrepancies. “Your maid didn’t answer at your rooms.” The girl was obviously not in the carriage.

“I let her go.”

“Money?”

“You know it is. Everything is tied up for both of us. This is so stupid—”

“I have enough.”

“Well, I don’t.” She said it forcefully.

“Sign the affidavit, and I’ll settle all but the inalienable lands.”

“You’ll give the rest to me?”

“I’ll split it with you.”

She made another breath of a laugh. “How good of you. You’ll take half of all the assets you have least chance of getting in return for my helping you along to the remainder. I’m not signing anything.”

“You are a greedy woman who doesn’t know her place.”

“That’s possible.”

“And you will starve.”

She hesitated. “There is a small trust, an income.”

He was puzzled. “Henry? But I was sure—”

“Don’t worry, William. It is very small.”

“Can you live on it?”

“I hope to avoid knowing.”

“You can’t keep a maid on it.” He was satisfied. “And your brothers won’t help you. They got no more than you did of your father’s business. They would hardly welcome their marchioness sister’s imposing on their already strained means.” He cackled over her estrangement from what remained of her family. In fact, her brothers, seven of them, to a one had deeply resented her marriage.

“One of your cousins may help me.” She more or less threw the idea at him like the blanket—it was a bluff, but she was sick to death of his telling her what she already knew. “A Graham Wessit. Henry suggested I pay him a call.”

This produced a moment of grim astonishment, then a snort. “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true. Henry very specifically asked that I make a point of seeing the man.”

Her charade seemed suddenly plausible. She drew the box on the seat beside her a little closer in the dark. There were any number of ways Henry could have had this little bequest delivered. Submit felt a twinge of insight. Henry never did anything without purpose. She was not just delivering the case for Henry; perhaps he might be doing something for her. It was possible, very likely in fact, that he had anticipated William’s reaction to the will. Perhaps this cousin really would be of help.

“Well, this is a bizarre development,” William said. “Gray is going to be amazed, I daresay.”

“You know him?”

“Everyone knows Gray, my dear. You don’t?” He seemed to lord this knowledge over her for a moment, as if it gave him a particularly savory upper hand. Then he added, “Oh, I forget, you have never been much for coming to London.”

“I didn’t think he lived in London.” The earldom was synonymous with land in Devon and Dorset. She had been expecting to make a day trip by train.

“Oh, but he does. He is here now. The season in London.
Summer in the country. The usual tours of Bath. He travels with the ton, my dear.” He clicked his tongue. “He has titles, you know.”

“An earl—”

“Oh, no. I was thinking of all the other ones. Let’s see. He was once called the Father of London Theater.”

“He is a dilettante?”

It took several seconds to realize that William was not answering but indulging in a smug, punishing little silence meant to put a young woman—who never listened to him properly anyway, the silence said—in her place.

“An amateur thespian in his university days,” he said at length. Another pause, then, “But the name comes less from that, I imagine, than from his propensity to conceive children with actresses.” He chuckled. “I do like it, though: You reach for every shilling and stature Father ever possessed, then, when it looks as though there may be a battle, you speak of blithely sidling up to the man he hated most in the world—don’t believe for one minute, my dear, that Father intended you ever ally yourself with Graham Wessit. The mere thought, I promise you, would make my father not roll but spin in his grave.”

“Oh, William—”

“No, no. You must get the full picture. When Netham’s parents died—they killed each other, you know—and no one knew what to do with the brutish little earl, Father took him in. Henry, as Graham’s cousin, was his closest family, so Henry became his legal guardian. Gray and I were raised together. He is my contemporary, not Father’s. Did you realize that?” William seemed to delight in the possibility that she hadn’t. “No, I suppose not; Father would cover his bets.”

This surprised a laugh from her. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

William left the question dangling. “Father never spoke to him, of him, or gave another thought to the monster
once he had him out of the house. Kicked him out, you know. Without a penny, before his majority. Father—”

“Oh, hush.” She leaned across the shadows and, with a sharp tug, yanked the blanket from his knees. “Leave.”

He didn’t understand.

“Dorset—even London—and East Anglia are a bit too distant from each other for convenient visiting, William, though Henry did visit this cousin once. He went to him when he was ill—not precisely a declaration of hate, I would say. Now, get out.”

William sputtered, then became brittle with indignity as the door between them swung outward, opening into the street. Daylight blared through the open doorway.

For several seconds there was nothing but the sharp noise of rain, made louder and more immediate by this sudden access. Rain spattered the step. Below the step, it ran in whooshes, parted into wedged currents by the wheels of the carriage. Incensed, William rose, hovered. He poised in the aperture and looked back, as if he were threatening to throw himself into a river and do himself in.

“Well. Well, you will see,” he said. It was an old, familiar frustration for him, she knew. He saw himself as older, more experienced; he was sure he knew more than she. And yet she paid no obeisance to these facts. William’s bitterness was the lament of a man cheated. “Let me just tell you, young lady, it was no simple matter of the prodigal son. There was
no
fatted calf. You never saw Graham at Motmarche Castle, I would wager; neither by invitation nor by his own accord. Henry severed him. Like a gangrene. Graham Wessit is a selfish, self-indulgent, self-willed”—he looked for the right word—“sybarite.” William seemed suddenly and immensely pleased with the euphony of his own judgment. He drew his chin up. “And he is a frenetic lunatic: He will incinerate you.”

With this satisfying prediction, William Channing-
Downes reached back for his wet bundle, his coat and his hat, then hopped off his perch into the stream of a rainy London day. He walked and rotated, picking his way through the shallower puddles, arranging his overclothes with all the preening delicacy of a fowl at its bath.

Chapter 4

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Romeo and Juliet
Act II, Scene ii, 38

Submit, Submit, Submit. All the rest of that morning and into the afternoon, Graham found himself absently playing with the word, the way one twiddles a tune that won’t leave one’s head. It annoyed him. The woman’s name was irritating, echoing as it did all his courtroom difficulties. That morning, the pregnant girl’s attorney had been allowed to use the word and all its cognates on Graham in a way that had had him visibly flinching toward the end. Poor submissive miss, having submitted with all submittable submission…. But at the same time, the name distracted him, engrossed him. He wondered how the woman outside Tate’s office had managed to stand so calmly, while wearing such a preposterous name. Did the woman speak to herself as such—
Now, see here, Submit.
Graham couldn’t imagine ever using that first name aloud.

By evening, however, Graham discovered himself still trying to. As he was lifting his chin before the mirror to button a collar, he caught himself mouthing the word.
Submit.
Strange, he thought, as he knotted his bow tie. Why should he be preoccupied with it? He knew nothing about the woman, except that from a distance he liked the look of her—wisps of black voile and silk blowing in the wind. Was that all that he liked? No, he’d seen a dozen widows, in and out of the wind. It was something else, he reasoned. Cer
tainly, it was not her connection with Henry. That appalled him; he’d liked her better before he’d known.

Perhaps that was what he liked: He knew almost nothing about her. He laughed at himself, for he suspected, from the experience of waking up frequently beside strangers, that he was especially attracted to women he didn’t know. It was the mystery, he supposed. There was something essentially female in what was hidden, unknown. Yes, that must be it. And Henry only added to this. It seemed incredible to him that so…so what?…so sultry a woman could be—

Graham stopped, one white satin butterfly dangling at his neck, his hand holding the other in place. Could a woman he could barely see be sultry across forty feet of grass, as she spoke to a lawyer on the walk at an Inn of Court? He picked up the end of the tie and pulled it through. Yes, she could. And that was the really mysterious part. How had bookish, prudish old Henry come up with a sultry bride?

He lost track of his own question as he slipped his arms into the armholes of a favorite vest. His valet came up behind him to tie the waist ribbons in back so the garment would fit snugly. Then Graham slid into the offered arms of a tailcoat of evening black, fine French worsted wool with a silk collar and revers. The coat matched his pants, which bore silk braid up the outside of each leg.

His white shirt, white tie, and black evening suit were elegant but standard fare. They might add up simply to a Frenchified Englishman, and, if they did, that would put him in good but unremarkable company with a number of men who would be carousing in London that night. Certified
chic
. But there were the calculated notes of idiosyncrasy. For example, the watches: Graham picked up one, two, three, four, each lovely, each different; he collected them. He looped their chains, one at a time, through the buttonholes and watch pockets of his vest.
Graham’s chest became garlanded with a variety of slender gold chains. The vest itself, a floral brocade of rose, green, and indigo, was a virtual trellis of watch pockets; it might carry a dozen timepieces. Some pockets received watches, others did not. The total effect became something difficult to classify and very hard to ignore.

And this was the intent. There was a kind of aggression to the way Graham dressed. Once, when he was first being passed from family to family, his hair still in curls, he had had an encounter with some older boys. They chased him, toppling him over in a field, and rubbed alum into his mouth to make him pucker, they said. They did nothing more than hold him down and move their bodies on him, but he had been left with the sharp taste, like residual alum, of self-disgust.
Pretty, pretty
, they had taunted. He had hated being pretty. Then he had found a way to embrace it.

Graham drew a fifth watch chain through the glorious embroidered vest, then tapped his feet into black kid shoes with top caps so shiny he could have seen his face in them. He knew he dressed well and that tonight this would count for something. He was going to a party of more than three hundred people, all in the upper social strata. He was dressed for confrontation. He looked rich with a hint of the mutinous, which spelled money, leisure, and the power of class distinction. Graham had put distance between himself and those boys in the field, two of whom would actually be sitting somewhere down the dinner table from him tonight, and the distance was on display.

Graham grabbed up his cape and gloves and gibus. The top hat was collapsed. With a flex of his wrists, he popped it to its full height and set it, at the slightest angle, on his head. At the front door, he remembered his scarf. He called back for it. His valet dropped it from the first floor, over the banister. It sailed, flitting downward in long, erratic spirals, obeying gravity leisurely like the white silk tail of a kite.
Graham was able to pull on one glove as he watched, slide each finger carefully, then snatch the scarf out of the air with his bare hand. He wrapped the scarf twice around his neck, though it was still long enough for both ends to wave delicately over his abdomen and groin. Then he put on the other glove as he shouldered past his butler and went out the door. He was eager for the familiar routine of a party; eager to put this horrible day behind him.

 

It was twilight by the time Submit arrived back at Griffin’s Boardinghouse for Women. The rain had let up, but the wind had not. As she went up the front walk, her hooped skirts swayed restlessly, their undulant sides bobbing and bowing in the wind. Then in a sudden gust, the weather pressed her skirts all the way against her legs; the steel hoops lifted in back. Cool air shot up the backs of her calves.

As she came in the front door, the wind gave her dress a last ferocious snap. The top layer, black voiled silk, separated from the body of the garment. It snagged on the corner of the brass letter drop. For a moment Submit was caught, but once she saw the source of her problem, she unhooked herself with hardly more than a glance, then moved easily into the foyer, while simultaneously removing her gloves. She closed the door, and the room grew still. In the quiet of the semidark foyer, the dress, its filmy overlayer, settled like a spirit come to rest onto the domed heaps and drapes of watered silk.

Dressed in this concoction of pure upper-class fashion, she walked down the narrow foyer of a tidy middle-class hall.

“Mrs. Griffin?” she called.

Mrs. Griffin’s daughter appeared from the doorway. “Yes, madam.”

“Mary.” Submit smiled at her. The young woman was perhaps twenty and had two small boys. She lived with her
parents, her husband having been killed at Balaklava. “Your mother was going to prepare my bill.”

“Yes, it’s right here.” The young woman disappeared into the room.

Submit followed. The Griffins’ apartments were like all the rest in the small building. Neat, convenient, and straining to be more. In their brochure, the Griffins called their dozen small flats “elegant,” a description that was more wishful thinking than fact.

Mary handed her a piece of paper, along with several letters that had come in the day’s post. “Your mail, m’lady.” She paused and then added, “We’re sorry to be losing you.”

Submit smiled tightly. She set her gloves and parcel down. The nicer London boardinghouses had no trouble staying full or getting a good price. With the lawsuit now in its third week, Submit could no longer afford the Griffins’ “elegance.”

Early this morning, she had put a deposit on a single room at an inn on the outskirts of town. The room at the inn was spacious, but also—the kindest word was “rustic.” And neither inn nor boardinghouse was much like home. After the cavernous halls of Motmarche, neither city flat nor country inn seemed a very suitable life. Submit tried not to think of home. Giant, regal old Motmarche. Quiet. August. Surrounded by fields and farmland. Within walking distance of the cosmopolitan joys of a university town. Motmarche and Cambridge with Henry, she thought sadly, had been perfect, the best of all possible worlds.

As she handed over the payment, Submit outlined for the girl what she had already worked out with her mother. “I’ll be leaving tonight after dinner. I’ll send someone in the next day or two for my larger bags. My mail can be forwarded to the old posting house at Morrow Fields. Unless—” Once more, Submit toyed with the idea of asking this cousin, Graham Wessit, for some sort of help. It occurred to
her that the notion with which she had tormented William today might be more than half true: Perhaps Henry, by asking her to deliver the box, was sending her to this man as a kind of potential ally. As to the man’s reputation, Henry could be wonderfully open-minded and independent in his judgment. And so could she. “Unless I notify you otherwise,” she concluded.

Mary nodded. “Would you like tea now? Or would you prefer to wait for dinner? It will be another hour.”

“Tea now would be nice. Thank you.”

“Why don’t I bring it to you in the parlor?”

“That would be fine.”

As she passed by the stairs, Submit noticed that her trunks and bags had already been brought down and tucked under the stairwell. She separated the portmanteau she would be taking with her tonight from the rest, placing it by the front door.

The parlor was a neat, homey room that overlooked the front street. It was a room everyone shared, though thankfully there was no one else around. It was too late for the teatime gathering, too early for the predinner group that usually congregated here.

Submit set down her gloves and the box she was to deliver on the tea table, then went over to a mirror that hung above a small writing desk. She shrugged out of her short cape, throwing it over a wing chair, then, in front of the mirror, began to remove her hat.

The evening light coming only from the fireplace and street’s gaslights outside cast a glow across the chair, the writing desk, across Submit herself. Yet she found the dark atmosphere of the room comforting, almost cheerful. She could hear Mary downstairs in the basement kitchen setting out a cup and saucer, starting her tea. Mrs. Griffin was somewhere overhead, humming, turning down the beds. Mr. Griffin was making his rounds, stoking the fires for the
night. The orderly English life. Submit let go of her worries. This sort of routine reassured her. She didn’t doubt that she could find something like it, even at an old inn on the edge of the city.

From a drawer of the writing table, she took out a tinderbox. She meant to light the kerosene lamp on the table but paused. The fire burned brightly in the hearth. Beyond the window at her elbow a streetlamp glowed; it stood not five feet away. The room was bathed in soft shadows and light. She put the tinderbox down. A sudden patter on the window glass announced that the rain had resumed again.

The patter broke into a light din, the rain blurring the gaslight as it came through the window. Submit turned, watching the room wash in ghostly patterns that quivered over the walls and objects around her, light that moved as if half-alive. It was beautiful; it was eerie. No, it was too fine a sight to disturb with the bright light of a lamp. So she went over, gathered up her mail, brought it back to the wing chair by the window, and sat to read the day’s post by the window light, embraced by the shadows of weather as they rippled across the dry, quiet room.

There was a bill from a doctor. She would have to check her records in the morning; she had thought she had paid them all. Other than this, there were the usual: two cards from people who had known Henry—Submit knew almost no one in London—who had called. A handful of letters, notes of sympathy. Then she happened to catch sight of a name on one of these, a letter delayed and forwarded from Motmarche.

Graham Wessit, the earl of Netham. Submit glanced at the broad, flat case on the tea table. She wondered what was inside it—and wondered if she should perhaps open it, to have a look. No, it wasn’t hers, she told herself.

She opened the note from this Lord Netham, but found no clue inside as to his real significance, if any, in Henry’s
life. There was merely a string of formal, conventional sentiments written out in a round, perfect hand on the neat linen page. Even the signature was sterile—and vaguely hypocritical, for underneath the earl’s name was the phrase “Signed in the Earl’s absence by” and another name. The work of a personal amanuensis. The earl had presumably dictated his sympathy, the way a man orders a box of new shirts, but had had actually nothing to do with the sending of it—any more, the perfunctory nature of the note said, than he ever honestly expected to wear the feelings he had sent along.

A moment later, Mary knocked. “Your tea, madam.”

“Come in.”

Mary entered the parlor, looking around. “Would you like me to light the lamp?”

“No, thank you.” Submit could tell by her hesitation that she did not approve of a young widow sitting alone in the dark. It would be interpreted as morose. “Dinner at eight?” Submit asked by way of signaling the young woman she would be more sociable later.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you again.”

Mary frowned at the outside light playing on the walls, at the leaping shadows from the fire. Submit got up to escort her out, closing the door after her. On her way back to her chair, she picked up the black papier-mâché case from the tea table.

She brought it over to the window. It had once been pretty perhaps, but that was years ago. A white orchid with a deep pink throat had been painted onto the black surface of its top, but the glossy lacquer over this had cracked and yellowed the image. The box had no lock. For a moment, Submit fingered the latch. It was loose. The contents weren’t protected from her curiosity, and Henry of all people knew she was inquisitive.

She lifted the lid and leaned a little closer to the window, toward its diffuse, watery light. Rain pattered. The warmth of the room had fogged little crescents into the corners of the windowpanes. At first, in this dim, reduced light, the exact nature of the contents was obscured.

BOOK: Black Silk
6.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Dark Secrets by Jessica Burnett
The Ares Decision by Kyle Mills
London Falling by Paul Cornell
One Night with a Quarterback by Jeanette Murray
Devil's Match by Anita Mills
Accidental Heiress by Nancy Robards Thompson