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Authors: Judith Ivory

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BOOK: Black Silk
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Just sheets of paper. The paper was a soft thick rag. The inside of the box, above, around, and underneath these sheets, was softer still. The box’s lining was truly a pleasure to touch—folds of soft, black satin. The satin was unusually fine, extravagantly tactile. Submit liked it, yet somehow, when combined with the box’s black lacquer exterior, its pink and white orchid, the total effect wasn’t exactly to her taste. It was
de trop.
The costly, overluxurious lining was much more than was required simply to protect the sheets of paper from shifting around in the box. They were drawings, she realized. It was a small art case.

In the watery light, she could just make out the delicate tracings of ink sketches, thin, graceful lines intertwining with more graceful lines. Slowly Submit recognized in these the features of faces, or parts of faces. The closed eyes of an ecstatic expression. An open mouth, as if in song. The drawings had an ethereal nature, the strangely passionate quality of a Pre-Raphaelite hand, like the work of Mr. Rossetti and his friends. Submit thought that, perhaps like this unconventional brotherhood of artists, the creator of these sketches had sought to represent faces in religious epiphany or ecstatic concentration. She lifted one drawing from its case and braced it in the open lid to take a better look. Then she nearly lost the entire lot of them, jerking with such a start that the little drawings ruffled briefly into the air before they settled back down into their black-lined case.

“For the love of God!” she whispered, leaping to get the lamp. As she fumbled with the tinderbox, her hands shook. The surface of the writing desk blazed into light. She spread the pictures—there were an even dozen of them—as best
she could under the bright kerosene lamp. She could not believe what she saw.

They were illicit pictures, sketches of naked men and women doing God knew what to each other.

Submit’s heart began to pound. She looked up suddenly, as if someone were about to find her with these. Ridiculous. Dinner was an hour away. No one would be down. She could hear activity in the kitchen below, the Griffins talking and preparing the food. Bending over the writing desk, Submit quickly tried to shuffle the pictures back into their box. But the paper was soft and limp. The sketches bowed when she tried to tap them into order. In the end, she had to pick them up and align them one at a time. When she at last got the mess together, latched it into its case, she brought it up to her chest, crossing her arms over it, and turned to lean against the desk. She once again looked around.

No one. Of course. Her heart thumped against the papier-mâché lid. There was no one to see what she held, and no one would intrude. Yet this was an oddly comfortless thought.

For the first time since Henry’s death, Submit felt alone.

The only person she might have confided in, Henry, was gone. In fact, it was his doing that she even had this vile, stupid box. What on God’s earth had Henry had in mind?

And who, pray tell, was this nasty cousin?

Submit reached and turned out the lamp. The room fell back into darkness, though it wasn’t the same. Rain pelted the window, matching the rhythm of her heart. The mullioned pattern of the outside light wavered over chair and desk and carpet, casting itself like a net over Submit herself. She wished she could throw away the wretched art case, pretend it didn’t exist, but she couldn’t. Even if she took it back to Arnold, let him take over, she couldn’t ask him to take over all the questions this impossible little box had opened up.

What had cultured, refined Henry been doing with a box of crudely explicit art?

Submit was not so naive as to think there weren’t certain perverse souls who actually fancied such things. But Henry, surely Henry wasn’t one of these people. And this cousin…

Submit jerked around, turning to grab up her mail from the windowsill, where she’d left it. She tapped through it until she found what she wanted. An envelope with a London address. Yes.

A moment later, as she half-ran down the hall, she called, “Mary! I won’t be staying for dinner after all!”

Across London, Graham sat at a dinner party. All around him, people were talking. They were seated at long tables covered in white linen and set with gleaming silver and goblets of wine that sparkled, burgundy red, through the cuts of crystal. Silver candelabras, set somehow into heaping clusters of orchids, graced all this at intervals. The candlelight made the tables shimmer. The room itself glowed. A steady lambency came from its periphery, from gas piped into wall fixtures. But this modern innovation had yet to reach the ceiling, where thousand-candled chandeliers scattered chips of light—diamonds and prisms—over the room’s ceiling and walls. The effect was stunning. The soft light from the tinkling, shifting tiers of candles overhead made everything look warm and pleasant, perfectly beautiful. It should have been a perfect night. But, just as the servants were bringing on the first course, Graham heard the billiard table incident introduced as a topic for conversation, like an added delectable hors d’oeuvre.

“Graham has certainly gotten himself into a little fix,” someone said with a laugh.

Graham had been relaxed, one elbow resting on the back of his neighbor’s chair as he flirted with her, but upon hearing his name he grew silent and cast his eyes down. Someone responded to the comment, and someone else responded to that. Graham felt the muscles along his shoulder and arm tighten. He put his arm down.

As he listened, the story took on a different tone. Absent the clublike camaraderie of men, it became, “Oh, Graham, you’ve driven another one mad.”

He fidgeted and tried to take this in good humor, but
the underlying assumption of the teasing—that he was somehow involved with the girl—became harder and harder to bear. He spoke up once—“Honestly, I’ve never met the girl”—which was a mistake; it only seemed to shift the focus.

“Of course you’re innocent, love. All gentlemen are innocent when a laundress”—the girl’s occupation, it turned out—“wants to rattle their money bags or squeeze their nuptial hand.”

The torment continued through French asparagus and roast beef to English pudding and cheese—with Graham growing silently, morosely furious with everyone around him. He told himself he really shouldn’t be angry. Only idiots could leap to such wholly false conclusions. But he kept looking at everyone enjoying the joke. There were so many of them, and he couldn’t believe they were
all
stupid. He was caught feeling furious and foolish at the same time, without defense.

The whole experience left him with a rolling stomach and a grim mouth. And the keenest desire to be somewhere else.

After the ladies left, he somehow managed to gag down a glass of port. When the gentlemen at last rose to go to the ballroom, Graham nodded and smiled, then slipped out. He headed outside for a terrace he knew would be unpeopled and unlit.

The terrace offered little respite. It was still raining, and the night was pitch black. Graham could barely see his own hands planted before him on a wet marble rail. Over the railing somewhere he knew there was a garden, but seeing it was hopeless. Perfect, he thought. What a perfectly dismal day, right to the end. The night was too terrible to stand out in it. He was too ragged to repair his own self-respect. A seducer of laundresses and, someone had added, housemaids. What could he say in response? It was true that at one time
he had found irresistible the charms of a woman on his own upperhouse staff.

Perhaps William was right, Graham thought. He himself was afraid to face up to facts. For a moment, the very thought of listening to William unnerved him. His cousin was certainly not very astute. But perhaps even an idiot could happen upon a little truth. There were so damned many clever people here tonight who seemed to agree with his blasted cousin. Perhaps they were all right. He was nothing more than an overpretty, shallow man inclined to take advantage of women, a raffish stereotype. He certainly knew how to play that role well enough to win applause for it.

Graham had been on the real stage some two hundred times, which was to say he had earned a living as an actor for part of his twentieth and twenty-first years. His had been a brief career and one certainly not long enough to tell if he had an aptitude for acting, but he had never had trouble finding work, which was a kind of praise in itself. He had had an immediate presence for his height, his good looks, his name—all provided a kind of underground notoriety. He never played a large repertoire but rather limited stock parts: foolish lovers, villainous lovers, handsome villains. His looks fit perfectly into the popular concept of the brooding romantic. His background carried the rest. The parts were always upper-class men, and he lent aristocratic characters an unusual credibility. Unlike any other actor on the stage, he
was
a gentleman, so he had no trouble being convincing in that part.

Convincing was all he strove to be tonight. He hoped to convince anyone who looked at him that he was calm and happy, in control of himself. He walked the length of the terrace until he stood in a penumbra of light. This came through high terrace doors that opened into a ballroom beyond. He smoothed his vest, straightened his cuff, and com
posed as best he could a presentable self with which to step forth.

With two hands, he thrust open the terrace doors. The ballroom was brighter than the dining room, a blur of colors and lights that swayed in three-quarter time. Music. Laughter. Masses of people. The room swirled with waltzing prosperity, with champagned well-being and conspicuous success. It announced in every swoop of the music the certainty of—everyone would say tomorrow—a brilliant party. So brilliant, in fact, that after the dark terrace, Graham was left squinting and blinking.

As he stepped forward, the crowd opened up for him. He broke into it, counterpointing the waltz of the ballroom with his own military march. Faces turned, spectators of his one-man parade. Some queued up to stare. Others wanted to be part of his procession.

“Your lordship.”

“Good evening.” He talked and smiled congenially with anyone who addressed him, socializing, bald-faced, with a grace acquired over years of experience, the confidence of a man playing an acclaimed role.

As he passed a member of Parliament, the man said, “Mrs. Schild is looking for you.” Two steps later, another fellow repeated the exact sentence, adding, “She has outdone herself tonight.” It was her party; she rented this house in London.

“Thank you. She will be so pleased that you are enjoying yourself.”

From behind him, someone called, “Happy birthday.”

Graham tried to hide his dismay. He had turned thirty-eight today, but did not wish the fact known.
Age without wisdom
, he had complained to himself. He had been so sure, in some distant time ago, that the two were inseparable. Only after much protesting had he been able
to persuade Rosalyn Schild to make nothing of his birthday, though it had been the original impetus for the party.

The person behind him, a young man, caught up and nudged him. “The sign of Gemini.”

Graham blinked. He didn’t understand.

“The end of May. The sign of the twin stars.”

It hit him. The billiard table girl. It was common knowledge she claimed to be carrying twins. He shoved his way past, nearly flattening a young woman in his path.

Rosalyn Schild came up beside him.

He leaned toward her. “I think all England is here,” he complained.

“I know, isn’t it wonderful?” She spoke brightly. “It’s going well, don’t you think?”

“Beautifully.”

Her attention darted over her shoulder. “Don’t ruin it. Where have you been?”

“I’m not ruining anything.”

“Please, Gray. I feel so English tonight. Play the English lord, not the wet blanket.” Rosalyn was not English at all. She was from Philadelphia.

He made a face at her back.

And she swung on him. She put a finger in his chest. A servant with a tray of glasses stopped into his shoulder blades. He was pinned against her finger.

“You were completely ungracious at your end of the table,” she said. “Taciturn, glum. You hardly ate. I couldn’t catch your eye. People will think you’re quite unhappy.”

“I am unhappy.”

“They’ll think with me.”

“It has nothing to do with you. Let’s leave together. That should suit them.”

“You know I can’t.”

He made a mock smile. “Then just a carriage out front.”

“God.” She rolled her eyes and reached up. She patted his cheek, returning a much more ingenuous smile than his.

He caught her hand, turning his mouth into it, and bit the ball of flesh at the base of her thumb.

Her smile went slack. Her arm relaxed in his. Her fingers curled against his cheek. “Lord,” she murmured. He licked the center of her palm—it tasted acrid, the taste of perfume. When he let the hand go, she put it to her breast, staring at him. She wet her lips and smiled again, though a little less certainly. “We’d better dance.”

She began to lead him toward the music. Over her shoulder she said, “There’s a woman in the reception room. She’s been waiting for nearly half an hour. She says she must see you.”

“Then why are we going this way?”

“I’ve been waiting longer.” He watched her bare shoulders give a shrug. “I’ve never seen her before. Her name is Motmarche. Lady Motmarche. Should I have invited her in? She’s dressed as a widow.”

Graham stopped, puzzled a moment, then redirected himself toward the reception room. Rosalyn Schild managed to scramble back around him, grabbing a handful of watch chains. She stood on tiptoe, her face frowning into his.

“Do you know her?”

He spoke over her head, trying to move her out of the way. “Not really.”

“Why is she here?”

“I don’t know. She shouldn’t be.”

He managed to rotate their two positions. They seemed to be inventing their own dance, the back-and-forth movement between them every bit as complex as the turns at the center of the room. The orchestra suddenly stopped. People clapped. He thought he was about to leave Rosalyn behind once more when he was forced to look down. She did not clap. She would not relinquish the watches. He had to take
her hands in his and bend each of her fingers individually out of the chains and buttonholes at the bottom of his vest. Then he let out a harried breath. She had clutched two of his fingers into her fist. The orchestra began again.

“It’s a Viennese. Listen.” It was indeed a fast Viennese waltz. Ever buoyant, she said, “Come dance and spin me round and round till I can’t stand. Then just at the end, kiss me. Let’s be happy and gay. And romantic.”

“I think that wouldn’t go over very well.”

“It would with me.”

“Remember whom you’re entertaining.”

“Certainly not you.”

He sighed. “Rosalyn, I’d just as soon not remind anyone tonight of—anything romantic. Dinner was a bit much for me.”

“What? That twit with the twins again? Come now, you can’t let people—”

“But I do, apparently. I don’t like being the butt of these jokes. Not after suffering the reality of it all day. Be a good girl and understand.”

She wrinkled her nose and mouth. “I’m not anyone’s good girl.”

“No. Thank goodness.” He freed his fingers, enveloping her hand in both of his. “Now let me see what this woman wants. Then I’m retiring early. You can wake me when you come to bed.” He manufactured something more like a smile, which usually pleased her, but not this time.

“You can’t leave. I was counting on you—”

“You are doing wonderfully well on your own. I’m very proud of you. Proud
for
you. It has nothing to do with me, you must believe that. It’s your own doing in spite of me, in fact. I’ll come back before I retire, for an hour or so to say my good-nights.” When she didn’t immediately respond to that, he added, “And spin you once around the dance floor, if you’ll put up with my clumsiness.”

“You’re never clumsy.”

He touched two fingers, first to his mouth, then to hers.

“But you’re a third-rate romantic,” she said, then with hardly a pause, “I love you.”

He disappointed her again, somewhat perversely this time. “What a lucky man I am.”

“Cad.”

“A third-rate slander. You should have been in court this morning.”

She lifted her skirts, turned, and dropped her eyes over one shoulder. “Well, if you can find me when you return—”

“I’ll find you.”

“If I’m not in the ballroom, you can check the carriages.”

“Now who’s the cad?”

“Women can’t be.”

“Of course they can.” He forced her retreating chin around. “I love you, Rosalyn; happy?”

She stuck out her tongue, didn’t look happy at all, turned and began to negotiate the masses. Half a dozen people away, she was talking animatedly again. Then she laughed so hard that she had to cover her mouth with her hand, and the laughter still came out noisily. He watched her, but she never looked back. The laughter was not for his benefit, he knew, but for her own. She had a facility for dredging up happiness from her bottommost moments, as though she tapped some hidden spring and up came artesian joy, an unending supply. Without props or prompts—this was a trick he would like to learn.

 

Rosalyn Schild could have had a foul disposition and still been sought after. She was stunning. Large-boned, buxom, beautiful in an exuberant, unwithholding manner, she was as radiant and full-blown as a blood red rose with every petal bent back. People held their breath when they first saw her. She was wealthy and stylish. Tonight she wore a ma
genta gown for which there was not a match in the room (but then she had special access to the new aniline dyes, her husband reputedly being in textiles). She was as genuinely, wonderfully, certifiably fresh as anything Graham could imagine ever coming into his dismally homogeneous life.

Rosalyn was as un-English as a Thanksgiving dinner—an American feast provided at the expense of an American husband and sampled somewhat warily by an English elite interested in such esoterica. She was the novelty of the season, a curiosity with the good fortune of not disappointing the curious. She proved to be just what the complacent English mind wanted to believe about Americans. She was a great Anglophile, impressed into speechlessness by title and royalty, and—though a bright woman—with no head for keeping any of it straight. She was naturally polite and could be deferential to a fault. Thus protocol and English culture, as she turned them upside down, were generally kind to her, for she provided amusement without expense to ego and with such gracious and ingenuous charm that there was a minimal loss of face to herself. It was tacitly assumed that, had she been born English, she would have been queen; but being born American she was through no fault of her own a dunderhead—a gross underassessment of her abilities, but suitably and soothingly ethnocentric.

BOOK: Black Silk
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