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Authors: Judith Ivory

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BOOK: Black Silk
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To her credit, the dunderhead had produced a shimmering affair much attended by the people she most wanted to impress. It was the final seal on her English acceptance.

The first of her acceptance had begun with the earl of Netham, Graham Wessit. He had stumbled onto Rosalyn nearly five months before; truly stumbled, for he’d been quite drunk. Sober morning had revealed good instinct—or else one of those bolts of good luck that occasionally strikes on behalf of the helpless and innocent, categories to which Graham could only lay claim when dead drunk. But instinct or good accident, he was, overnight, paired with
her, and it was not a disagreeable match. Rosalyn had gone on to exceed the most optimistic of expectations. Besides her fine attributes, both social and physical, she was an unfaultably good companion. She was considerate, bright, and affectionate; her sexual attitude, straightforward and satisfying. He liked her. He might, he considered, even love her. In any regard, he enjoyed her company, not only publicly, but privately.

As for Submit Channing-Downes, her mere presence and the fact that Graham was about to meet her gave him the queerest sensation. He remembered William’s assessment of her, the opinion he himself had held for so long by default. Plain and drab, William called her. Yes, Graham recalled from that morning, he could see how someone might think that; whatever there was about her that attracted, it was subtle. Dry, William said. Yes, Graham had even gone further. In his own mind, he realized, he had relegated her to a composite of the two or three other women he had met in Henry’s house. He had made of her either a woman who spoke offhand in sage, witty remarks or else a silent soul who stared out over the tops of eyeglasses from behind large, exophthalmic eyes as she wrote letter upon letter to all manner of people. She would be the daughter of some don or beadle. Or poet. Wrong, all wrong, Graham thought now. None of these women would have come here to find him tonight. He was delighted that reality had proved imagination to be just that—pure, groundless, self-indulgent fantasy. Having had a glimpse of the real woman this morning, he anticipated liking her tonight.

This and a great many other pettinesses rushed about through Graham’s thoughts, like so many disturbed moths and spiders; dust on old notions being brought out to air. Henry was dead. Nothing drove this home so tangibly as the fact of receiving his wife.

Graham was madly revising the marchioness of Mot
marche to make her young, attractive, plausible, when, as he rounded the archway, he was confronted with the quarter profile of a woman he only marginally recognized. It had to be Henry’s wife, for she was alone in the reception room and covered—buried—from head to foot in black. He hesitated, found himself wary, looking for a sign, even a small corroboration that this was the woman he had seen outside Tate’s. She seemed different. The very way she was standing gave him pause. Far from open, her arms were clutching something to her chest, a seeming prop of this new mood. It looked to be a flat box, perhaps the flat box from that morning. She hugged it in front of her, in the posture of someone terribly cold. Or else straitjacketed.

It was this stiff, constrained back he came up on. Black taffeta stretched taut over moiré shoulder blades. She was staring at a huge painting that hung in the reception hall. The picture ran many feet above her head. It was a full-length portrait; Graham did not know of whom, only that it was kept for its ornateness. Rich colors, gilt-framed, and draped with heavy aging fabric. At the sound of Graham’s steps, she tried to drag her eyes away, but clearly this was difficult. Her eyes slid down the drapery and along the room, pulling reluctantly over the items that lined its walls. Picture, chair, picture, settee, picture, small table, vitrine. Until her objectivity rested on Graham.

He was brought up short. She was so unexplainably different from anything he had imagined.

She was small and thin, though not what he would have called bony, and her eyes were not the color of plums. They were merely blue. Her thick, curly hair was pale, a kind of colorless blond. It was also damp—she wore no bonnet. A fine mist of droplets had sifted into the wayward bits of hair that were trying to escape a tight chignon. Her skin looked blanched beneath a speckling of faint freckles that were more numerous across her nose. The most outstanding
thing about her was that she looked very, very young, not in her thirties but in her twenties. Graham was surprised. He had assumed she would be closer to his own age.

“Lady Motmarche? Netham,” he introduced himself with a nod. Then his familiar name, “Graham Wessit,” as an act of cordiality to a cousin, an interesting cousin. “May I be of service to you?”

The little marchioness responded to his politeness with some inanity of her own. They nodded through introductions. Her voice was soft, controlled, strangely sweet. The sound of it was the nicest thing about her.

Graham dropped his eyes down the woman, as if there were something he might have missed. There wasn’t very much to her. She was all dress, yards and yards of prim, proper widowhood.

It was then that he recognized what she was holding.

Graham blinked. The room shifted. Air seemed to push up against him rapidly all at once, as if a railway train had come out of a tunnel with him standing squarely in the middle of its tracks. Like an idiot, he could do nothing but stare.

There, cradled in a pair of narrow black arms, was something he hadn’t seen in twenty years. And something he could have happily gone another twenty without. Henry’s widow was holding an art case known sometimes by the underground name of Pandetti’s Orchids and sometimes by the more bluntly crude double entendre: The little widow held Pandetti’s Box.

Submit found the earl of Netham to be almost a walking corollary to the box: entirely too good-looking, suspiciously decorated; a glossy exterior.

He was tall, loose-limbed, road-shouldered. His clothes were fussy and pretentious, his coloring dark. He had black hair and black eyes that spoke of Moorish blood from the century when English titles were earned in Aquitaine. His eyes were set deep beneath a sharply defined brow, the sort of facial architecture that invited dark, dramatic circles under stress—there were traces of these now. The eyes themselves were large and heavy-lidded. They turned down at the outside edges at a melancholy angle: beautiful, romantic eyes.

They were the sort of eyes—he was the sort of man—over which women could make asses of themselves.

Submit spoke her apologies and explanations with a kind of aloofness from this fact. “So sorry to disturb you at this hour…difficult to find you…on my way out of town…. My husband, Lord Motmarche, left you a small bequest, which I have brought and would like to discuss…”

When she produced the box, the man smiled politely and stepped back from it. “What is this?” he asked.

“I’ve just explained. The marquess of Motmarche left the case and its contents to you in his will.” She watched for some further reaction.

He was stoic. “No, thank you.”

“No, thank you?”

“I don’t want it.”

Submit let the box sink into her skirts. In the room be
yond, music swelled for a moment above the sociable noise of a crowd talking, drinking, laughing. In the empty entrance room, Submit had to speak quietly so her voice wouldn’t echo. “I don’t understand,” she said.

He made a brief, perfunctory smile. “I can’t take it, though I appreciate that you’ve gone out of your way to bring it to me. I’m sorry.”

Now what? Submit had known it would be difficult to ask a stranger what he knew about Henry and the contents of this box. She had never imagined she could not get the stranger—ostensibly the owner of the box—even to look at it.

Submit glanced down at the burden she still held in her hand. “I have been told,” she said, “that you and Henry were not on the best of terms, but surely—”

“Henry and I were on no terms at all. I haven’t seen him since I was nineteen. Exactly half a lifetime ago.”

More puzzling. She said, “But when you were ill three years ago, he visited—”

The man made a snort of disbelief. “If he did, I was unconscious at the time.”

Submit felt completely turned around. She reached for the only explanation she could think of: “You know what’s in it,” she said flatly.

He shrugged. “Poison. Something vile. If Henry left me anything, it would be something despicable, insulting.” He looked at her fully and heaved a huge sigh. “I’m sorry. I have no idea how you came to be named for this errand, madam, but let me assure you, you have been used for something Henry never had the nerve to do when he was alive.”

Submit’s back straightened. “Whatever my husband left you, I’m sure he had a perfectly justified reason—”

“Malice.” The shadowed eyes fixed on her, looking sadly,
meanly convinced. “Lady Motmarche, I hope you will not consider me too rude when I tell you I simply cannot accept that box or anything else from Henry Channing-Downes. I prefer to remain after his death just as I was during his life: forgotten. I’m sorry your late-night trip here was for nothing. Now, may I get you a carriage, or would you prefer to come in for a while?”

“Perhaps I haven’t explained well,” she began again. “I don’t know what to do with it if you don’t take it. This is part of the legal settlement—”

“Keep it. I make you a legal gift of it.”

“But you have to take it—”

“Why? I can’t be compelled to take a gift.”

“Why would you refuse it?” When he didn’t answer, she asked, “Do you know what’s in it?”

There was a long pause before he finally committed himself to a direct response. “No.” He looked at her levelly. “Lady Motmarche, I am trying to spare us both embarrassing explanations. I could never predict what Henry might do or want to do to me from one moment to the next. All I know is that, for my own peace of mind, I have steadfastly refused to have anything to do with Henry’s designs on me since I was nineteen years old. I apologize if that is offensive to you. My refusal honestly has nothing to do with you.”

“Except that I can’t understand it. Why would anyone be so impossible as to refuse Henry’s attempt to make a last contact, especially after so many years? If you don’t even know what’s in it—”

“I don’t care what’s in it.” His voice rose slightly. The riveting eyes narrowed. “It could be filled with thousand-pound notes on the Bank of England. It doesn’t matter.” He left a measured pause, then lowered his voice, a trick that made his height and sharp good looks a little menacing for a moment. “Knowing Henry, however, and how we felt
about each other, it is more likely a box full of adders. I should be very careful, if I were you, about opening it.”

His eyes shifted away from her. Submit found herself speaking to the side of his face. He watched the dancers through the archway in the ballroom. “Henry never did anything to anyone,” she insisted, “that wasn’t based on the best of motives—”

He answered this with a perfect, blatant non sequitur. “How lucky you are to be leaving London.” He didn’t even look at her. “It’s been an ugly May.”

“Pardon me?”

“London. You said you were leaving. Where are you going from here?”

Submit blinked. She wanted to smile at the bluntness—the rudeness—with which he had dropped the topic of concern to her. “I, ah—there’s an inn at Morrow Fields. I’ve hired a driver, who’s waiting outside.”

“Ah. How nice. Just far enough to be rural.” His thumb absently stroked his vest over the outline of a watch—he was wearing about ten of them—as if he could tell time in this manner. “And close enough to make by midnight. Too bad the weather isn’t better for travel.”

The traditional English conversational refuge: the weather. The rain outside on the stoop whipped up to a light patter suddenly, as if to give his absurd digression some validity. Submit would have none of it. “Well, yes,” she said, “and I had rather a devil of a time getting here. Lord Netham—”

“Please. You may call me Graham, if you like. We’re cousins.”

Again, she fought an urge to smile in disbelief. She was taken aback by his familiarity, then completely undone. “Look here—” she said, and he did.

He turned to her, smiling warmly and directly into her eyes. Briefly, he touched her shoulder. For one quick sec
ond, there were all the vibrations of sincerity, friendliness, an incredible personal charm. Where he touched her, chills—surprising, involuntary—ran down her arm. She drew the case to her chest again. Then his coffee-black eyes lifted away, above her head. She realized he was scanning the entrance room, looking for someone, anyone he might honestly want to talk to.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’ll send someone to fetch your coat.”

Submit was staggered, amused, confounded. To keep him from going, she had to lay a hand on his arm. “No,” she said. “And I think you should take this. Henry would want you to.”

“Henry?” He glanced down. At the mention of the name again, his expression soured. He frowned.

“Henry Channing-Downes. Your guardian. My husband.”

“Yes, of course. You have my condolences, madam.” There was a pause before he added, “For losing him, that is.”

She wasn’t very inclined to thank him. Submit could not remember when she had had a more difficult or perplexing conversation. She blundered along for a few phrases more, speaking of Henry briefly, formally, holding the man’s arm. Then she happened to catch a look at the box, still in her hand. It occurred to her suddenly that anyone this evasive, this desperate to get free, knew what the box contained. Her smile from a moment ago broke fully onto her face.

Submit didn’t move, made no further offer of the case, asked no further questions. She let a silence grow between them, standing on the knowledge that Graham Wessit was acquainted with—had perhaps even enjoyed—a boxful of embarrassing pictures.

Oddly, it was her silence that Graham finally heard. He
was quietly stewing over Henry, looking for a way to dismiss the mention of him. In fact, he was looking about the room, looking for an excuse to dismiss this disappointing woman altogether, when out the corner of his eye he saw her smile. His inattention had cost him any hint as to why.

But he could not have missed the effect. She had small teeth and, he noticed, a smaller jaw—two top front teeth overlapped in order to make room for the rest. Oddly, this parting and showing of teeth was so strongly feminine that he was brought up short. A knowing smile peered through a diffident complexion. Nothing totaled. The sum of her parts should have been unremarkable, vulnerable, almost childlike. Yet she demonstrated an elemental duplicity, the way street children can seem canny. Then another wrong adjective came to mind in describing her. Nubile. And Henry, old Henry, was not dismissed. Graham found himself trying to tally her approximate age twelve years ago. Fourteen? Fifteen? Sixteen at the outside. Henry would have been fifty-nine. Graham’s skin prickled.

The widow let go of his arm as she picked up the conversation again with some stiff, conventional nonsense. But he was just as glad to let her talk; he didn’t know what to say, what to think.

The dead guardian seemed to be lurking. Graham started to feel old sensations. His childhood and adolescence clung to the widow in wisps, as if she’d just climbed through an old trunk of his youth. Cobwebs seemed to dangle from her, more vital than the memory of specific events. She triggered the reliving with just a word, an intonation, of inchoate emotions he knew were familiar but couldn’t identify. He began to realize Henry Channing-Downes was in every sentence she uttered. Out of context. Out of time. Out of the grave. She had his vocabulary, his inflection, his favorite idioms. Only the peculiar femininity was hers, un
shadowed. The shy, imbricate smile—no more than a social mechanism, but ticklishly pleasing, as if it ran lightly over his skin. Then gone.

It dawned on him suddenly that he was staring. He quickly looked away. There was a sense of nothing being where he’d put it. He was lost in the conversation. It would have been difficult to explain that he was bored with it on one level and incapacitated by it on another.

There was an intrusion of noise and rain and wind. Half a dozen people came in the front door, shaking, stomping, dripping. A nervous laugh echoed from their midst, more chatter of weather, exclamations of relief to be out of it. Servants came. The routine of arrival broke into the private conversation. The little catch of tension was allowed to dissipate into the noise of the others. With merry murmurs the newcomers shed their wet clothes and warmed to the atmosphere of the dry, bright house.

Graham lowered his voice and came inches closer to her. “William and I speak regularly,” he said. “One hardly knows what to believe of all he says these days, but I know his suit was intended to put you out of a house.” He was so puzzled by this woman. He meant to make amends. “If you’re in need of a place to stay, I have a flat on Haymoore Street.”

Her shoulders, face, and eyes all raised together a fraction, suggesting mild surprise.

He pressed the matter. “If you’re in dire straits—”

“Thank you, but I couldn’t even consider such an offer.”

“I hope you are not refusing for fear of imposing—” It occurred to Graham to add, “I assure you I am not making a suggestive proposition.”

He got a faint smile from her. A member of the other party had begun to sing a pub song. “The mucking rain, We may as well drink.” Trying to be serious in the midst of this was beginning to take on a furtive quality, becoming a collusion between himself and the widow.

“I’d never think that.” Her voice was hushed.

Except that was exactly what she was thinking, he was sure; that he wouldn’t offer a woman help honestly. He brushed the palm of his hand down his ornate vest. “You shouldn’t believe everything William tells you,” he said.

Her smile broadened, as if she were easily smart enough to know this, and to know why he would suggest it. “He has a great deal of specific criticism for you, doesn’t he?”

“You should hear what he calls you.”

She paused to put the tip of her tongue against the compacted teeth. She eyed him for a moment, then looked away to watch the other group in the room. A laugh from that quarter punctuated their own silence.

Graham spoke to the side of her face, the clean, juvenescent profile. “Stay in the flat. It’s staffed anyway. It’s nothing in the way of trouble to me.”

“Why?”

“Mud in William’s eye, if nothing else.”

“I haven’t the time or patience to be vindictive,” she said, implying he shouldn’t, either.

The implication, even the syntax, were Henry Channing-Downes’s. One of Henry’s little maxims—or a good imitation, since Graham had long forgotten the specifics—on Guarding Good Character. Again the hair on the back of his neck stood up. “There are many things,” he said, “I wish I could have done for your husband. But we were on such bad terms. Let this—”

She interrupted. “If you really want to do something for me—or Henry—explain what you know about this box.”

He stared at her, muzzled by his own sharp resentment that she had circled back in this direction. He couldn’t decide if he liked or hated this woman.

Then he didn’t get a chance to decide. Rosalyn Schild glided into the room. She immediately became its center.
She must have been summoned on behalf of the late guests, for she greeted them directly. Smiles. Good-evenings. Bussed cheeks. Squeezed hands. A beguiling enthusiasm that jumped social barriers.

Between Graham and the widow, a tangible barrier materialized. The black lacquered box. “Here. Take it, or I’m leaving it.” She nodded her head to indicate a little table beside them as she held the box out. “It’s yours. You can burn it, toss it, whatever you’d like.”

She went to set the box down. Instinctively he grabbed it, taking a firm hold.

Wide, shallow, shiny. Raised brush strokes of white, pink, and rose on black. He nearly gagged at the concrete feel of this apparition. He pulled at the box. But oddly it stayed in the air. He felt the paper walls of it giving between his thumb and palm, collapsing. He realized two other hands had an untentative hold. The widow had not let go. And Rosalyn’s hand had a delicate but firm grasp of the other side—she was adjusting the box down an inch to see the other woman’s face.

BOOK: Black Silk
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