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Authors: Joan Smith

Tags: #Regency Mystery/Romance

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BOOK: Murder While I Smile
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“It’s rather late to call—nine o’clock,” Corinne mentioned, as the carriage drove off.

“She said she would be at home till nine-thirty,” Coffen replied.

“I wonder what lucky gent is calling at ten,” Prance said musingly.

Coffen gave him a sharp look. “Eh? Whoever he is, he will be out in his luck. She said she would be going out at nine-thirty.”

“That might be French for saying she does not wish to be disturbed after that hour.”

“Just like a Frenchie. Why the deuce can’t they say what they mean?”

The carriage lumbered along the streets of fashionable London, passing private chaises and landaus, some with a crested panel indicating a noble owner, as well as hired hackney cabs and a few gents on foot, before drawing to a stop in front of a modest brick house in Half Moon Street.

Before descending, Corinne said, “I hope we won’t be
de trop
on this call, Reggie. Perhaps she understood an evening visit to be romantical in nature.”

“Rubbish. She’s just going to show me some pictures,” Coffen said. “Dashed civil of her.”

“Mark my words, she’s peddling them,” Prance averred.

“Daresay you might be right. She could sell me the Tower of London if she had a mind to. Killing eyes, Prance.”

“She is much too old for you!” Corinne scolded. “Furthermore, buying a painting you do not want is an expensive way of furthering the acquaintance.”

“True, but as she said, a picture is an investment, you see. And Chamaude has the goods. Her husband had a famous collection. They managed to smuggle some of them out of France.”

Prance reached down and picked up a copy of his book. “Better take a couple,” he said, picking up another. “She might have company. She is not the sort of lady to sit home alone during the Season, even before nine-thirty.”

They were admitted by a butler with a French accent and the saturnine, dissipated face of an aging boulevardier. While waiting to be announced, Corinne glanced around the walls of the hallway. Above a bombé chest, a Watteau fête
champêtre
scene hung in a gilt frame. Dandified gentlemen were pushing ladies in broad-brimmed hats and floating gowns, seated on swings. Their toes disappeared into the branches of ethereal trees. Beneath the bonnets, eyes flirted at her across the century. The painting appealed to her highly developed sense of romance. Why couldn’t life be like that nowadays?

“Charming,” she said. “I wonder if our hostess would care to sell this one.”

“Poisson,” Coffen replied.

“Pray what have fish to do with anything?” Prance asked, sniffing the air. “Mutton, I would say.”

“What she wants me to look at—a Poisson. Is that a Poisson?” He peered at the painting, looking for a signature. No one had ever accused him of knowing anything about art.

“Poussin?” Prance murmured. He and Corinne exchanged a look that spoke volumes of Pattle’s ignorance of art. He glanced at the painting above the chest. “The Watteau appears to be genuine.”

They soon found themselves in Lady Chamaude’s saloon. It was not large, but its insignificant size was more than compensated for in elegance. Satin settees, a marble fireplace, tables littered with bibelots, a Persian carpet, and draperies of some material that emitted a golden sheen were the overall impression. Yet despite its charming decor, Corinne felt uncomfortable, as if she were in a prison. Was it the room’s size that caused it? Soon her attention was diverted to Lady Chamaude.

It was hard to believe she was as old as arithmetic decreed. She was strategically placed with the light at her back, but even in the dull glow, one could see time had not got the better of her. Hair as black as jet was arranged in curls around a heart-shaped face. The darkness of her eyes was emphasized by delicately tinted skin, as flawless as a newly opened rose. No incipient sagging or wrinkling could be seen.

That pair of impertinent shoulders might have been carved by Canaletto from alabaster. A wine-colored gown showed them off to great advantage. At her throat she wore a set of diamonds. The diamonds were perhaps paste; they did not sparkle as real diamonds should. At her side, like a dog guarding a particularly tasty bone, sat the corpulent, bewhiskered Marquess of Yarrow. Corinne decided it was his jailer
-
like pose that caused that sense of confinement.

This gentleman was known to be quite an expert on art and ladies. He was one of the Prince Regent’s rackety crew who gambled for high stakes, drank too much, and enjoyed great favor at the Tory-dominated court. He was also, if memory served, a member of the Horse Guards, and therefore no doubt a crony of the Duke of York, who was commander in chief of that mysterious institution. They were not guards, nor did they ride horses, but their administrative office was at that address. Corinne understood they were very influential in military matters.

“Lady deCoventry, gentlemen,” Yarrow said genially, rising to pump their hands. The creak of whalebone revealed he was wearing a corset to control his girth. “Did you ever see such grand weather as this? Delightfully warm for September.”

They all agreed it was superlative weather.

Lady Chamaude turned her brilliant orbs on them and said, “I don’t believe I have the pleasure of your friends’ acquaintance, Mr. Pattle.” Her voice was husky, and tinged with an alluring French accent.

Coffen made the introductions. The loquacious Prance was bereft of words. He could only stare, employing the “under-look” in an effort to beguile the charmer.

It was Coffen who said, “A dandy dress, Comtesse, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Lady Chamaude showed them to a seat and said, “Too grand for the evening I have planned, I fear. Lord Yarrow has been kind enough to help me in selecting an outfit in which to have my portrait taken. Actually, I shall be spending the night with a sick friend.”

“Lady Chamaude says she has no use for a portrait, having no family to pass it on to,” Yarrow said. “Rubbish, say I. It will be for posterity, like the
Mona Lisa.”

The lady gave a dismissing shrug of her marmoreal shoulders. “I never thought Mona Lisa, the lady, very attractive, though it is a stunning painting. I shall have my portrait taken to remember in my old age how I looked when I was younger. I do not say young, for I am long past that. My bloom has faded.” Her voice held a wistful note, which was echoed in her dark eyes.

The words were designed to elicit pity and, of course, strenuous objection from the gentlemen. Corinne felt she ought to despise her, and was surprised to feel the stirring of pity. It was the way the comtesse spoke, with an air of genuine regret. There was a fragile air of vulnerability in her beauty, like a blossom whose petals have lost their firmness but have not yet begun to wither. How very fleeting were a lady’s youth and beauty! Even she was no longer in the first flush of youth. Twenty-four—a quarter of a century on her next birthday, and what had she accomplished? She had no husband, no children. In her mind the image of Luten rose up to banish these gloomy thoughts.

“Why, you are still a young girl,” Yarrow said in a kindly way. As he spoke, he clamped his sausage
-
like fingers on her white arm and squeezed. The comtesse stiffened, then smiled her thanks. “When you are half a century old like myself, then you may be allowed to speak of fading youth.”

“Exquisite, charming,” Prance breathed. He presented both Lady Chamaude and Lord Yarrow with a copy of the
Rondeaux.
“Just a few lines I scribbled off in my hours of idleness.” Damme! He had inadvertently used the title of Byron’s first youthful offering.

“But how charming!” the lady exclaimed. “You must autograph it for me. You English have so many clever poets. I have just been dipping into Lord Byron’s poem.”

Prance’s jaw clenched in dismay. She rose from her chair abruptly, with an air of escape, and led him to a drop-leaf desk in the corner. Corinne observed Yarrow admiring Lady Chamaude’s sylphlike figure. When he saw Corinne watching him, he gave a shake of his whiskers.

“Poor lady,” he said. “She has had a rough time of it, in a foreign land. We ought to be a little kind to our French émigrés. Yvonne, that is her name, is quite like a daughter to my good lady and myself.”

Corinne smiled benignly on this piece of fustian. Yarrow’s sharp eyes held no hint of pity, but a definite gleam of lust.

Prance dipped his pen into the inkpot and began a flourishing inscription. He noticed Lady Chamaude used a violet color of ink. Charming! No discreet inscription occurred to him. He wanted to write
I
love you,
in sulfur across the sky. The lady was exquisite! The boldest message he dared to inscribe was “To Lady Chamaude from an admirer, Sir Reginald Prance.” He wrote a fine hand, if he did say so himself. Let Lord Byron match that
L
and
C.
Would she notice he had humbly not given his own “admirer” a capital?

Lady Chamaude read the inscription and rewarded him with a Giaconda smile, which he quickly imbued with a hint of invitation. Yarrow had set his copy aside unsigned.

She sent for wine, and when they were all served, she said, “I expect you want to see the Poussin, Mr. Pattle.”

“Thankee, I do.”

She rose again and led Pattle across the room. When Corinne noticed that the picture occupied an ill-lit corner, she felt a spurt of alarm. The lady’s reputation was not all one could wish in a purveyor of artworks, and that was certainly why Coffen had been invited here.

As if reading her mind, Lady Chamaude said, “We shall bring it to the light. Would you mind removing it, Mr. Pattle? It’s rather heavy.”

The painting, about two feet wide and eighteen inches high, had an embossed gilt frame. He had some little difficulty removing the picture from the wall and managed to bump a corner of the frame against a couple of tables while transporting it to the light. He noticed he had knocked a dent in the corner of the frame and very likely marred the tables as well. Pity. They all gathered around to study the picture.

Prance managed to wrench his eyes from the comtesse long enough to study the painting. Its patina, he observed, suggested the proper age, but that could easily be faked. The subject was an old man swathed in some sort of winding cloth, drinking from a goblet, while assorted people stood around looking morose.
The Death of Socrates,
of course.

Yarrow gazed at it and sighed in pleasure.
“The Death of Socrates,”
he announced in solemn tones. “From Poussin’s more mature period, between 1640 and 1650, I should think.”

“Yes, certainly,” Prance agreed. “At that time he painted heroes facing a moral dilemma. You can see the traces of the French Royal Academy. Classical lines,” he said vaguely.

Yarrow’s eyebrows rose in approval. “I see you know something about art, Prance.”

“Un petit peu,”
Prance replied.

What Corinne saw was an extremely tedious, old-fashioned picture. The colors, borrowed from the Venetians, had faded with age. The composition, borrowed from Rubens, was stilted by the dull classical elegance the French Royal Academy insisted on. The workmanship, however, was more than capable. As an investment it might be worthwhile. Yarrow was extremely knowledgeable about such things. He often acted on the Prince Regent’s behalf at auctions and sales.

“What do you think, Coffen?” she asked, making no effort to conceal her own lack of interest.

“Now, that is what I call a picture!” he exclaimed. “Socrates! It would be the last picture ever painted of him. Mean to say, he’s downing the hemlock even as the artist painted.”

Yarrow’s jaw fell open in astonishment. “It was not painted from life, Pattle!” he said.

“No, it couldn’t be, come to think of it. But you could never tell to look at it. What are you asking for it, milady?”

“A thousand pounds.”

“A bargain!” Yarrow exclaimed.

Coffen said, “Yes, by the living jingo, I’ll
—”

Corinne darted a warning look to Prance, who had fallen into a trance as he gazed at la comtesse. “He’ll think about it,” she inserted hastily.

“Don’t dally too long, or it will be snapped up,” Yarrow warned, gazing fondly at the picture. “There is a wine merchant coming to look at it tomorrow.”

They finished their wine, and Yarrow said to Lady Chamaude, “I know you are going out as soon as you change, madam, so I shall not detain you. I think the deep red gown will do very well for the portrait, but you will want to consult with the artist first. It depends on what background he has in mind. If he chooses to use nature for the setting, then perhaps he will want something less formal than silk and diamonds.” He lifted a bushy eyebrow at the other callers, who were obliged to rise as well.

“When will you let me know about the Poussin, Mr. Pattle?” Lady Chamaude inquired, not eagerly, but in a businesslike way.

‘Tomorrow. I’ll sleep on it. Not on the picture itself! I’ll think about it, is what I meant.”

The comtesse smiled sweetly. “Of course.”

The four callers left together.

“A fine lady,” Lord Yarrow said, as they walked toward their waiting carriages. “It is a boon to England that so much of the Chamaude collection is ending up here—and at such reasonable prices. I cannot tell you how many masterpieces I have managed to get hold of for Prinney. You must drop around to Carlton House tomorrow evening and have a look for yourself. I shall arrange it with Prinney for you to receive invitations. He is having a few connoisseurs in to see his latest acquisitions.”

“I don’t call myself a connoisseur,” Pattle said, though he had no objection to others calling him one.

Prance, who assumed that “connoisseur” was directed at him, and was in any case determined to be included in any invitation to Carlton House, said, “We would be honored, Lord Yarrow.”

Yarrow then turned a sharp eye on Lady deCoventry, who had said nothing. “I sense you are not smitten with the Poussin, milady.”

“It is not in my style. That Watteau in Madam’s hallway, however, is quite another matter.”

“A charming thing. Lady Chamaude is particularly fond of it herself and has no immediate plans to dispose of it.”

BOOK: Murder While I Smile
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