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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 has for women. An old woman like that wouldn’t do your reputation any good, I can tell you. I spotted crow’s-feet at the corner of her eyes this afternoon when the light from the window struck her.”

“I spotted black diamonds in her eyes. But we were speaking of my poetic failure. ‘Worldly renown is naught but a breath of wind.’ How did I have the effrontery to write a poem when I had not yet lived? I have lived a sham life, Pattle, harkening to every wind of fashion, thinking of the impression I was making, forsaking the true meaning of life.”

“Money, you mean, or food?”

Prance winced. “Love, dear boy. “The love that moves the sun and other stars.’ The sort of eternal love inspired by those marvelous
Sturm und Drang
eyes!”

“You’re making a dashed fool of yourself, Reg. Tarsome fellow. We’ve all heard enough of them stern danged eyes. Too much.”

Prance sniffed and finally got a small piece of carrot into his mouth. With no ladies to keep waiting, the gentlemen soon left off gourmandizing and decided against the taking of port. They went to call on Corinne immediately after dinner.

“I thought Luten would be here, urging you not to attend the
vernissage”
Prance said, looking all around the saloon.

She tidied her skirt with an air of unconcern. “No, he just returned,” she said.

“Did he bring my picture?” Coffen asked. “I left it in his rig when you two went dashing off this afternoon.”

“Black says he sent the picture home in his carriage earlier. It was taken to your place. Did the servants not bring it to you?”

“They might have tried. I’ve been at Prance’s, getting cleaned up and fed.”

Prance studied Corinne’s strained face and suspected there was trouble between the lovebirds. “Where has Luten been all this time?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Reg. He just dropped me off and left. He said he had some things to do at Westminster after his long absence from town. I haven’t heard from him—but he returned in his hunting carriage,” she said, with dilating nostrils.

“The devil you say!”

“Don’t mean a thing,” Coffen said, and was ignored.

It was well known that what Luten hunted in that particular unmarked carriage was women in whose company he did not wish to be recognized. As far as Corinne was concerned, it was confirmation that he had been with the comtesse.

“We all know what it means. I’m sorry, Reg,” she added. “I know you fancy yourself in love with the comtesse.”

“A double villainy!” Prance cried. He felt a strong jolt of some emotion composed of anger, pain, jealousy, sympathy for Corinne, and even joy. The drama of it appealed to the rogue in him. Betrayal, heartbreak, jealousy—and infinite possibilities for future scenes of high melodrama.

“Daresay there’s some simple explanation,” Coffen said. “Shall we be off?”

 

Chapter Seven

 

The carriage drove at a good clip to Pall Mall and soon entered the Corinthian Portico of Carlton House, the prince’s London residence contrived by Henry Holland, James Wyatt, and John Nash. Inside, they dismounted and the groom removed their carriage. They were met at the door by the butler, flanked by a bevy of footmen in dark blue livery trimmed with gold lace, and led into the finest marble entrance hall in all of London. A plethora of porphyry columns soared ceilingward like trees in a forest. Etruscan griffins glowered from cornices.

As they advanced, they caught a glimpse of marvelous rooms with magnificent cascades of crystal chandeliers, silver walls, and pier glasses throwing back another forest of columns. They were led down a circular double staircase, past bronze statues and assorted artworks to an apartment below.

For this informal gathering they were directed to a room vaguely Corinthian in architecture, but overlaid with so much finery and such a surfeit of magnificence that its original character was lost in a blur of crimson and gilt. There were Gothic windows, spandreled ceilings with gold moldings. The room was overly hot and brighter than the outdoors at noonday.

“One would think a gentleman of his fading looks would want a darker room,” Prance murmured.

Corinne smiled demurely. “Like the comtesse, you mean?”

“Cat! Save your ill temper for Luten.”

Of the three dozen people present, mostly gentlemen, half stood sipping wine and chatting while the other half strolled about, examining the new acquisitions on the walls. Coffen was relieved to see Beau Brummell was not present. Conning the throng, Corinne recognized Countess de Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador. The prince’s current favorite, the comely Lady Hertford, was magnificent in a magenta gown. The gentlemen were his card-playing friends and a clutch of Tory ministers, there to curry favor. It promised to be a very dull do. There was not a single handsome gentleman present of whom she could speak to Luten later.

Lord Yarrow was with the prince, helping him praise the paintings. When Yarrow spotted Lady deCoventry’s party, he drew the prince’s attention to them and beckoned them forward to be presented.

Coffen, who had never been close enough to touch the prince before, though he had occasionally glimpsed him in passing, gazed in awe at the corpulent figure stuffed into the blue satin jacket weighed down with ribbons and medals. His brown hair was elegantly barbered, but the luxuriance of his brown whiskers owed more to art than nature. The sagging royal neck might nestle in a fold of cravat, the gray eyes might water, but when the prince opened his mouth, all imperfections were forgiven.

He was called the First Gentleman of Europe, and his reputation rode more on his graceful manners than his pudgy shoulders. “Lady deCoventry,” he said with a bow, and inquired politely for her brother-in-law, Lord deCoventry, and a few other relatives. Then he turned his charm on Coffen. “We are always pleased to meet a fellow admirer of the arts, Mr. Coffen,” he allowed with a gracious inclination of the head.

Coffen bowed and murmured, “Your Majesty.”

Prance stood, waiting to be recognized as the author of the
Rondeaux.
He had sent Prinney a copy.

The prince just nodded to Prance and continued speaking to Coffen. “Yarrow tells me you have bought a Poussin. I am a secret admirer myself, but for me to be buying paintings by French artists at this time would be maladroit. I most reluctantly limited myself to the Dutch masters, for the nonce. You must come and tell me what you think of my latest acquisitions.”

Coffen went in a daze of glory to stare at a series of paintings. The royal hands, well shaped and well manicured, gestured as they pointed out details of chiaroscuro and color, of composition and what he called “integrity of rendition.” In the case of Rembrandt, this seemed to refer to the face of an ugly old woman, which was really all that could be made out in the painting. Some of the other pictures were so finely rendered that you could see on the table a drop of water that had fallen off some flowers. Dandy flowers they were, in all shapes and colors, but wilting a bit.

“Very well done, that,” he said, pointing at the droplet, when the prince asked for his opinion.

“Veritable trompe l’oeil, though not so crass as a fly on the nose, what?”

Coffen bit back the instinctive “Eh?” that rose up in his throat. He bowed again and said, “Not a bit crass, Your Majesty.”

His Majesty’s eyes turned occasionally to include Prance and Corinne. When the paintings had all been praised and the prince turned to Prance, Prance sensed his moment had come, and he was as nervous as a deb at her presentation.

“Sir Reginald, your
Rondeaux
have a place of honor in my library,” he said. “I enjoyed your poems immensely. So you are the new poet I have been hearing so much about.” His rheumy eyes gleamed with approval as they made a tour of Prance’s toilette.

“I have the honor, Your Majesty,” Prance replied, feeling it was a pompous speech. His voice sounded all hollow and grave.

The manicured fingers reached out and patted Prance on the shoulder. “A singular achievement,” he said with a smile of unmatched condescension. “The
Round Table Rondeaux
are delightful. A tale of King Arthur in verse. What an ingenious notion.”

The phrase
dux bellorum
died aborning. If the Prince of Wales called the
dux
King Arthur, then King Arthur he was.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he whispered.

“Excellent work. We must not let these ancient English myths die out. They are the very cornerstone of our traditions. They must be reinterpreted for each generation. If you write another book, Sir Reginald, you may dedicate it to us,” he said.

Of course, angels did not really sing. Lightning did not flash, and thunder did not roll, but that was how Reggie perceived the world. He bowed gravely and said, “It would be an undeserved honor, Your Majesty.”

“What is your next subject?” the prince inquired. Prance’s mind went blank. He stared, with still that ringing in his ears. “Will it also be a medieval tale?”

Unable to speak, Prance just bowed again and mumbled, “Your Majesty.”

“We look forward to your next composition,” the prince repeated. The rheumy royal eyes turned to Prance’s cravat. “Very elegant, Sir Reginald. I have not seen that arrangement before. What is it called?”

Prance had slaved over the arrangement. He had planned to call it the Prancer, but at that moment, his only wish was to honor his prince. “The Carlton, sir, if you permit?”

“We are honored.” Prince George gave him a roguish smile, laughed, bowed, and allowed Yarrow to lead him away.

While Prance enjoyed his moment of triumph, Corinne scanned the room for some agreeable company. Finding none, she glanced to the doorway, where she saw a dark head standing a little above the throng of bald pates, grizzled heads, and feathered turbans. Luten! And looking, as usual, as if he had just stepped out of a bandbox. Now, what on earth was he doing here? And why had he not told her he was coming? The comtesse! She looked all around but saw no sign of her. She noticed that Luten was also looking about, probably for herself. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and went forth to meet him.

“Luten,” she said, not acknowledging his bow with a curtsy. “What are you doing here?”

His slender eyebrows arched in a quizzing way. “Need you ask? Whither thou goest, my pet. Ah, I have just caught Prinney’s eye. I had best go and make my bows. These princelings take a pet so easily. Don’t go away. I shall be right back.”

She watched as he went forward to do the pretty with Prince George. The contrast between the two gentlemen was remarkable. The prince so fat and common-looking in his garish outfit; Luten so leanly noble in a sedate jacket of dark green. The First Gentleman of Europe’s smile was somewhat strained. The meeting was brief.

When Luten came back, Corinne returned to her question. “How did you wangle an invitation?”

“I dropped in to speak to Yarrow while I was at the House this afternoon and dropped a few broad hints. The invitation was waiting for me when I got home.”

She was gratified to hear that Luten had really been at the House and had been at pains to join her in the evening’s outing. She was still curious to discover why he had called for his hunting carriage, but disliked to quiz him, especially at the prince’s party.

Coffen spotted him and came hastening forward, his brow crumpled with curiosity. “Told you not to worry,” he said to Corinne, who gave him a sharp poke in the ribs.

They discovered Prance across the room, staring like a moonling at the prince’s back, and joined him.

“We can have a glass of wine now. It’ll buck us up,” Coffen said, and stopped a passing footman to snare four glasses. He sipped the red liquid, frowned, and sipped again. “What kind of wine is this?” he demanded.

“It’s not wine. It’s maraschino,” Corinne told him. “A cherry liqueur.”

“Dandy stuff,” Coffen said, and emptied the glass.

“We are to dedicate our next book to him,” Prance announced in a hushed voice.

“Are we indeed? I wager Byron was not invited to do that,” Luten said.

Prance looked around the room, fearing he might espy his nemesis, but he was soon assured of his absence. Other guests came forward to chat, and after a deal of lively bantering, during which Prance stood mute and Coffen downed two more glasses of maraschino, an extremely meager repast of anchovy sandwiches, crackers, and cheese was served. The prince was on another diet. Soon the prince led his claque to the card parlor, and the guests were free to leave.

“We are to dedicate our next book to the Prince Regent,” Prance said again, still in that unreal voice that sounded like an echo.

“I am very happy for us, but perhaps now that you’re outside, you can drop that persona and become you again, Prance,” Luten said. “The royal we is not contagious.”

“A fine gentleman, the prince. I did not hear
him
spouting of
Childe Harold.
What we poets must do is keep alive the English myths, and never mind the pashas and
banditos.
Now, what should w— I write about next? My patron is eager to know. It should be something to reflect on him, don’t you think?”

“Have you considered Punch and Judy?” Luten suggested. “A fine old English tradition, and Princess Caroline is well suited to her role.”

“It is not a joke, Luten. I shall be writing for the prince—and for posterity.”

“Famous! I shouldn’t be at all surprised to see the
Rondeaux
in Hatchard’s window tomorrow.” Over Prance’s shoulder, he winked at Corinne, who felt a sudden warmth invade her.

“That would be asking too much,” Prance said modestly. But he’d drop around and have a look all the same. “Shall we tackle a rout? No, I believe I shall go home and give some thought to my next oeuvre.”

“I could do with another glass of that masherino,” Coffen said, looking about for a footman.

“Let us all go home,” Corinne said. “You have had enough to drink, Coffen, and we have all had enough of crowns and crownets for one night. We came in my carriage,” she added, looking to Luten.

“Prance and Coffen can take it home. It is time we lovebirds had some privacy.”

BOOK: Murder While I Smile
11.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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