The Honourable Leo Quinn settled back against the shabby upholstery of the hackney cab and made a vain bid to suppress a yawn. Stuffing, he noticed, was bursting from a gash in the leather. Propriety obliged him to make use of such anonymous means of transport when escorting Essie and her kind, though he might not disdain to be seen with her in public. Another yawn escaped him. Even Mr Sheridan’s trenchant wit had failed to divert him tonight.
“I am quite out of patience with you,” Essie fretted, working her fan nineteen to the dozen. He caught sight of her pouting mouth in the wavering torchlight. He knew that look well and all that went with it: the wounded cajoling that sought consolation from soft words and kisses. “You have been perfectly disagreeable this evening. You scarcely said a word at supper and you know how I dislike to be bored. To say little of the fact that you were late, very, very late, Leo.”
“Sweetheart, I apologise, indeed I do. The truth is, I’m exhausted. We danced well after dawn at the Stewarts’ ball. Cassandra was splendidly launched into her majority!”
Since last winter, a friendship had developed between Leo and Sir George Stewart, brother of the lady mentioned. The death of their father a year ago, had conferred upon him the guardianship of his inscrutable and well-dowered sister which had proved quite a headache. Each May, he rented a house in Royal Crescent and spent several weeks there with his family and a handful of guests. This year, Leo, who had suffered some grave reversals at the faro tables and was glad of the hospitality, was among them.
“So Miss Stewart is free to choose a husband for herself. By all accounts, her brother has turned away several suitors. And did you dance with her and pay her pretty compliments?”
“Do you suppose she has some swain in mind?”
“If she has, I am not privy to the information.”
“A fortune hunter, perhaps?”
“Has she a fortune?” Leo parried the innuendo.
“You must know she has, Leo. Her father was vastly rich. Why, I have heard it said that she is to inherit one of his estates in the North of England.”
As they passed The Castle Tavern, an oblique patch of light slid over the interior of the carriage. Leo shrank further into the shadows. The warmth rose beneath the high points of his collar. “You are exceedingly well-informed,” he said casually.
“Lady Diana, the baronet’s wife, is one of our clients and sometimes whispers little confidences to Mama.”
“Then you must also be aware that the old baronet was a true Scot and quick to stamp on a slippery coin. He was a firm believer in consolidating the family wealth.”
“I don’t follow.”
“My dear Essie, it is of no consequence what Miss Stewart’s portion is since she is promised to her cousin, Eugene.”
“Oh! I had no notion….”
“Chez Madeleine is not the repository of everyone’s secrets, though it may sometimes seem that way!”
“Then it is already settled?”
“They were to marry this summer, but with the advent of Peace, Eugene decided to take the Grand Tour before putting his head in the noose. He is expected to be away for a year or so, I believe. The Stewarts are rather put out of countenance by the whole thing. To spare Cassandra’s feelings, they judged it best not to announce the betrothal until Eugene returns.”
“I see. Trust me, I won’t breathe a word.”
“It is said,” Leo enlarged in careful phrases, “that under the terms of her father’s will, Cassandra may bid farewell to her expectations if she refuses her cousin’s hand.”
“Well, I do think he might have taken her with him as his wife, Leo. It is not very pretty in him to abandon her in so callous a fashion. Not very wise, either.” With a flick of her hand, Essie closed her fan.
Essie was a sad romp. In her dealings with Leo, she had been unable to bring a proper detachment to bear. He was fond of her, but his affections were well in hand. An evening such as this would culminate in the rollicking wastes of her bed with its gilded posts and drapes of white Chantilly lace. Erotic murals of Venus presided while they tumbled into one another’s arms with a kind of pagan innocence. But circumstances had foisted upon Essie a way of life that was alien to her nature. Unlike Roisin, she was not deceived by her mother’s world. Whilst it gave her a chance to mingle with the best society, she knew she could not be accepted on that plane in her own right. In her lovers, Essie sought an identity, a place to belong, and, so far, had been bitterly disappointed.
Tonight they crept into the house, signalling silence to Voltaire, Madeleine’s phlegmatic old butler who was accustomed to taking everything in this irregular establishment in his stooping stride. They tiptoed, giggling, past the salon where Madeleine still held court with a bunch of her seasoned admirers, pausing to indulge in an extravagant embrace on the threshold of Essie’s chamber.
Later, despite the excesses of the last twenty-four hours, Leo lay awake. He reached out and turned down the lamp burning low behind a haze of white filigree. Smouldering wisps rose from the wicks and briefly submerged the odour of stale perfume. He sighed heavily. This aimless way of life was beginning to cloy. His problems were pressing in on him. And something new. He could not forget the girl he had run into downstairs. Throughout the evening the image of her face had haunted him. Who was she? Surely not one of Madeleine’s country wenches, thankful for their modest comforts and willing to perform any service that would spare them destitution. The thought of her as prey to some of the old roués who darkened these doors filled him with repugnance.
Earlier, when he had tentatively enquired, Essie, sharp to scent danger, had been evasive. “She’s just one of Mama’s little maidens,” said she. “Why?”
“Maiden or grisette?” he asked pointedly.
“Really, Leo!” Essie averted her face, curling a ringlet around her finger in a travesty of confusion. “There are times when I think you are quite the crudest man of my acquaintance!”
He let the matter rest. He was becoming alarmed by Essie’s possessiveness. Poor girl, he felt vaguely responsible for her and had no wish to give her pain.
Leo’s thoughts churned like a millwheel. At length, he got out of bed and went to the window. Between a gap in the pale terraces, he caught the steely glint of the sea. A Channel’s width between himself and a new beginning! The war had ended. Ought he to make a clean break? Escape his creditors? Would he respect himself if he did? Could he afford the luxury of such fine feelings?
The moon emerged from cloud to throw a shaft of bluish light over the slumbering Essie, over the carpet where her clothes were strewn in a trail from the door to the bed. Essie exiled, longing to go back to the land of her birth. It was not a fate he wished to share. He had to get away, clear the cobwebs from his brain. He dressed hastily. With his coat under his arm and his shoes hooked over his fingers, he made to leave the house quietly.
Essie stirred at the turn of the doorhandle. She jumped up. “Leo, what is it? Where are you going?”
“For a ride on the Downs.”
“At this hour? You’re mad!”
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...