Gentleman Jim: Chapter Five

“Jenkins has done wonders with your gown.” Jane eyed Maggie’s muslin walking dress from across the breakfast table the following morning. “Didn’t I tell you? A stitch or two here, a bit of ribbon there, et voilà!”

Maggie cast a brief glance downward. Jane’s dresser, while no skilled seamstress, was a dab hand at making minor alterations. She’d taken in Maggie’s three-year-old white muslin in only a few strategic places, and now, instead of billowing about her like a shapeless sack, it skimmed softly over her curves. “It certainly fits better. Though I’m afraid no amount of ribbon can disguise how thoroughly out of fashion it is.”

“Indeed. It is very plain. And not a single flounce. But the fabric is exquisite, and in that shade of white your complexion fairly glows. Who made it for you originally? Mme. Dupin, I expect. She was all the rage during your last visit. She’s sold up, you know. Ran off to the continent with a married lover. At least, that was the gossip at the time.” Jane buttered a slice of toast. “Perhaps Jenkins can alter a few of your other dresses?” she suggested before taking a bite.

Maggie was tempted. Whatever she ordered at the modiste this afternoon wouldn’t be ready for a week or more. It would be lovely to have something to wear in the meantime. If only her own happiness were the sole consideration! She sighed. “It’s good of you to offer, Jane, but I dare not accept. Bessie’s been in high dudgeon from the moment Jenkins stepped foot into my dressing room. I’ve spent half the morning trying to soothe her injured feelings.”

“How very territorial the two of them are.” Jane laughed. “Like a pair of old cats. Well, never mind. I expect that Madame Clothilde will have a few dresses ready-made that you might purchase along with the rest of your order.”

They planned to visit the modiste directly after breakfast. Maggie hoped she was equal to the task. Not only did she have her usual fatigue to contend with, but after a night spent with too little sleep, she had the added burden of exhaustion.

She and Jane had stayed up until nearly four in the morning discussing Maggie’s visit with Lord St. Clare. Jane had wanted to know everything, from the condition of the hackney coach that had conveyed Maggie to Grosvenor Square to the far superior manner in which she’d been transported back to Green Street.

Had St. Clare really sent her home in his own carriage? With a fur-lined carriage rug and a hot brick for her feet? And was it true that he’d given Bessie a small flask of his best brandy to serve in case Maggie should feel faint again on the short journey home?

It was all true.

No sooner had she agreed to the viscount’s proposed forfeits than he’d risen and rung the bell for his butler. He’d issued orders for their hired hackney to be dismissed, his own carriage to be readied, and for all to be done to assure her comfort on the journey back to Green Street.

She assumed the hot brick and carriage rug were Jessup’s doing. The elegant silver flask, however, must have come from St. Clare himself, for upon examination, Maggie had discovered the letter B engraved upon it, along with some odd design which encompassed two animals that looked very much like foxes. She supposed it was the Beresford family crest.

But it hadn’t been St. Clare’s generosity that Maggie had lain awake thinking about until dawn, nor even his scandalous request for three forfeits. Instead, she’d been thinking of the one aspect of her visit to Grosvenor Square that she hadn’t shared with Jane. The one aspect that was unknown, even to Bessie.

Lord St. Clare’s unsettling resemblance to Nicholas Seaton.

“In the meanwhile,” Jane continued, drawing Maggie’s attention back to their conversation, “I shall lend you my new French bonnet. The white satin trimmed in blue ribbons.” She paused to address a passing footman. “See that the barouche is readied, Carson. We’ll be leaving in half an hour.” And then to Maggie: “You must use my blue silk parasol as well. The color will suit you far better than it does me.”

“That’s very good of you. Though I expect your motives are somewhat less than altruistic. After all, it would do you no credit to be seen out shopping with—what did you call me upon my arrival? An unfashionable dowd?”

“No, did I?” Jane stifled another laugh. “But really, Margaret, you were used to look as neat as a pin. And now, well, it seems to me that since your dear papa died, you’re past all caring. I fear that between your illness, Fred’s tyranny, and the circumstances of your papa’s will, your spirit has been broken altogether. I hope you’ll tell me that I’m wrong.”

Maggie reached for the silver pot of chocolate and silently refilled her cup. When she was finished pouring, she looked up at Jane with a taut smile. “You’re quite wrong.”

“My dear, I know that you’ve been blue deviled. Who on earth could blame you? But you mustn’t allow any of these things to weigh on you. Not Fred or Beasley Park or even your poor health. You must put yourself into my hands. I have plans for everything, you see.”

Maggie sipped her chocolate, regarding her friend with interest over the rim of her cup. “Oh, do you?”

“Of course! Firstly, I’ve been thinking that that horrid country doctor down in Somerset isn’t at all the thing. He’s Sir Roderick Burton-Smythe’s creature, is he not? While you’re here in town, you must see a proper physician. Mama consults a very competent fellow in Harley Street. Dr. Hart. He isn’t particularly fashionable, for he’s rather young and doesn’t cater to old women’s fancies, but all of his methods are the absolute newest thing, and for real illness, Mama says he’s the very best.”

Maggie lowered her cup. “Has Lady Trumble been ill?”

“Heavens no. It’s only her megrims. And they’ve been much better under Dr. Hart’s care. Indeed, it was Dr. Hart who recommended she remove to the country for the season. You must consult him, Margaret. At least, say you will consider it.”

Maggie thought about it only a moment before saying, almost defiantly, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t receive a second opinion.”

“Exactly so!”

“But I’d prefer it were done discreetly. And without Fred’s knowledge. I wouldn’t like him badgering me or…or influencing the doctor in any way.”

“How could he? He’s not your husband! Which brings me to another idea of mine.” Jane waited until the maidservant who was clearing away the dishes had left the room. “One of my cousins is married to a solicitor, Mr. Wroxham. Do you suppose that, if you were to consult him about your father’s will—”

Jane broke off abruptly as the doors to the breakfast room were unceremoniously pushed opened and her elder brother sauntered in.

George Trumble was a thin gentleman of medium height, with an amiable countenance and the same fair hair and closely set brown eyes as his sister. He’d been a sort of admirer of Maggie’s during her come-out season, and though he hadn’t waged a vigorous campaign for her heart—as Jane often said, George was no Wellington—he’d trailed after her quite loyally and had always been happy to be of service. When it had finally occurred to him that Maggie didn’t return his, or anyone else’s affections, his lukewarm ardor had cooled, quite naturally, into brotherly regard.

Now, as he greeted her, a slight reddening of his cheeks was the only indication that she’d ever been anything more to him than just another of his sister’s many friends.

“What are you doing here so early, George?” Jane asked as he kissed her cheek. “I didn’t expect we’d see you until much later in the evening.”

George leaned around his sister to help himself to a large slice of plum cake. “I’ve been out riding and—”

Jane slapped his outstretched hand. “If you’re going to eat that, pray sit down.”

With a sheepish grin, George joined them at the breakfast table. He dropped his plum cake onto a plate and allowed his sister to pour him out a cup of coffee.

“You have the worst timing, George,” Jane told him. “We’re just on our way out. Indeed, I’ve already ordered the carriage.”

“Out? Out where? And where is Aunt Harriet? Isn’t she supposed to be chaperoning the pair of you?”

“Aunt Harriet’s in her room with a breakfast tray. And Margaret and I are only going shopping, not to promenade along the Dark Walk at Vauxhall. We shall have our maids with us. And a footman as well. Of course,” she continued, “if you’re very concerned for our safety, you may accompany us yourself.”

“I might at that,” George replied severely. “The two of you out and about with nothing but two useless abigails and a lone footman? Recipe for disaster if I’ve ever heard one. I remember a time when there were so many gents crowding round Miss Honeywell, she could scarcely draw breath.”

Maggie laughed. She remembered it, too. It had been an oppressively stuffy ballroom and George had taken her delicate lace fan from her hand and wafted it about her so vigorously that the sticks had broken. “Those days are long gone, I assure you. I’m six and twenty now.”

“By Jove, are you? You don’t look it.” George took a swallow of coffee. “Not that it will make a bit of difference with the gossip going round after this morning. People bound to stare and whisper. And plenty of old tabbies won’t scruple to question you outright, you mark my words.”

Maggie’s smile faded. “Gossip? What gossip?”

Jane’s eyes narrowed at her brother. “Yes, George. Exactly what are you talking about?”

“That’s the very thing I’ve come to tell you. I was out riding this morning in the park. I’ve bought a new gelding, Miss Honeywell. A prime goer. Not unlike that blood chestnut you had back when—” He broke off at a stern look from his sister. “Yes. Quite. As I was saying, I was out in the park this morning. All the fellows were talking about it. It’s not quite the thing to speak about in front of ladies, but I daresay Jane has already told you—”

“Yes, yes. She knows about the duel.” Jane waved him on with an impatient hand. “What did you hear?”

Maggie leaned forward in her chair, her attention fixed on Jane’s brother. St. Clare had promised not to hurt Fred. And he’d given her no reason to doubt his word. It had all seemed to be settled.

“A lot of the gents in the park were present at the duel,” George went on between bites of his plum cake. “I wish I’d been! There’s not many who’ve seen St. Clare shoot, excepting Lord Vickers and Lord Mattingly. They traveled a bit with him on his grand tour, you know, and they said he was as deadly as all the rest of the Beresfords. Not that St. Clare’s reputation meant a thing to Burton-Smythe. But then, as I told Vickers, Burton-Smythe’s so full of self-importance that it would never even occur to him that any man could best him.”

“Oh, go on!” Jane demanded.

“Well, the short of it is, the handkerchief was dropped and Burton-Smythe fired. His shot went a touch wide. Nearly singed the viscount’s sleeve, I heard. And St. Clare didn’t even flinch! Just stood there and without batting an eye, fired a bullet straight through Burton-Smythe’s shoulder.”

Maggie’s mouth fell open. “St. Clare shot Fred?”

“To be sure, he did, but that’s not even the best part.” George’s eyes were bright with excitement as he entered into the spirit of the tale. “Burton-Smythe was lying on the ground with the surgeon kneeling over him, and St. Clare walks up to him as cool as you please and says, ‘Let this be a lesson to you, my good man. If you’re going to act the brutish country squire, best stay in the country.’ And then he leapt into his curricle and drove off.” George laughed appreciatively. “If that don’t beat all!”

Maggie felt a sickening flicker of dread in her stomach. One didn’t have to be killed outright in order to die from a gunshot wound. Why, if Fred’s shoulder festered, he could expire within the week! And then what was she to do? “Where is Fred now? Is he all right? Oh, Jane… Do you suppose I should go to him?”

“I say, Miss Honeywell, don’t put yourself into a taking,” George said. “Burton-Smythe is holed up at his lodgings. He’s not hurt too badly—the bullet went clean through—but I hear he’s in as foul a mood as anyone ever saw him. You’d be wise to leave him be for a while.” George cleared his throat, giving an uncomfortable tug at his cravat. “Besides that, there’s some who already think you have an agreement of some sort with Burton-Smythe—”

“Indeed, I do not!” Maggie objected.

“—and if you arrive at his lodgings to nurse him through his injury you may as well put a notice of your betrothal in the paper.”

“Is that the subject of the gossip you mentioned?” Jane asked. “Well, is it?”

George groaned. “You know how things are. It’ll begin with a few old tabbies stopping Miss Honeywell in Bond Street to ask after Burton-Smythe’s health and end with all of the ton saying that the duel was fought over her honor.” He shook his head in disgust. “Some of the fellows are already talking. Wouldn’t you know it, that infernal gabster Beauchamp was at the duel, and by the time I arrived at the park, he was already there, telling the other gents how Burton-Smythe and St. Clare had looked as if they hated each other, and how he’d give a monkey to know what the duel had really been about. ‘No doubt it’s a woman,’ he says. What a heap of rubbish. Everyone knows they fell out over a game of cards.”

“I may as well go home,” said Maggie.

“You most definitely will not,” Jane replied. “Nor will we postpone any of our pleasure. If there’s gossip going round connecting you to this duel…well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s even more reason for us to be seen abroad. We shall go shopping just as we planned.”

George heartily agreed, even going so far as to offer to escort them to the dressmaker himself, and afterward, if they weren’t too worn down from their exertions, to take them both to Gunter’s for an ice. “And if anyone dares inquire after Burton-Smythe’s health,” he said, “I’ll send them off with a flea in their ear.”

Maggie could do nothing but agree. In short order, she and Jane were tugging on their gloves and tying the ribbons of their bonnets, and George was handing them up into the Trumbles’ barouche.

“I don’t even really care about the gossip,” Maggie confessed to Jane in a whisper while George stepped away to have a word with the coachman. “The truth is… Dash it, I don’t like to think of myself as cold-blooded, but the only emotion I feel at the possibility of Fred succumbing to his wounds is worry over Beasley Park and my inheritance. Am I very awful?”

“No indeed.” Jane unfurled a pale-yellow parasol. “Fred has been an inconsiderate clodpole. If I were you, I’d be white with rage.”

“I should be, I know. And I am angry. But somehow…somehow I’m far more upset with Viscount St. Clare than I am with Fred. I can’t think why.”

Maggie recognized the untruth as soon as she said it.

She did know why she was more upset with St. Clare, even if she couldn’t admit it to her friend. The fact of the matter was that, though she’d often felt powerless in the years since her father’s death, she was wholly unaccustomed to being made to feel a fool.

Three forfeits indeed.

What a country bumpkin St. Clare must have thought her. No doubt he’d been laughing at her the entire time. And she so disposed to think well of him for no more reason than that he bore a passing resemblance to Nicholas Seaton!

Excerpt from Gentleman Jim copyright © Mimi Matthews, 2020.
Reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part, by any means, is forbidden without written permission from the author.

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