Gentleman Jim: Chapter One

London, England
Spring 1817

Margaret Honeywell sank back into the velvet cushions of her father’s traveling coach and closed her eyes. Last night had been spent at a rather inhospitable inn, the landlord of which had relegated her and her maid, Bessie, to a cramped bedchamber overlooking the stable yard, complete with a smoking fireplace, a lumpy mattress, and a door with a very unreliable lock. Between the noise, the discomfort, and the fear that they would be murdered in their beds, Maggie had hardly managed to sleep a wink.

“That’s right, Miss Margaret.” Bessie draped a carriage rug over Maggie’s lap, tucking it in all around her. “You close your eyes and rest.” She untied the ribbons of Maggie’s bonnet and lifted it from her head. “And don’t you fear dropping off to sleep neither, for there’s a good two hours before we arrive at Lord and Lady Trumble’s, and I’ll wake you in plenty of time to put you to rights.”

“You must rest too, Bessie,” Maggie murmured without opening her eyes. “You slept as little as I did last night.”

“Don’t you worry about me, Miss.” Bessie settled her enormous bulk back into the seat across from Maggie. “A ten-minute nap, and I shall be as fresh as a nosegay.”

The rhythmic rattling of the coach lulled Maggie to sleep. When next she awoke, they were within the city limits of London.

Bessie was at the ready with the dressing case, and having once again moved to sit beside her, combed out Maggie’s curls and secured them with a few artfully placed hairpins. “Pinch your cheeks, Miss Margaret,” she commanded in the same brisk, no-nonsense tone she used when directing Maggie to drink a vitamin tonic or to eat an extra spoonful of restorative jelly. “I mayn’t be your nurse any longer, but I’ll not have it said that you lost your bloom under my care.”

Maggie dutifully pinched her cheeks, but when Bessie began forcefully tugging at her carriage gown in an attempt to straighten out the wrinkles, Maggie slapped her hands away. “Enough, Bessie! You’re making me as nervous as a cat with all of your fussing. Leave me be for now. It’s only Jane who will see me, and she’ll not mind my hair and gown.”

Undeterred, Bessie picked up Maggie’s bonnet and began to dust off the crown. “Miss Trumble may not mind it, but you can be sure that dresser of hers, Miss Jenkins, will have something to say about your appearance. And any fault she finds will be hung round my neck, make no mistake. It’s jealousy, is what it is. For all you aren’t the daughter of a baron, she’d give her right arm to do for you instead of Miss Trumble. Not that Miss Trumble isn’t a sweet girl—far sweeter than you are, Miss Margaret, truth be known—but she isn’t what anyone would call a beauty.”

“In tonnish circles, Jane is considered quite pretty.”

Bessie snorted. “I’ll wager no gentleman ever compared her complexion to Devonshire cream, or said her eyes were like two Indian sapphires.”

“It would be rather silly if they had. Jane’s eyes are brown.”

“And what about those gentlemen during your come out, Miss Margaret? The ones that called you the Pocket Venus? I can’t imagine anyone saying the same about Miss Trumble, no matter how many frills and furbelows Miss Jenkins puts her into.”

“Naturally, they wouldn’t. Jane is tall.”

“A regular Long Meg,” Bessie agreed without malice.

“And I might have been called the Pocket Venus at the beginning of my come-out season, but before I returned home, they were calling me something quite different, and well you know it.”

“Foolishness,” Bessie grumbled. “And don’t think that makes Miss Jenkins any less envious of me looking after you!”

Maggie stared out the window of the coach as Bessie fitted her bonnet back on her head and tied the ribbons in a jaunty bow at the side of her face.

It had been over four years since Maggie had last traveled to London to visit her friend. She’d fully expected to make the journey the previous spring, but no sooner had she cast off her blacks after a year spent in mourning for her father than Aunt Daphne—in her typically disobliging fashion—had slumped over one morning at breakfast, as dead as the proverbial doornail, and Maggie had been forced straight back into her mourning clothes again.

Aunt Daphne had been the last of Maggie’s family. There were no other relatives living, and consequently, no one left who might eventually need to be mourned. “Burn these,” Maggie had instructed Bessie when she’d stripped off her mourning weeds for the very last time. “I shall never be needing them again.”

For the journey to London, Maggie had donned a dark blue carriage gown. It had once accentuated the generous curves of her bosom and the narrowness of her waist. Now, it hung loosely on her small frame. She’d always been petite. Indeed, after the age of sixteen she’d never grown any taller. But following her illness, and the subsequent years of grief and isolation, there was altogether less of her.

Her mirror didn’t lie. Instead of the voluptuous curves that had once inspired gentlemen of the ton to dub her the Pocket Venus, there was now a fragile delicacy to her face and figure that had never been there before.

She looked—or so she feared—very much like an invalid.

“A bit of good food and good company, and before you know it, Miss Margaret, you’ll be as bonny as you were while your Papa was alive,” Bessie said. “Mind you, you’re still the prettiest young lady I’ve ever seen.”

Maggie gave her maid a wry smile. At six and twenty there weren’t many who would still consider her a young lady. Rather the opposite, in fact. She was well on her way to becoming an old maid.

It wasn’t for lack of choice.

During her come-out season alone, she’d received six formal offers of marriage, including one from an impoverished earl who had hopes that Squire Honeywell’s vast fortune would replenish his ancestral estates.

She had refused them all, just as she’d refused every offer since.

And if she still had any choice in the matter, she would continue refusing.

***

They arrived at Lord and Lady Trumble’s house in Green Street a short time later. Jane was waiting on the front steps, a colorful Indian shawl draping her tall, slender frame. As a footman handed Maggie out of the carriage, Jane ran down to meet her, both hands extended in greeting.

“My dear friend! It’s been far too long. How was the journey? Are you dreadfully tired?”  She kissed one of Maggie’s cheeks and then the other before linking arms with her and walking her into the house. “Aunt Harriet is fast asleep in her room else she’d be here to greet you. She’s meant to be our chaperone, you know. Papa wouldn’t consent to my coming to London otherwise. But you mustn’t think she’ll interfere with our fun. She’s an absolute relic. She falls straight to sleep a moment after sitting down in a chair, and can’t hear a thing without her ear trumpet. It will be as if we have the entire house to ourselves.”

A footman in the entry hall took Maggie’s hat, gloves, and cloak.

Jane chattered gaily all the while. “My eldest brother George is here in town already. You remember George, don’t you? He keeps a set of bachelor rooms in St. James’s Street. He’s agreed to squire us to all of the balls and parties we attend during your visit. But you must be sweet to him, Margaret, for I suspect he’s only being agreeable for your sake. He’s always had a bit of a tendre for you.”

Maggie smiled at her friend. With fair hair that refused to hold a curl, an unremarkable nose and chin, and brown eyes set a bit too close together, Jane Trumble was, as Bessie had said, no great beauty. She was, however, both kind and clever, and when she talked, as she was doing now, her face lit up with such cheerful animation, it was impossible for anyone to think her plain.

They’d met during Maggie’s come-out season in the ladies retiring room at a ball. Maggie’s hem had been torn—trod on by a clumsy partner—and, in the absence of a maid, Jane had offered to mend it. The repairs were executed in a trice, but Maggie and Jane had remained in the retiring room for over an hour, talking and laughing. When at last they’d emerged, they were bosom friends, and had been ever since.

“As soon as you’ve rested from your journey, we must go shopping.” Jane led Maggie up the stairs. “I’d wager that gown you’re wearing is more than three years out of fashion. And your hat! How many times have you made it over? You look an absolute dowd!”

“I haven’t bought any new clothes since Papa died. There’s been little need. I’ve worn nothing but mourning.” Maggie’s mouth tugged into a frown. “Besides, it’s Fred who controls the purse strings now.”

Jane ushered Maggie down the upstairs hall and into the bedroom that was to be hers for the duration of her stay. Bessie had gone ahead of them and was already bustling about in the attached dressing room, seeing to the unpacking of Maggie’s things.

Jane sat down on the edge of the bed and drew Maggie down beside her. Her expression became serious. “Does he really have so much control over your money? I know he was an executor of your father’s will, but surely…?”

Maggie plucked at a stray thread on the skirt of her carriage gown. The mere mention of her father’s will, the provisions of which amounted in her mind to nothing less than the worst betrayal a father ever perpetrated against a daughter, was still enough to send her into the deepest melancholy.

“Fred holds all of my money and property in trust until the date of my marriage. As long as that marriage is with his approval. And he’ll never approve of my marrying anyone but him.”

“How dreadfully unfair it is,” Jane said. “Your father must be turning over in his grave.”

Maggie gave a short, humorless laugh. “On the contrary. It’s just the outcome Papa was hoping for. He couldn’t force me to marry Fred while he was alive. In truth, he didn’t have the heart to force me to do anything. But now he’s dead, he leaves me no choice. If I don’t marry within the time allotted, Beasley Park will go to Fred for good, and I’ll be left nothing but a small income on which to live out my spinsterhood.”

“Oh, Margaret. Your father doted on you so. I can’t comprehend how he could give away your inheritance to a stranger. A man related to you by neither blood nor marriage. It makes no sense at all.”

“Papa knew precisely what he was doing.”

“Well, I can’t understand it!”

“Can you not, Jane? Papa raised me to run Beasley Park. To love the land just as he loved it himself. He knew there was nothing on earth I wouldn’t do to keep it. And knowing that…from the grave, he has forced my hand.”

Jane shook her head in disbelief. “Then you mean to marry Fred?”

“Yes…I…” Maggie faltered. “I haven’t told Fred my answer yet. I have a little time left.”

“How much time?” Jane asked.

“The will stated that if I wasn’t already married upon Papa’s death, I would have two years in which to become so. That allowed for one year of mourning, and one year to find a husband. Unfortunately, it didn’t account for the time I must spend mourning Aunt Daphne.”

“Your aunt would choose to die the week after you finished mourning your father.”

“Yes. And as a result, I have but six months left before I must wed.”

Jane exhaled a deep breath. “Oh dear. No wonder you’re looking so wan and sickly. I didn’t like to mention it, but…”

Maggie wasn’t offended. She knew full well how she must appear to her friend. “The Burton-Smythes believe in the strictest possible interpretation of the rules of mourning. I wasn’t permitted to leave the house after Papa died except for walks in the garden with Bessie. And I wasn’t allowed visitors or to…”  She faltered again, raising a hand to her forehead. A headache threatened. “Fred already runs Beasley as if it were his own. He’s joined it to the Burton-Smythe estate. I haven’t any say, not even over the tenants that I’ve known my whole life.”

“You have no power at all?”

“Not to speak of. Papa’s steward, Mr. Entwhistle, keeps me apprised of estate matters as he can, and I know he still takes my opinions under advisement. He’s promised to write to me during my stay here. As for my own personal needs, I must apply to Fred directly. And if I purchase something, even as small and personal as garters for my stockings, he insists upon seeing the receipts. He’s not tightfisted. Indeed, he is exceedingly generous with me, as he’s fond of saying. But he loves nothing more than making certain I recognize the power he holds. I have come to hate asking him for anything.”

“He was always a vile worm,” Jane said feelingly. “And I’m sure having to defer to any man seems intolerable to you, for unlike the rest of us poor females, you’ve never had to bear it before.”

“Sometimes I think I cannot bear it. I’m so tired, Jane. And I have been so blue deviled.”

Jane took Maggie’s hand and held it in both of hers. “Poor dear. But you must take heart. I’ve just this morning heard some news that might cheer you.”

Maggie proffered a weak smile. “Have you?”

“Oh yes. You’ll be pleased to know that Frederick Burton-Smythe will be getting his comeuppance very soon. Tomorrow in fact.”  Jane leaned toward Maggie, lowering her voice so the servants going in and out of the dressing room couldn’t overhear. “At dawn tomorrow, he is engaged to fight a duel!”

I beg your pardon?”

“It’s the truth. We ladies aren’t supposed to know of such things, but I heard it from Mrs. Beauchamp, who heard it from her husband. He was present at the gaming hell when it all happened.”

“When what all happened?”

“It seems that, while Fred was in the middle of a card game, one of the players gave up his seat to the Viscount St. Clare. Well, St. Clare and Fred were at odds right from the start, apparently, for you know what a hothead Fred can be. Someone made a passing reference to a problem with the count of the cards. One thing led to another, and then, the next thing everyone knew, Fred was on his feet, shouting that St. Clare would answer for what he’d said. And St. Clare replied, as cool as you please, that he wasn’t in the habit of meeting country nobodies on the field of honor, but that he’d make an exception in Fred’s case.”

Maggie’s head was spinning. “Fred issued the challenge?”

“That he did, the arrogant fool.” Jane laughed. “But I’m leaving out the best part. Lord St. Clare is the grandson of the Earl of Allendale!”

Maggie stared at Jane. “What does that signify?”

“Why, the earl was once considered to be one of the foremost shots in England, and his son, if all the tales are true, was even more deadly. He killed a man in a duel decades ago and was forced to flee to the continent, where he promptly killed another. Dueling is in their blood, you see. And I’ve heard that Lord St. Clare is the most lethal of them all.”

Maggie rose abruptly from her place on the bed. She paced the length of the bedroom and back again. “But this is terrible, Jane! If Fred is killed, what will happen to Beasley Park? What will happen to my money?”

“He won’t be killed. Only frightened, and perhaps humbled a little—or so I hope! That’s why the tale is so diverting.” Jane’s smile faded. “Isn’t it?”

“No, Jane. It’s not diverting at all. It’s maddening. Infuriating. Only think what the consequences might be if anything should go wrong.” Maggie wrung her hands as she paced. “Oh, how utterly thoughtless of him—and how completely typical! He never considers anyone but himself. He’s the most selfish, inconsiderate man alive!” She stopped suddenly, turning back to her friend in a whirl of over-large blue skirts. “I shall have to put a stop to it somehow.”

“Put a stop to it? But how can you?”

“I shall…I shall summon Fred and tell him… Oh, what shall I tell him, Jane?”

Jane’s brow creased. “I cannot think. I’ve never heard of a woman stopping a duel before unless… I suppose you could find out where they’re to meet, and throw yourself between them. But that doesn’t seem advisable, does it?”

“No, indeed.”

“Well then, at the very least, you must summon him here. You must reason with him as well as you can.” Jane paused. “And while you’re at it, you must demand as much money from him as you require for the season, and then some. You have the moral high ground now, Margaret, and Frederick Burton-Smythe will not be able to deny you anything.”

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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