Gentleman Jim: Chapter Two
Maggie’s note requesting Fred come and see her was taken round to his lodgings by a footman at half past four. The footman promptly returned with Fred’s reply: Mr. Burton-Smythe would do himself the honor of calling upon Miss Honeywell in half an hour.
By the time Fred arrived, Maggie had washed and changed into a fresh gown and put her hair into some semblance of order. She received him alone in the Trumbles’ drawing room, sitting composedly in a chair near the fire with a tea tray arranged in front of her.
“Margaret.” Fred executed a smart bow. It caused the lines of his coat to strain against the brawny muscles of his back. “I’d have thought you had the good sense to rest after your journey.”
Maggie had resolved to make an effort at civility, but at Fred’s words, she couldn’t refrain from a sharp retort. “You presume to lecture me on good sense?”
“You’ll never regain your strength if you don’t rest.”
“How can I rest, when the first thing I hear upon my arrival in London is that you’re engaged to fight a duel?”
Fred’s face turned a mottled red—a particularly unbecoming shade when contrasted with his copper-colored hair. “I needn’t ask how you heard such a rumor. Your friend Miss Trumble, no doubt.”
“Do you deny it?”
He pokered up, his broad, stocky frame as stiff and unyielding as Sir Roderick himself. “I shall not admit it or deny it. Indeed, I shall not say another word on the subject. It’s the height of impropriety to be discussing such things with you.”
“Oh, do stop acting like your father!” Maggie glared up at him. “And why must you loom over me in such a disagreeable fashion? Sit down for pity’s sake. Here. I shall pour you out a cup of tea, and then we’ll talk like a lady of six and twenty and a man of thirty instead of bickering like two half-civilized children.”
Scowling, Fred grudgingly did as she bade him. His expression slowly softened as he watched Maggie preside over the tea tray. When she held out a cup to him, his tea prepared just as he liked it, he took it from her with a complacent smile. “What a good little wife you’ll be.”
A flicker of temper sparked in Maggie’s chest. “To whom, I wonder?”
“Why, to me, of course.”
The flicker quickly kindled into a low, smoldering flame.
Fred drank his tea, oblivious to Maggie’s worsening mood. He was dressed in what she assumed must be considered the first stare of fashion here in London. Skintight pantaloons, gleaming Hessians, and shirt-points so high that they inhibited the movement of his thick neck. To Maggie, however, he looked no different from the surly, squarely built bully of her youth.
She disliked him intensely. And yet, in six months, she would have to consent to be his wife. Mrs. Margaret Burton-Smythe. Then, he would not only have rights over her fortune, he’d have rights over her body as well. The thought of it had caused her many a sleepless night these past months.
“I didn’t summon you here to talk about that,” she said tightly. “I summoned you here to discuss this duel of yours.”
Fred lowered his cup. “I can see you’re concerned. And I can’t tell you how much it gratifies me to know you care about my well-being. However—”
“I care about Beasley Park.”
“However,” he continued, unperturbed, “even if I were to engage in a duel in the morning, it doesn’t follow that I’ll be the loser.”
“How not? When, by all accounts, the man you’re dueling with is the most fiendish shot in all of Christendom?”
Fred’s condescending manner gave way to a flare of masculine indignation. “Oh, that’s what they’re saying, is it? And how might anyone know, pray? St. Clare has been on the continent for the better part of his life. I don’t recall anyone ever having seen him shooting at Manton’s.”
“If he’s been on the continent for most of his life, it’s because his father killed someone in a duel and they were forced to flee England. Dueling is in their blood, I hear.”
“No more than it is mine. My father fought two duels when he was a young man.”
“And in each one, he and his opponent deloped. I’ve heard the stories too, Fred. It isn’t the same at all.”
Fred glowered. “What do you know of affairs of honor? You’re a woman.”
Maggie answered him in a voice of perilous calm. “And women don’t have honor?”
“Don’t put words in my mouth, Margaret. Naturally a woman has honor. But a woman’s honor is as different from that of a gentleman’s as the sun is to the moon. You can’t begin to compare them.”
“On that I agree. You and I have exceedingly different notions of honor.”
In the past, her words would have prompted an out-and-out row with Fred. But this time he didn’t take the bait. Instead, with a visible effort, he regained his composure. He resumed sipping his tea, a mulish set to his jaw. “As I said before, this isn’t at all a suitable subject for us to be discussing.”
“No doubt,” Maggie replied. “But we must talk about it, and we shall talk about. For if you’re killed in the morning, what will happen to Beasley Park? What will happen to me?”
Fred’s large fingers tightened reflexively on the handle of his teacup. “Having not spent a great deal of time contemplating my own death, I can’t say with any certainty. I’d have to review your father’s will. And as it’s at the solicitor’s, and I won’t be at liberty to go into his office until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest, it’s rather a moot point, don’t you think?”
Maggie stared at him blankly. “What do you imagine happens, then? My money and property won’t simply go up into a puff of smoke, will they? Who is to be in control of my inheritance if you’re unable? Did Papa name someone?”
“No. I don’t believe he did.”
“I expect if, for any reason I wasn’t able to fulfil my duties, the office would go to your distant uncle. That elderly fellow in Yorkshire. I can’t recall his name.”
“Mr. Arkham?” she said in tones of disbelief.
“Yes. That’s the chap.”
“Good lord, he isn’t even a blood relation! He was married to some distant aunt, or half-sister of somebody or other, so far removed that Papa didn’t even recognize them in our family Bible!”
Fred returned his teacup to the tea tray. He leaned forward in his seat. “Your cheeks are flushed. Shall I ring for Bessie?”
Ignoring her protest, he rose and went to the bell pull by the fireplace. After giving it a sharp tug, he came to stand beside her chair.
Maggie fairly trembled with suppressed rage. The bloody nerve of Fred. Using her ill health as a means to win an argument. “I don’t need Bessie,” she said stiffly. “I am not unwell. I’m merely angry that you—”
“Enough of this now. I shouldn’t have indulged you so. There’s reason such topics are kept from women. I’ve told you there’s no need for you to worry. That should be more than sufficient. I wouldn’t have given permission for you come to London if—” He broke off his lecture as the doors to the drawing room opened and Jane entered. His eyes narrowed. “Miss Trumble.”
“Mr. Burton-Smythe.” Jane crossed the room to Maggie, seeming to register her overwrought state in one comprehensive glance.
Fred moved to intercept her. “A word, if you please. I am informed that—”
“Yes, yes, I daresay.” Jane brushed past him to the tea tray. She swiftly poured out a cup, stirring in a generous helping of sugar. “Here you are, dear.” She handed it to Maggie. “A few sips of this.”
“I’m fine, Jane. Truly.”
“Drink,” Jane commanded. At that, she turned on Fred, drawing herself up to her full, and not inconsiderable, height. “This is my house, and Miss Honeywell is my guest. I’ll not allow you to browbeat her into a faint or a fever. You know she’s not been well since—”
“I’m perfectly aware,” Fred said through gritted teeth. “I can only wonder that you, being so solicitous of Miss Honeywell’s health, should have thought it a wise idea to burden her with a lot of baseless town gossip.”
“It is not baseless!” Jane snapped back. “Everyone knows you challenged Lord St. Clare. And as Miss Honeywell’s closest friend, I consider it my duty to give her fair warning when the man who controls her fortune is embarking on a course of action that will end with him getting his head blown off his shoulders.”
Fred gave Jane a look of withering scorn before turning his attention back to Maggie. “Put it out of your head, Margaret. And from now on, restrict yourself to more feminine concerns.”
Jane wasn’t so easily dismissed. “Feminine concerns? Like supper parties and the theater and shopping for new gowns, do you mean?”
“And how shall Miss Honeywell pay for these new gowns.”
Fred shot a hard glance at her over his shoulder. “Not that it’s any of your business, but Miss Honeywell is very well provided for.”
“She’s wearing ill-fitting clothes that are years out of fashion.”
“She’s been in mourning!”
“As that may be, to the rest of the ton it will simply look as if you’ve been unreasonably keeping her fortune from her. And when one sees you wearing a coat that appears to have been cut by Weston, and boots that have no doubt been polished with champagne, they’ll further surmise that you’ve been enriching yourself at her expense.”
At her words, Fred’s face went scarlet. “If you were a man, an accusation like that would—”
“Hold a moment.” Maggie placed a staying hand on his sleeve. “Jane isn’t accusing you of anything. She’s only telling you what conclusions other people will draw when they see how poorly I’m turned out. And you must own she’s right.”
Jane gave Fred an innocent smile. “In order to scotch these unfortunate rumors, Miss Honeywell will need a whole new wardrobe.”
Fred fixed his gaze on Maggie. A muscle worked convulsively in his cheek. “I’ve never denied you anything, so long as you asked me in a polite and civil manner. Go to the dressmaker and the milliner, by all means, and have the bills sent to me. But not today. Today you’re to retire to bed. Tomorrow, if you have recovered your strength from the journey, you may go shopping. But you’re to take Bessie. I shall have a word with her before I go. She knows her duty.”
He took his leave of them, then. Jane summoned a footman to fetch his hat and cane and show him out. As the drawing room doors closed behind him, she muttered, “How generous you are. We are both so very much obliged to you.”
Maggie leaned back in her seat. As a girl, she’d been energized by arguments. Fueled by raised voices and heated words. Now such things only served to exhaust her. “What a colossal waste of time.”
“Not entirely.” Jane sat down across from her in Fred’s vacated chair. “He’s given you leave to purchase as many new clothes as you like. And if he thinks I mean to take you to Grafton House for a bargain, he’s much mistaken. We shall go to Madame Clothilde, that new French modiste in Bruton Street that everyone’s raving about. Très exclusif, apparently. She only dresses the richest and most beautiful ladies in town. You’ve lost a bit of your bloom, I know, but she’ll not turn you away.”
“How can I think of shopping? There’s still the duel to consider in the morning, and I haven’t the faintest idea what I…” Maggie closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead again.
“No, no. Well, that is…yes, my head does ache, but I think I have an idea.”
“To throw yourself between them?”
“Indeed not. But it occurs to me that, if I can’t reason with Fred, the only course of action left is to try and reason with the viscount.”
Jane stilled. “Lord St. Clare? But how can you? You haven’t even been introduced to him. And even if you had…he’s a single gentleman. You can’t simply pay him an afternoon call.”
“Of course not. By tomorrow afternoon, it will be too late. I must go today. Or tonight, rather, for I can’t be seen paying a call on him in broad daylight.”
“My dear, you cannot go at all. There’s your reputation to consider.”
“I suppose I shall have to go under cover of darkness,” Maggie said, thinking aloud. “When I’m least likely to be observed.”
“If you won’t consider your own reputation, you must at least consider mine. I’m your hostess and responsible for your—”
“I won’t ask you to accompany me, if that’s what you’re afraid of. And I won’t involve your servants, either. I can very well take a hackney to the viscount’s residence.” Maggie hoped that would be enough to protect Jane’s good name. “Unless…Gad, he doesn’t live in bachelor rooms in St. James’s Street, does he?”
“No. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve heard he’s staying at the Earl of Allendale’s residence. A big mausoleum of a place in Grosvenor Square.”
“But that’s not very far from here at all.”
“Yes, I daresay you might walk there,” Jane said dryly.
“I know you disapprove, but you must advise me. Is St. Clare as unreasonable as Fred, do you think?”
“I haven’t the slightest notion. We’ve never been introduced. Though I have seen him twice at the theater. He was sitting in a box with his grandfather. I must say, he didn’t look like a particularly amiable gentleman. On the other hand, I can’t conceive of anyone being as disagreeable as Fred.”
Maggie considered this. “Well, I suppose the worst thing that can happen is he’ll laugh in my face. Or refuse to admit me altogether. It’s very likely a fool’s errand, but if there’s a chance he might call off this stupid duel, I must make the effort to see him.”
“The worst thing that can happen…?” Jane was incredulous. “Margaret, no one knows the viscount well enough to judge his character. He’s been on the continent for ages. For all you know, he’s a rake and a libertine. A vile seducer. To go to his house alone—and at night, too—you’re practically offering yourself to him on a silver platter!”
“I shan’t go alone,” Maggie said. “I shall take Bessie with me.”
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.