Billy Green barely caught a glimpse of the Duke in the village road before he ran out back in order to find his boots. He needed to run across the fields and though he’d rather go barefooted, he didn’t dare. If he stumbled, he’d not get to Mr. Monty fast like he’d promised. Once booted, Billy threaded his way through the buildings behind the inn and dashed across the village green, then through the copse that bordered the river. When he reached the bridge he glanced back at the road and saw the Duke’s riderless horse being walked around behind the Dower House. It was another field or two to cover before he reached Mr. Monty’s and he kept up a fast pace, gulping huge breaths as he ran. Mr. Monty had promised him a shilling for news of the Duke, practically a fortune. And Billy wanted a shilling of his own. He knew just where he’d hide it.
But in truth he would have performed the errand for nothing. He’d do anything for Mr. Monty. For Mr. Monty or for Mrs. Cubbins, the cook at the Dower House who fed him cakes and let him finish the soup too, even take some for his sisters. At the cottage, his ma did little more than holler at him to do his chores, but Mr. Monty patted his shoulder and called him Billy-boy. And Mr. Monty was one of the few adults Billy had known to put aside whatever it was that he was in the middle of in order to listen to him. And when he spoke to him, Mr. Monty looked Billy right in the eyes. A rare thing, Billy reckoned, in the world of adults. And Mr. Monty was generous with the dosh. Today’s coins wouldn’t be the first Billy had earned. Mr. Monty had a shed full of old clobber, tables and mirrors and vases and suchlike he wanted polished before the swells came to look over the lot.
Mr. Monty’s house was in sight now. Billy picked up his pace and ran into the kitchen yard to look for Stanton, Mr. Monty’s man. He yanked a rope that rang a bell above his head and sank onto the grass below it, gasping for breath.
A quarter hour later, Montague Twydall cantered across the field towards the Dower House on his bay cob. Tall, trim and tricked out in his usual fashionable attire, Monty looked for all the world like the personification of a romantic hero. With his black hair and military air, Monty could have had any lady he fancied. It was a great pity, believed the local mamas, that Monty fancied none of them. Whilst he enjoyed a bit of horizontal exercise as much as the next man, Montague Twydall had long ago decided that he did not want a female permanently under his roof. He hadn’t the time. Nor the patience. A woman around the house, nattering on unceasingly about her relations, her rounds of visits and her modiste would be nothing but a burden to him. He’d rather return to active military service, a thing he'd thoroughly detested. And, truth be told, if Monty were to worry himself over the latest fashions, hats and fripperies, he was more likely to worry about them as they applied to himself, rather than to someone else.
Just now, however, Monty’s head was full of alternative approaches to the Duke about the items for which he wanted to be paid in good English sterling. Monty was low on ready money and a solid sale to the Duke of either item, or both, would set him up a treat. He had to be careful in how he represented the robe to the Duke. Or anyone else, for that matter. The story that it had belonged to Joséphine de Beauharnais could not be proven, even though the velvet and ermine robe had the initials JB entwined in gold embroidery. For all Monty knew, it could have been the property of one Jenny Brown. His French agent suggested he pawn it off as a Napoleonic relic and play upon a possible connection to Joséphine, the first Empress of the French. The connection could either help or hinder his chances of selling it to the Duke, who hadn’t seemed to mind collecting Napoleonic relics in the shape of the defeated Emperor’s cast off mistresses, many of whom later went on to boast of their having being the mistress of both Bonaparte and Wellington. Which is the reason why he thought the Duke might also be interested in the pearls that had supposedly belonged to the famous contralto, Madam Grassini.
Monty chuckled to himself as he thought about the amorous rumours which had followed Wellington round Paris. He of all people had no reason to doubt them. He’d been in Paris only briefly whilst Wellington had been head wallah in the City, but Monty had seen firsthand how all the beauties of the French capital had swarmed the Duke. It had even been reported that Wellington was the better lover. How so, Monty could hardly imagine. The man had been constantly at his desk whilst in Paris, writing order after order, letter after letter, dispatch after dispatch. How had he found the time for such conquests? To Monty’s mind, a proper seduction called for a long, lingering evening of wine, supper and many sweet nothings whispered into shell-like ears. He wondered how Wellington had managed to seduce such experienced courtesans whilst visitors, both civilian and military, paraded through his rooms. If Wellington had had time for any seduction at all, he'd no doubt have suffered constant interruptions and been kept busy hopping off the couch in order to take up his pen and make notations to his voluminous correspondence. Monty was unable to picture any of the knowing ladies he'd met in Paris being willing to put up with that degree of romance interruptus, Wellington or no Wellington.
At the Dower House, Monty handed his mount over to a stable boy and realized that he’d allowed the Duke’s amorous adventures to keep him from fashioning the sort of opening gambit this proposed sale would require.
Not far down the road, Elizabeth, Baroness Bloxley, found it difficult to restrain herself from twirling about the morning room at Bloxley Hall. Instead, she sat silently in her chair, pressing the just-delivered letter to her heart and allowing herself a small smile. A shiver tickled her spine. The earl couldn’t have been more flattering in his praise of her illustrations. He wanted those she'd submitted – and more – for his book on Kent wildflowers. How absolutely, thrillingly perfect!
Now, when she was 44 years old, she’d been offered another chance to live her dreams of becoming a professional artist. A dutiful life and years of conforming to the ideals her mother had tried to instill in her were made worthwhile by this letter. After her marriage, Elizabeth had naturally given up her attempt to become a portrait painter, turned instead to motherhood and resigned herself to only occasionally executing watercolour landscapes. Now, at last, success. Recognition. Fulfillment.
Taking up her pen, Elizabeth copied the names of the first three wildflowers the earl wanted from her. They were probably blooming now, he’d written, so there was no time to lose in obtaining the specimens. The earl had used the three Latin names given by botanists to these flowers, but she knew two of them by their common names, the bluebell and the violet. They would be easy to acquire, as both were common to her own home park.
For a moment her heart dropped when she read the third name. What in the world was Symphytum officinale? She would have to look it up. She could most easily do that when Lionel was not in his study or the adjoining library. She did not know what he was doing there, but this was not the moment she wanted to tell him about her drawings for the earl. In the meantime, she would savor her secret. And she would take her drawing materials to the garden with a lightness of step she had not felt for ages.
Labels: The Secrets of Bloxley Bottom