The emerald swan, p.36

The Emerald Swan, страница 36


The Emerald Swan

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  Co­uld he ha­ve do­ne so­met­hing as das­tardly as that? But per­haps he'd thre­ate­ned them. Thre­ate­ned to ha­ve them ar­res­ted for vag­rancy. He co­uld do that easily eno­ugh. An earl's po­wer was enor­mo­us when com­pa­red to the puny hand-to-mo­uth strug­gles of a tro­upe of strol­ling pla­yers. He co­uld ha­ve thre­ate­ned them, then bri­bed them with sil­ver. Not even Ma­ma Ger­t­ru­de wo­uld ha­ve be­en ab­le to re­sist that par­ti­cu­lar car­rot and stick. They we­re po­wer­less.

  Mi­ran­da flew on wings of ra­ge thro­ugh the stre­ets back to the Har­co­urt man­si­on. And she ar­ri­ved just as Her Ma­j­esty, Qu­e­en Eli­za­beth, and her re­ti­nue lan­ded by ro­yal bar­ge at the wa­ter steps.

  Mi­ran­da had for­got­ten that the qu­e­en was to di­ne at Har­co­urt man­si­on. The gu­ests we­re al­re­ady gat­he­red in the hall to ma­ke the­ir obe­isan­ce to the­ir so­ve­re­ign and the mu­si­ci­ans we­re al­re­ady pla­ying in the gal­lery of the di­ning hall, when she slip­ped in­to the ho­use thro­ugh a si­de do­or. She to­ok a flight of back sta­irs and emer­ged in­to the up­s­ta­irs cor­ri­dor just as Ma­ude, dres­sed in a gown of pe­acock-blue da­mask em­b­ro­ide­red with gol­den da­isi­es, ca­me out of her bed­c­ham­ber.

  "Mi­ran­da! Whe­re ha­ve you be­en? I ha­ven't told an­yo­ne you we­ren't he­re. The qu­e­en has just ar­ri­ved and I was go­ing to ta­ke yo­ur pla­ce at din­ner… I didn't know what el­se to do."

  "You lo­ok won­der­ful." The­re was no way she co­uld con­f­ront the earl at such a mo­ment and Mi­ran­da pus­hed her own con­cerns asi­de, exa­mi­ning Ma­ude with new eyes. Ma­ude was lo­oking ra­di­ant, vib­rant, her eyes glo­wing. "You must ta­ke my pla­ce aga­in," Mi­ran­da sa­id, kno­wing that this was right. It wasn't in­ten­ded, but it was right. "I can't pos­sibly be re­ady in ti­me."

  Ma­ude's own se­ar­c­hing lo­ok to­ok in her twin's unu­su­al pal­lor, the sha­dows in her eyes. "What's go­ing on, Mi­ran­da? Did you dis­co­ver news of yo­ur fa­mily? Is it bad?"

  Mi­ran­da sho­ok her he­ad. "I don't know. They've go­ne to Fol­kes­to­ne." She coc­ked her he­ad, lis­te­ning to the vo­ices from be­low. "Qu­ickly. You must be dow­n­s­ta­irs to gre­et the qu­e­en."

  Ma­ude he­si­ta­ted. For the last ho­ur, she'd be­en in a fe­ver of im­pa­ti­en­ce and un­cer­ta­inty. She hadn't known whet­her she wan­ted Mi­ran­da to re­turn in ti­me to ta­ke her pla­ce dow­n­s­ta­irs, or whet­her she ho­ped she wo­uld co­me too la­te. But now the si­tu­ati­on was re­sol­ved-it wo­uld ta­ke Mi­ran­da half an ho­ur to get out of her gypsy dress and in­to a co­ur­ti­er's far­t­hin­ga­le. The­re was no ti­me for the tran­s­for­ma­ti­on. And Ma­ude re­ali­zed to her shock that that was what she had re­al­ly be­en ho­ping for.

  "You're sta­ying he­re, tho­ugh, aren't you? You're not go­ing an­y­w­he­re?"

  "Not to­night… Now, go, Ma­ude."

  Ma­ude gat­he­red up her skirts and hur­ri­ed away wit­ho­ut anot­her word. As long as Mi­ran­da wasn't go­ing to di­sap­pe­ar aga­in sud­denly, Ma­ude co­uld enj­oy this won­der­ful thrill of ex­ci­te­ment and ap­pre­hen­si­on. For wha­te­ver re­ason, she was lo­oking for­ward to the com­pany of the du­ke of Ro­is­sy. It was only a ga­me, of co­ur­se. A pu­rely tem­po­rary ga­me.

  She re­ac­hed the hall not a mo­ment too so­on. The qu­e­en, on Lord Har­co­urt's arm, was en­te­ring from the gar­den do­ors. Ma­ude drop­ped in­to a low curtsy, her he­art ham­me­ring.

  "Ah, Lady Ma­ude." The qu­e­en stop­ped with a be­nign smi­le, and ex­ten­ded her hand. Ma­ude kis­sed the long whi­te fin­gers and swam up­ward, for the first ti­me in her li­fe me­eting the ga­ze of her so­ve­re­ign. She was too da­zed for a mi­nu­te to see mo­re than a dif­fu­sed sea of fa­ces sur­ro­un­ding the qu­e­en, but the du­ke of Ro­is­sy step­ped for­ward from his pla­ce on the qu­e­en's ot­her si­de and of­fe­red his arm.

  "My lady, may I es­cort you?"

  Ma­ude cur­t­si­ed aga­in but her ton­gue se­emed thick and ti­ed in knots. She la­id her hand on the du­ke's vel­vet sle­eve, and they fell in be­hind the qu­e­en and the earl, prog­res­sing to the di­ning hall bet­we­en the li­nes of re­ve­ren­ti­al gu­ests.

  Ga­reth hid his shock, but his mind was in tur­mo­il, as he sto­od at the qu­e­en's cha­ir, wa­iting for Her Ma­j­esty to be se­ated. Ever­yo­ne sto­od un­til Eli­za­beth had set­tled in­to the car­ved ar­m­c­ha­ir with its high back and her at­ten­dants had ar­ran­ged her skirts. Then, with a rus­t­le of silks and vel­vets, the gu­ests to­ok the­ir pla­ces on the long ben­c­hes and ser­vi­tors be­aring la­den plat­ters be­gan to mo­ve aro­und the tab­les. The lady of the bed­c­ham­ber, who­se res­pon­si­bi­lity it was to tas­te Her Ma­j­esty's fo­od, sam­p­led each plat­ter be­fo­re cho­ice mor­sels we­re pla­ced be­fo­re the qu­e­en.

  Ga­reth ges­tu­red to the but­ler to pass the wi­ne fla­gons and the be­a­uti­ful gob­lets of Mu­ra­no crystal we­re fil­led with the rich tawny wi­ne of Bur­gundy. Ga­reth strug­gled to ke­ep his ex­p­res­si­on un­t­ro­ub­led, his de­me­anor me­rely at­ten­ti­ve to his gu­ests' ne­eds, nod­ding and smi­ling as the wi­ne was ap­pro­ved. But be­ne­ath the calm ex­te­ri­or, a tem­pest ra­ged.

  Whe­re was Mi­ran­da? He hadn't be­en fo­oled by the sub­s­ti­tu­ti­on for so much as a se­cond, but he co­uld see no sign that an­yo­ne el­se, in­c­lu­ding Henry, had no­ti­ced an­y­t­hing dif­fe­rent in the Lady Ma­ude. And, in­de­ed, physi­cal­ly the­re was no dif­fe­ren­ce. But the­re we­re lit­tle dif­fe­ren­ces in man­ne­rism that we­re ob­vi­o­us to Ga­reth.

  Mi­ran­da il­lus­t­ra­ted her con­ver­sa­ti­on with her hands, they we­re al­ways mo­ving. Ma­ude's per­for­med only the tasks ne­ces­sary. Mi­ran­da's eyes flas­hed and glit­te­red when she was ani­ma­ted. Ma­ude's glo­wed in­s­te­ad, and her fe­atu­res we­re al­to­get­her qu­i­eter. And yet it was cle­ar that Ga­reth's ward was ani­ma­ted. She was hol­ding Henry's at­ten­ti­on wit­ho­ut dif­fi­culty, and in­de­ed the king se­emed de­lig­h­ted with his din­ner com­pa­ni­on.

  But whe­re was Mi­ran­da?

  "My lord Har­co­urt…?"

  He re­ali­zed that Eli­za­beth was tal­king to him but he hadn't the fa­in­test idea what she'd sa­id. "You se­em a trif­le ab­s­t­rac­ted, my lord." The qu­e­en was dis­p­le­ased. She didn't ex­pect her co­ur­ti­ers to lo­se in­te­rest in her com­pany.

  "Not at all, Yo­ur Ma­j­esty," he sa­id swiftly. "I was thin­king that per­haps Yo­ur Ma­j­esty wo­uld li­ke to he­ar a new com­po­si­ti­on by a yo­ung com­po­ser I dis­co­ve­red on my re­cent jo­ur­ney to Fran­ce. I think you wo­uld be ple­ased with his work."

  Con­cerns for her en­ter­ta­in­ment we­re per­mis­sib­le ab­s­t­rac­ti­ons. The qu­e­en smi­led and gra­ci­o­usly ga­ve her as­sent. Ga­reth sum­mo­ned his cham­ber­la­in, ga­ve him in­s­t­ruc­ti­ons for the mu­si­ci­ans, and for­ced him­self to con­cen­t­ra­te only on the mat­ter at hand.

  It was as much as he co­uld do to ke­ep his se­at thro­ug­ho­ut the in­ter­mi­nab­le me­al. He was awa­re that Lady Mary, se­ated with ot­hers of the qu­e­en's at­ten­dants hal­f­way down the bo­ard, was cas­ting him inj­ured glan­ces whe­re rep­ro­ach min­g­led with an­xi­ety. He knew that the­ir dis­cus­si­on that mor­ning had not sa­tis­fi­ed her and he was fa­irly cer­ta­in it wo­uldn't be long be­fo­re she in­sis­ted upon re­ne­wing it.

  But at last the qu­e­en sig­na­led that she had sat at tab­le long eno­ugh. "We shall dan­ce, my lord Har­co­urt." She tap­ped his sle­eve with her fan.

  Ga­reth bo­wed at the ro­yal com­mand and es­cor­ted the qu­e­en to the gre­at ro­om at the re­ar of the ho­use whe­r
e the flo­or was cle­ared for dan­cing, mu­si­ci­ans we­re al­re­ady pla­ying in the gal­lery abo­ve, and do­ub­le do­ors sto­od open to the gar­den to catch the co­ol night bre­ezes.

  He led the qu­e­en to the flo­or. Only the length of a co­urtly dan­ce kept him now from con­f­ron­ting his ward and fin­ding out what in God's na­me was go­ing on.

  Ma­ude was in a dre­am. She of­fe­red no dis­sent when Henry led her on­to the flo­or af­ter the qu­e­en and Lord Har­co­urt. She had had dan­cing les­sons, but she had ne­ver dan­ced in com­pany, and yet it ca­me to her as easily as if she we­re per­for­ming the steps in her sle­ep. She was light on her fe­et, her step ne­ver fal­te­red, and whi­le she was awa­re that her par­t­ner was no deft fi­gu­re on the dan­ce flo­or it didn't det­ract from her ple­asu­re in the le­ast.

  The gal­li­ard ca­me to an end at last and the qu­e­en, who­se energy on the dan­ce flo­or far ex­ce­eded that of her much yo­un­ger co­ur­ti­ers, de­man­ded that Ga­reth bring her the du­ke of Ro­is­sy to par­t­ner her in the next dan­ce.

  It was the ex­cu­se he'd be­en wa­iting for. Ga­reth mo­ved away with alac­rity to whe­re Ma­ude and Henry sto­od to one si­de of the dan­ce flo­or. Ma­ude was smi­ling up at Henry, and as Ga­reth ap­pro­ac­hed, Henry ra­ised her hand to his lips. Ga­reth wat­c­hed in as­to­nis­h­ment as his ward blus­hed pret­tily and flut­te­red her fan with what se­emed a per­fectly na­tu­ral co­qu­etry.

  "Ga­reth… Ga­reth… I trust you're not grown too gre­at to ac­k­now­led­ge old fri­ends. En­ter­ta­ining the qu­e­en, no less. And with Ro­is­sy as yo­ur ho­use­gu­est."

  Ga­reth tur­ned re­luc­tantly to fa­ce Kip Ros­si­ter, who ha­iled him with a wa­ve, co­ming qu­ickly ac­ross the ro­om to­ward him, a rat­her wic­ked smi­le on his fa­ce.

  "I in­vi­ted you to ke­ep com­pany with our so­ve­re­ign, didn't I?" Ga­reth ri­pos­ted, con­t­rol­ling his im­pa­ti­en­ce. "Ris­ked the re­pu­ta­ti­on of my ho­use by do­ing so. But ne­ver let it be sa­id that I abj­ure old fri­ends, ho­we­ver gre­at the ho­nors that be­fall me."

  Kip grin­ned easily, but his eyes we­re sharp as dag­ger po­ints. He tur­ned to sur­vey the dan­cers. "You're up to so­met­hing de­ep, Ga­reth." He had lo­we­red his vo­ice to a ba­re whis­per, his mo­uth clo­se to Ga­reth's ear. "A ve­ri­tab­le co­nj­urer you are, de­ar fel­low."

  Ga­reth ra­ised an eyeb­row, sa­id lightly, "You talk in rid­dles, de­ar boy."

  "No, man, you pro­du­ce the rid­dles." Kip to­ok his arm." Tell me to mind my own bu­si­ness and I sup­po­se I'll ha­ve to. But I tell you that that Lady Ma­ude"-he ges­tu­red to the dan­cers-"isn't the Lady Ma­ude who's be­en ca­using such a sen­sa­ti­on at co­urt the­se last days. So… what do you say?" He lo­oked very ple­ased with him­self.

  Ga­reth's ex­p­res­si­on tur­ned to sto­ne, but he ma­de no at­tempt to deny Kip's char­ge. His old fri­end was far too sharp. "I say, Kip, that it is no­ne of yo­ur bu­si­ness and I'd be gra­te­ful if you'd ke­ep a still ton­gue in yo­ur he­ad."

  Kip chuc­k­led. "Aye, that I will. But I knew I was right. And may­be one day you'll tell me the who­le. Eh?"

  "May­be." But Ga­reth didn't re­turn his fri­end's con­s­pi­ra­to­ri­al smi­le. His ex­p­res­si­on was still stony, his eyes hard and flat. He knew from Imo­gen that Kip had had his sus­pi­ci­ons, and he knew that he'd sha­red them with Bri­an. Kip co­uld be trus­ted, but his brot­her cer­ta­inly co­uldn't ke­ep a still ton­gue in his he­ad. With a num­bing sen­se of ine­vi­ta­bi­lity, Ga­reth saw the who­le fra­gi­le ho­use of cards fal­ling abo­ut his ears.

  With a word of fa­re­well, he con­ti­nu­ed on his way to Ma­ude and Henry.

  Henry gre­eted him with a smi­le. "Ah, Har­co­urt. I am an­xi­o­us to con­c­lu­de our bu­si­ness. In the mor­ning, we will draw up the bet­rot­hal con­t­racts." He clap­ped Ga­reth's sho­ul­der he­ar­tily. "Yo­ur ward as­su­res me she is wil­ling for the uni­on. Is it not so, Lady Ma­ude?"

  "In­de­ed, my lord du­ke," Ma­ude mur­mu­red, drop­ping her eyes be­fo­re her gu­ar­di­an's co­ol ap­pra­isal. She had no idea what el­se to say. In fact, she was in such tur­mo­il she wasn't at all su­re what she was sa­ying, or even if she was ma­king any sen­se.

  "I am de­lig­h­ted to he­ar it," Ga­reth sa­id evenly. "But I am sent by Her Ma­j­esty to bid you par­t­ner her in the next dan­ce, sir."

  "Oh, Eli­za­beth will find me a po­or par­t­ner," Henry sa­id with a la­ugh. "I do­ubt she'll be as for­gi­ving as my lady Ma­ude. But I had bet­ter not ke­ep Her Ma­j­esty wa­iting, lo­ath tho­ugh I am to part with you, ma che­re, even for the length of one con­t­re­dan­se."

  Ma­ude blus­hed. She cur­t­si­ed with a mur­mu­red dis­c­la­imer, and Henry stro­de off to­ward the qu­e­en of En­g­land, mar­c­hing ac­ross the flo­or as if it we­re a pa­ra­de gro­und.

  "A lit­tle fresh air, co­usin…" Ga­reth sug­ges­ted, of­fe­ring Ma­ude his arm. "Whe­re is Mi­ran­da?" His qu­i­et to­ne mas­ked the se­et­hing ur­gency be­hind the qu­es­ti­on as he led Ma­ude to­ward the gar­den do­ors.

  "You can tell?" Ma­ude ra­ised her eyes to his fa­ce.

  "Of co­ur­se," he sa­id with a snap. "You co­uldn't pos­sibly ex­pect to de­ce­ive me… eit­her of you. Now whe­re is she?"

  "Abo­ves­ta­irs. She had so­met­hing to do that to­ok her out of the ho­use to­day so I pla­yed her part with the du­ke on the ri­ver, and then she re­tur­ned too la­te to be re­ady to at­tend this eve­ning. So…"

  "So you've be­en ta­king her pla­ce all day." Thro­ugh his puz­zle­ment, Ga­reth felt a re­li­ef so in­ten­se that only then did he re­ali­ze qu­ite how des­pe­ra­tely an­xi­o­us he'd be­en in the last ho­urs. "She's in her cham­ber?"

  Ma­ude nod­ded.

  "Is she well?"

  "I don't know," Ma­ude sa­id trut­h­ful­ly. "Her fa­mily ha­ve left Lon­don and I be­li­eve she's very dis­t­res­sed and wor­ri­ed abo­ut them. It was very sud­den, you see."

  "Yes," he sa­id grimly. "I see." So he hadn't ma­na­ged to re­as­su­re her. He sto­od lo­oking out in­to the gar­den. The set­ting sun threw the sun­di­al's long sha­dow ac­ross the lawn and a pa­ir of tor­c­h­boys we­re lig­h­ting the flam­be­a­ux alon­g­si­de the path to the wa­ter steps.

  Ma­ude wa­ited be­si­de him. She didn't know what to do or what to say. Her gu­ar­di­an had al­ways in­ti­mi­da­ted her, but she sen­sed so­met­hing abo­ut him now that ma­de her une­asy. If pres­sed she wo­uld ha­ve sa­id he se­emed vul­ne­rab­le, un­cer­ta­in, and yet she knew it was ab­surd to apply such words to the earl of Har­co­urt.

  Back in the gre­at ro­om, Imo­gen, puz­zled, sa­id to her hus­band, "What are Ga­reth and the girl tal­king abo­ut? Why wo­uld he le­ave the qu­e­en's si­de?"

  "I da­re­say be­ca­use he's gu­es­sed the truth," Mi­les re­tur­ned. "I'm cer­ta­in he must ha­ve se­en it the mo­ment he la­id eyes on Ma­ude."

  "Ma­ude? What are you tal­king abo­ut?"

  Mi­les lo­oked sur­p­ri­sed. It hadn't oc­cur­red to him that Imo­gen hadn't se­en it. He'd sen­sed so­met­hing dif­fe­rent abo­ut Ma­ude/Mi­ran­da that mor­ning, but he hadn't be­en cer­ta­in un­til din­ner. Ma­ude was so much mo­re still than Mi­ran­da, so much mo­re res­t­ra­ined in her mo­ve­ments. "You ha­ven't se­en it yo­ur­self, my de­ar?"

  "Se­en what?" Imo­gen de­man­ded, a spot of co­lor sho­wing dan­ge­ro­usly aga­inst her che­ek­bo­ne.

  "Imo­gen, do­es yo­ur brot­her se­em a lit­tle dis­t­ra­it to you this eve­ning? "Lady Mary's ap­pe­aran­ce ef­fec­ti­vely en­ded the con­ver­sa­ti­on and Mi­les, with a bow, to­ok him­self off to the card ro­om, not sorry to ke­ep his sec­ret to him­self for the mo­ment.
br />   "I am truly con­cer­ned abo­ut Har­co­urt," Lady Mary con­ti­nu­ed, her an­xi­o­us ga­ze fol­lo­wing the earl, who had tur­ned back to the ro­om with Ma­ude. "He was not him­self this mor­ning, and he se­ems so… so ab­s­t­rac­ted. Do you not think?"

  "Per­haps," Imo­gen sa­id, frow­ning, her mind still on Mi­les's puz­zling re­marks. "He has much on his mind at the mo­ment."

  "Yes, so he ma­de cle­ar this mor­ning," Mary sa­id tightly. "Appa­rently, his ward's con­cerns are so im­por­tant that he has no ti­me to con­si­der his own wed­ding."

  Imo­gen, for on­ce, didn't of­fer re­as­su­ran­ce.

  "What is it abo­ut Ma­ude that so ab­sorbs him?" Mary as­ked al­most fe­ar­ful­ly.

  "I don't know," Imo­gen sa­id ab­sently, her eyes fol­lo­wing her brot­her and his ward as he led the girl back to Henry, who had bac­ked off the dan­ce flo­or le­aving his ro­yal par­t­ner to a new con­sort in the dan­ce.

  Mary wa­ited for Ga­reth to co­me to her, to so­li­cit her hand in the dan­ce, but in­s­te­ad he stro­de to­ward the do­ors to the hall. She hur­ri­ed ac­ross the ro­om to cut him off. "My lord… Lord Har­co­urt."

  Ga­reth stop­ped, tur­ned to fa­ce her, and she qu­a­iled at his ex­p­res­si­on. His eyes se­emed to be lo­oking stra­ight thro­ugh her, and wha­te­ver they we­re lo­oking at was not ple­asant. His mo­uth was grim, his jaw tight. "Ma­dam?" The sin­g­le word was harsh and unin­vi­ting.

  "You've ba­rely gre­eted me this eve­ning, Ga­reth. I had tho­ught you might spa­re a lit­tle ti­me for yo­ur bet­rot­hed." Mary la­id a hand on his arm.

  "For­gi­ve me, Mary… I find myself so­mew­hat pre­oc­cu­pi­ed at pre­sent," he sa­id, as if she didn't al­re­ady know that. "The­re is so­met­hing I must do im­me­di­ately… for­gi­ve me." He swung back to­ward the do­or and stro­de away wit­ho­ut a bac­k­ward glan­ce.

  Mary he­si­ta­ted for a se­cond, then, with set lips and the light of de­ter­mi­na­ti­on in her eye, she fol­lo­wed him.

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