The Emerald Swan, страница 36
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
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?"
"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.
"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.