“That is likely true,” Roberta said, feeling not a whit of sympathy. “Mother would not have been pleased with my journey.”
“How could I have let that happen?” the marquess said, with a sniffle. “My child…the dearest to my heart…my jasmine blossom—in the second best coach escorted only by servants!”
Roberta opened her mouth to say something about the poem he sent to Jemma, but Damon nudged her again. “Give over,” he whispered.
Her father put a hand in his pocket and took out an enormous bundle of banknotes. “For you, dearest, for you. I know you don’t like Mrs. Parthnell’s sewing skills, though I cannot but ask myself who will employ her now that you are gone? But still, Mrs. Grope’s patronage counts for something.”
Mrs. Grope smiled grimly. Before Roberta left, she had very kindly tried to make Mrs. Parthnell’s creations into something worth wearing to London. But there was the unmistakable odor of Mrs. Parthnell around Mrs. Grope’s current garment. It was fashioned from lovely striped fabric, but the lines were designed to come to a V in the front of the bodice—and they didn’t. It was odd, to say the least, and as Roberta watched, Mrs. Grope adjusted her arms across her chest the better to disguise the defect.
“It’s for you, all for you,” her father was saying, pushing the banknotes at her. “The St. Giles family has never taken charity, and there’s no need to do so. After all, you are an heiress according to the mercantile standards by which people judge these things.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she said. The roll was far too large to fit into her pocket. Damon stuck out his hand, and she read deep enjoyment in his eyes. She handed the notes to him.
“Papa,” she said, but he looked so uncertain she couldn’t bring the words to her lips.
“I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it before,” he said quickly. “London is the path to all of our deepest hearts’ desires. I expect publishers never accept a manuscript until they have made the acquaintance of its author. Why, it might be a work of the very weakest moral fiber and they wouldn’t know without personal assessment. Don’t you agree, my lord?” He turned to Damon.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Were I a publisher, I would insist on a personal interview.”
“There you are,” the marquess said, as Roberta shot Damon a murderous look. “I shall be published, you shall be married, and Mrs. Grope…ah, Mrs. Grope.”
“And what of Mrs. Grope?” Damon asked.
“She tried to persuade me against this, from the depths of her loving kindness,” the marquess roared. “But I know she has ambitions. I know the truth of it. Rather than be oppressed in the country, a lady as beautiful as Mrs. Grope should be celebrated in every bookstore window, and I’ve no doubt but that she will be. Look at her, my dear sir, just look at her!”
Mrs. Grope was doing a very credible job of keeping her gaze on the far distance and her chin high in the air.
“I cannot fool myself that she will stay under my protection,” the marquess said with a heavy sigh. “But I cannot but be oppressed by the idea that I may have caused distress to the two women I love most in the world: my daughter, and my dear Mrs. Grope, the love of my bowels.”
At this propitious moment, the door opened and Fowle appeared. “Her Grace, the Duchess of Beaumont,” he said. And: “His Grace, the Duke of Villiers.”
Roberta would have fainted, if she’d known how.
“Please allow me to introduce my sister, Her Grace, the Duchess of Beaumont,” Damon said to the marquess. “Jemma, this is Mrs. Grope, and the famed poet, the Marquess of Wharton and Malmesbury.”
“How I enjoyed the poem that dear Roberta brought me,” Jemma said, curtsying.
“A trifle, a mere trifle,” the marquess said, blotting a last tear. “I am not yet entirely happy with it…I believe I shall take out the bear and the swearing parson, when all’s done. I won’t publish it until it’s in its finest state, when I bring out all my collected works in a folio edition. This version is for your eyes only. My gift for your kindness in sheltering the pearl of my bosom, my only daughter.”
“Are your collected works forthcoming?” Jemma asked, curtsying to Mrs. Grope. “A pleasure, dear madam,” she said, as Mrs. Grope’s curtsy took her nearly to the floor.
“I have no doubt it will happen, in leather with pearl bindings,” the marquess said. He made a leg to Villiers. “I knew your father of old,” he said.
“Not always an unmixed blessing to make my father’s acquaintance,” Villiers allowed.
“I fear he did not understand literature. Not at all. I was in my salad days, you understand, but I already had a fine grasp of music and rhythm. Your father said something abominably rude; I shan’t repeat it. But I remember every word.”
“We are more and more in sympathy every moment,” Villiers said. “I too have several signal lectures delivered by my father emblazoned in my memory.”
“Be that as it might,” the marquess said, “it was an excellent poem. A light subject, but heartfelt in its every pentameter. I still remember it.”
Roberta’s heart sank. Sure enough, a moment later her father launched into fifteen verses that began, For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. Even Roberta, who was well versed in literature, couldn’t follow much other than the rhyming couplets that occasionally popped up like way posts in a dark night.
There was a moment of silence after he finished while (Roberta assumed) the assorted company tried to ascertain whether the poem was truly over.
“I never ask my daughter to critique my work,” her father said, in a magnificent untruth, “as her literary judgment is far harsher than her pleasant exterior promises.”
“Unnatural child,” Damon whispered.
She shot him a squinty-eyed look and he shut up.
Just as Roberta realized with a queer little pang that her father’s feelings were going to be hurt, how could they not be hurt, Damon said: “Immensely moving in every lineament and emotion, my lord. I think the line he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes, and you must forgive me if I have that wrong, was particularly penetrating in its analysis.”
Her father beamed.
“It’s very sad in the end,” Jemma ventured. “Did I understand that a rat bit Jeoffry’s throat?”
The marquess nodded, rocking back and forth on his heels. “A sad demise for such a splendid quadruped. There is nothing sweeter than his peace,” he quoted, heaving an enormous sigh. “He died a few days after. Your father,” he said, turning to Villiers, “was rather unkind in his assessment of that poem.”
“I can see why,” Villiers said, his voice as sleek as any cat’s. “Father didn’t like felines. If Jeoffry had been a hunting dog…”
“Ah now, if only he had explained that to me,” the marquess said, beaming. “Some people have unusual fears of domesticated animals, as I well know. Why, Mrs. Grope is terrified, purely terrified, of camels.”
They all turned like puppets to stare at Mrs. Grope. “Miggery’s Traveling Circus,” she said with a shudder.