And then, when she turned red with embarrassment and started to explain herself, the earl just laughed and started to egg her on. “I’m a great supporter of Fox,” he said. “And I like the Prince of Wales. What’s not to like in a man who boasts of eating twenty-four hens’ eggs at one sitting? If I haven’t taken my seat in the House, it’s only because I’d hate to rub my brother-in-law’s nose in his own foolishness.”
She couldn’t go along with that, so she switched sides and defended the duke’s recent speech to the House about the lunacy of providing the Prince with an allowance of 100,000 pounds per year. But when the duke’s eyes lit up, she felt it only fair to point out the reverse as well, that as the Duke of Cornwall, the Prince was entitled to duchy revenues as well as money from the Civil List.
The duke groaned. The Duchess of Berrow changed the subject with a comment about the need for parliamentary reforms in Ireland, and before she knew it, the meal flew by.
The other end of the table was having a far more sedate conversation. Most of the time the marquess seemed to be reciting poetry. The verses sounded rather awful, but then they all started quoting snippets of verse at each other. She happened to meet the duke’s eyes during a pause in their conversation and saw perfect comprehension there.
“I haven’t read a book of poetry in years,” he said, leaning over to her.
“We ought to have,” she said, feeling laughter bubbling up at the pure pleasure of it. “We are very ill-prepared for a cultural conversation. Not even Thomas Gray, Your Grace?”
“Not even!” he said cheerfully.
“O ye pens and O ye pencils,” declaimed the marquess from the other end of the table, “And all ye scribbling utensils, say in what words and in what meter, shall unfeigned admiration greet her!”
“I can deduce that was a couplet,” the duke said, his eyes dancing. He was so beautiful, Charlotte thought dimly. And so brilliant.
His duchess was apparently enjoying this poetry; she was clapping her hands.
“I just figured out that it rhymes,” the duke said to her. “In what meter and greet her.” His raised eyebrow was enough to send her into a storm of giggles. Luckily, Lord Corbin intervened to ask about William Whitehead, who was the current Poet Laureate but had refused to write poetry that conformed to government policy.
She turned away from the duke with a palpable pang. This will never do, she told herself. He’s married and he’s a duke. You’re nothing more than an old maid, for all you somehow found yourself at this party. But she knew…
She knew how she found herself at the party.
Beaumont had asked to have her. The fact was like a warm blanket on a chilly night. For the first time in her life, a man was claiming her presence.
He was married, that was true.
His wife was one of the most beautiful women in Europe—and yet he had asked her to supper.
The duchess doesn’t understand the political life, Charlotte told herself.
She liked paltry poetry, with terrible rhymes.
She doesn’t understand him.
On the other end of the table, the Marquess of Wharton and Malmesbury was enjoying himself just as much as was Charlotte, though for rather different reasons. For one thing, he had his beloved daughter to his right, and his beloved Mrs. Grope to his left. He knew himself to be a rather simple man, at heart. He expressed himself in dense rhyme and eloquent meter…but inside he knew that the subjects of his poetry sprang from his heart. His daughter, his beloved, his cat, cream pastries now and then.
It wasn’t in his nature to keep emotions to himself. “I am not sure that I am ready to give you up,” he told Roberta. She was so terrifyingly beautiful, this daughter of his: far more Margaret’s than his, and yet poor Margaret had not lived to see her grow to the blossom of her womanhood. “When you were a baby, I wrote an ode to the fold of your eyelid. What will I do without your eyelids to look at every day?”
“Oh, Papa,” she said, looking fussed, as she always did when he praised her.
“You’ll see what I mean when you have a child of your own,” he told her. Now he saw, of course, that he couldn’t have kept her in the country forever. How could he think to deny his darling girl the pleasure of having her own children? Still…he looked across the table at her chosen husband. A duke. One could hardly complain about that. And yet there was something old and degenerate about Villiers, something of a tired soul, that the marquess did not like. He couldn’t imagine how to say it to Roberta.
If only Margaret had lived. Mrs. Grope, much though he loved her flamboyant ways, had none of Margaret’s subtlety. And she wasn’t Roberta’s mother either. In fact…
“Should I have raised you in a different way?” he asked, struck to the heart by sudden anguish. Mrs. Grope looked rather garish beside the ladies at the table. Lord Corbin was kindly speaking to her about the stage, and she looked like a bedazzling peacock in comparison to his sober attire.
“What do you mean, Papa?” Roberta asked.
“Should I have spared you the company of Mrs. Grope?” he whispered hoarsely. “Or Selina, darling Selina?”
She blinked at him over a forkful of green beans. “Papa, do you mean to say that you are having a change of heart about your household arrangements, now?”
“Why not now?” he enquired.
“Because I am twenty-one! Perhaps you should have had these qualms when I was fourteen and Selina waved goodbye to her traveling group.”
“I was in love,” he said, shamefaced. “Your mother had been gone for two years, and I fell in love.”
She smiled a little at that, and his heart lightened. “I know you did, Papa. I know you were in love.”
“But,” he continued in a low voice, “it isn’t because of that, because of my lack of convention that you’ve chosen Villiers, is it?”
“Of course not, Papa,” she said. But she didn’t meet his eyes.
Villiers might be a perfectly acceptable man in his own way. But he wasn’t the one for Roberta. He was a cold-blooded man.
“If you change your mind about this marriage,” he said, “there will be many other men eager to marry you, Roberta. You’re barely been in London a week. Just think who you might meet.”
“Papa!” she squealed, with a glance to her right. “Don’t say such things. I shan’t change my mind.”
“Are you quite certain of that?”
The marquess tried to imagine himself stopping by for a friendly supper with his daughter once she was the Duchess of Villiers and he knew without a second thought that it would never happen. Villiers was a man of rigid propriety. He would never invite an aging and foolish marquess to his house, except for those occasions on which relatives could not be excluded. Christmas, perhaps.
He felt a tear roll down his cheek. It was bad enough when he lost Margaret, but he had had his delightful scrap of a daughter to tell him that his poetry was terrible, just as her mother used to do. Without Roberta…
Another tear followed the first. Roberta’s hand crept into his. “Papa, I promise to visit you,” she said, so sweetly that he could hardly bear it. “I can’t stay at home forever.”