“Never fear, we can use your brilliant peacock tail for something else,” the duchess promised. She ushered her out of the room and turned back with a huge smile. Roberta blinked; the pure force of the duchess’s personality was unnerving. “Your pensioners, Lady Roberta, just became my special project!”
“In truth, I don’t have any pensioners,” Roberta said, returning to her seat. “I’m afraid that the duke mistook me for someone more charitable.”
“How unusual. Beaumont actually got something wrong. I feel as if a Hallelujah Chorus ought to break out in mid-air.”
“I only have myself,” Roberta said. “That and my luggage.”
“Your luggage?” The duchess was looking a bit bewildered now.
“I am your cousin, thrice removed. Actually more than three. At any rate, my mother looked something like you. We are remotely connected, and I was hoping that you would bring me into society.” Roberta said it with a gulp. She was being remarkably bold, and as Mrs. Grope had assured her, she was likely to be thrown in the street. She clenched her hands together tightly.
“I have a letter from my father,” she added. “Your father and he were very dear to each other in their youth.”
The duchess didn’t appear to be curling her lip in horror. “Really? I would have thought my father had no friends at all, from various pleasant little memories I have of him. It’s heartening to imagine that he was once a boy,” she said. “But what am I thinking; you’ve come to stay with me. How splendid!”
Roberta’s heart thumped. “It is?”
The duchess was smiling. “Of course it is! I never had a sister, and I always wanted one. Don’t worry; I shall know everyone in this benighted city within a week or two, and we’ll make you a splendid marriage. If you don’t mind my asking, are you connected on my mother’s or my father’s side?”
“On your mother’s,” Roberta said, feeling slightly dizzy from the relief of it. “I’m afraid it’s a rather faint connection. My mother was your great-aunt’s second cousin’s child. Her maiden name was Cressida Enright. She was rarely in London, as she married at the age of sixteen. She died when I was quite young.”
“Wait a minute!”
Roberta waited, knowing exactly what was coming.
“The Mad Marquess,” the duchess exclaimed. “Not—your father? The poet?”
Roberta nodded reluctantly.
“My goodness, I suppose that I knew he had a daughter. How old are you?”
“I am twenty-eight. You’re a newborn compared to me. But surely you’re an heiress? Isn’t the Mad Marquess—” She checked herself. “I’m so sorry, your father is Marquess of Wharton and?”
“Wharton and Malmesbury,” Roberta said. “It’s quite all right. No one remembers his title. At any rate, I do have a dowry, but how could I possibly marry, while immured in the country? My father refused to travel even to Bath in the last few years.”
“Your neighbors are no help?”
“We don’t have many. My father bought the adjoining estate to the north some years ago. And I’m afraid that he has alienated those who live nearby.”
“By sending them poetry?” the duchess asked, and stopped. “You must tell me at your leisure; I shan’t question you like a fishwife in your first five minutes. At any rate, you have done just the right thing. You shall be my ward. All the finest ladies in Paris had wards; they’re so useful in forcing one to not malinger at home.”
“I can’t imagine you malingering at home,” Roberta said, rather shyly.
The duchess twinkled at her. “Perhaps not alone, but there are certainly times when one finds oneself, shall we say, drawn to the idea of a lazy evening? And yet I consider that to be a woman’s downfall. One must dress every evening, or one quickly becomes a slug.”
Roberta nodded. Rarely having had an occasion to dress formally in the whole of her life, she found the prospect of a quiet night at home loathsome.
“You couldn’t have come at a better time. I suppose you heard about Beaumont’s collapse in Lords last fall? Naturally, I hope that it was nothing more than a case of nerves, but…” Her voice trailed off and Roberta thought that she actually looked rather stricken, which didn’t agree with the biting dislike she’d seen between the duke and duchess.
“Duty meant I must return.”
Roberta nodded. Her father’s response to reading of the Duke of Beaumont’s collapse in the very midst of a speech in the House had been to laugh uproariously and prophesy the man was a drunk, but having met the duke, she doubted her father’s diagnosis.
“I must produce an heir and all the rest of it,” the duchess remarked, quite as if she were saying it might rain tomorrow. “Most unpleasant, but it needs be done, and clearly I’m the one to do it.”
“Oh!” Roberta said.
“I expect you’re wondering just how we shall manage the bedding part of it.”
Roberta stifled a nervous giggle. Talking to the duchess was like talking to no one she had ever encountered before. “I—” she said.
“I assure you, I share your concern. The imagination quails, truly it does. Beaumont and I rarely exchange words that could be described as civil. But there, Lady Roberta, a woman’s life, etc. etc. Do you play chess by any chance?”
That question caught Roberta off-balance as well. “No. I’m afraid I never learned. My father doesn’t play, and my governess had strong views on appropriate activities for women.”
The duchess waved her hand in the air dismissively. “Spend your time sorting embroidery yarns and generally boring yourself to tears? If you are lucky enough not to spend your days scrubbing a man’s breeches.”
Roberta couldn’t help it; she started to smile. When Jemma laughed, one simply had to laugh with her.
“The only problem I can see with you living here,” the duchess continued, “would have to do with your standards.”
“My standards?” Roberta asked. The duchess was looking at her expectantly.
“Ethics…morality…that sort of thing.”
“Well, I have them,” Roberta said cautiously. Adding: “I suppose.” In truth, she couldn’t claim a great knowledge of moral strictures, given her father’s propensity for lively companionship.
“Well, I have only a few.” The duchess smiled at Roberta with an odd, crooked little smile. “If you are going to live with me, I simply won’t be able to bear it if you are constantly peering at me in a disappointed kind of way. And if you criticize me, I’m afraid that we would quarrel directly. Among my many faults is a quite simple inability to accept that I’m wrong. Do you see how awful I am to live with?”
Roberta laughed. “I could not be disappointed, not unless you metamorphosed into Mrs. Grope, who has been my constant companion these two years. In truth, Your Grace, I can’t imagine reprimanding you for anything!”
“Oh, you’ll think of something. But we’d better go on intimate terms, don’t you think? My name is Jemma, which is short for the worthy name of Jemima. May I address you as Roberta?”