Simeon picked up the letter and walked upstairs to his mother’s parlor. He went through all the elaborate rigmarole that prefaced a simple conversation with her: the bows, the kisses, the request to sit, etc.
“Your Grace,” he began.
But his mother raised a hand. “A lady initiates the subject of conversation, Cosway.”
He gritted his teeth.
“I want you to promise that you will be on your best behavior so that your wife is not frightened away by your oddness.”
“I shall do my best,” Simeon said woodenly. “I intend to travel to London tomorrow and beg her pardon; I’m afraid that our wedding celebration must be delayed.”
“I shall send a letter with you,” she announced. “I shall inform her that you suffered a brain fever. You will do me the great courtesy to confirm this account.”
Simeon blinked. “A brain fever?”
“Indeed. Everyone knows that brain fevers are common in foreign parts. It could explain so much.” She leaned forward. “Your wife is a kindly woman. It is true that she and I had some difficulties living in the same house; she was a headstrong and sometimes impudent girl with an odd habit of song. I found it onerous to have her about me. But I’m sure all will be different now that she has reached an advanced age.”
“A brain fever?” Simeon repeated.
“To explain yourself,” she said. Then she added, obligingly: “You.” With a wave of her hand.
“Look at yourself, Cosway. You don’t look like a duke. You look like some sort of minor accountant. You have none of the easy carriage of a true aristocrat. There are dark circles under your eyes, ink on your cuff. You wear no wig and no powder, you are inappropriately dressed, and although I have managed to coerce you into an appropriate level of manners when approaching me, I am not such a fool as to think you would be able to carry off such a trained dog show in front of others.
“In short, I need a story to present to the ton.” She leaned forward again with an audible creaking of whalebone. “Are you sure that you didn’t suffer a brain fever, Cosway?”
Simeon wished that Valamksepa were in his place right now. It would be interesting to see whether the guru could maintain his composure. After all, now that Simeon thought about it, Valamksepa sat about in a tent doing his teaching. It was a nice, clean tent, without a duchess in sight. Easy to banish anger in those circumstances.
“No, Mother,” he said through clenched teeth. “I was lucky enough to escape brain fevers. This is simply the way I am.”
“Indeed, so I thought.” An ominous pause: “The brain fever will explain everything.”
“There was no brain fever.”
“There is now!” She indicated a stack of sealed letters. “I’ve informed everyone of your precarious health. I’d like you to frank these letters at your earliest convenience. My acquaintances will be kind, Cosway. Noblemen are kind to each other.”
“Mother, can you explain why Mr. Pegg’s bill for shoeing the horses and maintaining the carriages was never paid?”
“Pegg? Pegg? Who’s that?”
“The Pegg family has acted as blacksmiths to the Dukes of Cosway for generations, or so he tells me.”
“Or so he tells you!” she said, pouncing on it like a cat on a mouse. “Ay, there’s the rub! They’ll say anything. Don’t pay it! Make him show you the work before you give him a ha’penny.”
“The work was done four years ago.”
“Well, a good blacksmith’s work would endure a mere four years. If it hasn’t, then you needn’t pay him on the grounds of shoddy work.”
“If you’ll excuse me, Mother, I must return to the study.”
“I shan’t excuse you just yet,” she said. “Honeydew informs me that you find the water closets inadequate in some way.”
“Yes. They stink.”
She bridled, but it was his turn to raise his hand. “They stink, Mother. And the reason they stink is that Father installed water closets throughout this house and then neglected to have them cleaned out. The pipes must have burst years ago. Water is no longer running through the drains; they must be cleaned.”
Her face was rigid with anger. “The duke did everything just as he ought!”
“He ought to have had the pipes cleaned once a year. Honeydew tells me that Father judged it an untoward expense. Why, I can’t tell. But the odor that infects this entire house is the result. For God’s sake, it smells worse in a duke’s house than it does in a Bombay slum!”
“You have no right to speak to me in that pestering fashion! The duke installed the water closets in good faith. The pipes were created of such inferior material that they fell to pieces.”
“Why didn’t father have them repaired?”
“He demanded the pipes be repaired, naturally!”
“I expect he hadn’t paid for the original work,” Simeon said.
“He had paid more than a reasonable amount, given the slip-shod work that was done. As witnessed by the fact that the drainage failed almost immediately. He was correct not to pay those thieving rascals!”
“Indeed.” He rose, ignoring the question of protocol. “I wish I could find it in my heart to believe that was the truth. You have my apologies.” He bowed and left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Gore House, Kensington
London Seat of the Duke of Beaumont
February 26, 1784
The carriage drew up at the Beaumonts’ townhouse at precisely ten o’clock. Simeon knew because he had timed it to perfection. He was used to planning expeditions like minor military excursions, accounting for wayward tribes, robbers, sandstorms. In England, the road was smooth, the carriage functioned, nary a thief lurked to bring down his horses. He arrived in London the night before, woke up at dawn and waited for the appropriate hour to pay a call on his wife. It was all easy.
And nothing was easy.
For one thing he had to tell his wife, who already thought he was cracked, that their wedding had to be delayed. Again.
Isidore was undoubtedly contemplating annulment, and perhaps he should just let that happen. They could both find more suitable mates.
She wasn’t what he pictured.
When he thought about his wife—and he had, now and then—he remembered a portrait of a sweet-faced little girl, dressed as richly if she were a Renaissance princess. That was why his father had arranged the marriage, of course. The Del’Finos were rich as Croesus and his father wanted her dowry, and never mind the fact that his son was a child when the original contracts were drawn up.
Simeon had readily approved the proxy wedding when he was eighteen and far away in India. He had just begun studying with Valamksepa, and he refused to come home merely so that his father could draw down the second half of a dowry attached to a bride whom he’d never met. He spent the next three years in rigorous solitude, learning endurance, manliness, the Middle Way. He had learned to create an oasis of calm around himself, no matter what happened on his right or his left.
But now that he was back in England, it all seemed complicated. One look at Isidore had dispelled his image of a sweet-faced child bride.