“The duchess believes that the books can be restored,” Honeydew said. The consolation in his tone just made Simeon more irritated.
“Of course,” he snapped.
A footman appeared with the small desk from the Dower House and placed it precisely in the middle of the echoing study. Honeydew immediately lifted a pile of papers from the bookshelf and moved it to the desk. “There, Your Grace,” he said soothingly. “Peters will fetch a chair and you’ll be as comfortable as can be. At least that odor’s gone!”
The demise of the odor had obviously made Honeydew giddy with pleasure.
When the chair appeared, Simeon took a seat and began looking over the letters delivered the previous day. Four new bills had arrived, for various expenses incurred by the duchy in the last ten years, along with a letter from another woman who had apparently been promised riches by his father in exchange for access to her bed.
Why did his father bother making huge promises to women, promises he obviously never meant to keep? There was something pitiful about the pattern of it. Invariably his father swore that he had fallen in love at first sight. Then he promised to support his “beloved” for the rest of her life, generally offering a small cottage as well as a cash payment. After, one must assume, enjoying himself, he would return home, thereafter ignoring all future communication.
It didn’t sit well with Simeon. The truth of it soured in his stomach and made him…irritable.
Honeydew appeared at the door. “Mr. Pegg would like to see you, Your Grace. Mr. Pegg is—”
“I know who he is,” Simeon said. “I already directed that he should be paid for his smithy work.”
“He is here about the cemetery,” Honeydew said. He advanced somewhat into the room, lowering his voice. “Her Grace seems to have effected a somewhat miraculous transformation in Mr. Pegg. He’s acting as the mayor of the village. The kitchen staff reported last night that on discovering that Mr. Mopser had been charging double to villagers living by the river, Pegg stormed into the shop and forced a promise that the practice would stop.”
“Show him in,” Simeon said.
Pegg looked sand-beaten, like a man who’d been driving a camel caravan for far too long. But his back was straight, and the spark in his eye was honest. Simeon got up and came around the table. Isidore was obviously a good judge of character.
He felt less magnanimous toward his wife by a quarter of an hour later. Some repairs Pegg itemized for the village were acceptable: a widow needed a new roof, the church needed a new privy, etc. The village green was to be opened for use by the villagers, and six fowl provided to each cottage. Likewise, villagers were to be allowed to hunt rabbits and small fowl in the duke’s forest, without risking arrest from the gamekeeper. Not that there was a gamekeeper; his father dismissed him several years ago.
But two hundred pounds to refurbish the cemetery? And another two hundred pounds to be given to Henry Wissner, thatcher, as a fee for accepting Martin Smith as an apprentice? Three hundreds pounds for John Phillipson and Christopher Sumerall to oversee the construction of a new spire for the village church?
He and Pegg argued a bit, jostling back and forth over the steeple and the cemetery. At the end of another half hour they were both satisfied. Admittedly, Isidore had chosen well. Pegg cared for the village and its people. He would keep Mopser’s conniving nature under control. Simeon just wished that Isidore had consulted with him beforehand. Not that he would have disagreed with her, but…
It was perhaps unfortunate that the next visitor Honeydew ushered into the study was another stranger. “Monsieur Antoine-Joseph Peyre,” Honeydew announced.
Simeon had perfected a sympathetic smile, meant to defuse the frustration of those presenting bills older than their children. But Monsieur Peyre did not present himself with the abject mien of the duchy’s many creditors. He bowed with the poise of a man who enjoyed perfect self-confidence. He was attired in a coat of flaring orange, adorned with large buttons and embroidered with fleur-de-lis in silver thread. On straightening up, he pulled a small scent flacon from his pocket and sniffed loudly.
“Monsieur Peyre,” Simeon said, bowing. “How may I help you?”
Peyre lowered his eyes from the frieze-work surrounding the study and said, “The question, Your Grace, is not how you can help me, but how I can help you!” Without further ado, he began to stroll about the room, his open perfume bottle trailing a potent scent of flowers.
Simeon waited, suppressing a grin. Monsieur Peyre resembled nothing so much as a bright orange rooster, proud of his plumage and certain that his crowing alone made the sun rise. He felt rather less amused when it transpired that Peyre had arrived with nine plaster-workers in tow and fully expected to be working in Revels House for at least ten days, if not longer.
“It depends, of course, on how elaborate you would like the walls,” Peyre said airily. “In the duchess’s abode in Venice, the formal rooms are covered with a perfect fantasy of gilded plants, blossoms, and the like. It is—” he kissed his fingertips—“exquisite! But here we are in the English countryside, and one does not feel the same exuberance, the same delightful sparkle. I think perhaps a more classical look might suit. I see this room with pale panels…”
While Monsieur Peyre rattled on, Simeon brooded about Isidore summoning plaster-workers to redo his house without mentioning the fact to him.
“Your Grace,” Peyre announced, “I do not find an objectionable smell here.”
Simeon turned around to find that Peyre was recorking his little flacon of perfume. The bottle was surrounded by an absurdly elaborate golden cage worked with enamel flowers.
“The water closets have been repaired,” Simeon explained.
“The duchess’s missive warned me to be prepared for an odor,” Peyre said with a shudder. “I contemplated refusing her invitation. But—” he opened his eyes very wide—“who can refuse Her Grace anything?”
“Indeed,” Simeon said. Then he heard an echo of his mother’s sour tone in that word and softened it with a smile. “Please continue as you see fit, Monsieur Peyre. We have the utmost trust in your judgment.”
“Naturally,” Monsieur Peyre said. “Naturally!” But he was pleased.
He left in a cloud of perfume, and Simeon turned to sit down at his desk, paused, and looked through the window at the garden. He had left Isidore in the Dower House. A good proponent of the Middle Way would surrender his anger, perhaps running an extra mile or two. He would center himself in the universe, remember that anger is a force for evil and that the waters of the ages washed against the pebbles of eternity.
Simeon strode out the door and into the ballroom. Monsieur Peyre was in the center of a cluster of men, pointing to the frieze-work at the top of the room. He caught just a word or two, in French. The place would probably end up looking like Versailles, he thought.
He left through the ballroom door and headed for the Dower House. He would merely request that his wife consult with him before making large decisions to do with the house. Of course, he would remain civil. He would avoid anything akin to an argument.
Those predictions might have come true, if Simeon hadn’t been so angry. “The problem,” he said painstakingly, “is that you never think before you act.”