Desperate Duchesses Page 1

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A Prelude


November 1780


Estate of the Marquess of Wharton and Malmesbury


K nowing precisely why no one wants to marry you is slim consolation for the truth of it. In Lady Roberta St. Giles’s case, the evidence was all too clear—as was her lack of suitors.


The cartoon reproduced in Rambler’s Magazine depicted Lady Roberta with a hunched back and a single brow across her bulging forehead. Her father knelt beside her, imploring passersby to find him a respectable spouse for his daughter.


At least that part was true. Her father had fallen to his knees in the streets of Bath, precisely as depicted. To Roberta’s mind, the Rambler’s label of Mad Marquess had a certain accuracy about it as well.


“Inbreeding,” her father had said, when she flourished the magazine at him. “They assume your physique is affected by the sort of inbreeding that produces these characteristics. Interesting! After all, you could have been dangerously mad, for example, or—”


“But Papa,” she wailed, “couldn’t you make them print a retraction? I am not misshapen. Who would wish to marry me now?”


“Why, Sweetpea, you are entirely lovely,” he said, knitting his brow. “I shall write a paean on your beauty and publish it in Rambler’s. I will explain precisely why I was so distraught, and include a commentary about the practices of hardened rakehells!”


Rambler’s Magazine printed the marquess’s 818 lines of reproving verse, describing the nefarious gallant who had kissed Roberta in public without so much as a by-your-leave. They resurrected the offensive print as well. Buried somewhere in the marquess’s raging stanzas describing the peril of walking Bath’s streets was a description of his daughter: “Tell the blythe Graces as they bound, luxuriant in the buxom round, that they’re not more elegantly free, than Roberta, only daughter of a Marquess!” In vain did Roberta point out that “elegantly free” said little of the condition of her back, and that “buxom round” made her sound rather plump.


“It implies all that needs to be said,” the marquess said serenely. “Every man of sense will immediately ascertain that you have a charmingly luxurious figure, elegant features and a good dowry, not to mention your expectations from me. I cleverly pointed to your inheritance, do you see?”


All Roberta could see was a line declaring that her dowry was a peach tree.


“That’s for the rhyme,” her father had said, looking a bit cross now. “Dowry doesn’t rhyme with many words, so I had to rhyme dowry and peach tree. The tree is obviously a synecdoche.”


When Roberta looked blank, he added impatiently, “A figure of speech in which something small stands for the whole. The whole is the estate of Wharton and Malmesbury, and you know perfectly well that we have at least eleven peach trees. My nephew will inherit the estate, but the orchards are unentailed and will go to you.”


Perhaps there were clever men who deduced from the marquess’s poem that his daughter had eleven peach trees and a slender figure, but not a single one of those men turned up in Wiltshire to ascertain for himself. The fact that the original cartoon remained on display in the windows of Humphrey’s Print Shop for many months may also have been a consideration.


But since the marquess refused to undertake another trip to the city wherein his daughter was accosted—“You’ll thank me for that later,” he added, rather obscurely—Lady Roberta St. Giles found herself heading quickly toward that undesirable stage of life known as “old maid.”


Two years passed. Every few months Roberta’s future would pass before her eyes, a life spent copying and cataloging her father’s poems, when not alphabetizing rejection letters from publishers for use by the marquess’s future biographers, and she would rebel. In vain did she reason, implore or cry. Even threatening to burn every poem in the house had no effect; it wasn’t until she snatched a copy of “For the Custards Mary Brought Me” and threw it in the fire that her father understood her seriousness.


And only by withholding the single remaining copy of the Custard poem did she gain permission to attend the New Year’s ball being held by Lady Cholmondelay.


“We’ll have to stay overnight,” her father said, his lower lip jutting out with disapproval.


“We’ll go by ourselves,” Roberta said. “Without Mrs. Grope.”


“Without Mrs. Grope!” He opened his mouth to bellow, but—


“Papa, you do want me to have some attention, don’t you? Mrs. Grope will cast me entirely in the shade.”


“Humph.”


“I shall need a new dress.”


“An excellent thought. I was in the village the other day and one of Mrs. Parthnell’s children was running about the square looking blue with cold. I’ve no doubt but that she could use your custom.”


She barely opened her mouth before he lifted his hand. “You wouldn’t want a gown from some other mantuamaker, dearest. You’re not thinking of poor Mrs. Parthnell and her eight children.”


“I am thinking,” Roberta said, “of Mrs. Parthnell’s bungled bodices.”


But her father frowned at that, since he had strong views about the shallow nature of fashion and even stronger views about supporting the villagers, no matter how inferior their products.


Unfortunately, the New Year’s ball produced no suitors.


Papa could not forbear from bringing Mrs. Grope—“’Twill hurt her feelings too much, my dear”—and consequently, Roberta spent the evening watching revelers titter at the presence of a notorious strumpet amongst them. No one appeared to be interested in whether the Mad Marquess’s daughter had a humped back or not; they were too busy peering at the Mad Marquess’s courtesan. Their hostess was incensed at her father’s rudeness in bringing his chère-amie to her ball, and wasted none of her precious time introducing Roberta to young men.


Her father danced with Mrs. Grope; Roberta sat at the side of the room and watched. Mrs. Grope’s hair was adorned with ribbons, feathers, flowers, jewels and a bird made from papier-mâché. This made it easy for Roberta to pretend that she didn’t know her own parent; when the said plumage headed in her direction, Roberta would slip away for a brisk stroll. She visited the ladies’ retiring room so many times that the company likely thought she had a female complaint to match her invisible hump.


Around eleven o’clock, a gentleman finally asked her to dance. But he turned out to be Lady Cholmondelay’s curate, and he immediately launched into a confused lecture to do with notorious strumpets. He seemed to be equating Mrs. Grope to Mary Magdalene, but the dance kept separating them before Roberta could grasp the connection.


Unfortunately, they came face-to-face with the marquess and Mrs. Grope just when the curate was detailing his feelings about trollops.


“I take your meaning, sirrah, and Mrs. Grope is no trollop!” the marquess snapped. Roberta’s heart sank and she tried vainly to turn her partner in the opposite direction.


But the plump little pigeon of a man dug in his heels, squared his shoulders and retorted, “Muse upon my comments at your leisure, or woe betide your eternal soul!”


Everyone in the immediate vicinity stopped dancing, grasping that a more interesting performance had begun.

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