Much Ado about Lavender

Chapter One

London
Spring, 1812

 

                “Do not look now, Lavvie, but there’s Lord Fairmont,” Miss Rose Montgomery whispered to her sister behind the stacks at Hatchard’s book emporium.

                Miss Lavender Montgomery was annoyed. Her favorite pastime was browsing in the bookstore. In fact, outside of her home, it was her favorite place in the world. “Can we not show our faces any place without encountering one of your suitors?”

                “He is no longer a suitor.” Rose simulated a humorous pout. “He has not even spoken to me for a week. But you must have heard the name. His brother was done to death outside White’s a week or so ago. The gossip has gone the rounds. Have you not heard?”

                Lavender had not heard. Things like that did not often happen in Mayfair. She abandoned the shelves to study the man, her heart softening with sympathy. She could not even imagine how it would feel to lose a sibling in that manner. Her family was too dear to her.

Lord Fairmont was a large, broad-shouldered fellow with deep auburn hair and a square jaw. As though feeling her eyes on him, he turned to look at Lavender. She smiled tentatively and met with a scowl as though she were a mere bug in his soup. About to look away, she registered the moment he saw Rose. His grimace deepened before he turned aside to pay for his purchases.

                “Unpleasant man,” said Lavender.

                “Actually, he has the most divine eyes. As blue as cobalt,” her sister said with a giggle. “Come, I will introduce you.”

                “I do not think he wishes to speak to us, Rose.”

                “Nonsense!” her sister said with the confidence of a beauty who charmed every man who ever looked upon her.

                They approached Lord Fairmont just as he was leaving the emporium.

                “My lord, how lovely to find you here!” Rose said with her radiant smile.

                He merely nodded, his eyes narrowed. They were, in fact, startlingly blue.

                “My lord, I should like you to make the acquaintance of my sister, Miss Lavender Montgomery. Lavender, dear, this is Lord Fairmont.”

                Lavender bowed her head. “My lord.”

                He said, “Miss Montgomery, Miss Lavender Montgomery—by the by what an outlandish name—I am afraid I am engaged upon important business. You will excuse me, I’m certain.”

                It was a first-class snub. Lavender colored as though she had been slapped. Clamping her mouth shut, she said nothing. The man left them without further ceremony.

                “Charming,” said Lavender.

                “Do not take it to heart. His manners are not normally that bad,” Rose said with a frown. “I am sorry.” She turned to resume their search through the stacks for the scripts they had been hunting.

                “Never mind,” said Lavender, allowing the surrounding volumes to reclaim her. Reading and this bookstore were a blessed escape from the demands of the ton, with which she was not yet entirely comfortable. “I was saying, I think our next project should be Much Ado About Nothing. It has a relatively small cast. I think there will be good parts for everyone in the family. And it is so amusing.”

                “Oh! I agree!” said Rose, her already beautiful face lighting up. Sometimes Lavender envied her quick beauty that was a combination of animation and feature. Her sister’s light amber eyes sparkled while her enchanting smile lit her countenance. Rose’s figure was dainty, and she moved with a natural grace she seemed to have been born with.

                Lavender, on the other hand, was Junoesque in stature with heavy blonde hair that was forever escaping its pins. She had a pink and white complexion and knew her eyes were her best feature—large and deep blue.

                “Let us hope they have enough scripts for all of us,” Lavender said.

                They were fortunate in finding eight—one for each member of their family—and proceeded to put them on their papa’s account.

                “Now, by all means, let us go to Gunter’s and have an ice,” said Rose.

                “Excellent notion!” Lavender agreed. “Thank heavens it has stopped raining.”

                Once they had reached the confectioners and ordered two raspberry ices, they took the last empty table in the high-ceilinged, well-lit tea room. Lavender adored Gunter’s and its fashionable coziness. She was especially pleased when they were joined by Lily, the sister who fell between them in age and had recently married. Unfortunately, however, she was accompanied by her mother-in-law, Mrs. Winston.

                “My dears!” said that effusive woman, kissing them both on the cheek, “How fortunate!”

                With all possible fuss, she managed to seat her stout self, completely upstaging her daughter-in-law who rolled her eyes behind the woman’s back. Lily was a mere thread of a lady with their papa’s black hair and emerald eyes.

                “Have you heard the latest?” Mrs. Winston asked. “Lord Fairmont is convinced that there was a conspiracy behind his brother’s murder. He refuses to believe it was the work of a vagrant. He thinks someone was hired to shoot him.”

                 “I think I would rather speak of something else while I am eating my ice,” said Rose with suddenly assumed self-righteousness. Lavender knew she really did not like Mrs. Winston at all. Nor did she like Lily’s husband, Philip, but that was another matter entirely.

Lavender watched as Rose deftly turned to their sister. “We are doing Much Ado About Nothing for our next reader’s theater. Lavvie and I bought the scripts this morning.”

                Lily brightened. “What fun that will be!”

                Lavender untied the parcel from Hatchard’s. “Here is your copy. Shall we decide the parts everyone is to play?”

                “You must play Beatrice, Lavvie,” said Lily. “You are perfectly suited for that part.”

                Lavender gave a short laugh. “You mean I am an expert at set downs?”

                “No one better,” said Rose with a giggle. “I concur. But George is far too young and agreeable to play Benedick. It will have to be Papa. He is equally good at putting people in their places.”

                “Lily, you are delicate-looking. You must be Hero,” said Lavender.

“Who shall Rose be then?” asked Lily.

“Why Claudio, of course. Everyone knows what a fool I am for love,” said that lady.

“Violet, Hyacinth, George, and Mama will have to double up on the other roles. All men, unfortunately.”

“They are talented enough to get away with it,” said Lily. “Oh, this is bound to be such fun!”

Mrs. Winston asked, “Do you play before an audience?”

“Oh, good heavens, no!” said Rose. “We only do it to amuse ourselves. You must know what an odd family we are.”

                “Hush, Rose,” said Lily, her voice playful. “We may be comfortable with our oddity, but we should not like all London to know of it.”

                “I am not familiar with this play,” said Mrs. Winston, frowning. “Can you give me a synopsis?”

                Lavender answered, “Well, it is Shakespeare, so it is rather complex. But, basically, it involves two sets of lovers: Claudio and Hero, who quite obviously adore each other, and Beatrice and Benedick, who are always at each other’s throats, devising all manner of insults. But because it is a comedy, all comes right in the end and it is very merry.”

                She consulted the watch she wore pinned to her bosom. “Oh, we must fly. It is time I gave Hyacinth her piano lesson. And Rose must be home to receive her bevy of callers.”

                Mrs. Winston said, “Your sister and I are going to call on my great friend, Mrs. Walton. She has promised us a pattern for the seat covers Lily is going to work for her dining room.” Their sister looked resigned, only reinforcing Lavender’s idea that marriage was a dull business.

* * *

After Hyacinth’s lesson (which went poorly), Lavender was obliged to join her mother and Rose in the Blue Saloon to receive afternoon callers. She dreaded callers. They were nearly always tedious and superficial. Lavender would far rather be curled up with a good book in Papa’s library.

Though it was far from a polite topic, gossip was flying about Lord Fairmont’s latest assertion that his brother had been the victim of a conspiracy when he was shot Thursday last.

 “What vagrant would carry a pistol?” asked Lord Garrick, one of Rose’s suitors. “No. I agree with Fairmont. This was a planned assault.”

“Really!” said Lavender’s mother, Edith Montgomery. “This is most intriguing. But the poor man! What can he have done to cause someone to murder him?”

Lavender’s grandmother, Lady Gwendolyn, brought up her lorgnette in a quelling gesture with which Lavender was only too familiar. “This is not a topic for discussion in a lady’s saloon, Edith. Now, who would like another cup of tea?”

She raised the teapot and looked about the room. In addition to Lavender’s mother and grandmother, there were three of Rose’s suitors present, her mother’s bosom bow, Mrs. Landry, as well as the family friend Lady Clarice Manton and her companion, Miss Susannah Braithwaite.

Lady Clarice handed her teacup to Lady Gwendolyn. “I should love some more tea. Sukey and I are giving a charity ball Saturday next. I hope you have all received your invitations.”

“Oh, yes!” said Rose. “You always give such splendid parties, Lady Clarice. What is to be the theme?”

“It is a surprise,” Lady Clarice told her. 

Lord Garrick, one of the suitors, asked, “And what are we benefiting, Lady C?”

“Literacy for the Poor. That is where I am putting my efforts, these days. Sukey, of course, has her own projects.”

That lady spoke up. “I have something planned for later in the Season benefiting the Royal College of Medicine. They are making such strides.”

The conversation became general, and when the hour of five o’clock chimed, everyone began to take their leave. Lord Garrick reminded Rose that they were to go riding in the park. The other two suitors, Lord Weston and Mr. Carberry looked daggers at their friend. Lavender almost laughed. Rose was a true strategist, juggling her court with a deft hand. The only reason she had not yet married, Lavender knew, was because she could not bear to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Mr. Carberry, a rakish man with a caustic wit, turned to Lavender. “Could I prevail upon you to go for a ride in my phaeton, Miss Lavender Montgomery?”

                “I would fancy a ride in the park, as a matter of fact. I have seen your phaeton. As my brother would say, it is ‘bang up to the mark.’”

                The man grinned, clearly cheered.

* * *

As usual, the park’s paths were crowded during this fashionable hour, the byways choked with curricles and phaetons displaying their colorfully dressed occupants in afternoon finery. She had always loved Hyde Park at this hour as it gave her such a wonderful opportunity for observation of the ton “at play.” Matrons and debutantes dressed in soft spring pastels with outrageous bonnets waving towering plumes or bunches of fruit. Gentlemen displayed their fine equipages and horseflesh. Mr. Carberry’s phaeton was yellow picked out in black trim, and Lavender enjoyed the view afforded by its high perch.  She found Mr. Carberry to be an attentive companion.

The man had a high forehead, heavy dark brows, and full lips. She would not call him handsome, but he was entertaining company.

                “What is your opinion on the latest gossip about Lord Fairmont’s death?” he asked.

                “I did not know the man,” Lavender replied. “Tell me about him.”

                “He was a serious-minded gent. Rich as Croesus, and of course it all goes to Aiken now.”

                “Has anyone thought to question where his brother was when he was shot?” she asked mischievously.

                “Aiken? But you are not serious, of course.”

                “I do not know him either,” she confessed. “It seems I am singularly uninformed.”

                “He is a sharp-tongued fellow, but there’s no vice in him. He is the one who will not settle on the idea that his brother was done in by a vagrant.”

                “Who does he think committed the murder?”

                Mr. Carberry lifted his hat to an acquaintance. “He is mystified. Looking into the idea that someone might have owed him money.”

                “Hmm,” murmured Lavender. “I suppose money is as good a motive as any. Is

there a chance that he was blackmailing someone?”

                Her companion’s eyes left the path and he stared at her, really looking at her for the first time. “Blackmail? Fairmont? Ludicrous suggestion! The man was straight as an arrow.”

                “Sorry. I did not mean to offend you. I told you I did not know the man.”

                “Well, I would not fix on that explanation, if I were you.”

                “It was just a thought.”

                “You are very different from your sister,” he said.

                In that moment, Mr. Carberry ceased to be an entertaining companion. “I am aware of that. Sorry if you think you have been given false coin,” she said with an impish smile.

                “Hmph.” The man was silent as he changed directions and headed the horses out of the park.

* * *

 

Were Lavender not as fond of Rose as she was, she would probably have grown jealous of her long ago. The constant comparisons made between the two of them was wearisome. She had overheard far too many of them.

                “How straightforward that gel is! Not a bit like her sister. Rose is always so tactful.”

                “I say! Miss Lavender Montgomery is taller than most men. Now Rose is a petite little thing. Just perfect for a cuddle.”

                “I find that gel a bit odd. I suspect her of being a bluestocking. She is certainly nothing like her sister.”

                For this reason, Lavender disliked balls. She felt everyone was making comparisons behind her back. But this was her debut Season and Mama was very firm that she should attend at least two balls per week. Tonight, Tuesday, was to be the first of this week’s duo, with Lady Clarice’s on Saturday to be the other.

                Because of her height and full figure, Lavender preferred simple gowns in darker colors. This was a bit of a problem in springtime. For this evening, she wore a deep blue gown, expertly cut by her Parisian modiste. Around her long neck was a black velvet band decorated with a single gardenia. Her heavy blonde hair was fixed in a braided coronet with two ringlets falling to her shoulder. She only hoped it would stay pinned up this evening.

                “You look very well indeed,” commented Rose, who wore pink satin, her short, dark hair curling in an alluring way around her face.

                “As do you,” said Lavender. “But then, you always do.”

                The ball that night was to be held at Lord and Lady Fillingsworth’s house on Grosvenor Square. It was a sprawling mansion lit by thousands of candles. Lavender could not help but be thrilled at the sight. Maybe tonight would not be so bad.

                The receiving line was long and tedious, but once they arrived in the ballroom, Rose’s court gathered around them and Lavender was only too glad to lose herself in the crowd. She moved to the edge of the dance floor and looked about her. Since this was her first Season, many of the people were unknown to her.

                Soon she had that uncanny sensation that one feels when someone’s eyes are fixed upon one. Revolving around, she tried to single the person out of the crowd.

                Lord Fairmont! Why is he looking as though he’d like to wring my neck?

                The man began a purposeful stride towards her. Lavender stood her ground. What an unpleasant person he was, to be sure!

                His cobalt eyes narrowed to slits, he looked down at her. “What rumors have you been spreading about my brother? You never knew the man!”

                “I have spread no rumors, my lord,” she said, returning his stare. “As you say, I never knew him.”

                “Carberry says differently.”

                “Mr. Carberry is an old woman with nothing better to do than stir up trouble,” she replied.

                His heavy auburn brows drew together in vexation. “He says it is your opinion that Thomas was shot because he was blackmailing someone.”

                “Thomas was your brother?” she temporized, raising her chin as her heart began to pound.

                “Of course he was my brother!” He stood pugnaciously, feet apart, his hands on his hips. “Well?”

                She adopted a patient attitude. “Mr. Carberry was speculating on who might have wanted your brother dead. He offered various speculations as did I. Blackmail came to mind. Crimes such as the one perpetrated on your brother are usually related to money matters, I believe.”

                “Oh?” He raised a brow. “You are an expert on murder?”

                “It is human nature that I find fascinating. Greed and avarice are some of its failings.”

                “Hah! You are very sure of yourself for such a speck of a thing.”

                Granted, the man was very large, but she was no speck, of that she was sure.

                “I am a speck in the same way that you are a dab,” she retorted.

                “Hah! And what is the treatise that you study that has made you such an expert on human nature?”

                “Shakespeare.”

                He must have thought he had her stumped, for his brows rose at her answer. She could have had a conversation with his eyebrows alone.

                “Your favorite play is . . . ?”

                “I have many favorites,” Lavender replied. “Henry IV—Parts One and Two, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing . . .”

                “Enough!” He shifted his stance. “May I say you are very young to be so well read.”

                “I have been performing Shakespeare since I was twelve.”

                “Performing? You are no stage doxy!”

                Lavender tried to soothe her temper. “Perhaps I am. How would you know? It could be that I have a secret life.”

                He treated her to a full-on glare at this sally and said, “Good evening, Miss Lavender Montgomery.”

Turning, he walked away.

                Ridiculous as it seemed, this proved to be the most stimulating conversation of the evening. Though she did not lack for dance partners, most of them had little or no conversation except about horses and upcoming races. By supper, she was ready for her bed, but Rose and her mother were always among the last to leave any ball.

                Lavender decided that rather than going in to supper, she would excuse herself to her partner and look for the conservatory. She needed a rest from stultifying conversation. Surely, a house this size would have a conservatory.

                To her surprise, as she was exiting the ballroom, her sister, Lily, caught her up. She had had no idea that Lily was even at the ball.

                “I must talk to you, Lavvie. Where are you going?”

                “I was going to hide out for a bit in the conservatory.”

                “Sounds good to me,” Lily said. “Lead on.”

“But where is Philip?” Lavender asked Lily when they reached their refuge.

                “In the card room. He’s going to play through supper.”

                After finding the back staircase, the sisters descended to the ground floor. They surmised the conservatory would be in the back of the house, near the garden. This proved to be correct.

                It was a large glass room lit only by the full moon. It contained a multitude of medium-sized citrus trees and a quantity of orchids. Lily and Lavender found a seat in a corner where they had a view of the entrance from the hall, so they would not be caught off guard by any other visitors.

                “What is it, Lily-bug?” Lavender asked. “What is so important?

                “It’s Philip. We’ve only been married six months and I just found out he already has a mistress. And debts! Gambling debts. He’s so much different than he was when we were courting.” The moonlight glistened off her sister’s tears. “I do not see him for days at a time. He puts up at White’s and does not come home at all. What have I done wrong?”

                Lavender’s chest became heavy with dread. She had worried about this outcome from the time Lily first set her cap for Philip. He was too good-looking and vain with it. The man was in need of a set down.

                “He is sure of you now that you’re married. That’s all. If I were you, I’d give him a good dose of his own medicine. Shake him up a bit!”

                Lily’s eyes grew large in her narrow face. “You mean, take a lover? I could not do that, Lavvie.”

                “Well, perhaps not. But you could have a court of admirers. You know—ciscebos who write you verses and send you flowers. And you could lose at cards without much trouble.”

                “But no one admires me!”

                “Lily-bug, you are as pretty as you think you are. You used to take far more care of your looks than you do now. Go to Madame Guison and order some new gowns. Have Monsieur Levange cut your hair short like Rose’s. And whatever you do, do not turn into a watering pot!”

                Lily was silent. “You do not seem very sympathetic,” she said finally.

                “I have never made any secret how I feel about Philip,” Lavender replied. “If you do not value yourself, he never will.”

                “You make it all sound like some sort of game. I love Philip. I cannot pretend that I do not.”

                “It is a game in one sense. He has changed the rules. You were a beautiful deb, Lily, surrounded by suitors. It seems that now that he has you, he does not value you as he did before. Talk to Papa about it, if you like, but I think Philip needs to be shaken up.”

                Lily looked down at her hands, knotting them together in her lap. “Very well. I will think about it.”

                “Let us go back to this cursed ball. Heaven preserve me from men! They are far too much trouble.”