Happy June! Hope everyone had a fun weekend. I just got back from a lovely afternoon of brunch with friends and a matinee of the new Indiana Jones movie–a lot of fun, and (trying to be spoiler free) very satisfying in terms of plot elements from the original movie.
It seems like a good time to post a new excerpt from The Mask of Night I’ve talked a lot about the masquerade ball, but here’s a scene actually set at the ball, from Mélanie’s pov. Do feel free to comment or ask questions.
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Gisèle to her cousin Aline (Lady Frances’s daughter) during the events of Beneath a Silent Moon, when they have just arrived at Dunmykel.
Mélanie paused on the edge of the dance floor, and stirred the candle-warmed air with her black silk fan. Ladies and gentlemen in costumes from all eras of history (and several that existed only in the imagination) crowded the red-and-gold brocade draped room. Yet the neat patterns of a country dance and the smell of ices from Gunter’s, scent blended at Floris, and snuff from Friburg & Treyer betrayed that this was the world of London’s Upper Ten Thousand. A world she had lived at the heart of for three years, balanced as precariously as if she perched on the edge of a gilded teacup. A world in which invitations to her entertainments were sought after, the style of her gowns and hair was copied, images of her face were displayed in printshop windows. A world in its own way as perilous as that of Bonaparte’s court or the war-torn Peninsula. A world that would turn on her in an instant if they had the least idea of the truth of her past and her marriage to one of their own.
“Odd to think I’ll be looking at half these chaps in the House tomorrow night,” murmured the masked Robin Hood at her side, otherwise known as Lord John Russell, third son of the Duke of Bedford and M.P. for Tavistock.
The crowd surged and eddied round them. A trio of girls in clinging medieval gowns brushed past, followed by a gentleman whose Trojan armor was given an anachronistic touch the red enamel snuff box he was flicking open.
“I trust we can dispense with the pretense that we don’t know perfectly well who everyone is behind the masks,” said a cool voice. “Ma chère Mélanie, that gown is shrieking of Paris and I don’t think any London parfumier has yet managed to copy your signature scent. Good evening, Johnny.”
“Countess.” Lord John bowed to the Countess Lieven, the Russian Ambassadress, costumed as Mary Queen of Scots but clearly recognizable. Indeed, her smoothly-dressed hair and high-standing lace ruff were little different from the gowns she normally affected Scots. “I’m quite sure my stature gave me away from across the room.”
Mélanie smiled at her waltzing partner. Even in her thin-soled satin slippers she was a good three inches the taller. “Don’t worry, Johnny. The last two decades have taught everyone how thoroughly inconsequential height is in gauging a man’s abilities.”
“Indeed,” the countess said. “I know you come from a long line of Radicals, Johnny, but I trust we shall never have to worry about you leading armies across the Continent.”
“It doesn’t seem very likely. Particularly as I seem destined to remain in Opposition for the foreseeable future. Mrs. Fraser and I have been discussing whether Parliament really will suspend Habeas Corpus.”
“My dear Lord John, only you would turn to such a subject while waltzing.”
“Actually, I was the one who brought it up,” Mélanie said.
The countess regarded her with an appraising gaze from behind her crystal-beaded mask. “If they have a grain of sense they’ll suspend Habeas Corpus forthwith and a great deal more besides. When the Prince Regent can’t open Parliament without a mob shooting at his carriage—”
“To be fair, Countess, opinion is divided on whether it was a gunshot or merely a thrown rock.” A tall man costumed as Francois Villon stopped beside them. There was a red stain on the sleeve of his tunic. Mélanie thought it was blood for a moment and then realized it was red wine. A mishap or part of his costume? Probably he later. Simon Tanner, one of London’s foremost playwrights, had a keen eye for detail and a knack for framing his arguments in such dazzlingly witty language that he shot his verbal darts straight past the eye of the censor.
“Whether a rock or a bullet, it’s still an assault,” the countess said.
“Indeed. As is government troops firing on unarmed demonstraters.”
“You’re a dangerous man, Mr. Tanner.”
“You flatter me, Countess. I’m only a poor scribbler.”
“On the contrary,” said the countess. “I think I have a very clear idea of your abilities.”
Judging it time for a diversion, Mélanie scanned the dancers. “That’s Valentine Talbot as Don Juan. But as to who the lady is who is positively draping herself over his doublet–”
“Lady Frances Webster. Rather a come-down for a woman who once counted Wellington as a cavalier.” The countess’s gaze shifted among the dancers. “You’d think the Regent could have come up with something more imaginative than Henry VIII. And that, I fear, is Caro Lamb as Cleopatra. I suppose we should be grateful she didn’t come as Salome minus six of the seven veils. The Lancelot has to be the Comte de Flahaut. He does have an air about him.”
Mélanie kept her fingers steady on the lacquered sticks of her fan. She followed the direction of the countess’s gaze to a gentleman in a silver tunic and ornamental sword waltzing with a lady whose gothic ivory gown and jeweled tiara called to mind Guenevere.
“Meg still has the look of the honeymoon about her,” the countess added. Her mask hid her brows, but there was a frown in her voice. The former Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, now the Comtesse de Flahaut, was a friend of hers.
“Didn’t her father forbid the match?” Lord John said with casual interest of one consumed by parliamentary minutia rather than gossip.
The countess snapped her fan shut. “He cut off her inheritance and still hasn’t relented. He had pardonable qualms about his daughter marrying one of Bonaparte’s aides-de-camp. Not to mention Hortense Bonaparte’s former lover.”
As Margaret Mercer Elphinstone’s father, Admiral Keith, had been charged with escorting Napoleon Bonaparte to exile on St. Helena this was not surprising. Mélanie smiled, for all the world as though Hortense Bonaparte, now exiled from France, separated from her husband, and living with her two sons in Switzerland, was merely a name to be gossiped about.
“Did you know Flahaut in Paris, Mrs. Fraser?” Lord John asked.
“A bit. He left for England soon after Waterloo.”
“In that, if not in his political affiliations, he was a man of sense,” the countess said. “Had he stayed in Paris, he’d likely have lost his head and not over a pretty woman this time.”
“There was news of more arrests in the latest Paris papers,” Lord John said. “I don’t think the Ultra-Royalists will be happy until every last Bonapartist is exiled or executed.”
“Their zeal may be excessive, but their anger is understandable. As are their fears.” The countess twisted the stem of her champagne glass between her kid-gloved fingers. “You can’t tell me Bonaparte wouldn’t leave his bit of rock in a minute given half a chance. And all too many people would be happy to see him do it.”
The country dance had come to an end, and Couples were taking their places for a quadrille. Lord John excused himself to go in search of Georgiana Lennox, to whom he was promised for the dance. Simon led Mélanie onto the dance floor.
“Nothing like a clever opponent to add spice to the game,” he murmured.
Mélanie looked into the reckless glitter of his eyes. “The countess has the ear of a number of powerful people.”
“Tsar Alexander’s a long way away.”
“Not just the Tsar. Prince Metternich. The Duke of Wellington. Lord Castlereagh and half the English Cabinet.”
“My fair Mélanie, are you advocating caution?”
“When have you ever known me to be cautious? But much as it desolates me to descend to a cliché, Simon darling, these are dangerous times.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time the Government Censor closed down one of my plays.”
Mélanie tightened her grip on his hand, drawing his gaze to her face. “If Parliament passes the sort of laws people are talking about, it could be a question of prison. Or worse.”
Simon’s fingers went still in her own for a moment. Then he grinned. “Oh, well. If it’s good enough for Cobbett, it’s good enough for me.”
As the other couples took their places in the set, they moved on to trivial nonsense. After the dance, Simon was besieged by two young girls who wanted to ask about his latest play. Mélanie stopped to exchange pleasantries with Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s military secretary. She had seen him frequently since her marriage, in the Peninsula, at the Congress of Vienna, in Brussels and Paris. The fact that she had more than once passed on military intelligence that he had let slip had not prevented her from becoming very fond of him.
“Have you noticed what a tiresome number of Lord Nelsons there?” Somerset said, touching the empty sleeve of his British Naval jacket. “It seems every man missing an arm chose the costume. I confess I would have myself had my wife not insisted on Portuguese dress.”
“How very wise,” Mélanie said. In truth, she’d long since ceased to notice the number of gentleman at any entertainment missing an arm or a leg. The war had scarred most of its participants, one way or another.