The Nonpareil: A Romance
"Johnathan, I have called you here today to discuss a very serious matter."
"Indeed?" The man to whom this was addressed raised an eyebrow and the glass of sherry that sat before him on a rosewood card table. He was tall and delicately built, and upon first glance somewhat foppish; yet he wore his clothes, all of exquisite material and tailored to perfection, with an authority that bespoke genuine aristocracy, and the expression he was wont to continually display, a slightly sardonic one expressed by an imperceptible curl of the upper lip, was too intelligent to be taken for that of a mere snob.
The other man in the brilliantly lit room was portly and loud. He persisted in using a monocle, and would often dangle it absently at whomever he was addressing. He swung it unconcernedly at the younger gentleman upon this occasion, yet the latter imparted no trace of apprehension, and did not seem to be in the slightest way interested. This vexed him and he blurted suddenly, "I wish you wouldn't be so impudent. Aren't you even going to ask what I mean?"
The other cast him a bored glance, his cold grey eyes piercing the object of their attention. "I feel no need to hurry you along."
Charles Brownlow gave the monocle a fierce tug and glared. "Well, the more time you have, the better, because I have quite a few things to say to you, and none of them good. Did you honestly think you could get away with this without the slightest reprimand? You've caused enough scandal in the last six months alone to ruin our family, but this time-!"
The other gentleman allowed the tiniest of smiles to flicker across his countenance before remarking gravely, "And what is my offence, this time?"
"What? You mean you haven't read the papers this morning?" His uncle's complexion turned the colour of a plum as he grabbed a newspaper from the card table and thrust it violently towards him. He glanced briefly at the paper, the society column of the London Times, and a headline that read, England's Most Eligible Bachelor, a Father? The Nonpareil Linked to Bank Clerk Three Months Pregnant!
"Are you still reading these idiotic things? I thought Katherine had cured you of that habit long ago."
"Stop it, Johnathan," fumed his uncle, the sanguine colour spreading to his ears. "If anyone had suggested to me upon the death of Robert Carington that his son would become the darling of gossip columns all over Europe I would have given them a thing or two to gossip about myself, but you have continually disgraced us all with your affairs, until no one can hear your name without smirking."
Here the gentleman by the name of Johnathan Carington interrupted, his dark eyes flashing in contemptuous amusement, "Laugh at me? Never. Charles, is this the only matter which Aunt Katherine has forced you to bring to my attention?"
"Isn't it enough?" the other stared. "Do you deny your involvement with this girl?"
"I deny nothing; I visited her promptly at three o' clock every third Tuesday for the last seven months-" The other gasped in horror- "to oversee my accounts."
"Be serious for once in your life. This poor lady has a child on the way, and no father to name it, and you're seen passing her a thousand pounds in broad daylight. That's not a matter of some slight import?" The speaker tossed the string of his monocle around his index finger with a vengeance and crossed his arms. "What sort of callous remark can you possibly make to that?"
"Several," replied Mr. Carington curtly. "First, if I were in any way responsible for this girl's condition, can you conceive of any more expedient way to be rid of such responsibility than to buy her off? Second, if this girl had been assisted by anyone else you would lauded their benevolence. Can I not attempt to show kindness towards my fellow man? And lastly," he added with a devious smile, "It has never been revealed exactly what I am the Nonpareil of."
He emptied his glass of sherry, which hitherto had remained ignored on the card table, and turned to leave. His uncle, however, was by no means about to let him escape with such an unacceptable last word, and blustered, hurrying over to him and obstructing the doorway, "All right, Johnathan, damn you, I won't pry any deeper into the affair if you will give me your honest assurance that you have never been involved with the lady in question." Johnathan turned and looked quizzically down at his uncle before breaking his sober countenance with a rare laugh.
"You may inform Katherine that I give you my honest assurance that I have never been involved with the lady in question-except every third Tuesday." He patted Charles encouragingly on the shoulder. "Cheer up, sir, you know you can't be damaged by my behaviour. If I had been as straight-laced as you are yourself, you wouldn't have half the acquaintances you have now. My notoriety insures your permanent success. Keep that in mind when next you begin to lecture me this way."
The other sighed. "You won't find me trying this again-I'm damned if I see the good of it. You play too much, you know; you gamble far too much, and I suppose if you weren't so blasted good at it you'd have heard from us long before this. Really, Johnathan, can't you at least admit that you're being a bit juvenile? You, one of the most well-respected, intelligent men in London-you should not have to rely on women and wit to bring you fame."
The Nonpareil replied after a moment, quietly, "When society remembers a man for little else, then he is truly unfortunate."
"If you're unfortunate, it's nobody else's fault. Katherine has been telling you for months to marry and behave like any respectable person. This is nonsensical, your chasing around the city after frivolous little debutantes." Charles began pacing in front of his relative, winding and unwinding the eyeglass from his hand as he spoke. "That Scandinavian countess you so lavishly entertained, even though she was only in town for a fortnight; did you have to make her a parting gift of three thoroughbreds and a ruby? And then there's this affair with the bank whatever-she-was. True or not, do you honestly expect any civilized lady to accept the most notorious playboy in the city when he shows no intention of changing his ways?"
He passed the Nonpareil as he finished this sentence, and as he did the other reached out and unceremoniously jerked his monocle away from him. "What about the myriad of women who would accept me before I even proposed?" his nephew countered, his tone perfectly serious, his eyes gleaming sarcastically. "If she's not one of them, then I don't want her. I wouldn't want any woman who thought twice about accepting me. No, let her be foolish and beautiful, and no more."
Charles stared in bewilderment. "You bloody coxcomb!" Mr. Carington brushed past into the entrance. "You know," he continued desperately, "even you can't continue this way; sooner or later you'll have to settle down." His nephew abruptly confronted him, his expression intense, and very hard.
"I realize this," Mr. Carington replied acidly, through tight lips, "and but for the numbers of people telling me how to behave, I might have abandoned my current lifestyle long ago. However, as I do not care for impudent old ladies or pompous gentlemen informing me how to win the respect of a society of hypocrites, I shall satisfy myself with the knowledge that any mistakes I make, I make with only one person's approval: my own. Good afternoon."
He reached for his hat with a sudden motion that startled his uncle, who had stopped understanding at the word 'pompous'. "Where are you going?" the latter cried as Mr. Carington nodded curtly and strode outside.
"To the Restons," was the brief reply.
"What will I tell Katherine?" Charles added in a tone of pure fright. Mr. Carington turned to view his uncle with amusement, his figure casting a long, straight shadow on the pavement.
"You may tell her," he replied wryly, "that her nephew is the Nonpareil of apathy." And he turned and walked briskly away, leaving his uncle open-mouthed in frustration.
Johnathan Carington had not been involved with the bank clerk in question, and had the whole of London not taken the rumour so seriously, he would have found it very amusing. He had only befriended the girl, whose politeness had endeared her to him at the bank, and whose family, evidently one of great pride and no consequence, had unceremoniously cast her out of their circle when the disaster occurred. Johnathan knew better than to imagine that he was doing a great deal, for with no home and no connections, it was highly unlikely that a much greater sum of money than that he had given her would help her. Yet Mr. Carington had no qualms about aiding anyone in dire straits; he would have done much more for anyone from his own class whom he respected.
It was the factor of earning the Nonpareil's respect which was the most difficult to achieve. Johnathan Carington could not endure hypocrisy, and therefore despised the greater part of all those who inhabited the aristocracy with him. The circles he kept were eclectic and bizarre, consisting of famed wits and famed scoundrels. He had a passion for art, and was considered London's only unofficial member of the Royal Society. He could have conversed very easily with the philosophers of the day; but since he did not generally delve into any subjects other than those that originated around a Faro table, it was not generally known how brilliant a mind he had, and how highly he was thought of among the most intellectual circles. What was exceedingly well known was his unmatched talent in three areas: gambling, riding, and breaking the hearts of women. He was so good at the latter, in particular, that whenever he singled out a lady for his interest, all other men pursuing her immediately gave her up for lost until the time came when he would drop her.
He always dropped them, regardless of their social status, their fame, or their personal attributes. The best of them had never lasted more than three months, and she had endured only that long because she insisted on interrupting him every time he began to broach the subject of her inevitable dismissal. The Nonpareil had little tolerance for most of them. The woman who could catch and hold his interest for even a brief amount of time was fated to be a great hit for at least a season. It was the goal of every mother in London to see that their child married the Nonpareil, and despite the consistency of Mr. Carington's method of dismissal, they never failed to be persuaded that their child alone was the one who could turn him from his ways. Johnathan's aunt, Katherine Carington Brownlow, was hardly any better; having no children herself but being blessed with the most desirable nephew in the world, she was forever attempting to choose a bride for him of the stature and breeding she felt a man of his position required.
Today was the first time in some while that his uncle had referred to the idea, however, and, as in all instances when he found himself thoroughly vexed at one part of his family, he went to the abode of the other to remind himself that some of his relations still possessed a degree of sense. Edward and Lyndsay Reston were his second cousins on his mother's side. Edward was nearly ten years his junior, but Lyndsay was nearer his own age, and they had always loved each other as brother and sister. Her brother was too young to be a useful playmate for her, and the frequent association of their fathers, George Reston and Robert Carington, had brought them often in contact. They had learned in childhood to confide in each other, and each knew every secret of the other. Lyndsay had listened to her cousin's bitter expressions of disgust at his father's increasing unfaithfulness to his wife. He, in turn, knew of Lyndsay's quiet efforts to salvage her family's fortune when little by little, it began to slip through the hands of her irresponsible brother and mother; of her father's refusal to discipline either of his loved ones, even when at last the family's controversial mortgage of their century-old estate caught the eye of the entire country and dropped their name from several of the first circles of society. The four now inhabited the townhouse in London year-round.
It was here Johnathan drove the morning of his uncle's homily, in the hopes that seeing his friend might raise his spirits. Mr. and Mrs. Reston were out. The Nonpareil waited in the sitting room, where Edward soon appeared. Edward was nineteen, charming, and totally careless; his darkly handsome features and easy grin made him a society favourite. He had looked up to Johnathan from childhood, and imitated his mentor's general behaviour with a flair that worried his sister and delighted his mother, who was convinced that when he came of age he would be in the middle of at least twice as many scandals as the Nonpareil. The younger fops already came to him for advice on how to wear their cravats. Such admiration, combined with the natural over-confidence of youth, created a rather volatile personality, and, although his temper was agreeable to everybody, his mind was easily led and inclined to trouble. He provided all manner of amusement for the Nonpareil.
"Congratulations to you, sir! Does this mean we can expect two new additions to the Carington family? Robert Carington the fourth, sire, the Nonpareil, dam, the Bank of London."
"Edward, that's dreadful. Haven't you got enough sense to realize I had nothing to do with that girl?"
"Ah, yes, sir, that's what they all say. Looks like you've got to romp in your own oats for a while, true or not. It'll be interesting to see how you come out of this one-anyone who can come through a scandal like this unfazed deserves to be called the Nonpareil."
"Ah, does this mean you're dropping me from your circle of reputable acquaintances?"
"You were never on that list, Johnathan," Edward grinned. "But I wasn't going to dump you just yet-I was going to hit you up for two thousand pounds first."
"To what unusual circumstance do I owe the pleasure of giving you my money?"
"Mrs. Ehret? The wife of the horse-breeder? Really, Edward, that's trespassing a little too deeply in another man's territory. Especially one with a temper like Ehret's."
"No, not that. See, at Ascot a while back, I ran into a friend who gave me the tip on the hot horse, Indigo, that was the favourite at three to one to win the two-thirty. You know me, old friend, I can't resist the favourite. Well, wouldn't you know Ehret was the owner, and just as sure as I plopped down five hundred for old Indigo, Mrs. Ehret goes and gets an attack of gout and has to be taken to the hospital. Ehret pulls out of the race at the last second, and there I am with no money, and Lord Chutney goes on to win the thing at thirty to one. What else can you say? It's Mrs. Ehret."
The Nonpareil filled his friend's pockets, the smile on his face rare and genuine. Mr. Carington did not often smile, and then only in the company of those who knew him well. The stranger who had been fortunate enough to witness it was amazed and bewildered and afterwards could never decide whether he had imagined the presence of warmth and amiability in that otherwise stony countenance. "There. That should tide you over until you lose again next week. Are you smitten with bad luck, sir? I recall suddenly that I haven't seen you around the Faro tables lately."
Edward laughed and replied genially, "Oh, I got into a little trouble there. Y'see, I lent some money to a friend of mine who assured me that he-"
"Edward." Edward stopped and looked up, and Johnathan, who had his back to the entrance to the room, turned and smiled at the speaker, who stood apprehensively in the doorway, eyeing her brother warningly. When she saw Mr. Carington, however, her countenance cleared in relief, and she greeted the Nonpareil warmly. She was, as usual, stunning. She did not go to great lengths, nor did she need to, to emphasize the elegance of her tall, seemingly fragile body, nor the austere beauty of her face, with its arched eyebrows, long lashes, and sombre brown eyes. Her smooth black hair fell around her shoulders, and her cream-coloured dress nearly matched her pale complexion. Her red lips and straight white teeth, even her fingernails, long and perfectly groomed, lent to the overall impression she gave of a porcelain doll one might see in a shop window. "I was just about to remind Edward not to discuss his financial affairs with those outside the family," she smiled at her cousin, "but since it's you he's talking to, there is no need." Yet before Edward could finish his story she began such a detailed inquiry into the state of Mr. Carington's family that Edward lost interest and left. Her inquiry abruptly finished where it began after he had departed.
"Is he in trouble?" asked the Nonpareil, catering to the worry he discerned in her features.
"Not seriously. He simply cannot choose reputable acquaintances, and I fear the worst for him in the future if he does not learn to act with more discretion."
Johnathan took her hand. "He is not the first nor the last to make friends others disapprove of. He is in no danger."
"Johnathan," she replied with the tiniest edge to her voice, "I don't need to remind you of our family's late financial history-I'm sure you agree it's much better in such cases to be safer than not."
"Of course, darling, but as of yet, worry is a bit premature. When I was his age, I daresay I was much worse than he."
"Yes, but there are two vast differences in your situations. You were of much stronger will and mind than he is-you behaved as you did-and do-because you wanted to feed your vanity. He behaves as he does because he wants to be you. The other and much greater difference is that your family can afford it." Lyndsay spoke sardonically, but very seriously, at all times calm and subdued.
"Lyndsay, don't dwell on it. If things get any worse, and believe me, they won't, I promise I'll be the first to reprimand Edward." Johnathan seated himself and sent her a glance which signaled a change of subject. "How are you? You look radiant, as usual."
"I? I have not changed, and very little has changed around me. But you-if I believe all I hear, you're a very busy man. Not only have you run through Miss Fairfax, Miss Donovan, and Miss Beaumond in the past four months, you've been attending a delightful little bank teller on the side. Really, Johnathan, if you were a race horse, you'd have been retired long ago."
"Touché. Now please, spare me the agony of hearing the subject discussed for one half-hour of the day. I've already spent my morning listening to my uncle rave about this same issue."
"Oh, indulge me. You have to admit, it is rather far-fetched. I heard this morning that the Society of Responsible Mothers is considering writing a petition to the House of Lords requesting your immediate imprisonment for abandoning your duty, or some such thing."
"Oh, now that is interesting. Inform me exactly how I would abandon my duty."
"In order for you to do that, you'd have to have one to begin with."
"Exactly," smiled the Nonpareil. "There is the ultimate flaw of a society based on class. It allows men like myself, pillars of society, to be as unscrupulous and evil as we like. Were we less than who we are, we would have been thrown in the gutter long ago. But we are unable to be accosted for anything, even irresponsibility, because, being rich, we have no responsibilities, and therefore the Society of Responsible Mothers speaks out in vain."
"But what about your responsibility to God and country? To your fellow man?"
"As for God, I am no more nor less responsible to him than any other man on earth; to England, much less so, since I own a large chunk of it; and to my fellow man, I can only say this: when he learns to take responsibility for himself, then and only then will there be any point in my bothering about him."
"Well, how are you going to escape this, then? Are you leaving London?"
"I had considered it. How did you know?"
"The timing was right. You seemed to have lost your vitality of late."
"Mon dieu, c'est impossible."
"Oh, yes, Johnathan. You've been skipping the Feringer's parties, and I know how you love the Feringer's parties."
"Ah, all those costumes and roasted pigs and champagne fountains. The highlight of my month."
"And then there was the Lady Wellington. Everyone thought she would be your biggest flame since Mrs. Fargo, but after two weeks? Really, Johnathan, it doesn't take you a fortnight to make up your mind about anything, especially a woman. Can you be going soft in your old age? Dare I say, losing your touch?" She walked over to a window and looked out. "Or is it losing your interest? Are you bored with being bored?"
"Lyndsay, you're making far too much of everything today. First Edward loses some money, then I don't show up at an idiotic masquerade given by a French immigrant who couldn't achieve respectability in his home country but becomes a great hit here..." Johnathan rose in irritation. "Don't tell me you think the time has come for me to marry?"
Lyndsay turned and studied him serenely. "Have you been considering it?"
"Not at all," he retorted, coming to stand beside her at the window, which looked out on a street filled with signs of the Industrial Revolution in a city alive with activity. He glanced idly down at the rickety cars vying for passage between the hackneys and horses, and the factory workers gathered around the newsstands for their daily dose of the rest of the world, before continuing. "You know where I stand on that subject."
"I do. Katherine must think you're being stubborn."
Johnathan scoffed. "I assure you, my aunt is no more ignorant of my reasons than you. She saw my mother's misery as clearly as I did all the days of her marriage, and she knows my opinion of my father's conduct too well. She knows I won't marry for convenience-else she undoubtedly should have saddled me with some young duchess long before this."
"You so conveniently avoid the word love," she replied dryly. "Robert Carington's infidelity doesn't mean you will follow suit, once you find the woman you adore."
Again the Nonpareil emitted his scathing laugh. "I have searched so diligently for that prospect among the women of Europe that I have abandoned hope of there being such a woman in existence. You know me too well to doubt that the woman who would put up with my flaws as a husband would be rare, indeed." At this Miss Reston conceded defeat with a smile. "It's impossible, darling. I cannot possibly marry and run amok years later because of boredom with the woman who happens to be my wife. If I hear the suggestion once more..." he trailed off in frustration.
"You really are in a sorry condition. I think it would be wise for you to go to the country for a few days, ride, hunt, take your mind off London. This silly little scandal will all die down when you're away, and in a month you'll be ready to tackle three bank clerks and a Norwegian princess." She smiled at him affectionately. "After all, in the country you won't have to worry about meeting any of those responsibilities you don't have."
Johnathan looked at her a moment before kissing her on the cheek. "Lyndsay, you grow wiser every time I see you." He turned to leave. "Good-bye-give my regards to your mother and father."
"But where are you off to?"
"What? Who do you know in Derbyshire?"
"No one. I bought a fine piece of land on the outskirts of a small town there several months ago, perfect for quail hunting. The people there probably never read newspapers; I may drift in total anonymity for as long as I wish."
"Do you really think such a thing possible, Johnathan?"
The Nonpareil gave her a debonair smile and arched his eyebrows. "Of course not. But at least there, if I am recognized, it will by people who will have nothing to do with me."
Early the next morning Johnathan quietly left London. He gave no word of his departure to his aunt and uncle, being in too ill a humour to care. Only Lyndsay knew of his destination, and anyone who noticed Mr. Carington's sleek Silver Ghost purring through the streets would have wondered only at the hour that brought him there.
Derbyshire was located far from London, to the Northwest, a breathtaking province famed for its peaks and noted for miles of wood. In one such forest, near the tiny town of Lambton, the Duke of Edinburgh had some twenty-five years before erected a small chateau, suited to his purposes, which mainly consisted of escaping from his family and raising horses. He had since offered it for sale to the Nonpareil, who had accepted without another thought. Mr. Carington sent several of his finest horses and stablemen there soon after, with instructions to make whatever changes necessary to prepare the place for his arrival. Thus it was that upon the Nonpareil's arrival he found the Duke's chateau converted into a hunting house, with nothing left of the former's taste save the elegant French doors and marble fireplaces. Everything remotely ostentatious had been removed, and the simplest designs in modern conveniences had been substituted for the Duke's Renaissance furniture. Only one chandelier remained, in the dining room, and the entire lot of Baroque artwork had been shipped back to Edinburgh in favour of obscure Cézannes and unusual Romantic paintings.
Johnathan spread his large collection of art evenly throughout each of his houses, the family estate at Cardiff, the London townhouse, the hunting house in Derbyshire, and a villa in Naples, where he had lived for several years before the death of his father. His connections to London had grown stronger after Robert Carington's demise, and despite his lukewarm opinion of the city, he had remained there the last five years. The only thing keeping him from returning to Italy, where he felt most at home, was his disgust of politics, which had of late both decreased his property value and brought out the unpleasant side of his acquaintances there. He seldom traveled to the Cardiff estate, for despite its beauty he found the memories associated with it unpleasant. He had spent most of his childhood there with his parents, resenting the reckless affairs of his father and the calm acceptance of his mother, who went about maintaining the pristine appearance of her household immediately after she had delivered Robert Carington an heir. Johnathan left to study in Paris at the cynical age of seventeen, and had come back only twice-first to attend his mother's funeral, and, later, to assume his father's place as the head of the Carington fortune.
His mind was still dwelling on his family when he arrived, and their attempts to persuade him to settle down. The phrase disgusted him. He did want to marry. He was perfectly willing to wait for the woman who, if any, would share his life with him. He was already thirty, however, and fast approaching the stage of life where it would hardly be sane to chase women, and hardly satisfying to remain a bachelor. And more and more, it seemed to him, every woman he met was exactly like the next, vain, loud, and uninteresting. Were he forced to marry any of them, would he not be tempted to behave as his father had done after he had given into the pressure to marry? No, no, he would not contemplate it-his mother was the worthiest of women. He would make no excuses for Robert Carington. Perhaps Johnathan had inherited from him the inability to love a woman. If that were true, he would resign himself to his fate; he would never submit a woman to the humiliation of a husband who did not love her.
On the evening of his arrival, having settled this much within him, Johnathan visited his stables to examine the condition of his horses. He was pleased with all he found, and awarded his grooms a bonus in salary. The late summer nights had dispelled the infamous fog of the countryside, and because the sun had yet to make its way toward the edge of the horizon, Mr. Carington decided to test his favourite mount, a coal-black thoroughbred that had served the Nonpareil well in numerous fox hunts. The stallion, who had not been ridden anywhere outside the grounds since its arrival, proved quite eager, and set off almost before Johnathan could take the reins.
He had never before been in Derbyshire and knew nothing of its layout, but knowing Lambton to be at least four miles from the chateau, had no fear of meeting anyone. He rode, therefore, with abandon, taking his horse through the woods with dangerous speed, letting his thoughts take over and trusting in the instincts of the steed and his own sense of direction to guide the way.
He proved to be mistaken in both. After a time the horse stopped and refused to go either forwards or backwards, and the Nonpareil, having lost sight of the sun in the dense forest, could direct him nowhere. He urged the horse forward; it pricked up its ears and trotted curiously onward. Johnathan could see no reason for alarm, as he knew the woods to be not very wide; he could not judge its length, however, and reflected that if they were going away from the road which led to Lambton they might well be lost. So with an oath and a severe reprimand aloud at the foolishness of his horse, Mr. Carington rode on. They continued wandering aimlessly in the woods for another quarter of an hour before simultaneously giving their cause up for lost, and the Nonpareil had to coax a good bit to persuade his mount to walk on rather than stamp his foot and impatiently toss his head.
Just as the horse took its first grudging step forward Johnathan heard a sound: not too far ahead of them, someone was whistling. The horse perked up and cantered towards the human, and in the dusk the Nonpareil could make out the dimly outlined figure of a young boy making his way nonchalantly through the woods. He saw them and stopped some distance away, studying the Nonpareil and his horse with a great deal of curiosity and no little amount of wariness. Johnathan approached the lad slowly.
"Hello," he ventured, trying to sound amiable; the boy said nothing, and did not move. He wore a brown overcoat and dusty knee-britches, and any hair he had was hidden by a huge coachman's cap. The Nonpareil came closer. "I'm new to this area and I seem to be quite lost. Could you please direct me toward Lambton?"
By now he was close enough to discern the boy's features; he observed Mr. Carington out of large green eyes, which stood noticeably out in a small, round face. High cheekbones and a well-defined nose and mouth gave him an impression of impertinence. To the Nonpareil's dismay, as he neared the lad, the eyes narrowed, the red lips parted ever so slightly, and for a moment the Nonpareil was sure that this vagabond knew his identity. He took a step backwards, continuing to observe the gentleman critically. Johnathan almost had the feeling that he was debating whether or not to walk off, and hastily entreated politely, "I am sorry to impose upon you, sir, but as you can see, it is nearly evening, and I haven't the slightest idea where I am."
At this the boy straightened and took off his cap with a wry half-smile. A mass of thick gold-auburn curls fell down around the young shoulders. He looked again in amazement at the girl before him, who was truly very feminine, despite the impression given by her strange attire. "My name," she replied in a clear, strong voice, "Is Miss Lloyd."
"Forgive me, Miss Lloyd," was his smooth, solemn response, which belied his very real embarrassment. "I will not ask you to escort me. Which is the direction I must take?"
The young lady approached him and stared defiantly into his eyes out of her own clear ones, which caught the fading sunlight and sparkled like emeralds. "You may follow that line of chestnut trees to the edge of the wood. They mark the edge of Dr. Theodore Grey's estate. Can you follow them, or do you need me to show you the way?" Her tone was mocking, challenging, and the Nonpareil, as he turned his stallion, was compelled to glance at her again in order to return her stare with one of his own.
"You are not English, are you?" he asked haughtily. She was American, he thought, it was evident by her speech and her spirit. She had no idea who he was.
She tossed her head impudently, sending the long curls bobbing coquettishly, and with a smile that would have been charming had it not been so devious, she replied, "In your position I should not be too inquisitive, sir. I live in Derbyshire, and I know the way out of the woods. That is all that concerns you, Mr. Carington. Good evening." And before Johnathan had time to realize that she had addressed him by name, she had turned and was walking unconcernedly into the shadows.
Dr. Grey's house proved to be no more than ten minutes away, and after that kind soul had seen to his sulky horse and made him welcome, Johnathan experienced his second, more promising encounter with the people of the neighbourhood. The doctor and his wife were not wealthy, but they were evidently much loved. In the space of the Nonpareil's intrusion, they entertained the local curate, a newly-wed couple who had just purchased the acreage adjoining their property, and a widow who waited no very long time to declare upon examining the Nonpareil with a very thick lorgnette that she had lived eighty-six years, every one of them in Derbyshire. Johnathan, though inwardly dreading the reception of these people, and wondering how he could manage to avoid the obligation of calling on them again, soon had to admit that they were very agreeable. They were neither intimidated nor hostile, though it was obvious they all knew they were in the presence of one of the most formidable beings in the country. Their inquiries were so unassuming and innocent that he soon forgave their impudence and allowed himself to be entertained by their manners and their conversation.
"So, yu're comin' te sty with us heyure in Deerbysheer, ye'are?" inquired the Irish wife of the doctor.
"Tell us about the old Duke's place, Mr. Carington-what'd you do to it? They used to say he'd give parties for the nobility and such out there, but if he did, I never heard or saw sign of it!" This from the curate.
"Mr. Carin'ton's gotta fine lot o' orses out there, I bet--don't you, sir?" sighed the new groom. "My, but I used to ride when I was younger, never could get a jump outta the best of 'em. I wish I had the knack for it that you do."
The Nonpareil took his cue, and discoursed with his greatest eloquence on the trivial subject of his thoroughbreds, watching the various reactions of astonishment and awe on the faces of his listeners, smugly satisfied at how little it took to impress them. He sensed a greater ambivalence, however, and consequently a more rational interest, on the part of his host. The doctor was soft-spoken, but intelligent, and he observed the Nonpareil intently while he finished his absurdly lengthy narrative on horse breeding. When Mrs. Grey had poured tea for all, he turned the subject by inquiring, "How did you find this residence, Mr. Carington? We live well away from the main road into Lambton."
"I met a young lady in the woods-" began the Nonpareil, but he got no further, for he was interrupted by general exclamations. A girl! At this hour? By herself-who could it have been? What did she look like?
"I believe she said her name was Lloyd." The change in expression on each of the faces around him startled him. The momentary anxiety in the room immediately became nonchalance.
"Ah, that's Miss Darcy," smiled the curate. "She can take care of herself."
"I never knew an American who couldn't," Johnathan responded carefully, studying the faces around him.
"Why--did she tell ya she's American?" inserted Mrs. Grey suspiciously.
No one replied for an instant, and finally the bride said persuasively, "Well, her mother was English."
"That's right, and for us, that's just as good as being born right here in Britain," snapped the widow. Johnathan wasn't about to argue. At least she wasn't French, he thought wryly.
"Actually, Darcy lived in New England with her father until two years ago. He passed away and she came here to live with her only other relative-" the doctor's sentence was interrupted by his wife.
"Her mother's sister, Sophia Haydon. She's the widder o' the last curate, before Mr. Simmons here-" with a wave at that venerable man-" and thinks she owns the town-"
"-just becoz 'er husband died and left 'er ten thousand pounds a year."
"Forgive my wife, Mr. Carington. Mrs. Haydon is a very nice, well-respected lady here in Derbyshire, and her niece couldn't be more highly thought of."
Johnathan, reflecting upon the first impression he had received of her, wondered briefly if they were speaking of the same lady, but his doubts were dispelled when the curate added with a chuckle, "My, but she has a temper, though. She can be a little testy with strangers, especially if she thinks they put on airs."
"Testy?" echoed the Nonpareil innocently.
"Well, not personable. I remember the first day I ever saw her, at the chapel picnic. She'd heard from her aunt that I didn't approve of young men and women dancing, because I didn't think it was natural. Her aunt began to introduce her niece, but we couldn't find her anywhere. Finally, we saw a group of children gathered around a tree, yelling in excitement. We looked up, and there she was, sitting on a tree limb thirty feet off the ground in her nicest dress. What do you think she was doing?"
"I cannot imagine."
"Why, she was sitting not two feet away from a beehive, looking at it with the greatest curiosity, bees swarming all around her. Her aunt was having a fit of mortification! I asked what she was doing, and she yelled back, 'You must come up here and look! 'It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen.' We asked what she meant, but she said she wouldn't come down 'til I climbed up and joined her."
"And you naturally obliged her?" predicted the Nonpareil, not coldly, but not wanting to appear too engrossed in the highly embellished anecdote of a provincial curate.
"I did," nodded the other. "I crawled onto the limb behind her. 'What is it?' I asked. All I could see was she was staring into a hive of honeybees close enough to her to scare the daylights out of anyone else, and I couldn't figure what in the world she was about.
"'Dancing bees,' she replied, and lo and behold, those honeybees were gathered around doing that little dance they do when they want to let each other know where something is. 'Isn't that the most unnatural sight you've ever seen?' she asked me, and by the time I'd figured out she was mocking me she'd hopped down below." The others broke in with laughter, corroborating his story; the Nonpareil sat still, not deigning to let his interest show. It was an interesting tale-most likely too strange not to be true.
"Ah, she's a gal like's not seen every day," remarked Mrs. Grey. "The 'ole town adores 'er, and you would too, if ye knew her."
The shrewd doctor caught a flicker of intrigue in the Nonpareil's countenance as his wife spoke. "You know, sir," he remarked casually, his eyes critically examining the young aristocrat's features, "Darcy is a hard person to please. She thinks men like you are all cold and proud. If I'm right, and I usually am, she probably didn't even give you the time of day." The Nonpareil began to reply, but was stopped by the even gaze of the old man. "She probably pointed in this direction and gave you a frown and went on her way. But you mustn't judge her by that, Mr. Carington. That young lady's got a sweet spirit and a brilliant mind. It'd be a shame to let her keep that impression about you-that you're a heartless snob who wouldn't speak to her unless you needed something-wouldn't it?"
Immediately all focused their attention on the stranger to see what he would do. Johnathan looked about him at the number of expectant faces. Who was this fiend of a girl, that they wanted him to reward her for embarrassing him? They knew nothing about the manner in which she had 'helped' him, to be sure, but even so, the favour was still slight. He began to reply in the negative, but crossed stares with the hard eyes of the widow, who was holding her cane with two fists, almost threateningly, daring him to refuse. The Nonpareil reflected that it would be unwise to make a bad impression on these people, who were, after all, his neighbours. Fiend or no fiend, it would be best to invite her, if doing so would secure their good wishes.
Without so much as a pause in the flow of conversation, Mr. Carington replied, "It would, indeed, be a terrible thing. Will you, Dr. Grey, be so kind as to pass along my invitation for Miss Lloyd to dine at the chateau tomorrow evening?"
The wizened man responded equally as gravely, though his eyes sparkled with delight, "I would be happy to do so. Who knows, she might even decide to come!"
The Nonpareil concealed his chagrin. "Well, then, should she condescend to do so, you may tell her my car will be sent for her at half-past seven." To think, he reflected, I have become so desperate for variety that I have allowed total strangers to impose an ill-mannered, provincial tomcat upon me! Ah, well, if I can manage to enjoy myself among my present company, I can certainly endure one night of hers!
Darcy Lloyd lay ungracefully on her aunt's huge living-room sofa, one leg curled over its great arm, the other bent forward over her back. She was contemplating the crossword puzzle of the Times with increasing frustration; when the phone rang on the writing table behind her, she gave it no heed. A fair-haired maid entered and answered it, and it was only at the latter's gasp of astonishment that Darcy finally sat up and listened. The servant said nothing, only listened in wonder, and when at last the speaker on the other end had delivered his message, replied cautiously,
"Yes, sir-thank you, sir. I'll be sure to tell her. Good-bye, sir."
"What was that about?" Darcy asked impatiently.
The maid turned and gazed at her with an air of bewilderment. "Why, it was Dr. Grey, Miss."
"Oh," Miss Lloyd responded dryly. "That explains why you look as though the Pope had just announced he was stopping by for dinner."
The girl laughed uncertainly, unsure whether her mistress's sarcasm was humour or scorn. "Oh, no, Miss Darcy. You see, he was calling to invite you to dinner-no, that's not right." She took a long breath and surged ahead in excitement. "He was calling on behalf of a Mr. Johnathan Carington who wanted to know if you would dine with him tomorrow night."
Darcy's eyes widened momentarily, and she left her position on the couch to stare at the other in disbelief. "Mr. Carington?"
"That's what the doctor said, Miss."
"Wants to dine with me-why?"
"I don't know, miss. All he said was that a Mr. Johnathan Carington wanted him to invite you. He didn't give a reason." She paused, and then continued timidly, "Is that the same Mr. Carington what's in all the papers, Miss Darcy? The Nonpareil?"
"Yes, Mary, the Nonpareil." Darcy could not suppress a laugh. "This Nonpareil," she added, turning her paper over to the headline of the society page.
"Oh, God, miss! He's got to be the worst bloomin' scoundrel in England!"
"He is, I haven't the slightest doubt," Miss Lloyd replied amusedly.
"What's that mean, miss?"
"What, his title? It means-well, I suppose it means that he has no equal."
"No equal at what?"
"I don't know. Everything." She studied the society column. "This must be the reason he's here. What other sort of reason would bring such a man to such a place as this?"
"Then you've met him, miss?"
"Yes, I've...well...I've seen him, and he's seen me."
The maid's face brightened. "And he's asked you to dinner! He must be quite taken with you, Miss Darcy!"
"He must be quite out of his head! No, Mary, that's not at all the case, and you mustn't think that. And you must not discuss the matter with anyone else. I forbid it. If anyone asks you, tell them no more than that I'm dining with a gentleman from London. No names, and nothing about the-"
"The Nonpareil, miss?"
"The Nonpareil. Promise me?"
"Oh, of course, miss. Then you are going to accept him?"
Darcy thought for a long moment, her brow wrinkled in consideration. Why was he asking her, this Mr. Carington? She had been everything but charming to him on their encounter, and he hadn't been exceedingly warm himself. It was impossible that he could really be interested in her. Perhaps Dr. Grey had decided to play matchmaker and put him on the spot-that scenario was far more likely. There it was: if she said yes, they would both be uncomfortable the entire night, and neither would be civil to the other. If she refused, he would be convinced of what he probably already thought: that she was uncivilized and unfit to be seen in respectable company, a reflection that would probably extend to all of the inhabitants of Derbyshire. She could not allow that: she had to accept. After all, he was the most famous aristocrat in the country-and she would have weeks and weeks worth of gossip afterwards.
"Yes," she said aloud. "I'll go."
"Go? Where are you going? You're not about to play baseball with those ruffians in town again, Darcy, I absolutely forbid it." Sophia Haydon appeared in the doorway of the living room, her round figure casting a considerable shadow on the objects within. She was a rather short woman, and plump, with grey hair and a rosy complexion. She had a very jolly voice, no stranger to laughter, and the tinkling sounds produced by her sizeable throat were so dainty as to create amusement in those around her simply by the unlikeliness of such a noise from such a lady.
"Don't worry, Aunt Sophie," came the amused reply. "I am not going to play baseball with the ruffians."
"Oh, that's a relief. I felt sure you'd ruined your new organdie the last time-where are you going?"
"I have been invited to dinner tomorrow evening."
"Really? How lovely, by whom?"
"A gentleman from London."
"What? What gentleman? We don't have any gentlemen."
Darcy grinned mischievously. "We do now."
"Oh, child, you make no sense. Who is this mysterious gentleman and where did you meet him and why is he inviting you to dinner?"
"Who this mysterious gentleman is, is Mr. Johnathan Carington, and where I met him was in the woods yesterday at dusk, and why he is inviting me is due to the fact that I aided him in a time of need. He was lost, and I showed him the way to safety."
Aunt Sophie stood regarding her niece in utter bewilderment, and after a time managed, "Do you mean to say Johnathan Carington asked you to dinner?"
"Johnathan Carington, the Nonpareil?"
The maid answered her eagerly, thrusting the newspaper in her general direction. "Yes, ma'am, the Nonpareil!"
Aunt Sophie gasped. Darcy frowned. "Yes, Aunt Sophie, the Nonpareil!" she reiterated in exasperation. "Why does everyone have to have his name repeated?"
Aunt Sophie paid no heed. "You mean to tell me," she continued, the colour rising in her cheeks, "That, that, man is here in Derbyshire and you have spoken with him?""
"Yes, I have, and I intend to speak with him again tomorrow night at-oh, when did the doctor say I was to be there?"
"Seven-thirty, Miss Darcy," inserted Mary immediately. "Dr. Grey said he'd be sending his car 'round for you."
Mrs. Haydon had been trying to comprehend her niece's speech for several moments. As each idea slowly found its way into the recesses of her mind, her countenance underwent several quite comical variations. Suddenly her eyes widened, and she emitted a dreadful moan before collapsing awkwardly onto the sofa. "You can't mean that the Nonpareil met you in the woods, of all places! And you wearing rags and looking like a street urchin! This is some terrible joke."
"But Dr. Grey just called and passed along the invitation, ma'am."
"But-but why?" continued Aunt Sophie haplessly.
"He is a gentleman, and he wanted to thank me, of course," replied Darcy impatiently. "Now please excuse me so I may get ready for tomorrow night."
"But-but you haven't a thing to wear!" Aunt Sophie's eyes lit up. During the time in which her niece had stayed with her, she had been forced to spend less and save more out of deference to Darcy. Mr. Haydon had left them no small income, but Miss Lloyd's objections to her aunt's use of it were so severe that Mrs. Haydon had of late been suffering from an acute sense of boredom. When there was no occasion to buy anything, she grew irritable and nervous, and such had been the case for some length of time. "We simply must find you an evening gown, and some jewelry-"
"I have an evening gown, thank you, the one my father bought me in Philadelphia."
"Oh, but Darcy, that dress is over a year old!"
"I am not a debutante, Aunt Sophie, and you are not about to lavish hordes of money on a dress that I will never wear again. I refuse to discuss the matter any more." With that, Darcy, crossword in hand, departed upstairs to her own chamber. Her aunt watched her go, shaking her head in consternation.
The next night, promptly at a quarter till eight, James, Mr. Carington's solemn butler, opened the door to find Miss Lloyd standing on the step, smiling nervously up at him. James had served the Carington family for an eternity, and was as familiar with the Nonpareil's quirks, habits, and tastes as Mr. Carington himself. When he had learned that his master would be entertaining a lady, he had formed an image of the typical woman who played this role. He had to do quite a bit of revision when faced with the girl standing before him. She wore a simple, dark green dress of muslin, which showed off her slim figure, and her hair fell down around her shoulders in a cascade of red-gold curls. Her cheeks were flushed with the effects of the night air and excitement, and there was about her a strange combination of innocence and wild abandon that made her unlike any woman the butler had ever seen in his master's company.
"Hello," she said brightly.
"Good evening, Miss Lloyd," James replied gravely, managing through some physical miracle not to move a muscle as he did so. Without a word he relieved Darcy of her coat and motioned for her to follow him into the sitting room. No doubt he would have been horrified and indignant at the awful grimace she made behind his back in response to his stony silence. He solemnly informed her that Mr. Carington would be down momentarily, and invited her to make herself comfortable. He then promptly disappeared, and Miss Lloyd took leave of her surroundings.
It was obvious that she was in a hunting house, for everything had been furnished to provide comfort without ostentation. The room was relaxed and informal, and Darcy was relieved to note that few items were breakable; it had a reserved, yet friendly atmosphere that made an agreeable impression on her, despite her suspicion that the Nonpareil would probably never entertain anyone of importance here. She wondered if he had chosen the decorations for this lodge himself, or if the personality it evoked was deceptive.
Her thoughts were dispersed by a light step outside the room, and as she turned Mr. Carington entered. "Good evening, Miss Lloyd," he remarked politely, remaining in the doorway. Darcy rose and genially approached him with an outstretched hand.
"How do you do?" she responded. Her levity had no effect on the Nonpareil's calm, bored demeanour.
"Delighted," said he, and, to Miss Lloyd's immediate mortification, took her hand and pressed it gently to his lips. She was quite unprepared for this, and instantly realized that she must more than match his behaviour if she were to be treated with any amount of respect by this man. She looked him over shrewdly. He was certainly impressive-exquisite, even. She had known he was handsome, but in person his tall, impeccable figure was overwhelming. His light brown hair was swept into an arch over his high forehead, his delicate lips curved upward in the faintest of polite smiles. His eyes immediately arrested her own: they were a deep, dark gray, cold and unfathomable. His gaze was supercilious, and as she met it she realized with indignation that he was studying her to see whether she merited his interest.
Most people, faced with this infamous look, faltered, and Johnathan expected her to do likewise. Darcy, however, did not know that the Nonpareil favoured practically everyone with this expression. It seemed to her that Mr. Carington had decided, two phrases into their acquaintance, that she was hardly worth his interest, that he was resigned to putting up with her dubious company for one evening. Her pride caused her to flush with indignation, and had he been familiar with the light that appeared in her eyes, he would have known to be alarmed.
"Please sit down," he said politely. She did so, looking carefully around her at the large, heavily-cushioned armchairs, the great ottoman in the center of the room, and the plain straight-back in the corner before choosing the most ornate of the chairs and sitting daintily on its edge.
"May I offer you anything to drink, Miss Lloyd?" Mr. Carington went to a tray of glasses and a wide variety of decanters sitting on a beautiful mahogany table. He lifted one as he spoke and poured himself a glass of red wine; at least, Miss Lloyd thought it was wine, as it was the only red beverage she was familiar with. "We have cognac, armagnac, vueve clicquot, Chablis, zinfandel, sherry, and port, for starters." He sent her a harmless, inquiring glance, awaiting the blank expression that undoubtedly would follow after such an imposing list.
Darcy did, indeed, return his look with a blank expression, but it lasted only an instant before it was replaced by a shocked frown.
"Have you no whiskey?" she asked.
The Nonpareil straightened in astonishment. She continued recklessly, "The nectar of the poor, you know. Dr. Grey always says that the proletariat has much more fun than the aristocracy because their liquor is so much better."
"I am so sorry you do not approve of my selection, Miss Lloyd," he returned imperturbably, hiding his amusement. "Perhaps, since you are undoubtedly learned in such matters, you could recommend to me the best breed of liquor to add to my list of refreshments."
Darcy was surprised that he so quickly called her bluff and realized immediately that tonight she would have to be more quick-witted than she had ever before had occasion to be.
"Ah, yes," she responded knowingly, nodding her head in approval. "The best whiskey in the kingdom, Mr. Carington, despite what the British say, comes from Scotland."
"Scotland? Indeed?" He moved toward her in growing interest, his eyes sparkling.
"Oh yes," she informed him matter-of-factly, showing no sign of giving up. "It's well known among the provincial districts that the only liquor worth serving in decent company is-" she took a deep breath- "is Scottish moonshine."
"Oh. Any particular brand of Scottish moonshine?"
"Oh, Mr. Carington!" she replied, triumph showing in her green eyes, "you are obviously not familiar with whiskey, or you would know that all Scottish brands are superb."
The Nonpareil nodded gravely and assured her he would immediately send to Scotland in search of the finest moonshine stills of the land. It was all he could do to keep his composure, and he was a man who was well accustomed to keeping his composure. Decidedly, this girl was a change of pace from the boring drawing-room conversations of the city! This might turn out to be an amusing evening after all.
He seated himself opposite her in the straight-backed chair in the corner, relaxing his long figure. "Well, Miss Lloyd," he said, allowing her a half-smile, "Since I do not wish to disappoint you by offering you an inferior wine, might I interest you in a soda?"
She blanched for an instant, and managed not to stare as, ringing for a servant, he instructed blandly, "Some Coca-Cola for Miss Lloyd." The listener on the opposite end of the wire seemed to express some surprise, for slight irritation flickered across his countenance as he repeated his order: "Yes. No rum." As he replaced the receiver of the telephone he remarked, "I assume you cannot be unaccustomed to such a drink, coming as you do from-but I am correct, am I not? You are American?"
Something about his smooth baritone struck Darcy as patronizing. Was he determined to laugh at her? While her brain raced to find some sort of deterrent to his arrogance, she replied politely that she was, indeed, from the states.
"What brings you to England?"
"My mother was English. When she married she went to live with my father in Philadelphia, and when my parents died I came here to live with my aunt."
"Philadelphia?" The Nonpareil expressed polite interest, but Darcy, who watched him closely, saw that he was more repulsed by the idea of her being an urban American than of her being a provincial Englishman.
"I didn't like the city much," said she. "But I did so hate to leave America. You see, sir, in the United States, there were only two distinctions: those who were rich and those who weren't. It was really quite simple." She paused as a servant, a pretty, curly-haired wench who ignored Darcy with such determination that it was obvious she was teeming with curiosity, entered and placed a pitcher of soda among the decanters, proceeding to pour Miss Lloyd a full glass of the fizzing liquid. Darcy thanked her cordially, but the maid averted her eyes and curtseyed briefly, exiting the room. She had been present no more than fifteen seconds, Darcy thought, but she had probably gathered enough information to tell every member of the household every detail of the scene and of the strangeness of her host's guest. Well, she thought, if they expect me to behave as though I was dumbstruck by the presence of the Nonpareil, they're perfectly right to think me odd. "In England," she continued after taking a dainty sip of fizz, "you are all specified by a thousand sorts of classifications: Welsh, Cockney, nobility, Irish, middle-class, tradesman, military; and if you're a member of a certain kind of class, God help you if you associate with the other kind. It's all very confusing to a newcomer like myself." And here, seizing what struck her as a brilliant opportunity, Miss Lloyd raised her glass and eyed her host with an expression so serious that he prepared himself for the profound. Instead, she remarked simply, "That's why I was so very interested when you invited me here, for I knew it would be the only chance for a girl of my position to meet a true dandy."
Johnathan sat up even straighter in his straight-backed chair. Did she not realize what an insult she had just delivered him? He dared not reply for an instant, and when at last he remarked, "You flatter me, Miss Lloyd," his tone betrayed his bewilderment.
"Indeed?" she responded, smiling at him with a charming air of simplicity. "I dare say that no praise is high enough. Meeting you is almost as exciting as meeting a great statesman or a celebrated author, like that Mr. Maugham you hear so much of nowadays."
Somerset Maugham? This gets worse and worse, he thought with chagrin. To be almost as exciting as a politician! What would she have told the Rockefellers, or the Waldorfs, had she had the opportunity? This girl was the most naive, tactless...but...was it possible that she was mocking him? She spoke with absolute innocence, and he found his first impression easiest to believe, until he realized that, although her countenance was as guileless as a child's, her eyes were glittering with contemptuous amusement.
For the first time in his life he was at a loss for words. She, this nobody from the country-even worse-from America!-was mocking him! He knew she saw through the politeness of his demeanour, realized that he thought her hardly worth the effort of his entertaining her, and was determined to repay him measure for measure for his pride. Did she not know who he was? Of course she knew-she didn't care. How delightfully unusual!
Johnathan was intrigued; he decided to play along and see what the results were in this interesting game. "Ah," he countered, his grey eyes flashing in an unexpected show of spirit, "How interesting you should compare me to Mr. Maugham, for he is an acquaintance of mine. He tells me he bases his most interesting characters on me."
"Really? Well, I suppose I have no need to read any of his novels, since they couldn't possibly be any more exciting than yourself."
The Nonpareil could not readily counter such a statement. "You really ought to try your hand at writing, Mr. Carington," she continued, oblivious to his silence. "They inform me it is quite the rage among your set; and mystery novels require very little effort."
"Miss Lloyd, I would be overwhelmed if my writing transported me into the upper reaches of the social strata; let the true paragons of society like Mr. Maugham occupy that rank," he retaliated sarcastically.
"Your modesty is most unbecoming, sir, for they tell me that you are almost a public figure yourself."
The Nonpareil had never before in his life been spoken to with such audacity, and he had to use every bit of his will to keep from laughing. He could not find himself offended because he was too surprised at the wit of the girl who was speaking. "Really," he managed to reply, sans expression, "You speak in total ignorance of the society of London, for there I am regarded as something of a Corinthian."
"A Corinthian?" she responded blankly, doubt spreading across her features. "I suppose that is...rather like an aristocrat?"
Anyone else would have been snubbed beyond all hope of recovery at such a remark. Instead, Mr. Carington calmly replied, "As a matter of fact, it isn't like that at all. In my society a Corinthian is something of a blackguard-the worst type of scoundrel."
"I see," she responded instantly. "Well, if you are indeed as black as you paint, then I want nothing more to do with you."
"Very well, then," said he, rising amiably. "I shall summon James to show you the door."
He had her, finally; her eyes widened, and she rose in astonishment. "It was such a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he continued, ignoring her bewilderment.
"Since you are obviously insulted by having to associate with such a dubious character as myself, I shall not punish you by forcing you to endure another moment in my presence." He moved toward the telephone to ring for the butler.
"How dare you!" She cried at last, so suddenly that the Nonpareil started. His reserve had totally vanished, however, and he could not refrain from giving way to laughter, which had been welling up within him for some time, and now spilled forth as though she had unstopped some hidden fountainhead of gaiety beneath his cold exterior. His mirth was so unwarranted that Darcy was momentarily too surprised to be affronted. When at last his laughter subsided her countenance regained its wounded appearance, and she had the sulking air of a feline who, having been hemmed into a corner, is doing its best to appear incredibly offended. "You, sir," she informed him irritably, "obviously do not know that I will not be laughed at by anyone. I hope I have convinced you by now that I am by no means unworthy of your interest, for you have shown me that you are far more intelligent than I originally assumed."
"Thank you," replied Johnathan with a smile of light sarcasm, moving, not to the telephone, but to the tray of decanters to refill his glass of wine, which had disappeared rather quickly during this unusual conversation. "I do not feel inclined to give you the satisfaction of showing you to the door, but I am not such a fool as to presume that you can view me with anything less than contempt after the start of this evening. However," he added, turning to gaze at her with a strange mixture of curiosity and respect, "I must tell you that I have never met anyone who has made me feel so completely detestable in such a short amount of time."
He said all of this with perfect good humour, and Darcy was, in her turn, too fascinated by his charm to be angry. "I owe you an apology, although I cannot apologize for human nature, which is all that has caused the friction between us." He poured her another glass and brought it to her. "Sherry," he explained helpfully as she stood to receive it.
"To first impressions," said he, gazing at her with an expression that made her feel as if he were studying a fascinating species of animal he had never before encountered, "which have made this the most interesting evening I think either of us have ever experienced."
He raised his glass and drank and she did likewise, managing not to betray any sign of her revulsion to the sting of the drink. "You know, there was no way I could have behaved any differently towards you," she remarked. "If I had come in meek and ingratiating in the best Sunday-school fashion, I would have nothing to be reproached with, but you would not have given me another thought."
Johnathan studied her, examining her features and her figure with the indifferent eyes of a man who had done so with countless other women, and reflected to himself that her face had a charming beauty that made a lasting impression. "You're probably right," he told her, allowing a smile to play momentarily across his features-she was beginning to see that his smiles were rare; they were not true smiles, but gentle upturnings of the lips which softened the overall gravity of his countenance. "I am not the sort of man who bothers with uninteresting people. But somehow I don't think I would have found you too boring. I only wish you hadn't proven me wrong so dramatically."
"Well, after all," she replied frankly, "self-control is a virtue of which you seem to have a great amount, and I none. Perhaps if you had ever gone to a stranger's house and been forced to admit that they thought you a perfect anomaly and were laughing at you the entire time you stayed, you would have less of it. And perhaps, if I were forced to endure the constant company of men who worshipped me and women who constantly sought my attentions so they would look stylish, and the whole lot of them as insignificant and odious as yesterday's news, I would have more."
Johnathan did not reply, but studied her with a rapt gaze bordering somewhere between intrigue and keen interest. "You had, of course," she continued, "no reason to think that tonight would be any different than the countless other evenings you'd spent entertaining strangers. The only reason you asked me here at all is because the doctor was beside you telling you all sorts of wonderful things about me that bored you to no end, but you couldn't possibly refuse to invite me in front of him, because then everyone would have thought you rude and impolite, and you wouldn't want them to think that, now, would you?" She paused for breath before saying genially, "Come, don't pretend you expected me to be anything more than dull and naive, and I won't pretend that I am awe-stricken by your presence. I'm not the type of person who finds amusement in guessing games, and I cannot think that you are. I hope you won't hold my conduct against me, and I-" she swallowed, and he had no trouble believing her when she continued-"I hope that I shall never again behave as abominably as I have here tonight."
Here she paused again, but the Nonpareil seemed in no hurry to speak, and, indeed, was probably wary of doing so, so she sat back down in the great armchair, leaning all the way back into the recesses of its large cushions. For a moment she gazed at her host as he also took his seat. "My, how people must envy you," she mused. "My aunt, Sophia Haydon, is in utter terror of you; I suppose everyone else is also. When I first came to England I knew nothing about the people and society-naturally I'd never heard of the Nonpareil. I loved reading the society columns, and there was always one name they seemed to make a fuss over, more than anyone else's. So one day I asked my aunt who this Mr. Carington was that I was always reading about. And I immediately received a long, stern lecture on you, sir, and learned that you were the devil incarnate, that you owned the town of London and made love to everyone's wives and influenced the votes of politicians and had no sense of responsibility whatsoever." Darcy stopped and eyed him cynically before continuing. "She was ecstatic when I told her you had invited me, and seemed to forget at once how much she detests you."
Mr. Carington raised his eyebrows and was about to answer when the curly-haired maid returned and politely informed him that the dinner was prepared whenever he wished it. The Nonpareil asked his guest whether she felt hungry, and upon receiving her dry reply that the only reason she came was to inform her aunt how many entrees he had for dinner, rose, smiling faintly, and escorted her to the dining room...
The table was spread in abundance. Darcy was amazed. The variety of entrees, side dishes, and hors d'ouerves before her was indescribable. She had never witnessed a meal like this at any private home and wondered if it was the custom of the London aristocracy to make gluttons of themselves regularly when they dined. In spite of her awe, she seated herself with a sufficiently calm demeanour. Her host did the same, and the company of servants lifted the lids of the steaming, unknown foods. The maid relieved Darcy of the smallest of the plates set before her and went to a large bowl of unrecognizable delicacies, turning back to Miss Lloyd expectantly. When Miss Lloyd did not respond, the maid looked to the Nonpareil for assistance. Mr. Carington came to her rescue, kindly suggesting, "Would you like some asparagus au gratin, Miss Lloyd?" Darcy swallowed and answered through her embarrassment that she would, and the maid served her a helping of the unfamiliar substance. Two strikes, she thought ruefully, Coca-Cola and au gratin. Who would have thought I could turn food into a social blunder?
Another servant removed a second plate from in front of her and indicated a platter upon which sat a small roast quail. Thankful that she could at least recognize this entree, Miss Lloyd nodded, and the ritual continued. Mr. Carington had more food than she could eat in a week, but in her distraction Darcy accepted nearly every item. So it went until all the bowls and platters and dishes had been passed by. Somewhere during all this, the butler appeared with wine, but Mr. Carington quickly drew him aside and whispered an instruction, after which James disappeared and returned moments later to fill the glasses of the Nonpareil and his guest with more soda.
Dinner passed uneventfully, much to the relief of all parties. Darcy was somewhat self-conscious with the servants present, but after a few minutes they dispersed unobtrusively, and Miss Lloyd never knew whether it was their custom to do so or whether they had bidden to leave by some unseen command from the Nonpareil. After they left, the conversation became quite comfortable. Darcy, preoccupied with all the food, would have said very little were it not for the skillful questioning of the Nonpareil, who made a subtle, though pleasant, inquiry about Miss Lloyd's past: her life in America, and the circumstances by which she came to live in England. Gradually, he drew her out of her nervousness, and she spoke quite freely of her family's history and her life until the death of her father.
Miss Lloyd's parentage was respectable, on her mother's side at least. Amanda Montgomery was the lovely youngest daughter of a family of Southampton who had made a reputable name in trade. The family had been quite upset when their most promising daughter fell in love with a gentle American who had nothing but his kindness to recommend him. Matthew Lloyd was a former soldier who was staying in England for a month with a friend whose wife happened to have a charming former schoolmate who would do wonderfully for the fourth person at their table. When he met Miss Montgomery, Mr. Lloyd's plans for returning home underwent no slight change. Because she was staying at a boarding school near Lime Darcy's mother successfully hid her American from the family in Southampton, and it was only when the thing was unpreventable that they learned that she was to marry the young man from Philadelphia. During the ensuing uproar the girl's father informed the young man that should he marry her they should forever be deprived of the income that was otherwise to have been hers. In the best romantic tradition the couple defied and the wedding was planned; however, unlike the traditional domineering father, Mr. Montgomery forgave his daughter with ease and gave his son-in-law all the well wishes he could spare from his natural family. They returned to Philadelphia, and were happily married for a number of years when their daughter was born. They lived in the simplest manner possible, for Matthew was an extremely practical man, and cared for nothing more out of life than a house full of food and love. His wife, perhaps, was not so content; or so the Nonpareil gathered from the hesitant, though gracious, manner in which her daughter referred to her. It was highly unlikely that the daughter of an established Englishman would find perfect contentment in the house of an American pauper.
Darcy's father became a shopkeeper in the district in which they lived; all was well, but his wife fell seriously ill two years after Darcy was born, and died of a fever soon afterwards. When the family of the lady learned, they vented their grief against her husband, who was, they felt, responsible for having taken her away from England, and therefore responsible for her ignominious death. They vowed never to admit his presence among their family, and although he did not attempt to keep his daughter from them, they rejected her with the same bitterness. The little girl became the world to her father, and though Miss Lloyd did not hint it, the Nonpareil perceived that she had been accustomed to having her way. The years passed happily for them, despite the father's total ignorance of anything feminine. Mr. Lloyd's hypothetical son could not have received a more masculine environment than did his daughter. He had been everything gentlemanly and good; but he knew so little of the desires of women that he had failed to indulge the necessary feminine characteristics in his daughter. His heart had failed him two years previous, when Darcy was seventeen, and her aunt, her mother's elder sister and her only remaining relative, became her guardian. Thus it was that Darcy Lloyd, who had never been out of Philadelphia, sailed across the sea to live with an aunt whose existence she had hardly recognized. And thus it was that Sophia Haydon found awaiting her a girl who was so totally unrefined that she had to be convinced she had received the right person. Mr. Carington listened to her cheerful narration with interest, interrupting her only to ask trivial questions. They passed a contented half-hour or so in this fashion, until James entered cautiously and inquired if Mr. Carington was ready for the second course.
Miss Lloyd could not hide her astonishment that after all that food, which her lengthy narrative had given her little opportunity to sample, the meal was not yet over, and she did not like the idea of having to endure the same ritual of the servants and the food. With an imploring glance at the Nonpareil, she stammered, "Oh, please sir, don't on my account. It's too delicious, but we couldn't possibly eat it all." She smiled coaxingly at the butler, who did not flinch.
The Nonpareil turned toward James and dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "You can skip all that, James. I think we're ready for dessert." The butler, whose expression remained as solemn as ever, bowed and departed. Darcy did not know that the first course had only been a trifle next to the main menu; the chef, one of the best in London, hired especially for the summer by Mr. Carington, had worked hours preparing the second course. If she had known about the quantity of food wasted, or that she had just struck out with her worst faux pas as far as the servants were concerned, she would have been horrified.
The dessert tray was brought out, at all events, and if Miss Lloyd had been rude to the chef by slighting his work, she more than made up for it in her praise of the scrumptious, heavenly desserts. The cakes and pies were delicious, and she thought she would never get enough of the cream puffs. Mr. Carington consoled the chef with the assurance that such a disaster would not happen again, and her praise of his finale enabled him to forgive the Nonpareil's dinner guest. The rest of the servants held a midnight feast in the recesses of the kitchen, ensuring that the leftover course was not wasted, and Miss Lloyd's behaviour failed to rankle in their minds.
Around nine fifteen, Darcy glanced at the clock and realized she had been at the Nonpareil's dinner table for well over an hour. Greatly embarrassed that she had spent half that time devouring his delectable food, she stammered awkwardly that she must be going, but Johnathan turned to her and asked in the gentlest of voices if she cared for tea before she left. She was confused, and thought that she might like to stay, but graciously declined, insisting that she had stayed well past a proper hour.
"I assure you, Miss Lloyd," said Mr. Carington charmingly, "you have not overstayed your welcome. This has been a very agreeable evening."
Darcy returned his smile with a disarming one of her own, and replied, "If I have managed to be agreeable, it is only because I find myself in the company of such a marvelous host."
He acknowledged the compliment with a dignified nod, and she prepared to leave, knowing that if all he said to her as he walked out the door were a simple but polite good-bye, it would be the last she would ever see of the Nonpareil. Fully expecting that it would be, she went to retrieve her coat from the butler. Johnathan followed her to the door.
He could not keep from contrasting her unkempt beauty with the dignified grace of Lyndsay, and throughout the evening he had found himself invariably comparing his cousin's smooth, harmless dialogue to the lively, unpredictable talk of the girl before him, and invariably favouring the latter. What a surprise was this Miss Lloyd! She was much too outspoken, and in general far too reckless. Yet, he mused, if I took her under my wing for a month, would she not improve? I could make her into a sensation if this were London. Should I or shouldn't I? She's a bit young for you, really--she can't be older than twenty; you're hardly the type of man to go chasing after girls a decade younger than yourself.
As he was pondering over this new interest, he glanced at her and saw that James, to whom she was chattering about something insignificant, wore a very peculiar expression on his face. A closer inspection revealed to the Nonpareil that the rather unnerving partition of the lips was, indeed, a crude form of a smile; this from a man who had served Mr. Carington all of his life, and had never once displayed anything remotely resembling the expression he now wore.
This stupendous act on the part of his butler convinced him. If this girl, wild as she might be, could exact anything other than the same grave countenance from James, then undoubtedly she could do wonders for him and his entire household.
Thus, as Darcy extended her hand demurely to Mr. Carington and he raised it to his lips he remarked, more as an afterthought than an intended statement, "I'm driving through my estates in the area tomorrow, Miss Lloyd. I would be delighted to have your company, if you will consent."
Through some miracle Darcy did not react, though an invitation to Buckingham Palace would have shocked her less; instead, she replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the most sought-after gentleman in the country to be seeking her company, "Oh, of course, sir." She started to exit, but suddenly, turned back and added, grinning, "Given the result of your last jaunt through the countryside, I think it most wise of you to have a guide present."
"It will be a necessity I will look forward to with pleasure," was his debonair response, and he was satisfied to see a faint flush appear on her cheeks at the compliment. "Parker will take you home. Good evening, Miss Lloyd."
"Good night, Mr. Carington."
Johnathan stood at the door until the car disappeared. Then he turned to face his butler. "Well, James, what do you think?"
James replied gravely, "Well, sir, if I may say so, she's rather-different from your usual type."
"A bit young and-er-excitable; too spirited. But very pretty, and most charming." There was silence from the Nonpareil. "She carried herself well, sir. Not at all a bad impression."
"Thank you, James."
"Of course, sir."
"I'll be upstairs for the rest of the evening; tell Mrs. Whitcomb to send the coffee up as usual," said Johnathan curtly, leaving the room. "Oh, and James?"
"The next time you are in the girl's presence, do try and keep your lips together. You don't look at all appealing with them parted. I'm afraid that if you continue to help our guests with their coats in such a manner, you will frighten them into not coming back."
"Yes, sir--thank you, sir."
"That will be all. Goodnight, James."
"Goodnight, Mr. Carington."
Aunt Sophie had been pacing restlessly in the entrance hall for the better part of an hour, and when at last Darcy entered the house she had nearly worked herself into a sweat. "Well, what happened?" she cried, quite literally pouncing on her niece as she walked through the door. "What is he like? How handsome is he? How did he act? What did he have to eat? Oh, my dear, I simply must have all the details!"
Darcy delivered them to her as asked, omitting nothing-except the minor episode of her insolent and nearly disastrous behaviour towards her host, which she wisely assumed her aunt would take little interest in. She described in full how the house was furnished, the dress of the Nonpareil, his utter courtesy, and his handsome, intriguing appearance. This last detail, she reflected privately, was hardly remarkable-yet she felt certain that beneath the hard, stern lines of his mouth and cheekbones existed an entirely different being, full of charm and friendliness and mirth. This suspicion filled her thoughts until their next meeting, and she was by then determined to unearth the enigmatic soul of the Nonpareil in its entirety.
When Darcy reached the episode concerning the unfinished dinner, relating how the second course had been omitted altogether at her request, Aunt Sophie let out a tragic groan. "How could you, my dear?" she lamented. "Do not you know that in houses much finer than any we frequent, dinners always consist of three courses?"
"No," said Darcy, who had no idea.
"Oh, he must have thought you such a ridiculous, badly educated girl!"
"I am sure he did not!" Darcy protested indignantly. "If he did, he never indicated it...after...our first encounter."
"Of course he didn't, child, the Nonpareil is famous for hiding his feelings."
"Well, he couldn't have thought too poorly of me," Darcy responded testily, "or else he wouldn't have asked to see me again."
Triumphantly, she watched the look on her aunt's face change from dismay to disbelief.
"He did what?!"
Darcy repeated what Mr. Carington had said to her before she left. Sophia was thunderstruck.
"I can't believe it! Why would a man like him be interested in you? Not that you're unattractive, but...for such an important man as the Nonpareil to-I don't believe it!" Gradually, however, she began to convince herself, and proceeded to pace once more around the room, muttering excitedly. "He wants to make you the object of his attentions! You must have made the right impression on him tonight, dear!"
"Or else I made him feel so guilty he wants to repay me," her niece muttered under her breath.
"There's no telling what's in store for you! You know he lavishes any amount of money on the women he entertains, for horses and pets and furs and chateaux in Spain..." Aunt Sophie could scarcely contain her delight.
"Yes, I know," Darcy broke in scornfully. "But if you think for an instant that I am going to beleaguer Mr. Carington into showering his attentions on me by getting him to award me tokens of his affection, you have quite the wrong idea. You forget that nothing is free, my loving aunt. And even if the Nonpareil were to offer his entire income at my disposal with no provocations or expectations, I could never be so callous and ill-bred as to use him by-"
"Use? My child, no one uses the Nonpareil."
Darcy abruptly ceased at this. Her aunt began muttering busily, relating to herself all that needed to be done in preparation for the Nonpareil's attentions: dresses, jewelry, entire wardrobes for evening and informal wear would need to be ordered; Darcy must be tutored on the proper ways to behave at dinners, lunches, and teas-oh, confound the Americans for not instructing their youth in such simple affairs!-and on and on.
Darcy was lost in thought. No one used the Nonpareil? Who was he? And why was everyone in such awe of him? Certainly, he wasn't the only handsome aristocrat in England, yet even among the richest men in the world he was feared and respected. Women swooned at the sight of him; but she had not been dumbstruck by his presence. She had underestimated him, she admitted, and, indeed, been unfair to him. He was much more of a gentleman than she expected; but then he was much more of everything in person: much taller, much more attractive, much more reserved, than even the most extravagant rumours held. And yet, she reflected, he did not strike one as eccentric, or even removed from those around him; rather, he seemed to remain in the center of things, yet detached, observing everyone and everything around him. She didn't think she liked the way he studied one with his eyes; they were intimidating, and wholly mysterious. He seemed much older than his years, not in his appearance, which was flawless, but in his manner, tinged with cynicism and irony. Indeed, he seemed far more serious, far more intelligent, than his reputation indicated. His behaviour tonight was nothing like that of an arrogant womanizer. But perhaps that was because he had simply not cared to seduce her? But, no...if she hadn't such a strange aversion to the thought of Mr. Carington being a coxcomb, her knowledge of him would have instantly caused her to refuse a closer acquaintance with him. Yet an insatiable curiosity and the knowledge that he found her extremely interesting compelled her to want nothing better. What other opportunity would she have to experience the society of an aristocrat? Oh, no, she would not use him; that was out of the question. But, she reminded herself contentedly, the Nonpareil shall certainly not use me!
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.
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