Scandal By The Ton,
SCANDAL BY THE TON
Ebook copyright Virginia Henley, 2013
Cover copyright Marsha Canham, 2013
Ebook edition published April 2013
This novella is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing.
"Mother has decided we must have a meeting," Julia Shelborne informed her seventy-year-old grandmother.
"Ah, the Monarch of Mayfair orders us to a command performance. I shall hop right to it." Dorothy Ashridge picked up her ebony walking stick, straightened her back and took Julia's arm. "I wonder what the Misogynist of Mayfair wishes to discuss this afternoon?"
Julia laughed. "That's a misnomer. Mother loves herself, and she's a woman."
"Well, she detests me, though of course I consider that a blessing."
Julia and Dorothy descended the staircase from the third floor and entered Lady Claire Shelborne's sitting room on the second floor of the Berkeley Square house. Julia led her grandmother to a chair, then sat down next to her. The three generations of women lived together in the mansion, though seldom in perfect harmony.
"Why the devil did you bring Dottie?" Claire gave her daughter a look of exasperation. "She's deaf as a door nail, and is decidedly de trop."
"Since I aspire to be a writer, I shall jot everything down for her." Julia went to the desk for pencil and paper.
"That means we must tolerate her presence."
"You taught me that one should not be offensive to one's mother," Julia chided.
"She's the one who's offensive. The wretched old woman would try the patience of a saint!"
Dottie Ashridge's expression did not change. She had perfected a vacant half-smile that masked her lively, acerbic thoughts. At her age, a feigned bout of deafness was one of the few amusements still available to her.
Claire pointedly ignored Dottie and addressed her daughter. "I have reason to believe that Lord Nicholas Royston has begun to court me."
"That's amazing news," Julia declared. "You've been a widow for four years and it's time you considered marrying again."
"I quite agree, and since I don't want to frighten the viscount off, I think it would be prudent to delay your debut until next year. Lord Royston knows I have a daughter, but he has no idea you are eighteen and on the brink of womanhood."
Julia scribbled down her mother's words and handed them to her grandmother.
"Ha! So that's your game. We know you're pushing forty, and that you are mutton dressed as lamb, but how old does poor deluded Royston imagine you to be, pray tell?"
"I don't look a day over thirty!" Claire declared. "Oh, why am I answering the dottie old girl, when she only hears one word in ten? Unfortunately, we can hear her only too well."
"You're an unnatural mother, Claire. Most can't wait to present their daughters to Society and invite eligible bachelors to their debutante balls. I did that for you the moment you turned eighteen."
Julia wrote another note and handed it to Dottie. Please don't object! I don't want to be a debutante and thrown on the marriage market. I want to pursue my writing career.
Dottie stuffed the note into her bodice. "On the other hand, it will be rather amusing to see if you can pull it off. I bought you your first husband, complete with title. This one you'll have to snare yourself. Julia doesn't need to be presented at the stodgy court of mad King George and dowdy Queen Charlotte. I shall introduce her into Society myself. She's closer to nineteen than eighteen, remember." Dottie arose. "I suppose both Beauty and the Beast must be shut away upstairs when Royston calls?"
"Don't bother to write that down. I read her lips. When do you expect Lothario?"
"He's taking me to the theatre tonight."
Julia wrote it down and showed Dottie. The old lady saluted with her silver-headed cane. "Then I shall naff off with pleasure."
Back in her third-floor parlor, Dottie dropped all pretense of deafness and poured two glasses of sherry. She handed one to Julia. "Royston Hall is the next property to ours in Hertfordshire. I imagine Claire fancies herself Lady Muck of Turd Hall."
Julia laughed. "Did the Royston family give their name to the town of Royston?"
"Yes, they own most of the property thereabouts, with the exception of what belongs to us of course. Perhaps Royston has one eye on your mother and the other on Ashridge Place."
"You make it sound like The Drummer and The Cook, with his one eye on the pot and the other up the chimney!"
"Actually, Nicholas is a handsome fellow, but he can't be more than twenty-nine or thirty at the most. He has a younger brother Michael, six years his junior, who fancies himself quite the rake."
"Really? We must keep our ears open for a whisper of scandal to use in the gossip column."
Julia wrote a weekly column called Scandal by the Ton for the London and Country Magazine under the pseudonym Ann Onymous. The owner of the publication, Alexander Hamilton, had once been Dottie's lover when she was first widowed, and they were still good friends.
"Speaking of Scandal by the Ton, who are you exposing this week?"
"Among other disreputable devils, I'm writing about the morally bankrupt Duchess of Marlborough who has hired a wet nurse to suckle her pet monkey."
"Will the readers be able to identify Caroline if you simply put the Duchess of M?"
"I shall put aging Duchess of M who rules with an iron hand. That should pin it down. I can hardly say the monkey swings from the chandeliers at Blenheim Palace."
"More likely swings from the teets of the poor wet nurse," Dottie said succinctly.
"I'm so thankful I inherited your irreverent sense of humor," Julia said with a smile, "and glad that you taught me to be fluent in three languages: English, Sarcasm, and Profanity."
"Does the thought of your mother marrying again upset you, my dear?"
"I loved Father dearly, and I miss him, but I don't begrudge Mother wanting to remarry."
"Julian was such a wonderful husband and father. It was tragic that he was killed in the first year of the war. In my experience, only the good die young." Dottie grimaced, "That's why I just celebrated my 70th birthday, no doubt."
"Yes, I'm afraid we'll have to shoot you," Julia said with a wink.
"Roll the rug back so you'll be able to get a glimpse of Royston when he arrives." A round hole had been cut into the ceiling of Claire's sitting room to accommodate a chandelier, but it had been put in the wrong place, about a foot off center of the room. When the crystal chandelier had been installed correctly, the hole was not noticeable from below.
"I think I'll go out on the landing and peek through the stair rails."
"Even if he catches a glimpse of you, he'll think you no more than fourteen wearing the childish fashions your mother insists upon."
"Perhaps I'll wear a hair-ribbon, just in case," Julia said, tongue-in-cheek.
"I'll need the carriage tonight. I've invited Claire Shelborne to the theatre," Nicholas Royston told his brother. "I hope that won't interfere with your plans?" he asked dryly.
Michael grinned. "Not at all, Nick. I'm meeting Gloucester at Brook's, and he'll have his carriage."
"Calling Prince William by the title of Gloucester is beyond audacious when his father is still alive and kicking."
"He affects his father's title to stop people calling him Silly Billy. So, you finally bit the
"Poor choice of words, since it was poor old Julian who bit the bullet."
"Yes, he was a good chap. Taught me how to shoot when you refused."
"You were eighteen at the time, with not an ounce of responsibility in you."
"I suppose I was a bit reckless," Michael acknowledged.
"Was? You're not suggesting you've changed, are you?"
"That was six years ago. Of course I've changed."
"For the worse, perhaps," Nicholas murmured.
"We cannot all be paragons of virtue. The world would be dead boring," Michael remarked. "I'm impressed by your shrewdness, Nick. Marriage with Lady Shelborne would kill two birds with one stone: provide you with a future heir, and double the size of our Royston lands by acquiring Ashridge."
"That's a cynical remark. I rather fancy being a father."
"Doesn't Lady Shelborne have a daughter?"
"Yes... a little girl named Julia after her father."
"Well, better you than me, old chap. Never fancied a wife myself."
"Unless she was married to someone else," Nicholas said dryly.
"Poor devil. Being a member of the diplomatic corps prevents you from indulging in any scandalous behavior. What do you do for fun?"
"I practice discretion."
"Ah, so you are a dark horse after all. I should have guessed."
"That was a pointed dig at you, Mick. For a man who was educated at Cambridge, you are rather obtuse."
"It's my only defense against your sharp sword thrusts."
Two hours later, Julia stationed herself on the third floor landing that overlooked the formal reception hall. She knelt down and peered through the mahogany rails in anticipation. She heard the rapping of the door knocker and watched Hastings, their butler, admit a tall gentleman in evening clothes. When Royston handed Hastings his silk top hat, Julia gasped at the viscount's jet black hair.
The man looked up and spotted her.
Julia immediately drew back, and on hands and knees quickly retreated to her grandmother's sitting room. "He caught a glimpse of me when I gasped. I expected him to have gray hair like Father. The man isn't old enough to be my father. Whatever is Mother thinking?"
"She's thinking of bed play most likely."
Julia laughed. "Dottie, you always think the worst of people."
"And I am invariably correct."
"Well, I must admit he looks devastatingly masculine." Julia put her finger to her lips then rolled back the rug so that the voices in the room below would float up into her grandmother's parlor.
Claire's voice carried well. "Lord Royston, I'm so looking forward to seeing Alexander the Great tonight. Your box at Covent Garden is in ideal proximity to the stage."
"You look lovely tonight, Lady Shelborne. My box is gas-lit and everyone who sees us will envy me," Nicholas said gallantly.
"I seldom seek attention, my lord, I usually shun it."
"I saw your daughter up on the landing scurry away when I arrived. She too must be shy."
"Shy?" Claire's voice was tinged with astonishment. Her outspoken offspring could never be accused of shyness. "Ah, yes, Lord Royston, you have put your finger on it."
Dottie rolled her eyes. "She wishes he'd put his finger on it."
Julia quickly shushed her and began to roll the rug back into place.
They heard Claire say, "Allow me to offer you a drink. Will you have whiskey or claret?"
"Claret will do nicely, thank you," were the last words they overheard.
Dottie threw back her head and laughed. "Alexander the Great is a semi-opera, your mother won't understand a word of it."
"She'd much prefer a farce like The Devil to Pay," Julia agreed.
"Speaking of farces, we are seeing one being performed before our very eyes. An apt title would be The Widow of Wishful Thinking."
"So you don't believe it will end in marriage between them?"
"She stands less chance of becoming Lady Royston, than I stand of becoming Napoleon's next paramour."
"That's good," Julia said with relief. "I don't want Nicholas Royston for my father." She gave her grandmother a look of speculation. "Did you really buy Mother a titled husband?"
"I did. With my husband's money of course. You know your grandfather owned mills in Lancashire, and where there's muck there's money. I didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it through. He wed me for my beauty and my wit. When we had a child, he doted on her, and we both spoiled her rotten."
"Did my father own Ashridge Place?"
"Julian Shelborne possessed a title and little else. It was your grandfather's money that bought the Ashridge property, and this elegant house in Mayfair. Claire turned out to be a wretched mother, but even that had an advantage-- she didn't spoil you."
"When I was growing up, I spent more time with you than I did with Mother."
Dottie smiled. "I was determined not to make the same mistake twice."
Ann Onymous delivered her columns to the London and Country Magazine wearing a variety of disguises. Today she was dressed as a newsboy, wearing a man's shirt and a waistcoat that concealed the fact that she had breasts. Her long dark hair was scrupulously hidden beneath an old tweed cap, and her feet were encased in scuffed leather boots.
She walked into the building, strolled nonchalantly into the newsroom, and handed an envelope to the editor. "Here ye are, Guv, right on time."
"Thanks, George. See you next week."
"Wot, no tip?"
"You're a cheeky young sod."
She winked. "And then some."
Julia hailed a hackney on Fleet Street. The driver gave her a queer look when she gave him her Mayfair address, and she thumbed her nose at him. Sometimes she walked home, but today she wanted to arrive before her mother's best friend, Countess Lavinia Spencer. No doubt her mother and Lavinia would dissect last night's outing with Royston and Julia didn't want to miss a word.
At Berkeley Square, Julia went in through the servants' entrance, and by the time she had changed into a dress, Lavinia's carriage had pulled up outside. Julia glanced through the window, saw two ladies emerge, and hurried to her grandmother's suite.
Lavinia was married to John Spencer, who had two noteworthy sisters. One was Georgiana, the notorious Duchess of Devonshire, and the other was Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough. These infamous friends created more scandals than any other family in London, and their second favorite pastime was gossip. Their conversation was an ever-flowing river of rumor that proved to be more fact than fiction and inevitably found its way into Scandal by the Ton.
"Lavinia is here and she's brought her sister-in-law Henrietta. I predict we'll hear more than one juicy morsel this afternoon."
"Last time I was in her company, at an affair at Devonshire House, her wild daughter Caro mimicked everyone behind their backs. I couldn't keep a straight face until I caught the little bugger mimicking me, using a champagne flute as an ear trumpet," Dottie confided.
Julia rolled back the rug, and with pencil and paper ready, sat on the floor to eavesdrop.
"Henrietta, dahling, how good of you to accompany Lavinia on her afternoon rounds."
Lavinia spoke up. "I told her about Royston, and she simply couldn't wait to hear the details."
"Do make yourselves comfortable," Claire invited, "and I'll ring for tea. Do you prefer China or India, Henrietta?"
"Like Lavinia, I have a preference for India tea."
Claire rang the bell and within a minute one of the maids appeared. "We'll have tea, Dora. India tea. Ask cook to make sure the cucumber sandwiches have watercress, and I know Lady Spencer is rather partial to our almond petit fors."
"So, did you enjoy the theatre?" Lavinia inquired.
"It was marvelous. Royston's box is gas-lit. I wore my royal blue brocade, and my sapphires caught the light and sparkled beautifully. Every eye was upon me, once they tired of ogling you
"But did you enjoy the play?" Henrietta asked.
"Well, it was an opera, and I didn't really understand it. Good thing I had my fan to cover my yawns. But I thoroughly enjoyed watching the audience. Georgiana was accompanied by Francis, Duke of Bedford. They aren't enjoying a liaison, are they?" Claire asked.
"Francis has at least three females he's bedding. His arrangement with Georgiana is a financial one. He's loaned her money to cover her gambling debts, so that her husband doesn't learn of them."
"Three females?" Claire exclaimed. "I was aware of Lady Melbourne, but the affair with Lizzie has long been over. Who are the three you mean?"
"Francis has a child by Mrs. Marianna Palmer, and he's presently sharing Lady Maynard with her husband. As well, he's installed a woman called Mrs. Hill at Woburn Abbey, and rumor has it she's an old madame"
Julia quickly wrote down the names being bandied about below, and listened for more.
Lavinia brought the subject back to Royston. "Did the viscount give you reason to believe that he's paying you court, with a view to marriage?"
"I have no doubt of it," Claire replied. "He was a perfect gentleman, who made no untoward advances, so I conclude that it is marriage he is after."
"Isn't Royston with the diplomatic corps?" Henrietta ventured.
"Yes, he just returned from a mission in Portugal for Lord Grenville," Claire said proudly.
"Diplomats get very poor pay," Henrietta declared.
"Yes, that's why only wealthy men are chosen for the posts," Claire said smugly. "Where on earth is that wretched girl with the tea?" She rang the bell, but no maid appeared. "Servants are the plague of my life. Excuse me while I go and give the kitchen a stern reprimand."
When Claire left the room, Henrietta said, "I have it on good authority that the viscount's brother, Michael Royston, is having an affair with the actress Perdita Robinson, ex-mistress of the Prince of Wales and his brother, Prince William. Rumor has it that she's with child."