Excerpt from Knaves' Wager

It was late March 1814. On the Continent, Bonaparte’s once-great Empire lay in smoking ruins about him, his Grand Army reduced to a handful of ragged, starved boys. Yet the Corsican clung stubbornly to his throne, even as the Allied net closed about him.

That was all far away, however. The stretch of English landscape through which Mrs. Charles Davenant travelled this day lay quiet. Though snug and secure in her well-sprung carriage, the widow gazed into the grey distance as unhappily as if she too knew what it was to lose empires. She had, after all, been privileged to rule her own life these last five years. Now that precious sovereignty was slipping from her grasp, and in her sad fancy, she rode in a moving prison to her doom.

A small, wry smile tugged at the corners of her set mouth. Though her tiny kingdom seemed to be in ruins, remarriage was hardly Doom. Her predicament was a mere twist of Fortune, a hard tangle in the thread of one insignificant life.

Without, the darkening sky cast its chill shadow upon the spring countryside. The widow turned from the somber scene to the more heartening one within the carriage: her niece, Cecily Glenwood. Here was the radiant sunshine of golden curl, the clear heaven of wide blue eyes, and the fair blossom of pink and cream complexion. Here was youth and promise, the endless possibilities of a life just beginning, for Cecily Glenwood was travelling to London for her first Season.

Like her sister and cousins before her, Cecily would succeed. She could scarcely help it. All the Davenants and their offspring, male and female, were blessed with abundant good looks. The majority were charming, as Mrs. Davenant’s late husband had been. Some, also like Charles Davenant, had their failings. Selfishness, for instance, was a quality prominent among his siblings. Had these in-laws been otherwise — sensible and trustworthy parents, for example — neither Cecily nor her cousins (there were yet more approaching marriageable age) would have needed Mrs. Charles Davenant’s help at all.

She had already guided three nieces through successful London Seasons and seen each happily wed. Though she loved this niece as dearly as the others, the widow could not help but wish, this once, Conscience would permit her to leave the responsibility where it belonged.

Fortunately, she was suited to her chosen responsibility. She was but eight and twenty.  She owned an unexcitable disposition. In physique and character she was built for endurance.

Lilith Davenant was tall, slim, and strong. Her classical features — a decided jaw, a straight, imperious nose, and high, prominent cheekbones — had been carved firmly and clearly upon cool alabaster. Her eyes were an uncompromising slate blue, their gaze direct, assured, and often, chilly. In fact, the only warmth about her was the tinge of red in her thick, shining hair. Still, even that rich, dark auburn mass was resolutely wound in rigid braided coils about her head.

Her character was as uncompromising as her appearance. According to some wags, Mrs. Davenant bore such a stunning resemblance to a marble statue that it was a wonder she had a pulse. Some doubted she had. No one of the masculine gender (excepting her husband, who was reputed to have died, not of consumption, but of slow freezing) dared approach near enough to find out.

This was precisely as Mrs. Davenant preferred, though she’d hardly have said so, if anyone had been audacious enough to ask. Her manner did not invite personal questions. Her feelings were sealed and locked, as secure in her breast as were her funds in the Bank of England. More secure, actually, for Mrs. Davenant was running out of money.

Her former man of business had lost most of it in mad speculations during the last year. His replacement, in reorganizing the widow’s affairs, had come upon an enormous unpaid debt — Charles’s debt — a small fortune lost in wagers to his erstwhile companion in debauchery, the Marquess of Brandon.

Once this last debt was paid, there would remain scarcely enough to keep Lilith. Seasons for her remaining nieces would be out of the question. This prospect was as unendurable as the alternative: to wed again.

The widow had spent the better part of the journey wrestling with Duty and Conscience, as well as a host of other demons she had rather not name. Yet not even her dearest confidante (if she’d had one) would have suspected Mrs. Davenant was troubled. She sat beside her niece, as cool, assured, and marble-like as ever.

“Oh, I do hope he’ll be dark and devilish-looking,” said Cecily.

Lilith slowly turned to examine her niece, who had remained uncharacteristically silent this past hour.

“To whom do you refer, my dear?” she asked.

“Him,” said Cecily. “The husband I am supposed to catch in three months. That is a frightfully short time. There is one fox Papa has been after for seven years, and Papa is a brilliant huntsman. I don’t see how I’m to catch anyone in only three months when I’ve had no experience at all.”

In the seat opposite, Mrs. Davenant’s plump companion suppressed a smile. Emma Wellwicke was older than her employer, and more tolerant — as perhaps a soldier’s wife must be in these tumultuous times. While Mrs. Wellwicke might find Cecily’s outspokenness amusing, the companion knew as well as anyone else that plain speaking would never serve in the Beau Monde. It had best be gently discouraged.

“My dear,” said Lilith, “one does not speak of ‘catching a man’ as though it were a hunt.”

“Oh, I would not say so to them, of course,” Cecily answered. “But I cannot pretend to myself that catching a husband is not what I’m about — and I know I must do it quickly. Otherwise, Mama says she and Papa will be obliged to find me one at home. I know that is a deal more economical way to go about it, but it is not a pleasant prospect. None of the local bachelors are dark and devilish-looking — and I am so tired of blonds. We are all fair. It is so monotonous.”

“Looks are not everything, Cecily,” said Emma.

“Yes, I know. But I daresay you have never met Lord Evershot, whom Papa is so fond of. Such an ancient man — past forty, I think — and such a red, blotchy face. And you have never seen anything so absurd upon a horse. Meanwhile, Mama drops hints about The Honorable Alfred Crawbred, and he has the tiniest little black eyes and the most squashed-down nose, I am certain his nurse must have dropped him repeatedly upon his face. Yet he believes himself an Adonis and is forever waddling after the maidservants.”

Emma bit her lip.

“Cecily, please,” the aunt warned.

“It is quite true. I once spied him chasing a housemaid — and he looked exactly like Papa’s favorite sow, lurching to the trough at feeding time.”

“That will do, Cecily,” Lilith said quietly. “Though I cannot approve Mr. Crawbred’s behavior regarding the maidservants, neither can I countenance uncharitable observations upon his physical attributes. Nature is not so generous with everyone as she has been with my nieces and nephews.”

Cecily gazed at her in surprise. “I did not mean to be uncharitable, Aunt. I only meant I had much rather not become Mr. Crawbred’s wife. Why, you know he will expect to kiss me — and that is not the half of it.”

“Oh, my,” said Emma.

Mrs. Davenant turned with an inward shudder to the window, in order to compose both herself and a suitably quelling yet tactful response.

In an instant, all this was forgotten.

Hastily, she opened the coach window and called to her coachman to stop.

“What is it?” Cecily and Emma asked simultaneously.

“An accident.”

The coach slowly came to a halt, and Lilith climbed out, adjuring the other two women to remain where they were.

Though, somewhat in awe of her queenly aunt, Cecily remained where she was approximately seven seconds before clambering out. Emma followed, to urge the girl back. This was sensible on more than one count, for the rain which had threatened all afternoon had commenced, and the road dust was rapidly turning to mud.

In a ditch by the roadside lay what had once been a dashing black curricle. Cecily’s practiced eye told her the vehicle would never dash again; furthermore, neither would one of the horses. She clutched her aunt’s sleeve.

“The poor animal,” she. cried. “Oh, do please have the coachman put it out of its misery.”

“Yes, yes,” was the impatient answer. “John will see to it, but I fear —”

“A man, missus,” the coachman called out from behind the fallen curricle. “Not dead, I don’t think.”

Lilith ordered her niece back to the coach with Emma. As the girl reluctantly obeyed, the carriage which had been following with servants and luggage neared and halted. Summoning the stronger members of her staff, the widow led them down to the smashed vehicle. They stood patiently waiting in the rain as their mistress joined John.

The injured man lay partly under the curricle. Luckily for him, none of it lay upon him. He was bruised and filthy, and though not conscious, alive, as John had said.

Careless of the mud, Lilith knelt beside him. “Is anything broken?” she asked the coachman.

“Not as I could tell, missus.”

“Try to be certain. I do not like to move him if it will cause damage.”

Cold rain streamed from the coachman’s hat down his neck. He glanced ruefully at the other servants, none of whom seemed any more pleased than he to be summoned to this scene.

“We could leave someone with him and go on to the next inn and send a party after him, missus,” John offered hopefully.

He received an icy glance in answer. “Indeed,” said his mistress. “I hope that was your intention originally. I noted you did not slacken your pace when we came upon this wreck — though it was not so dark then you could have missed it.”

Returning her attention to the injured man, Mrs. Davenant took out her handkerchief and wiped the mud from his face. His eyes opened. They were a rare, arresting shade of green.

“Olympus,” he muttered. “It must be. Hera, is it not? No — Athena. Death, where is thy sting? Athena, where is thy helmet?”

“He is delirious,” said Lilith. “We had better risk it and carry him to the coach.”

She began to rise, but the man grasped her hand with surprising strength.

“Have you appeared at last only to abandon me?” he asked weakly.

“Certainly not,” she answered. “I would never abandon an injured fellow creature — but I cannot climb out of this ditch while you are clutching me.”

He groaned softly and released her hand. Lilith gave him one brief, uneasy glance, then moved aside to let her servants do their work.

After some discussion and difficulty, the man was finally placed in a half-sitting, half-falling position on the carriage seat. Since Mrs. Davenant was at this point nearly as dirty as he, she sat beside him and tried to prop him up as comfortably as possible in a carriage grown exceedingly cramped. He was a large, long-legged man who took up a good deal of room.

Though he managed to keep from tumbling onto the carriage floor, he was too weak to remain fully upright. Eventually he subsided into a drowsing state, his head resting on the widow’s shoulder — and once or twice slipping to her firm bosom, from which he was somewhat ungently ejected.

***

More than an hour later, he was carried into an inn. It took nearly another hour — and all Mrs. Davenant’s imperious insistence — to obtain a room for him.

It happened that a mill was to take place the following day. The result was a hostelry overrun with noisy, demanding bucks, and a staff run off their feet attending to them.

After attempting in vain to receive further assistance, Mrs. Davenant sent one of her own servants in search of a doctor. Others she dispatched for hot water, clean towels and diverse other necessities. In between giving orders, Lilith became aware of the excessive attention the inn’s male patrons were paying Cecily.

Once again, the widow cornered the innkeeper. Not long after, a pair of noble gentlemen were persuaded to chivalry. They gave up their chamber, and Cecily took refuge there with her maid from the chaos, while Lilith and Emma managed matters for the accident victim.

“Really, Susan,” said Cecily as her maid poured tea, “I cannot understand why Papa says Aunt Lilith is cold and strange. What is cold and strange, I ask you, about giving a lot of silly girls a whole Season in London?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, miss,” said the maid wearily. “But I do wish we was in London now. I never heard such a din, and I can tell you I been pinched more than once — and John says we’ll never get there tonight, not in this weather. He says we should’ve left the man where he was, you know, and sent folks after him —”

“Which is precisely my point,” Cecily interrupted. “If she were cold and strange, she would have done so, wouldn’t she?”

“Yes, miss, and I don’t like to be uncharitable, but I do wish she’d done just that.”

“Well, then, I think you are cold and strange. He is dark and devilish-looking as they come.” Cecily sighed. “But I believe he’s rather old.”

“His injuries are slight,” the doctor told Mrs. Davenant as he left the patient’s room. “His trouble is that he was ill to start and had no business out of bed. I would guess he hasn’t had a proper meal or decent night’s rest in days. One of those too stubborn to admit he’s sick, though I think he might admit it now that he’s made himself weak as a baby. Travelling alone, in his condition,” the doctor muttered. “What are these chaps thinking of? Or do they think of anything, I wonder? Wyndhurst you said his name was?”

“That is what he told my coachman,” said Lilith. “I have not spoken with Mr. Wyndhurst since we arrived. I trust my servants have tended to him adequately?”

“I daresay they did the best they could. I’ve had more cooperative patients, I can tell you.” With that and a few instructions regarding medicine and nourishment, the doctor left.

A while later, Emma appeared with a steaming bowl of broth.

“I will see to that,” said Lilith, recollecting the doctor’s hints regarding the patient’s uncooperativeness. She took the tray from her companion. “You need some sustenance yourself, Emma — and I have had more practice with invalids.”

The patient, to Mrs. Davenant’s surprise, was sitting up in bed. True, he was well propped up with pillows, but he did not appear near death, as she had expected. No dying man could have invested his green-eyed gaze with so much insolence. He boldly surveyed her head to toe, not once, but twice — quickly assessing the first time and lazily considering the second. Lilith’s hands closed a bit more tightly upon the tray handles. This was the only outward manifestation of the acute tension that gripped her as she approached the sickbed.

Mr. Wyndhurst had begun as a muddy, injured mess requiring a great flurry of activity. Thus, beyond noting the rare color of his eyes, she’d not had time to study him before. Now, washed and combed by her servants, he commanded attention.

His hair was black, curly, and luxuriant. The green eyes were fringed with thick black lashes. Their heavy-lidded look, the faint lines at the corners, and the sensual mouth intimated a depraved character. Mrs. Davenant was certain, moreover, that he had been looking down his long, straight nose at everyone his entire life. The strong cheekbones... the stubborn chin... everything about his hard, chiseled features bespoke arrogance. He was pale and ill, yet his entire frame exuded pure masculine power, utter self-assurance. He was devastatingly handsome. Regrettably, he seemed fully aware of this circumstance. He might have been the very model of a bored, dissolute scoundrel.

Lilith set the tray down on his lap and stepped back. “You can feed yourself, I trust?” she asked politely.

He eyed the steaming broth with a pained expression.

“If I could,” he said, “I should also have the strength to hurl this mess out of window. Chicken broth? How could you?” he asked in aggrieved tones. “I thought Athena was wise and just, but she enters the room of a dying man only to poison him. Chicken broth,” he repeated, shaking his head sadly. “Is it come to this? Then fall, Caesar!” He sank back against the pillows, his eyes closed.

“In your state, you will be unable to digest anything more substantial,” said the widow, unmoved.

“Then bring me wine, oh wise and beautiful immortal,” he murmured. He cocked one eye open and added, “Unless you’ve got some ambrosia about. Ambrosia will do as well.”

“It will not do, Mr. Wyndhurst.” Lilith drew a chair close to the bed, sat down, and took up spoon and bowl. “If you cannot feed yourself, I shall feed you — and you will swallow every last drop. You must do so sooner or later, or you will starve to death.”

“A prospect too heartbreaking, I agree.”

“If I had meant to let you die, I might have done so more easily by simply leaving you where you were, instead of inconveniencing myself or my servants.” With the ease of long practice, she administered the first spoonful.

The submissive air Mr. Wyndhurst abruptly assumed was undermined by the gleam of amusement in his eyes.

“You see?” she said, ignoring the mockery she saw there. “It is not as nasty as you thought.”

“It is every bit as nasty,” he answered after swallowing another spoonful, “but I dare not combat the goddess of wisdom. On the other hand, you could contrive to be Aphrodite — and I’m sure you could, if you liked —”

“I do not like, sir. I did not come to flirt with you.”

“Did you not?” He appeared astonished. “Are you quite certain?”

“Quite.”

Mr. Wyndhurst spent some minutes mulling this over while Lilith continued feeding him.

“I understand,” he said at last. “When you found me I must have been a most repellent sight. Naturally, you could not know what lay beneath the grime your servant so conscientiously — painfully so, I must add — removed.”

He was vain, Lilith thought contemptuously. Aloud she said, “I am sorry if Harris was not gentle with you. He is more accustomed to grooming horses.”

“No wonder my hide is raw. It is a miracle he did not try to brush my —”

“There are but a few spoonsful left,” Lilith cut in. “You had best finish while it is still hot.”

Though he accepted the remaining broth meekly enough, there was no meekness in his steady scrutiny of her face, nor in the occasional glances he dropped elsewhere. He was sizing her up, Lilith knew. Well, if he had any intelligence at all, he must realize he wasted his time. All the same, she was edgy. When at last the bowl was empty, she rose.

“Now I hope you will get some rest,” she said as she took up the tray.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” He slumped back among the pillows once more. “Your company has been far too exciting for a sick man. You should not have agitated me so. I shall not sleep a wink.”

“I fed you one small bowl of chicken broth,” Lilith said with a touch of impatience.

“It was not what you did but how you looked when you did it. Such resolution in the face of ingratitude. Such militant charity.” He smiled lazily. “And such eyes, Athena.”

“Indeed. One on either side of my nose. A matching set, quite common in the human countenance.”

“The Hellespont in a summer storm.”

“Blue. A common color among the English.” She moved to the door.

“Really? They seem most uncommon to me. Perhaps you are right — but I cannot be certain unless you come closer.”

“You are short-sighted, Mr. Wyndhurst?” she asked as she opened the door. “Then it is no wonder you drove your curricle into a ditch. Perhaps in future you will remember to don your spectacles.”

She heard a low crack of laughter as the door closed behind her.

***

To Cecily’s eager enquiries during dinner, her aunt offered depressingly unsatisfactory answers. Yes, Mr. Wyndhurst was well-looking enough, she noted without enthusiasm. He was also shockingly ill-behaved.

“Oh, Aunt, did he try to flirt with you? I was sure he would. He had that look about him.”

“A look?” Emma asked with a smile. “You discerned a look under his impenetrable coating of mud?”

“He had the devil in his eyes,” Cecily said. “I saw him open them when he thought no one was looking. He reminded me of Papa’s prize stallion. The naughtiest, most deceitful, ill-mannered beast you ever saw. But when he moves, he is so graceful that one is persuaded he must have wings, like a bad, beautiful angel.”

Lilith put down her fork. “Whatever Mr. Wyndhurst may be, tending to him has been altogether wearing. I am not decided what to do tomorrow. We cannot leave him here, yet I cannot subject my servants to another night of sleeping in the tap room — or wherever it is the poor creatures will lay their heads. I should have asked his destination. If it were near enough, we might have sent word.”

“You’ve done all you can for one day,” said Emma. “The decision can wait until tomorrow, when you’re rested.” She smiled ruefully. “At least I hope you’ll be rested. I do think you should let me share a bed with Cecily. Having done by far the most work, you have earned the most comfort.” She turned to Cecily. “I promise not to snore.”

“Pray snore all you like, ma’am,” Cecily answered with a grin. “I am a prodigious sound sleeper.”

***

Though she was eventually persuaded — thanks to Cecily’s threats to sleep on the floor  — to accept Mrs. Wellwicke’s offer, Lilith was wakeful long after her companions had fallen asleep.

She had no sooner thrust the obnoxious Mr. Wyndhurst from her mind than another gentleman pushed his way in: Sir Thomas Bexley, her erstwhile friend and, of late, patient suitor. His recent letters indicated he meant to repeat his offer of marriage in the very near future. Though her feelings had not changed since the last time, it seemed her answer must be yes.

Poverty did not frighten Mrs. Davenant. She was disciplined enough to live frugally. She need not and would not in any case accept the charity of Charles’s family. Unfortunately, poverty touched not only herself. Without funds, she could be of no help to her nieces.

She lay staring at the ceiling. The prospect of marriage was repugnant to her. There were reasons, but perhaps these were paltry. She would not be miserable with Thomas. He admired and respected her, and would exert himself to make her happy. Their tastes and personalities suited.

No, she could not be so self-centered as to reject marriage to a perfectly worthy gentleman  — not when the consequence was a lifetime of wretchedness for those beautiful, fresh, innocent girls. Cecily, for instance, to be married to that repellent sot, Lord Evershot — or to that obese young lecher, Mr. Crawbred.

It was always the same: whatever wealthy and sufficiently well-born mate was handiest would do. Her in-laws took greater care in mating their precious horses. The children — whom they produced in such shocking abundance — they only wanted off their hands.

Well, it would not be, she told herself. Aunt Lilith would look after them: Cecily now, Diana next year... Emily next... and Barbara after... then it would not be long before Charlotte’s girls came of age... and the eldest nephew, Edward, could do with some guidance – if he’d stand for it.

Thus, counting her beloved nieces and nephews instead of sheep, Mrs. Davenant finally fell asleep.