“No. I was eager for explanations, for excuses, for anything. But along with his other faults, Beaumont is honest. He had told me he would leave his mistress, and apologized for what I’d seen—but then I asked him if he loved her. He hesitated for a moment and declined to answer, but it was too late. And he finally admitted the truth.”
“He loved his mistress? My mother said that men form those relationships in a purely practical fashion.”
“Your mother’s axioms should be taken with a grain of salt,” Jemma said. “Sarah was very beautiful. By the time we married, they’d been together, if you can use that term, for three years. He says she’s no longer his mistress now, but I don’t know how their relationship ended. I do know that he had an attachment to her that was far greater than his attachment to me, with our stilted intimacies and my foolish comments in bed.”
Poppy swallowed. “It sounds as if you and I are in similar marriages.”
“You saw Fletch flirting with someone,” Jemma corrected her. “Beaumont left my bed, after making love to me, and proceeded to his office, where he made love to Miss Cobbett. There is a world of difference there, Poppy.”
“Not really,” Poppy said. “You know there isn’t. If Louise hadn’t happened to be my friend, he’d be making love to her on a desk right now. Is that—is that a common place for such activities?” she burst out.
“No,” Jemma said. Then she grinned. “We shouldn’t be so gloom-filled, Poppy. Not that many marriages survive, for one reason or another. I waited in Paris for three years, thinking that Beaumont would bring me back, but he didn’t. And by the time he finally deigned to pay me a visit, I had discovered some pleasures of my own—if not on a table top.”
“I see,” Poppy said. “You’re suggesting that Fletch will wait three years before paying me another call?”
Jemma leaned over and gave her a squeeze, but said nothing.
“He isn’t going to come, is he?” It was a relief to say it out loud.
“I’m not sure how parallel our situations are,” Jemma said, “but my guess is that he’s rather surprised he hasn’t encountered you at a party.”
“He’s going to parties?” Poppy asked.
Jemma turned back the newspaper and pointed to a column entitled “Taradiddle about the Ton.” Just above Jemma’s pink-tipped finger was a sentence that made Poppy’s heart drop into her slippers.
The Duke of F—found himself at the du Maurier ball last night without his duchess. The tiddle is that the said duchess may have departed for Venice. The Duke appeared unmoved by the buzz of interest and spent most of the evening in colloquy with Pitt’s lords, who seemed overjoyed to welcome the sprig of fashion to their ranks.
“How Fletch must hate being called a sprig of fashion,” Poppy said. And: “I’m in Venice?”
“They always get those things wrong,” Jemma said. “If they’re not sure where you are, they make something up.”
“I should go to a meeting of Lady Cleland’s sewing circle,” Poppy said, after a bit.
“I wouldn’t,” Jemma said.
“It sounds boring.”
“It’s our duty,” Poppy said. “Caring for the poor and succouring the afflicted.”
“I don’t do it well,” Jemma said. “I do give a great deal of money away. Beaumont’s money, but believe me, an impoverished person far prefers the solid clink of coin to a poorly stitched sheet, which is about all that I can sew.”
“I was wondering about money…What am I to do about money?”
“What do you mean? Fletcher certainly has plenty of money. I’ve never heard otherwise.”
“But I don’t have any,” Poppy said. “I haven’t even tuppence.”
“Don’t you have an allowance?”
Poppy shook her head. “Fletch offered one, but Mother said that I should simply send him all my bills and leave the financial details to him. She gave me lots of advice about how I should react if he questioned my bills, but Fletch has never said a word, not even when I bought two hats—and they were scandalously expensive—in the same month.”
“Why did your mother believe you shouldn’t have an allowance?”
“I don’t know.” But she did know. “She thinks I’m not intelligent enough to handle money,” Poppy said, controlling her voice. “She doesn’t say it cruelly, but she believes that very few women handle money well.”
“She says that to you, the woman immersed in studies of water and air and starlings? And are you saying that you haven’t bought a thing in the years you’ve been married without thinking about your husband’s reaction?”
“And before that, I suppose your mother—”
“Of course,” Poppy said, feeling like the fool she was. “I shall stay with you through Christmas, Jemma, but then I want to set up my own establishment. And I intend to travel a great deal.”
Jemma raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess…to the wild African plains?”
Poppy grinned. “Actually, I was thinking of the NileRiver to start.”
“The Nile will only be comfortable if you are veritably swimming in money,” Jemma said firmly. “I assume that your husband banks at Hoare’s Bank, along with every other sprig of fashion in the capital?”
“You mustn’t call him that. He would hate it so!”
“But he is a sprig,” Jemma said. “For one thing, he’s so young.”
“He’s older than I am.”
“But younger than I, and worse, he makes me feel old with that little beard of his, and the way he slouches through a room, burning with something or other.”
“It is tiresome, isn’t it?” Poppy said, starting to laugh.
“And he’s tediously beautiful,” Jemma said. “Tediously so.”
“It’s not manly to be so perfect in every way.”
Poppy was laughing delightedly.
“What you need,” Jemma said, “is to withdraw a great deal of money and spend it however you like, without thinking twice about whether you’re buying two hats or forty hats. And then we’ll send Fletch a letter and tell him that you’d like your allowance deposited into your own account at Hoare’s Bank. It will be much easier for both of you that way. You can set up your own house hold, and travel wherever you like, and he won’t have to worry about it.”
It was all delightfully simple.
Faced with the smiling, confident faces of the Duchesses of Beaumont and Fletcher, Mr. Pisner of Hoare’s Bank handed over the truly outrageous sum the duchess demanded without a quibble. “After all,” he told his manager, Mr. Fiddler, later, “I knew who she was and it was her.” That wasn’t grammatical, but it was clear enough. “And it were the Duchess of Beaumont as well, and the two of them as thick as thieves, you could tell. And then she told me, the Duchess of Fletcher that is, that she would like her own account at the bank, and that her husband will be depositing her allowance there.”