Monday, July 14, 2008

The Duchess and the Diamonds (Part Two)

Inside, a few couples were making their way around the dance floor. The Duchess was waiting to make her entrance, so many of those in attendance were conserving their energy for the later dances. I managed to secure an absinthe cocktail from a passing waiter, and noticed his uniform had a discrete logo with the caption “Victoria City Catering.” I thought it mildly odd, but soon forgot about it as I found myself in several conversations with my fellow guests. I saw for the first time a number of prominent Caledonians, including Lady Amber Palowakski, Lady Lavendar Beaumont, Lord and Lady Primbroke (Mr. and Mrs. Edward Pearse), the aforementioned Colonel Exrex Somme and his wife, the former Callipygian Christensen, among others, most of whom I knew by sight but to whom I had not been formally introduced. Still others I knew personally, but not well.

Sipping my cocktail, I made my way to one of the few people I knew quite well, Mr. Bob Armstrong, Captain of Police. Mr. Armstrong was a barrel-chested man of about 50 years, perhaps two inches shorter than I, but with a penetrating gaze that doubtless made the criminal classes confess rather than endure his interrogation. His wife, Corrine, was at home with their young daughters, unable to find a willing baby-sitter this evening thanks to the large number of parents attending the ball, and surely disappointed that she was unable to attend this year. Mr. Armstrong was in an ill-fitting evening jacket that had seen better days, rather than his usual uniform with its highly-polished brass buttons. After we had exchanged greetings, I said, “It appears as though you are here socially, Mr. Armstrong, rather than representing the police.”

He smiled. “I feel confident that anyone able to obtain an invitation from the Duchess is not highly inclined to engage in murder, or even larceny. I may, however, have to turn a blind eye toward public drunkenness,” he added, as even at this early hour I could see several industrialists starting to sway a bit, and could hear their voices raised in boisterous laughter.

“Let that be the extent of your problems, then, sir.”

I contemplated finding a second cocktail, debating whether one more absinthe would have me engaging in unladylike behavior, when the band struck up a cheerful fanfare. Conversations stopped, and everyone’s attention was drawn to the balcony overlooking the ballroom.

Lady Deanna made her entrance by descending the flying staircase. She was dressed in an exquisite satin gown in lilac, trimmed in white and gold lace, with very short sleeves, as was the style that season. She wore long white kid gloves, and on each wrist was a diamond bracelet, glistening in the gaslight. In her d├ęcolletage was the famous Varienne pearl necklace, comprising an enormous pear-shaped mobe pearl set among dozens of diamonds. Between the three pieces, the total weight was reputed to be close to 30 carats, and the effect was stunning. All eyes were fixed on the lady and her jewelry, including those of Baron Slater. He watched hungrily as she made her way toward him, Offering her his arm, the pair made their way across the ballroom, the sea of guests parting to let them through.

At a signal, the band started a minuet. The couple danced, first by themselves, then joined by a dozen or so other couples – somehow the rest knew who was and was not permitted on the dance floor with our hostess for this minuet. When the dance was over, the Baron escorted Lady Deanna to the matrons’ table. In their wake, murmurs of conversation started again, and the liveried staff made another pass with canap├ęs and light drinks. The Baron fiddled with a small box in his jacket pocket, lending credence to the rumor that he would make a marriage proposal this evening.

The music started again, a waltz this time. “Would you care to dance, miss?” a deep voice asked in my left ear. Setting down my empty glass, I turned. The speaker was a handsome man with a cerebral air about him. “Dr. Darien Mason,” he said with a bow.

I curtsied. “Miss Rhianon Jameson. And yes, I’d love to.” I accompanied Dr. Mason to the dance floor. He was an excellent dancer, much better than I, and polite enough not to remind me of this. While the music played, he told me a little bit about his scientific endeavors, which were fascinating indeed. I made a mental note to interest my editor in a feature story about him. I answered a few questions about myself, although my primary concern was in keeping up with the music and maintaining the proper steps. A separate train of thought had a nagging concern over my gown, clearly last year’s style, which is why it was barely affordable at all. With the exception of Captain Armstrong’s old dress jacket, brought out a few times a year when he attended such a gathering, everyone else seemed to have spent more than half my annual income dressing for tonight’s occasion, not even counting the heirloom jewelry they wore. I suspected Dr. Mason was taking pity on me, which was certainly a point in his favor.

The music stopped abruptly, causing several collisions on the dance floor. The band leader attempted to pick up the piece where they left off, but not all the musicians were playing, and the music eventually died again. Dr. Mason craned his neck to see what caused the disruption. I, too, was curious, though I had no hope of seeing over the crowd.

Then the couples all pulled back toward the sides of the room, creating an aisle down which a new arrival to the ball walked. She was a woman in her early 30s, apparently unaccompanied, but what caused the commotion was her attire: she wore a dress identical to that of the Duchess. The lilac satin, the cut – identical. Even the hairdos of the two women were identical. I could see to the head table, where Lady Deanna was giving the newcomer a most withering gaze; Her Grace was not pleased. Yet the newcomer appeared completely unperturbed at the commotion she was causing, stopping to pick up a glass of champagne with a gloved hand, and greeting people as she made her way toward the matrons’ table. We all drew the obvious conclusion, which is that this was a deliberate insult toward our hostess, though I had no idea why.

The Duchess struggled mightily with her self-control, and the Baron placed a hand on her arm to calm her. Good breeding won out, and the Duchess greeted her doppelganger coldly but politely. After the newcomer made her greetings, the Duchess put a hand to her forehead as though she had a severe headache, made some remarks to her companions, and walked to the hallway off the ballroom, down which a powder room was located. Meanwhile, the newcomer took her champagne in the same direction, stepping out onto a small balcony that overlooked the loch, where she stood alone. No one dared join her to provide company.

“Do you know that woman?” I asked Dr. Mason, who appeared as stunned as the rest of us.

He shook his head. “I do not, although I confess my experiments often keep me away from society events. She may be known, albeit new, to Caledon.”

“She certainly made an entrance tonight.”

“That she did,” the Doctor said with a laugh. “Perhaps you can use your investigative prowess to find out who she is. Do you know Dame Lapin Paris? No? Let me introduce you, as she knows everyone, or so it seems.” He walked me to where a small group was conversing quietly. Dame Lapin was younger than my image of a peer, and wearing a chic teal dress with a somewhat daring cut. Dr. Mason introduced me to the group, made his apologies, and went off in search of food.

“Dr. Mason suggested you might be familiar with the woman who made such a commotion,” I said.

Dame Lapin shook her head. “I’m afraid not. None of us are – we’ve been discussing just that question. Mr. Windemere here thinks he may have seen her on his visit to Steelhead, but cannot be certain. I know she has not been to an event in Caledon before tonight.” Mr. Windemere nodded his agreement. Another young lady, introduced to me as Miss Regina Gramercy, thought the stranger had a slight foreign accent when speaking with Lady Deanna.

“Most perplexing,” I said. “The slight would appear to be deliberate, yet where would she learn of Lady Deanna’s gown, much less obtain material to make a copy? No reputable dressmaker would allow the material or design to fall into the hands of someone else prior to the ball.”

“I would think not,” Dame Lapin agreed. “The exclusivity is part of what the outrageous fee for the haute couture design is for.”

“Has the Duchess taken ill?” I asked. It would not have surprised me if the mystery woman had upset our hostess to the point where the latter took refuge in her bed chambers. I looked to where the culprit had been, but the balcony was now empty.

“No,” replied Dame Lapin, “she merely retired to the powder room to compose herself and to reapply her makeup. I believe the Baron was on the verge of making an announcement, and I overheard Her Grace say that she needed a few moments to refresh herself.” We could see the Baron walk to the powder room entrance where he waited impatiently for her to finish.

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