“Perhaps Mademoiselle Caro will be able to bend her designs to the tender sensibilities of English gentlewomen,” Roberta suggested, feeling quite certain that most of the Frenchwoman’s designs would terrify and amaze the ladies of her acquaintance.
“And perhaps not. Then she will leave me and return to Paris, where at least three comtesses are slavering for her services. I’ve had to double her wage twice in the last few years. Which is a frightfully shallow thing to admit when you’ve called on such a serious business.”
“Well, as to that—”
“Please, let’s not talk of sad subjects until we’re seated with a cup of tea. I would ring for claret; I always think that claret is a sustaining drink for unpleasant subjects, but it’s too early.”
They walked into a small sitting room. “I must have this redone,” the duchess said, pausing a moment. “I’ve only come from Paris a day or so ago, or I assure you that I wouldn’t bring you into such a shabby place.”
The room did have a rather forbidding aspect. It was painted a drab mustard color and featured a large picture of a smiling young woman holding a severed head by its hair. “Just look at her,” the duchess said. “She carries that head with all the jaunty air of a tavern maid.”
“It must be Judith and Holofernes,” Roberta said. “Under the circumstances, Judith looks rather cheerful, don’t you think?”
The duchess strolled over to the picture. “Actually, I think she looks rather drunk. Don’t you think she looks tipsy?”
“I believe that Judith first brought Holofernes some wine,” Roberta said. “Before she took off his head. Though I would hate to cast disparagements on the artist’s skill, her drunken aspect might have to do with the fact that her eyes do not appear to be level.”
“Her face is also remarkably rosy.”
“Probably the hard work,” Roberta pointed out. “I would guess that it takes a strong arm to sever a man’s neck.”
“Good point. I can see that you are very practical. Do sit down here, Lady Roberta, with your back to the severed head. I shall have it removed at my very first opportunity. I haven’t lived in London for eight years, but I still wake up trembling when I think of my mother-in-law; this is her special sitting room, you understand. Thank goodness, she lives in a dower house in the country now.”
Roberta seated herself. “I should explain who I am—”
“Yes,” the duchess interrupted. “You are my very first encounter as the wife of a politician. So you understand that I am very anxious to get this right. How much money would you like?”
“It’s not money,” Roberta said. “You see, I am—”
“Not money! Oh dear, then it’s that altogether more valuable commodity of time, isn’t it? I’ll be no use to you. Not only am I congenitally unhelpful in practical matters, but I tend to gather people around me who are as—shall we say—immoral as I?”
“Are you quite immoral?” Roberta asked, her scruples overcome by strong curiosity. The duchess didn’t look immoral. Of course, Roberta’s assessments were quite likely inaccurate, given that they were founded on years of living with her father’s mistresses, women who prided themselves on a reckless disregard for conventional morality.
“Quite,” the duchess said with unrelieved cheerfulness. “Absolutely. Up to my neck in it. Naked ladies on the table is only the start, I assure you. So I’m afraid that my assistance wouldn’t be of the least use to you.”
“In truth, I think you can be,” Roberta said.
The duchess looked alarmed. “Truly, I cannot. I become irritable—fierce—when bored, and I am so quickly bored.”
Roberta was thoroughly enjoying herself now. “How fierce?”
“Dastardly! Once, in the midst of a tedious dinner, I insulted the Comtesse de la Motte by being a trifle too forthright about her origins. She would have gone white in the face, but for her excessive application of rouge.”
The door swung open rather violently, revealing the duchess’s secretary. Her chest was heaving, her hair was disheveled, and her fists were clenched. In fact, she was the very vision of Judith, lacking only a severed body part or two. Clearly, if her wishes were respected, she would be toting the duke’s head.
“Oh dear,” the duchess said, under her breath.
“I return this minute—this evening—this very minute to the shores of France, where my work is appreciated! This husband of yours is a man with no sense of the beauty in life. No sense for the aesthetic value. He has a soul of the mud. He bathes in the dirt, this one! I pity you!”
“Oh, Caro,” the duchess said, rising from her chair. “Surely you cannot mean to say that you will leave me. Me? After all the glorious events we planned together? Think of the satyrs! Think of the King sending you a note after the Crystal Forest!”
“Your husband does not understand my genius,” the enraged Frenchwoman hissed. “I know the type. He will be hedging me about with his concerns and his proprieties. I cannot be hedged about! I am a genius!”
“Geniuses sometimes have to work under terrible conditions,” Roberta suggested, coming forward. “In fact, it is then that they produce their best, their most enviable work. Think of Michelangelo, lying on his back to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”
The maddened eye of the Frenchwoman fixed on Roberta. “Michelangelo was a foolish Italian! I am French! I cannot be stymied by the hidebound opinions of a petty bureaucrat!”
Behind her, Roberta heard a small snort of laughter from the wife of the petty bureaucrat.
“But to turn your back on a true challenge…” Roberta shook her head. “It’s not the action of a Frenchwoman, mademoiselle.” Then she decided it would be better to soothe the wild beast in her own language, and continued in the same vein in French, silently thanking her governess for her insistence on the language. “Escusez-nous, c’est bien pour ça que Leonardo da Vinci a choisi de vivre en France. Nous étions, encore, des barbares.”
“She is right,” the duchess cooed. “Your artistry has suffered naught but a small setback.”
“I suggest,” Roberta said, “that you think not in terms of the Queen of the Sea—so redundant, so tedious—but in terms of the great mythological figures. All of whom wore clothes. Now when I see a giant shell, do I think of Neptune? No!”
“I know,” the secretary said, lip curling. “You think of Venus. I’m tired of Venus and her foolish shell.”
“I think of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman ever to live.”
“And precisely when did Helen appear in a sea shell?”
“It’s not a seashell, but an egg,” Roberta explained. “It can be painted white. The huge egg splits to reveal the woman who began the Trojan War. Of course, she would be wearing classic Greek garb.”
“Ah,” Caro said, her eyes narrowing. “Perhaps…”
“Brilliant!” the duchess cried. “I adore it, love it, and so will Beaumont.”
“But my tail!” Caro said. “The glorious touch of the Queen of Neptune’s mechanical tail, which took two days to design.”