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How to Impress a Marquess

By:Susanna Ives



Spring, 1879

A day without Lilith Dahlgren was a fine day indeed, George, Marquess of Marylewick, mused as he eased back in his brougham seat.

He was finally heading home after surviving another insipid musical evening of delicate young darlings in dainty gowns gently butchering Bach or Mozart. He removed his top hat, tugged his tie loose, and gazed out at the night. Gold halos glowed around the gaslights, turning the London night a silken deep gray. The moody atmosphere reminded him of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s paintings. Turner was a real painter, unlike Lilith’s ramshackle bohemian friends whose art resembled the plum jelly drawings a four-year-old George had created on his nursery walls. These new artists should be punished for their pathetic attempts at art the same way he had been: their hands dipped in iced water and then slapped with a leather strap. Indolent wastrels, all of them.

George released a long stream of tired breath and reviewed his day to make sure he had squeezed every drop of productive juice from it. He had attended the boxing parlor as he did every morning. He had danced about the ring, thinking about the metaphorical punches he needed to deliver in the heated debate of the contentious Stamp Duty Extension Bill. After a brief breakfast with his sister, he had reviewed estate, bank, and stock accounts with his man of business. Then he had legged over to White’s to pass the remainder of the morning making political battle plans with the lord chancellor. Two more hours had been allocated in the afternoon for the business of his numerous wards and dependents, including the sugar-coated orders from his mama as she readied Tyburn Hall for the upcoming house party. Three Maryle relatives had appointments and were each given fifteen minutes. George believed that was sufficient time for them to express the matter at hand without lapsing into tears or drama. He abhorred sentimentality and rapturous overtures of any kind—all the things that characterized Lilith.

After his relatives had left, he had lingered in his study a few minutes longer, in case Lilith graced him with an appearance. Acting as her trustee was a taxing and thankless responsibility. She never bothered with appointments, but breezed in as the mood struck her, staying well beyond her allotted fifteen minutes. She always had a new ploy to wheedle money from her grandfather’s trust to help some degenerate artist pollute society with his rubbish. When George was convinced that she wasn’t calling, he had breathed a sigh of relief, donned his wig, and headed for Parliament with an extra spring in his step.

Now, having survived a grueling session of Parliament and the equally grueling musical party, he could look forward to donning his nightshirt, sliding under crisply ironed sheets, and reading Colette and the Sultan.

The latest chapter in author Ellis Belfort’s serial had been wagging on everyone’s tongues that evening. How would Colette escape her evil pursuer, Sultan Murada? The story had set London society ablaze, but George had been enthralled with Colette from the very first installment. In a sense, he felt her story was his for having discovered it before everyone else.

As his carriage rolled along Piccadilly, George imagined the gentle Colette. He envisioned her possessing ebony locks that flowed over her breasts, almost reaching her waist. The black waves shone like onyx in sunlight. Her enormous eyes were the green of country fields after rain. He chuckled to himself. Colette didn’t exist, yet in his mind she seemed so real. As if she rubbed elbows against him in Trafalgar Square, or had just left the circulating library as he entered. As if she—

“Damnation, Lilith!” he thundered.

Down Half Moon Street, bright light and raucous laughter and music—loud enough to penetrate the inner sanctum of his carriage—blared from the home Lilith shared with her late father’s cousins, Edgar and Frances Dahlgren.

“Hell’s fire!” He should have known he couldn’t have a day free of Lilith.

He had a good mind to ignore her and drive home to his crisp sheets and fictional Colette, but then a horrible image of being summoned to police court for Lilith filled his mind.

He rapped the carriage window with his cane. Without his having to issue a command, the groom, reading his master’s mind, turned the brougham. George prepared for battle, rebuttoning his collar and retying his white tie. The carriage lurched to a stop before a brick townhouse. On the door was a brass plaque that read “Dahlgren Ateliers.” George stabbed the walk with his cane as he stepped unassisted from his carriage. “Around the block,” he ordered his groom.

At the door, George was impeded by two young men reeking of a distillery.

“Art is death, my good fellow,” declared one of the gents. He wore a crumpled coat, a loose scarlet cravat, and a tragic expression on his pallid face. “The loss, the separation, the mystery.”

“Death, death, death,” retorted the other man, shaking his Byronesque locks. “You are obsessed by death. But there is no meaning in death as there is in life. Art is the lost, sensitive soul grappling for meaning amid our meaningless, empty existence.”

“You are meaningless!” cried the scarlet cravat. “I ask this chap here.” He stumbled into George, giving him a shot of his liquored breath. “Is art about death or finding meaning?”

George paused, having never had the absurd question put to him. “It’s something pleasing to look upon while dining or passing time at a tedious musical evening,” he mused. “Anything beyond that is the conjecture of selfish, grown boys unwilling to contribute to society except to aggravate it with their indulgent, nansy-pansy rantings. Good evening.” He brushed them off as if they were lint on his immaculate sleeve. He knocked at the door.

Was art about death or finding meaning?

He pondered the question while waiting. When he found himself pondering for more than thirty seconds, he started to knock again but the door swung open. A blond woman in a revealing purple gown peered at him.

“Aren’t you handsome?” she purred. She removed his top hat, letting her finger draw a tiny circle on his cheek. “A Donatello in the flesh. Simply exquisite. Absinthe?”

“No, thank you.” George reached for his hat.

She laughed and hid it behind her back. “I meant, do you have any absinthe, my dazzling Donatello?”

“No, ma’am. As a general rule, I do not willingly ingest poison. Please restore my hat.”

“Hmmph.” She tossed his hat against the wall with a flick of her hand and sauntered away, her bustle wagging behind her.

He stepped inside, retrieved his hat, and dusted it off. People crammed the parlor and adjacent back room. They conversed in small circles, drinks dangling from their hands, eyes lit with animation. Their conversations merged to form a loud roar over the music. Their energy soaked into his veins. A thought bubbled up—“Damned sight better than that blasted musical butchery”—before he could pop it. He had to remind himself that these were artists and Lilith’s friends, never a good recommendation. They were probably rapturous over the subtle depth in a certain shade of blue or the hidden symbolism in some obscure poem or other such nonsense.

He edged along the wall. Just find Lilith, he told himself, trying to keep his mind from straying into the guests’ ridiculous conversations. Then he heard a female voice say, “Colette? Why, it’s all about coitus.”

He halted.

“Coitus. Fornication. All of it,” the woman prattled on, affected cynicism oozing from her words. “See how the author cleverly disguises his meaning: ‘Kiss me, dearest, know the sweet nectar of my lips.’ I daresay the uneducated masses assume he is referring to the lips on her mouth.”

His innocent Colette’s lips. Those lips. How dare someone suggest that of his pure Colette? Had these so-called “artists” no respect for what was decent and honest? No, they were obsessed with carnality and the darker aspects of human desires and viewed all humanity through their warped lens. He was about to say as much when someone shouted in his ear, “Do you like the painting?”

George swiveled and found himself staring at a painting of what appeared to be the blurred image of a woman with flowing hair. Or was that a flowing gown? In any case, something was flowing around her. Blobs of blue and green paint were splattered along her feet and around her head—if that indeed was her head and not another random blob.

“Good heavens, what blind sot vomited that?” George wondered.

The man’s jaw dropped. Tears actually misted his eyes. “I—I did.”

Damn. George should have known as much. “I’m sorry, my good man, I didn’t mean… It’s most colorful,” he grappled. “I admire the subtle depth in the shades of blue and so much symbolism in those…well, whatever those splotches are at the bottom.”

“Water lilies, Lord Marylewick,” a familiar dusky voice said. Behind the man, Lilith materialized in all her brilliance. “It’s A Muse Amongst the Water Lilies,” she stated as if it were readily apparent Dutch realism.

Whenever Lilith appeared, George had the sensation of walking from a pitch-black room into the piercing sunshine. He needed time for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he didn’t approve of what he saw. Her lustrous auburn locks, adorned with flowers, were loose and flowing over her azure robe and gauzy shawl. From the way the thin silk of her robe rested on her ripe contours, he could only guess that she wore no semblance of undergarments. That tiny vein running over his temple began to throb, as did another part of his body.