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Anne-Elisabeth Devereux

An Unexpected Visitor | Tuesday 8 pm

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Posted (edited)

#41 Townhouse of Lady Cambray

 

The geometric lines of the House stand stark against a neatly cropped lawn - it's gardens comprised of neatly trimmed hedges in the shapes of various mythological beasts. Beneath the Echidna tree is a marble bench from which the garden's design is optimally viewed - where upon in the dusk and a gentle breeze granting susurration to the leaves, the garden seems to come alive with excitement and adventure.

A sweeping arched driveway enters from one gateway and exeunt through the other, that carriages might drive right up to the steps that lead up to the house.

 

 

It was a bit early to get dressed for her meeting with Dorset, but Anne-Elisabeth thought it prudent to become accustomed to the clothes of a gentleman and to practice walking like one. She knew the blonde Earl wasn’t going to be fooled by her disguise … he would be expecting her … but she wanted to impress him with her impersonation of a gentleman.

 

And so she had requested that her male servants give her lessons in walking and acting like a man. Her servants were accustomed to the quirky behavior of their mistress and were no longer surprised when she did something unbecoming of a lady. After all, she could do anything she wanted in the privacy of her own home. The only servant who didn’t participate was her butler, who always looked down his nose at her when she did something particularly unladylike. But butlers were supposed to be stuffy and arrogant, so she simply ignored his disapproval. If he ever angered her, he’d find himself out on the street and wouldn’t be able to count on a good reference when he applied for positions in other noble households.

 

She was attempting to perfect a manly swagger when she heard a knock on the front door. That’s strange, I’m not expecting anybody. Perhaps Dorset sent me another gift.

 

Deciding to see if she could fool her impromptu visitor into thinking she was a gentleman, she checked her appearance in her full-length mirror, adjusting her itchy black periwig slightly. She was dressed in a plum, teal and gold brocade justacorps over a teal waistcoat and plum-colored trousers. Her stockings were deep gold and her shoes were black and shiny. A lace cravat completed her ensemble, fastened with a bejeweled pin. The outfit looked quite nice from a distance, but up close, a discerning eye would be able to tell that it had not been made by a professional tailor. It looked like the work of someone who was more experienced in making women’s clothes.

 

Leaving the room, Anne-Elisabeth quickly descended the staircase, waving away the butler when she reached the foyer. As usual, he glanced at her with reproach and turned back the way he had come. Pausing for a moment, she tried to think like a gentleman. Taking a deep breath, she pulled open the door.

Edited by Anne-Elisabeth Devereux

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Lord Ranelagh had been unable to track down the lady in question around court, and so it ending up that he sought her out at her residence during a likely time to find people at home. 

 

When the door opened, however, he did not see a man who looked like a butler. No, the young gentleman was too well-dressed for that...

 

With a very odd tailor.

 

For a moment, he wondered if the lady had a brother, which meant that he was still oddly silent standing there in surprise at the odd manner at which the door was answered!

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Anne-Elisabeth blinked when she saw who was standing on the other side of the door. Lord Ranelagh was one of the last gentlemen she would have expected to show up at her house unannounced. They had only met twice, and the last time had been at the scene of a murder only yesterday. Nicci had obviously been shocked and he had led her away to safety. Was her friend now in danger? Or had he simply found her missing pomander?

 

He had obviously come to see her and not a young gentleman.  Maybe he thought she was her own lover?  Taking off her itchy periwig, she smiled at him. Her long raven tresses were braided and coiled at the back of her head in order to be hidden under the wig. “Good evening, Lord Ranelagh. Please pardon my attire.” He probably thought that she was daft, dressing like a man in the privacy of her home.

 

“And please come in.”

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Ranelagh had seen many a lady in breeches. In fact, he had been seeing women in breeches his entire life; namely, his lady mother. One did not stealthfully sneak about dressed as a woman! 

 

It did not take very long for him to realize what was going on. The taking off of the periwig certainly helped. His reaction was certainly not scandalized or bothered in the very least.

 

Cross-dressing was just another day in the life of a libertine. There had been a solid period where mock, cross-dressed court weddings were all the rage in the Merry circles. 

 

"Well done, my lady," he said. "I am sorry to bother you at your clearly important business," he added with a cheeky grin. For a libertine woman, it actually was important business!

 

He stepped inside, "My intrusion need not be a lengthy one. I do not wish to disturb an adventure or rendezvous..." One did not cross-dress to visit one's proper lady friends for a cake and night cap!

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Lord Ranelagh didn’t even blink in surprise when Anne-Elisabeth removed her periwig. Either he was accustomed to ladies cross-dressing or he had already guessed who she was. She didn’t know him very well, but what she had seen and heard of him so far pegged him as a libertine. What would I have done had a pompous narrow-minded courtier been on the other side of the door instead? She had been so excited about fooling her guest she had acted before she thought.

 

But all had turned out well and the Earl even complimented her on her disguise. “Thank you, my lord.” She almost admitted that this was the first time she had posed as a gentleman, but it was better to let him believe that she was a seasoned male impersonator.

 

“You’re not interrupting anything important,” she assured him, returning his cheeky grin with a saucy one of her own. “Yet.”

 

When he stepped inside, she led him to the main parlor, attempting to walk like a man but forgetting not to let her hips swing in their usual seductive manner. “I have plenty of time to spare before I have to leave. I find it best to get into character early so that my ruse will be more realistic.”

 

Smaller than the one on the second floor and more formal, the parlor was decorated in shades of lavender, turquoise, and green. It was finely decorated and the walls were hung with paintings of tropical scenes. “Please sit down.” Anne-Elisabeth took one of the two chairs close to the fireplace, waving Lord Ranelagh into the other one. The room was warmer than most English households but it was not sweltering.

 

“How is Mademoiselle Vauquelin?” she asked. “She was understandably shaken up yesterday. Finding that body was a shock for all of us.”

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"Ahhh, a promising evening then?" he chuckled. "Do not fear. I shan't delay you overlong."

 

"Ruse, eh, so you are attempting an evening in male disguise?" he asked, having no qualms of speaking openly of such things. He was a libertine and a friend of the King. "I do hope you will have actual male company, for evenings in London can be rough even for a lone gentleman." Perhaps he was fishing for who she was meeting or perhaps he was just experienced enough to know what mistakes new libertine young ladies usually fell into! "I have known a group of ladies or two to get into some unexpected situations dressed as a man. Thieves target a well-dressed man a much as a well-dressed woman, perhaps moreso." Even some thieves had their morals and code about women, though others simply preferred kidnap over thievery in such a case.

 

He prettily sat down as she offered. 

 

"Ah, yes, you have struck upon the reason for my visit, for it was to tell you of the mademoiselle. She is well and safe after what has happened, but there may yet be danger to her if any know that it was she that happened upon the body, for the killer might think she could identify him. And there may perhaps even be a danger to His Majesty if any know there was a body at all," he said, and then he added, "My apologies for bringing up the macabre."

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“A very promising evening,” she replied. “And yes, I will be spending it as a gentleman and not a lady.” At least at first. Anne-Elisabeth didn’t know how long Dorset would want her to remain in disguise. She didn’t even know if she would be his only guest, though she hoped that it would only be the two of them.

 

What was it today about gentleman worrying about her safety when she was alone? True, the two situations were as different as night from day. Lord Silverbridge had been uneasy about her living without male protection and Lord Ranelagh warned her about traipsing around London while dressed like a man. She appreciated their concern, but she was able to take care of herself. Still, she hastened to reassure him. “I will be in the company of a genuine gentleman all evening. If any thieves attack us, he will keep me safe.” There wasn’t much chance of thieves breaking into Dorset’s house.

 

The young Countess didn’t miss the casual way the Earl spoke of cross-dressing, as if it were perfectly normal. Among libertines, it probably was. He even knew entire groups of ladies who dressed like men … and probably gentleman who disguised themselves as ladies. His friends sounded like the kind of people she would get along well with. I shall ask Nicci to take me along if he invites her to any parties. She had done much the same when Anne-Elisabeth had mentioned that she knew the Merry Gang.

 

Her heart dripped to the pit of her stomach when Lord Ranelagh told her that he wanted to talk about Nicci. Had the killer tried to assassinate her? She refused to believe that her friend had been murdered. She had the King’s protection, after all.

 

And she was well. The tension left Anne-Elisabeth’s body and she relaxed into her chair. So her charming visitor didn’t want her spreading news of the murder all around court because it might be endanger both Nicci and the King. And the two of us as well, if the murderer had seen us standing around the body. She had considered revealing that she had seen the body to Dorset but maybe it was best that she didn’t.

 

She offered Lord Ranelagh a slight smile. “Don’t worry about it. Dead bodies don’t bother me overmuch. After you left, I stayed and helped Lord Langdon investigate. In fact, I was the one who found the murder weapon.” The Countess had promised the Life Guard that she wouldn’t speak of their discoveries but she assumed that he didn't want her leaking the information to anyone who wasn't at the scene of the crime.  Lord Ranelagh  did not fall into that category.  “If the killer was lurking nearby admiring his handiwork, you and I could be in danger too. My self-preservation instinct is well-honed. I will speak of it to nobody who wasn’t there and then in the utmost privacy.  Mademoiselle Vauquelin might want to talk about it when the next time we see each other."

 

Again, she thought of the double Earl she would be meeting later tonight. “Who else knows about the murder?” Dorset was close to the King. If he was aware of it, then she could discuss it with him.

 

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"Were you now?" Ranelagh asked. It could not be helped that he leaned forward in his seat some at this revelation. "Well done, I daresay, although one is generally not supposed to encourage ladies in such pursuits. I have always found there are some ladies more capable than most gentlemen."

 

He would think so. His mother had left his wastrel father and brought him back to London with her and forged her own way with the blessings of her own father and his protection. 

 

His lady mother frightened most men!

 

"That is quite true, but our late arrival means it pretty obvious neither of us could identify the murderer. So that is good. But the less attention brought the better for all of us. One never knows." He smiled and added, "They do say 'better safe than sorry,' and there is some wisdom in that."

 

She asked who else was aware of the murder and he said, "Whomever is investigating and a few Life Guard, I am sure. Some of His Majesty's household, but I am not privy to all of those details."

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Not only did Lord Ranelagh see nothing wrong with cross-dressing ladies, he seemed to encourage such behavior. Anne-Elisabeth had to admit she liked the handsome Earl. “Truly?” she asked. “I hope to be one of those ladies myself. One can do so much more as a man than as a woman.” She grinned cheekily. “And they can get away with more as well.”

 

She nodded. “Even if Mademoiselle Vauquelin did not see him, he might think that she did. If he stuck around, he would have been well hidden by the time we arrived. She is my friend. I would never do anything to endanger her and you wouldn’t believe how good I am at keeping secrets.

 

“If the murderer saw me pull the dagger from the fountain, then I might have a target on my back too. Though it is no longer in my possession, I examined it thoroughly and can identify it if I see it again, even if he manages to liberate it from wherever it is currently being kept.”

 

Lord Ranelagh had no idea who else knew about the murder. The more she thought about, the more sure she was that Dorset was aware of it. He struck her as the kind of gentleman who had spies everywhere. It was probably safe to discuss it with him. There was even a chance he might bring up the subject himself, especially if he had been told she had helped investigate.

 

She leaned forward in her chair as well, favoring Lord Ranelagh with another grin. “You seem to know quite a few male impersonators. In truth, I am rather new at this but I am serious about masquerading as a gentleman. I am an aspiring astronomer with a keen interest in all forms of science and I would like to be able to attend lectures and perhaps become known in scientific and intellectual circles. Do you think that is even possible or do I aim too high?”

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"Yes, but pretending to be a man does have its downsides, just like anything," Ranelagh ventured, although he did not detail anything in particular as he was no authority on the subject. 

 

And that was not what he was there for, after all. 

 

And if she was anything like his lady mother, there might only be room for one in his life!

 

"I do not think anyone would have lingered that long with no very good place to hide, with their own life in the balance, but your care for your friend is quite commendable." Ranelagh could not imagine anyone hanging about long with the risk of getting caught and tortured and executed! Not if they were smart. "I do not think it very likely they would know Nicci either, not without whispers getting out that it was her."

 

He chuckled and said, "Far be it for me to discourage anyone in their endeavors. The difficulty is in not being discovered as a woman and in standing out among those who have had a formal education at university in such things. That community has a large portion of proper gentlemen and academics, and it will be difficult to escape discovery for very long."

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Anne-Elisabeth wished that Lord Ranelagh would elaborate on the disadvantages of impersonating a man. She saw none at all, except the possibility of discovery. She might be reviled in proper circles, but applauded in those that were libertine. She had pretty much given up the notion of serving the Queen, preferring to set her goals on becoming part of the King’s entourage and a member of the Merry Gang. Only a week ago, she had thought she could do both, but now she realized that it was next to impossible and might hurt the reputation of her friend Davina, which she would never risk.

 

“If the killer was narcissistic, he might,” she countered, “but it is more likely that he fled.” She and Lord Langdon had found proof that at least one of the murderers had run off, but he had thought there could have been two. Maybe the second one had found a hiding place that he couldn’t leave without being caught and so had been forced to watch the discovery of his victim. .

 

Anne-Elisabeth didn’t miss the fact that Ranelagh used Nicci’s given name. She remembered when she and her friend had gotten drunk on coconut rum. Nicci had said she planned to marry Ranelagh, and the young Countess had wondered if she had become the King’s mistress so that she could marry the Earl. Maybe they had already taken their relationship to the next level, not that it was any of her business.

 

She listened as he outlined the pitfalls in her plan. “Very good points. Though I like to think I can do anything, I doubt I could converse intelligently with a university-educated academic. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to blend into the background and learn from them before I assert myself. I am not afraid of the risk … risks thrill me … but I don’t want to make a fool of myself and ruin my chances of being taken seriously as an astronomer.”

 

Anne-Elisabeth shrugged. “I’ll see how this evening goes before I make any decisions. I still have a lot to learn about posing as a man. Do you have any more advice for me?”

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"That would be a good idea, for the more scrutiny you draw via any method, the more likely it is that someone will find you out as a lady. Society will allow some things, but there is no secret way to have everything one wants," Ranelagh advised. 

 

"Even in the reign of our merry Charles II, the line you wish to toe is oft an unforgiveable one if inadvertently crossed. Court is a place where behavior matters and sticking to one's role is important. You are young. Do not forget that."

 

Age was, unfortunately, not an excuse for a woman's behavior, although a young gentleman could get away with much during his youth. The same was not true of women. Even His Majesty understood those things, for it was that reason that most of the ladies of nobility he fucked, nobody ever knew about. And why some of his children were not publicly acknowledged, for their own benefit. Reputation was very real. 

 

"And with that, I must take my leave. His Majesty is expecting me this evening, and I do not wish to hold up your engagement."

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Anne-Elisabeth listened avidly to Lord Ranelagh’s advice. Had some of his crossdressing lady friends been ostracized because they had gone too far when impersonating a gentleman? How far was too far? She was a natural risk-taker and had pretty much ruined any stellar reputation she might have earned on her first night at court. While she didn’t care what holier-than-thou fools thought of her, she certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the King.

 

She didn’t like being reminded that she was young (and therefore had a lot to learn), but it was true. “I will be careful,” she promised. And she would remember his words to her whenever she felt she was close to crossing the line of propriety. “In most situations, it is more advantageous to embrace my femininity. Science, unfortunately, is not one of them.”

 

Anne-Elisabeth stood up when Lord Ranelagh said he had to leave so that he wouldn’t miss an appointment with the King. “Of course,” she acknowledged with a genuine smile. “I apologize for taking up so much of your time with my questions. Giving a lady advice about posing as a gentleman was not the reason you came.

 

“I promise that I shall not breathe a word about what happened yesterday morning.” Her smile turned into an impish grin. “Because nothing happened at all, and I was asleep in my bed until long after the sun came up.” Ranelagh would certainly know that lying was sometimes necessary to protect those you cared about.

 

“Shall I walk you to the door?”

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