When Miss Mitchelmore arrived at Lady Etheridge’s ball, she was resplendent in a gown of silver French gauze over a silken slip, her hair styled à la Grecque and decorated with roses. She caught even my eye, and I sometimes find it a little tricky to tell mortals apart. Which, I’ll admit, may have caused the tiniest of problems in the past.
For much of the evening I watched her from across the room while an elderly colonel opined to me at length regarding the French emperor. It was not, as you may imagine, a topic about which I cared in the slightest. See above regarding my difficulty distinguishing mortals from one another, even short Corsicans. Eventually I extricated myself from the conversation by enchanting him with a slight but persistent itching between the shoulder blades.
Thus freed, I found myself following the pretty Miss Mitchelmore. I am, amongst other things, a collector of stories, and my instincts told me that she was either the kind of lady who did interesting things or the kind to whom interesting things happened. Or, at a pinch, the kind to whom they could be made to happen. I am not above interfering in mortal affairs if it seems truly necessary, or if it would be mildly entertaining.
Initially it seemed the evening would be a profound disappointment. Miss Mitchelmore danced with several gentlemen, but never twice with the same one. She conversed with a number of ladies but said nothing that might be scandalous. There was, however, something strange about her gown. After her first dance I noticed a tear in the hem. After the second I caught sight of a stray thread trailing from her glove and saw petals falling from her hair. I should at this point make clear to the reader that the lady’s dress, while fine, was decidedly not of fairy manufacture. The works of my people have a wholly undeserved reputation for coming apart unexpectedly or transforming into leaves and cobwebs at the slightest provocation. In fact, such disasters tend to require considerable provocation. The problem is that mortals are exceedingly provoking.
But on this evening, at this ball, Miss Mitchelmore’s dress was most certainly dissolving into something. A snag here, a run there—it swiftly added up to a problem that first she, and then the general assembly, could not ignore. The loss of a headdress might be explained away as youthful high spirits, but by the time her gloves had frayed to the elbows it was clear she was in no fit state to be in mixed company. And since in her present circumstances mixed company could scarcely be avoided, she was, to put it bluntly, f***ed.
To her credit, but my disappointment, she did not panic. I have, over the centuries, seen a number of mortals deprived unexpectedly of clothing (there are some jokes, after all, which never fall out of fashion) and their responses are almost always hilarious. But once Miss Mitchelmore’s skirts had begun to go the way of the rest of her ensemble, she retreated quietly to the garden and took shelter behind an ornamental bush.
I followed her, of course. Slipping my mortal guise, I became first a shadow, then a sparrow, then a raindrop on a chestnut leaf. I have a fondness for scenes of mortal misadventure, especially those that befall preposterously, and I had the sense that this lady’s life was soon to become extremely preposterous.
Not having had the foresight to bring a needle, thread, and several yards of spare fabric to a society ball, Miss Mitchelmore’s efforts to conceal the dishevelment of her garments were growing increasingly futile. The fine cloth of the dress was crumbling beneath her fingers, and it was not long before she stood alone in the dark attired only in her corset, stockings, and chemise. Having been raised never to curse, she heaved a sigh and kicked a pebble.
Some minutes passed, during which she recovered a little of her composure but none of her clothing. Her dilemma was a simple one. She could return to the party in her undergarments and suffer the immediate loss of her status and reputation. Or she could wait in the garden until somebody found her and suffer the mildly delayed loss of her status and reputation.
Poor Miss Mitchelmore. She was, by any measure, having a pisser of an evening.
The door to the terrace opened and a figure emerged. She was, to Miss Mitchelmore’s great relief, a woman, meaning immediate scandal had been averted. Or would have been, were it not for the specific woman it turned out to be. To the wags of the ton the lady was known as the Duke of Annadale. She was not, of course. That had been her father. But he had died somewhat improbably of leprosy a few years prior to the events I presently relate, having been predeceased by all three of his sons. The eldest was stabbed in a gaming hell despite never gambling. The next was lost on a vessel crossing the channel despite the weather being calm and the captain having been diligent in his offerings to Mannanán and Poseidon. The youngest burned to death in the grass fires at Talavera. And thus the title fell into abeyance while the properties and monies fell on a woman who—although scarcely twenty at the time—was at once denounced by polite society as a sorceress. That she continued to be invited to balls despite the broad consensus that she had murdered four men by witchcraft might, perhaps, tell you everything you need to know about the fashionable set.
For a sorceress or a murderess she was a remarkably unremarkable woman—average in most particulars, but for a nose tending towards the aquiline and a hard, cynically set mouth. She wore a gown of dark-green velvet, its demi-train now slightly out of fashion, and a hat adorned with towering white feathers. Leaning back against the trunk of a chestnut tree, she brought a spill to her cigar, lit it, and inhaled. For some moments it seemed that she would not notice Miss Mitchelmore at all or, if she did, that she would ignore her for the sake of propriety. I was just preparing to intervene when the Duke of Annadale looked down.
“If you will pardon the observation, you appear to be in your underthings.”
“Yes.” In Miss Mitchelmore’s defence, I would not have known quite what to say either. Then again, I would have been invisible.
“A bold choice, but perhaps an unwise one?”
Straightening a little, Miss Mitchelmore managed a smile. Her smile was the kind accounted by mortals to be pretty. As, for that matter, was the rest of her. She had delicate features, hair a demure but fashionable light brown, and eyes that, in normal circumstances, sparkled with a kind of innocent joy. “It was not a choice. I—I fear somebody is playing a rather cruel joke upon me.”
“Well, if you will buy fairy-woven gowns.” I should say that I intensely dislike the Duke of Annadale.
“I have recently acquired a new modiste, but I am sure she is quite human. Besides, my friend Miss Bickle wears fairy-woven gowns all the time and she has never had this difficulty.”
Seeming to tire of the sartorial question, the Duke of Annadale made her way over to the small hedge and, removing the cigar from her lips, proffered it to Miss Mitchelmore. “Smoke?”
“I do not. And, even if I did, I think I would find my other concerns more pressing.”
With a shrug, the Duke of Annadale took another lungful of tobacco. “That’s one way to look at it. The other is that it can scarcely make matters worse.”
Perhaps seeing no point in resisting, Miss Mitchelmore took the cigar, put it to her lips, and sucked awkwardly. I personally found the resulting coughing fit terribly entertaining. “I must say,” Miss Mitchelmore sputtered, handing the offending object back to the Duke, “you seem to be taking my present condition remarkably in stride.”
“The joy of being a lady is that one may look at other ladies in their underwear and have it accounted no impropriety. The joy of being reviled as a witch is that propriety means little to one anyway.”
The mention of witchcraft combined with the slow recognition of a face she would doubtless have seen before, if only from afar, brought Miss Mitchelmore’s mind to a belated conclusion. “Then you are—that is—you are the one they call the Duke of Annadale?”
The Duke nodded.
“I’m sorry, I’m sure it is a name you mislike.”
If she did, she gave no sign of it. “I mislike the inaccuracy. But Lady Georgiana is scarcely better.”
“No? I think it rather pretty.”
“Really?” The Duke of Annadale seemed to be considering the matter. “And what reason do I have to trust the aesthetic judgement of a woman standing naked in a garden?”
Miss Mitchelmore coloured at that. “I am not naked, I am simply . . . underdressed.”
“You are undressed, and while it is a style you wear well it is not one that speaks to your good taste more generally.”
Running low on patience, or perhaps simply growing weary of the night air, Miss Mitchelmore looked defiantly at the Duke of Annadale. “You are mocking me, and that is unbecoming a woman of your station.”
“So was murdering my brothers. Since I am suspected of that already, I fail to see how showing mild discourtesy to a stranger will further sully my reputation.”