For lovers of throwback historical and gothic romances, vintage pulpy reads and spy thrillers, or old movies and magazines, the name Robert McGinnis might be familiar. But if it isn’t, then his works of art surely are.The Art of Robert E. McGinnis by Robert McGinnis and Art Scott — Introvert Reader
Chapter One: Sin Made Flesh
The tavern was not a rough sort, just the place that a certain ignoble breed of noblemen would frequent. Even so, when the two gentlemen entered the establishment, heads were quick to turn.
The men were handsome in a way that only elegant aristocrats could be. It was not their manner of dress that attracted attention, for although the quality of their clothing was exceptional, their garments of worsted wool in shades of deep grey and navy blue and pristine cravats did not mark them dandies. What drew the focus of every inhabitant of that darkened room was the inborn haughtiness both men emanated. They carried themselves as two princes would, with airs of entitlement that set every servant in the barroom to attention.
Both men were tall and slim of build, but broad-shouldered. One had hair the color of ripened chestnuts and rich brown eyes, the other was black-haired, with eyes such a dark and mysterious shade of green they appeared black in the dim light. The gentlemen were seated within seconds, then promptly served by a buxom wench who tossed them a flirtatious smile as she procured their requests before hastening to fill the orders.
“So my friend,” said the first man, a proud gleam in his eyes. “It’s been a year to this day.”
“A day you’ve been dreading,” replied the other gentleman, with an even more superior air. “I know that quite well that you were not looking forward to this.”
The chestnut-haired fellow laughed. “How arrogant are you about winning this contest!”
“Not arrogant, Ravenhill. Confident. The extents of my exploits are no secret, we both know.”
“Yes,” Ravenhill rejoined. “But simply because I’m not one to boast doesn’t mean that I cannot verify my adventures. Let us compare, and you’ll see I’ve earned my winnings this year.”
The black-haired lord’s haughty air did not waver. “That, we have yet to determine.”
The men pulled folded papers out from their coat pockets to spread upon the table. Each looked diligently at the pages, comparing their notes of the past year’s events.
“Ah, yes, Mrs. Cassandra Lethridge. That was quite an escapade for you,” said Ravenhill as he gave a side-long glance to his companion. “A previously faithful and devoted wife whom you convinced to elope to Paris, only for her to return alone in humiliation. Then, of course, you wounded her husband in the subsequent duel.” A brow was raised as if to say: “You only injured him, dear boy, when you should have killed the man.”
“Yes, I know it was only an injury,” responded the black-haired gentleman, “But the poor sap had already been so humiliated! ”
“And that is why you will lose this year’s challenge, Chelmsford. For I had no such compunction when I deflowered the young Miss Anne Fleming. When her aggrieved brother foolishly dared to defend the family honor, I was not so merciful as you.”
“Ravenhill, you did not deflower the lovely Miss Fleming! It’s well known she was but used goods and her brother was a dupe to defend her non-existing honor.”
“How are you so certain that she was not chaste?”
“My dear fellow, don’t be stupid. Who do you think took her in the first place? How ever did she fool you? You must have been three sheets to the wind not to notice.”
“Now Chelmsford, you’ve gone too far. Don’t you think I know a virgin when I have one? I deflowered her all right, but not in the ‘traditional fashion.’”
Chelmsford sputtered on the brandy that had provided for him moments earlier by the buxom serving wench.
“Now that is an accomplishment!” He raised in glass in appreciation. “I’m ashamed I didn’t even try!”
“Now, about Miss Carmilla Danvers…”
“I had her first!”
“Only after I ruined her by taking her out to Hyde Park, unchaperoned, and did not return until nightfall. In society’s eyes, she was as good as deflowered.”
“Ravenhill, even though you quibble semantics, I must say you may have a point.” Chelmsford’s dark green eyes glimmered with wry humor. “Yes, I’ve been too lax this past year. I’ve gotten soft. In the past, I would have had this won by Summer’s end.”
Ravenhill laughed at his friend’s bemusement and patted Chelmsford’s arm. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Even the best racehorse is put out to pasture after a few good years,”
“Yes,” Chelmsford replied sardonically. “To stud.”
Ravenhill laughed even harder at that remark as they went on comparing notes, each one assured that he had ruined more decent women, fought in more duels, and gained more notoriety in the past year than the other. The matter of who had bested whom in order to be declared winner was a serious one indeed.
The men had a carefully established method of ranking their debaucheries. Ladies of the evening and tavern wenches did not count. Only females of breeding and quality mattered in this match. The points were distributed in a fixed manner. One point given to widows and two to unchaste wives; three points allotted to hitherto faithfully married women. A lady such as Miss Danvers, whose reputation had been ruined via subterfuge, was worth two points, but to have actually plucked her chastity was worth five. The duels were classified into three categories: deaths, wounding one’s opponent, and being wounded oneself. They were five points, two points, and negative one point, respectively. Engaging in a duel was a matter of pride between the two lords, and losing to a scorned husband or enraged family member was shameful so could not be awarded any merits. The final category was reserved for ladies so shattered by their ruination, that they would resort to self-harm. Five points were given to suicide attempts and ten points for successful accomplishments.
After several stiff drinks, which were not enough to cause either man the slightest hint of inebriation—for, after all, they were professional imbibers—the statistics thoroughly compared, the points tallied, when Ravenhill and Chelmsford realized they were tied with fifty points apiece.
“A bloody tie!” Justin, Lord Tollemache, the Earl of Chelmsford, said in disgust. He could not believe it. After three consecutive years of defeating Baron Edmund Ravenhill, he’d been unable to best him this time!
“You’re slacking,” Ravenhill crowded. “You’re getting on in age and not as fresh as you used to be. By next year, I expect to beat you soundly.”
“This year’s sport does not end until midnight,” Chelmsford said. “Which by my estimation is more than six hours away.”
“And within six hours do you think you’ll be able to find a pigeon to poach?” Ravenhill shook his head. “No my friend, no loose women as a tiebreaker; it would be too easy for you to pluck one or two of these tavern wenches and complete the deed. If we are to break the tie, it must be with a woman of quality. Not even you are capable of seduction under such short notice.”
“That is a wager you will lose.” Justin Tollemache stretched his long legs out before him, a devilish smile on his face. “My Aunt Betsy is having her first soiree of the season tonight.”
“And she has invited you?” Ravenhill snorted contemptuously. “Not damn likely. She despises you and if you weren’t her only living relative, I daresay she’d never speak to you if she could avoid it.”
“No, she has not extended an invitation to me. Shameful, can you believe that? Even so, I owe her a visit and she is far too polite to throw me out, thus causing a scene. There should be plenty of young beauties to look upon.”
Ravenhill wondered if Lady Betsy Tollemache-Kent would allow either of them into her home, for she was always angry at her nephew for his dissolute ways. Ravenhill was twenty-and-four, Chelmsford but a year older, and already the two were the most notorious rakes in London. If it were not for their titles and extreme wealth, no respectable household would allow them entry. Despite their reprobate ways, they were still perceived as eligible bachelors in many circles.
“Look at you, Edmund, worrying like an old woman. I assure you that I can charm my way into Auntie’s good graces. Scoundrel I may be, but family is family. Besides Norton adores me, and would never deny me entrance,” he said, referring to his aunt’s majordomo.
Edmund met Justin’s vulpine smile with his own. “Why not? It’s high time your reign as the most notorious rakehell in England comes to an end and tonight I will take your place.”
“So we shall see, my friend, so we shall see,” Justin said.
…The story will continue…
Chapter Two: Smiles
Several streets away, in a more refined area of London, the household of Master and Mistress Randolph Kendrick was all sixes and sevens. Not one, but three young ladies were preparing themselves for the first ball of their very first Season, and there were only two ladies’ maids between them.
The eldest girl, Linnet, was already dressed, her hair done, and was awaiting her sister, Sidonia, and cousin, Venetia, to finish with their preparations.
“We’ve gone from being fashionably late to impinging on impoliteness.” Linnet tapped her slippered foot with impatience. “Really, Venetia, you look wonderful. And your dress is lovely… Please do not change it again!”
“Linnet, in France, no one arrives at a ball before eleven,” Venetia assured her anxious cousin.
“Oh, how would you know that? Have you been to France?” Linnet retorted cheekily.
“Well, you may be all set to marry that clergyman. However, in point of fact, some of us are still looking for husbands,” Venetia retorted.
Linnet ignored the tone in Venetia’s voice when she referred to Michael as “that clergyman.” Humble as his calling might be, he was all that a woman could desire in a partner and Linnet knew there was no better man than he. Unlike her cousin and her sister, Linnet had no designs to marry a titled nobleman or a man of great fortune. The eldest daughter of a country squire, she enjoyed the simple country life. This Season in London had been her father’s impulsive decision.
“Oh, but Michael is a handsome fellow,” said Sidonia as her maid attended to her mass of curls. “Moreover, as an only son, he’s heir to all his father’s estate, he has a decent stipend, and will sure to be a bishop one day. Perhaps even one day he might rise to Archbishop!”
“How you do go on!” Linnet admonished. “Michael’s a humble man, quite dedicated to his local parishioners. Archbishop, what nonsense!”
“Michael cares more about his parish than anything, true, you’ve said so many times. That does not imply he isn’t like any other man who seeks to better his lot. He’s more ambitious than you think— Ouch!” Sidonia winced as her maid pulled tightly on her locks.
“Not at all. That’s what I admire about Michael; he’s not like these titled lords looking to hold on to their earthly fortunes. Michael looks to better the lives of others.”
Venetia and Sidonia shared a glance as if to say to one another: “How revolting. Would you ever settle for anything so boring?” and neither of the girls responded to her words.
As her cousins continued their preparations, Linnet turned to look at herself in the mirror for what seemed the hundredth time. She was dressed in a white taffeta gown embroidered with stylized flowers of blue and silver thread. On the petals of the flowers were tiny, glittering silver and sapphire-colored sequins. The neckline was low cut, but not revealing too much of her admittedly ample bosom. For jewelry, Linnet had only the plain pearl earbobs she’d inherited from her mother, and about her neck was a white satin ribbon with a blue silk rosette in the center.
She thought the dress quite handsome, as the blue accents on the gown emphasized the dark blue of her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a plain knot and tied with a ribbon that matched that one at her neck. Short, dark gold curls framed her face. Linnet looked as pretty as any female could be dressed as she was, and beyond that, she was satisfied with her appearance.
In contrast, her sister and cousin were bedecked in silken gowns of bright pastels, adorned with laces and flounces: Venetia in a yellow that emphasized the deep red of her hair and Sidonia in a becoming, light rose-pink that complemented her white-rose complexion. Linnet sat watching them, the maids working industriously to pile the hair upon the girls’ heads in a painstaking, elaborate process.
The young ladies were chattering with excitement about their very first ball. Linnet did not begrudge them their excitement, although she did share it.
At nineteen years of age, Linnet, too, had never had a Season in London, but she had never felt the need for one. Back home in —-, there had been young Michael Parnell, who had of late joined the ministry. Michael, so sweet and loving, was all she desired in the world; not for her these glamourous balls designed for unmarried young women to seek out husbands.
Sidonia and Venetia, both two years younger than Linnet, were eager for the night as any girl could be. Their faces glowed with delight at the thought of the hours ahead. It was thanks to Venetia’s mother, Mrs. Honoria Pendergast-Kendrick, the sister of their late mother, that Linnet and Sidonia were able to enjoy a season in London. If it had been up to their father, the girls would have remained in the country with their brothers. Yet had had it not been up to father, after all? All summer he had not mentioned any intent to go down to London, but come the end of fox season, he was insistent that the girls should visit with their aunt and uncle.
Linnet’s eldest brother Gilbert had come with them to London, while her three younger brothers remained in —-, looked after by their governess as they were still of nursery age. It was not easy for Squire Talbot to care for his large brood since the death of his wife six years past, and Linnet had spent much of her youth acting as a substitute mother for her siblings. As such, she was severe and often times stern, yet her father’s favorite. She was the kind of girl who would smile only at the most humorous of jests, but when she did smile, her gentle beauty had a soothing way of comforting Squire Talbot.
Linnet did not know, nor would she care to know, that her father desired more for her in life than to be the wife of the local parish minister. She knew it was why he had insisted she come along with Sidonia to London, but under the guise that her sister needed familiar female company. If Linnet knew that her father yet hoped she would make a more suitable match, she would be quite upset with him.
“I say,” Venetia announced, fingering the lacy yards of her skirts, “Perhaps this gown isn’t the right one to wear—”
“No!” Both Sidonia and Linnet interjected.
“You look lovely…beautiful,” Sidonia assured her and stood up, as her maid was done tending to her hair.
“Truly, you do,” Linnet confirmed. “You’re sure to be the belle of the ball tonight.”
“Do you think so?” Venetia questioned, her brow wrinkled in doubt.
The girls assured her again and again that she looked divine, and before long, the ladies were finally done with their preparations. Fashionably late, the Talbots and Kendricks were loaded up into two carriages (an extra had been rented for this very night) to attend the much anticipated first ball of the Season at Lady Elisabeth Tollemache-Kent’s.
“Minerva, do you see that man? Why I cannot believe the cheek of him! That he dared show his face here! I’m quite shocked.”
“That dashing fellow in grey, Gertrude? Who could that be?”
“My dear, you have been out of London for a long time, but that’s still no excuse! How could you not have heard about the evil Earl of Chelmsford? Tollemache. He’s on the fringes of society. I’m certain his aunt, Lady Betsy did not invite him. She’s probably appalled that he’s here.”
“The fringes, you say?” Minerva craned her neck to follow his lithe form as he made his way around the room. “What is he, a wastrel, a gambler?”
“All that and more. Chelmsford should never be seen in polite company; he is truly a rogue beyond redemption. He drinks, he gambles, he rides his horses, cares nothing for his estates and position as a Lord. That would be bad enough, but the duels, the—” this next part came in a hushed whisper “the wenching this year alone! Why he has brought many a young miss to ruination and refused to do the honorable thing!”
“Oh, a rogue indeed!” Minerva nodded, fervently, producing all sorts of jiggles and bounces. And what have the families done in retaliation? Or the House of Lords to discipline him?”
“The families? Well, none of the families were powerful enough to have him completely stricken from society. A poor few fools fought duels, but for the most part, the girls were either sent away or married off. As for Parliament, what use are they?”
“Scandalous! Absolutely scandalous! Yet he still is graced by Society?’
“He shouldn’t, although he’s far too powerful and well-connected to be cast off altogether. Why our Prince George allows him private entrance.”
“Even the Prince Regent himself abides such behavior? What has the world come to?”
“Yes, more’s the pity. It seems the cad’s brought young Lord Ravenhill with him as well, who is if not as wicked as Chelmsford, is quickly following in his footsteps,” Gertrude was quick to note.
“Two notorious roués? Betsy will be beside herself.”
“Yes, she will, and so will every mama and papa of all these virtuous young ladies, and every husband here with a faithful wife.”
Minerva’s mouth was agape. “Are they that successful at destroying virtue?’
“Successful? The Devil himself could not be more enticing.”
“Enticing? You should hear yourself speak, Gertrude. One would think if you were twenty years younger…”
“Oh, stuff it, Minerva. Look at the pair of them; they’re a dazzling sight. The faces of angels with the souls of the fallen.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d call them angels. However, that nephew of Betsy is quite something,” Minerva agreed. “The other chap is handsome enough, but young Chelmsford: that raven hair, that striking bone structure, the broad shoulders…”
“I know you better than you think, Minerva,” Gertrude gave a girlish giggle that belied her near sixty years. “I knew you’d feel that way.”
“Well I’m an old woman, I’m allowed to have my thoughts. Who cares what an ancient crone like myself thinks? I’m not at risk of ruination.” Minerva looked around at the young ladies decked out in their finery, their glowing smiles as they enjoyed innocent flirtations and dances at their first official ball of the Season. “But these poor young girls.”
“I wonder if you worry for them, or envy them, instead.”
Minerva didn’t answer. She did not need to. Gertrude, for all her accusatory words, was having similar thoughts as her companion: “What I wouldn’t do to be a young lady again!”