Reputation by Lex Croucher (Excerpt)

Chapter One

It all began at a party, as almost everything of interest does.

This particular party was by no means a grand affair. Dinner had been distinctly lacking. The man tasked with playing the viola seemed to be hurting it a little. A scarcity of candles—entirely due to poor planning on the host’s part, rather than a lack of monetary means to produce light—meant that whole rooms were so dark as to be hazardous.

“It’s romantic!” Mrs. Burton had said generously as they were given the grand tour a few hours earlier, narrowly avoiding a headlong collision with a serving girl carrying a tray of diluted punch, who stepped deftly out of the way and was immediately swallowed into the shadows.

It was not romantic. Her aunt had promised a night of skillful dancing, delicately blossoming friendships, and a wealth of eligible bachelors with shiny coat buttons and dashing mustaches. Instead, Georgiana was reclining in a gloomy alcove in the empty hallway, tying and untying little knots in her second-best ribbon and thinking wistfully of Viking funerals.

Norse warriors were often burned on pyres with their boats, along with a great many of their personal effects. She had read about the custom in one of her uncle’s books, and had talked about it animatedly and at length earlier in the week at the Burtons’ dinner table while eating her potatoes. She was just getting to the part about wives and thralls following their masters into death when her aunt had slammed her hand down onto the table in an out-of-character display of force and cried, “Are you quite finished, Georgiana?”

Georgiana had looked up from the potatoes to find her aunt’s face the very picture of horror.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Burton, but if you’d only let me finish, I don’t think the wives and thralls minded following the Vikings into death. The Norse believed in a sort of heaven. If Mr. Burton were to fall on his morning walk tomorrow and dash his brains out on a rock, wouldn’t you want to go with him? If heaven is as lovely as everyone says it is, it would be like a holiday. You’re so looking forward to St. Ives in September—it would be like getting to go early. Wouldn’t you throw yourself upon a flaming pyre if you could be in St. Ives tomorrow?”

Evidently, Mrs. Burton would not. The subject of Vikings had been banned from polite conversation.

* * *

In the thirteen days since Georgiana had come to stay with her aunt and uncle, she had come to know them far better than she ever had in the past twenty years of her life. It had become clear to her rather quickly that while the Burtons were very kind and accommodating people, they were also particularly skilled at filling whole days and weeks with the kinds of monotonous minutiae that Georgiana could take no pleasure in. Any suggestion of an outing or an activity that bore even the slightest resemblance to a thrill or a caper had been tutted down with the proclamation that they were still “getting her settled.”

Georgiana already felt so settled that if she were forced to settle any further, she might lose sentience altogether and become an integral part of the structure of the house—the human equivalent of a load-bearing beam. She had recently spent an entire afternoon in her new and rather small bedroom being forced to try on every item of clothing she owned, while Mrs. Burton and her shy maid, Emmeline, checked for required fixes and alterations. By the time they were appraising her last gown, Georgiana had become itchy, quarrelsome, and alarmingly wild-eyed with irritation.

Clearly, in Mrs. Burton’s eyes, the process of becoming properly “settled” required a period of boredom and loneliness so excruciating that it rendered its subject broken in spirit, and therefore far less likely to rebel against the usual rituals of the house. There were only so many times a person could read the local advertisements, or arrange hundreds of embroidery needles by size, or discuss upcoming meals for three people as if they were feeding the five thousand. The morning when a neighbor’s horse had escaped and circled the garden, incoherent with freedom, was such a bright spot of excitement that she clung to the memory of it for days afterward.

This was not how fresh starts began in stories—and Georgiana had read a lot of them. A fortnight ago, she had dragged a trunk twice her weight to her aunt and uncle’s house, full of the tomes she had been unable to part with from home. In all the books she’d read in which a heroine started over in a new town or village or castle, she had immediately stumbled upon a series of daring adventures, or got dramatically lost on the moors, or swooned into the arms of a passing (and very handsome) gentleman.

In absolutely none of them did the heroine spend two weeks staring at a patch of damp on a parlor ceiling, wondering if it looked more like a man falling over a stool or an owl playing billiards.

Georgiana had begged her aunt rather doggedly for some form of social outing, and she supposed this party was her penance. She had been hiding in her alcove for almost an hour, wishing she’d had the presence of mind to bring a book. From here, she was perfectly placed to observe the comings and goings of guests as they shuffled from dining room to drawing room, and to eavesdrop on them in passing. Unfortunately, their hosts, the Gadforths, seemed to only know men and women above the age of five-and-forty without a shred of personality between them. Georgiana had eavesdropped on the exact same conversation twice, between two entirely different groups of people, about whether the drapes in the dining room were red or purple, and which constituted the more garish choice. All involved on both occasions were in agreement that either would be unseemly, but that as it was too dark to settle the matter presently, they’d revisit the subject at a later and more convenient date.

“They’re plum,” Georgiana muttered to herself, reaching for her drink as the latest group of soft-furnishings experts ambled away out of earshot.

“Nonsense. They’re sort of wine-colored.”

The reply came from so close to her ear that Georgiana immediately knocked her glass over in shock. She felt Mrs. Gadforth’s undrinkable punch soaking rapidly through her dress and petticoat as she twisted around to find the source of the voice.

The ledge Georgiana had situated herself on was tucked behind one of many mock-Grecian plaster pillars; clearly somebody else had been making similar use of one of the others for some time without her notice. She heard a rustle of skirts, saw a slender hand alight on the plaster, and then without conscious thought she was moving over so that the like-minded intruder could slide in next to her.

In the low light Georgiana made out a slight figure with a dark complexion and a lot of black, curly hair swept up intricately on top of her head. She was perfumed with something heady and floral, and as the stranger held out an elegant hand for her to clasp, Georgiana caught a glimpse of bright stones and flashing gold.

“Frances Campbell,” the woman said in a polished voice, and then before Georgiana could reply, “This is without a doubt the worst party I’ve ever been to. If anything remotely stimulating happened I think they’d all keel over from the shock.”

“I’m Georgiana,” said Georgiana. “Ellers.”

“Oh? I wouldn’t be here at all, only my father sold a painting to these dreadful people, the Godforths. They were just beside themselves, carrying on about what a triumph it would be and what great friends they hoped we’d all become. It was a hideous painting—Father couldn’t wait to be rid of it; he inherited it, for his sins. I suppose it’ll fit in just fine here, though, with all of … this.” She waved a hand at the offensive pillars.

“They’re called Gadforth,” said Georgiana, wondering why she was suddenly only capable of announcing names.

Frances Campbell didn’t seem to notice; she had put a hand down on the ledge between them and then quickly removed it again.

“But what on earth has happened to your dress?” Georgiana had somehow entirely forgotten about the spillage, but Frances must have put her fingers directly into it. “I hope it wasn’t a favorite. Another tragic casualty of this vile punch. Here, don’t fret—have some of this.”

She passed Georgiana a small flask, which Georgiana accepted and brought to her lips without question in a sort of daze, spluttering as something much stronger than punch burned in her throat.

Copyright © 2021 by Lex Croucher