A gentleman was strolling down a side street in Paris, on his way back from the house of one Madame de Verchoureux. He walked very mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose-lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast. A three-cornered hat, point-edged, was set upon his powdered wig, and in his hand he carried a long beribboned cane. It was little enough protection against foot-pads, and although a light dress sword hung at the gentle-man's side its hilt was lost in the folds of his cloak, not quickly to be found. At this late hour, and in this deserted street, it was the height of foolhardiness to walk unattended and flaunting jewels, but the gentleman seemed unaware of his recklessness. He proceeded languidly on his way, glancing neither to left nor to right, apparently heedless of possible danger.
But as he walked down the street, idly twirling his cane, a body hurled itself upon him, shot like a cannon-ball from a dark alley that yawned to the right of the magnificent gentleman. The figure clutched at that elegant cloak, cried out in a startled voice, and tried to regain his balance.
His Grace of Avon swirled about, gripping his assailant's wrists and bearing them downwards with a merciless strength belied by his foppish appearance. His victim gave a whimper of pain and sank quivering to his knees.
"M'sieur! Ah, let me go! I did not mean - I did not know - I would not - Ah, m'sieur, let me go!"
His Grace bent over the boy, standing a little to one side so that the light of an adjacent street lamp fell on that white agonized countenance. Great violet-blue eyes gazed wildly up at him, terror in their depths.
"Surely you are a little young for this game?" drawled the Duke. "Or did you think to take me unawares?"
The boy flushed, and his eyes grew dark with indignation.
"I did not seek to rob you! Indeed, indeed I did not! I - I was running away! I - oh, m'sieur, let me go!"
"In good time, my child. From what were you running, may I ask? From another victim?"
"No! Oh, please let me go! You - you do not understand! He will have started in pursuit! Ah, please, please, milor'!"
The Duke's curious, heavy-lidded eyes never wavered from the boy's face. They had widened suddenly, and become intent.
"And who, child, is 'he'?"
"My - my brother. Oh, please -"
Round the corner of the alley came a man, full-tilt. At sight of Avon he checked. The boy shuddered, and now clung to Avon's arm.
"Ah!" exploded the newcomer. "Now, by God, if the whelp has sought to rob you, milor', he shall pay for it! You scoundrel! Ungrateful brat! You shall be sorry, I promise you! Milor', a thousand apologies! The lad is my young brother. I was beating him for his laziness when he slipped from me -"
The Duke raised a scented handkerchief to his thin nostrils.
"Keep your distance, fellow," he said haughtily. "Doubtless beating is good for the young."
The boy shrank closer to him. He made no attempt to escape, but his hands twitched convulsively. Once again the Duke's strange eyes ran over him, resting for a moment on the copper-red curls that were cut short and ruffled into wild disorder.
"As I remarked, beating is good for the young. Your brother, you said?" He glanced now at the swarthy, coarse-featured young man.
"Yes, noble sir, my brother. I have cared for him since our parents died, and he repays me with ingratitude. He is a curse, noble sir, a curse!"
The Duke seemed to reflect.
"How old is he, fellow?"
"He is nineteen, milor'."
The Duke surveyed the boy.
"Nineteen. Is he not a little small for his age?"
"Why, milor', if - if he is it is no fault of mine! I - I have fed him well. I pray you, do not heed what he says! He is a viper, a wild-cat, a veritable curse!"
"I will relieve you of the curse," said his Grace calmly.
The man stared, uncomprehending.
"I suppose he is for sale?"
A cold hand stole into the Duke's, and clutched it.
"Sale, milor'? You -"
"I believe I will buy him to be my page. What is his worth? A louis? Or are curses worthless? An interesting problem."
The man's eyes gleamed suddenly with avaricious cunning.
"He is a good boy, noble sir. He can work. Indeed, he is worth much to me. And I have an affection for him. I -"
"I will give a guinea for your curse."
"Ah, but no, milor'! He is worth more! Much, much more!"
"Then keep him," said Avon, and moved on.
The boy ran to him, clinging to his arm.
"Milor', take me! Oh, please take me! I will work well for you! I swear it! Oh, I beg of you, take me!"
His Grace paused.
"I wonder if I am a fool?" he said in English. He drew the diamond pin from his cravat, and held it so that it winked and sparkled in the light of the lamp. "Well, fellow? Will this suffice?"
The man gazed at the jewel as though he could hardly believe his eyes. He rubbed them, and drew nearer, staring.
"For this," Avon said, "I purchase your brother, body and soul. Well?"
"Give it me!" whispered the man, and stretched out his hand. "The boy is yours, milor'."
Avon tossed the pin to him.
"I believe I requested you to keep your distance," he said. "You offend my nostrils. Child, follow me." On he went, down the street, with the boy at a respectful distance behind him.
They came at last to the Rue St. Honori, and to Avon's house. He passed in with never a glance behind him to see whether his new possession followed or not, and walked across the courtyard to the great nail-studded door. Bowing lackeys admitted him, looking in surprise at the shabby figure who came in his wake.
The Duke let fall his cloak, and handed his hat to one of the footmen.
"Mr. Davenant?" he said.
"In the library, your Grace."
Avon sauntered across the hall to the library door. It was opened for him, and he went in, nodding to the boy to follow.
Hugh Davenant sat by the fire, reading a book of poems. He glanced up as his host came in, and smiled.
"Well, Justin?" Then he saw the shrinking child by the door. "Faith, what have we here?"
"You may well ask," said the Duke. He came to the fire, and stretched one elegantly shod foot to the blaze. "A whim. That dirty and starved scrap of humanity is mine." He spoke in English, but it was evident that the boy understood, for he flushed, and hung his curly head.
"Yours?" Davenant looked from him to the boy. "What mean you, Alastair? Surely - you cannot mean - your son?"
"Oh, no!" His Grace smiled in some amusement. "Not this time, my dear Hugh. I bought this little rat for the sum of one diamond."
"But - but why, in heaven's name?"
"I have no idea," said His Grace placidly. "Come here, rat."
Excerpted from These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer Copyright © 2004 by Georgette Heyer. Excerpted by permission.
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