Authors: Strange Bedfellows
It was late night when the hackney coach clattered to a weary halt in front of a very fine several-storied Elizabethan brick town house. A damsel descended stiffly from the carriage, paused to take a firmer grip on her bulging portmanteau as she stared up at the turrets and chimneys and wonderful bay windows which rose the full height of Marcham Towers to just below the battlemented parapet. Cold moonlight reflected in countless diamond-shaped windowpanes. She marched up to the front door.
Brisk assault on that ancient timbered portal brought forth a sleepy servant who admitted her to an entrance hallway with carved ceiling and marble chessboard floor, suits of armor and racks of spears upon the walls. The damsel gazed curiously about. Though she had known the March family forever, their country estates abutting upon her papa’s own, this was her first visit to Marcham Towers. She followed the servant up a great staircase with carved balusters and newel posts, then waited as he knocked discreetly on a door.
That portal, too, swung open, to frame a slender chestnut-haired lady on whose endearingly irregular features sat an anxious look. As her amber gaze lit upon the newcomer, the lady blinked. Her anxious expression faded, to be replaced in turn by disappointment and bewilderment. “Why, Mab!” Lady March said at length.
“You thought I was Marriot,” Lady Amabel responded wisely, as she shifted her portmanteau from one hand to the other. “I didn’t think of that, and very sorry I am for it, Nell, if you got your hopes up for naught.” She craned her lovely little neck to peer into the room beyond. “I take it you’ve had no word from the rascal yet?”
Lady March stepped aside, gestured for her guest to enter, bade the servant fetch them refreshment and Lady Amabel to make herself comfortable. “You do not wish to discuss your husband in front of the servants,” remarked Mab with her usual acumen, as she divested herself of her long-sleeved, high-necked sapphire velvet pelisse. “As though they have not noticed that he has failed to come home for quite six months! Oh, Nell, I have heard the queerest tales. The whole countryside is abuzz with speculation. What doyouthink has happened to Marriot?”
Eleanor stood at her projecting oriel window, somberly looking out. “I do not know whattothink, my dear, except that Marriot did not disappear by choice— I have not the most distant guess of where he may have gotten to, and it makes not the slightest difference howmuch I cudgel my brain! The fact is that he departed White’s one night six months ago and never returned home. He simply vanished. Not even Bow Street has been able to trace him one step.”
“Bow Street!” Lady Amabel’s shudder was prompted not wholly by pleasurable dismay upon hearing mentioned those relentless representatives of the law, but also by the chill temperature of Lady March’s solar. Mab snatched up her pelisse and moved closer to the fireplace. “Oh, Nell!”
Lady March did not similarly suffer from the chill temperatures; foresight, and experience of drafty Marcham Towers, had inspired her to bundle up in a man’s fur cloak of the same venerable vintage as the house. “We must be realistic,” she said, as she joined Mab at the fireplace, where they presented a pretty study in contrasts. At thirty, Nell was tall and slender, her features rendered exquisitely patrician by their slight irregularity, her chestnut hair worn in classical coils from which a few errant curls escaped. Mab, just turned nineteen, was both less tall and less slender, a glorious young beauty with huge mischievous blue eyes and black hair cropped short and worn in artfully disheveled curls.
“Realistic?” echoed Lady Amabel, her blue eyes opened wide. “Nell! You don’t think—”
“No, I don’t!” interrupted Lady March, a trifle crossly. “Had Marriot been murdered, his body would have been found. Had he been abducted, we would have received a ransom demand. So it must be something else altogether that has caused his disappearance—though I freely admit I can’t think what.”
Several possible explanations presented themselves to Lady Amabel as she gazed thoughtfully upon the chimneypiece, which incorporated a carved scene of Diana bathing and a mantel frieze carved with monkeys, birds and beasts. “Well, we know Marriot isn’t of unsound mind, so it isn’tthat!I do not mean to cast a blight upon your spirits, Nell, but have you considered that Marriot may have eloped?”
In response to this suggestion, Lady March looked crosser still. “Bosh!” she said.
Lady Amabel wrinkled her pretty nose, which was enchantingly retroussé. “I know it sounds like so much moonshine, and that you and Marriot always dealt together delightfully, but I have noticed that gentlemen sometimesstray!However, Marriot is your husband, so you must know him best.” She frowned. “Was Marriot in his altitudes, I wonder? I do not mean to infer that he is a drunkard, because of course he isn’t, but there is no denying he was prone to take some odd notions when a trifle foxed.Isprone to do so!” she quickly amended upon glimpsing her friend’s face. “Depend upon it, we shall discover Marriot is merely indulging one of his whims.”
Eleanor did not reply. Even under influence of the grape she doubted her husband would grow so very absentminded as to forget home and wife for six months on end. To her severe misgivings she did not give voice, the servant arriving at that moment with a light repast. Before departing, he built up the fire and lit additional candles. With gusto, the ladies fell to their midnight feast, Mab pausing between mouthfuls to cast curious glances around the room.
The solar must have changed little in the centuries of its existence, Lady Amabel thought, as she gazed upon the ceiling with its attractive symmetrical design culminating in several Tudor roses and the plaster frieze in which Diana, her dogs and attendants hunted stags and elephants and lions in a forest of trees. The framework of the wainscoting was painted brilliant red with touches of blue and gold. Even the furnishings were Elizabethan, including a counting table with a checkered top, chairs embroidered with flowers and leaves and fruits, and stools upholstered with green velvet and studded with nails.
While her visitor thus indulged herself, Lady March withdrew to the daybed where she’d been huddling when Lady Amabel arrived, reading an edifying work entitledThe History of Serpents,which solemnly stated that dragons are wont to hunt elephants in packs. Nell’s own curious gaze moved from Mab to her bulging portmanteau, which had been abandoned just inside the door. “You have not told me what you are doing here.”
Cautiously, Lady Amabel eyed her hostess, who at times could be a very high stickler. “Goose!” she said merrily. “I have come to bear you company in your lonely vigil. What are friendsfor?”
That it had taken her friend six months to come to her assistance Lady March did not point out. “But it is so very late,” she said.
“Yes, but that is not my fault.” Replete, Mab brushed crumbs off the skirt other white muslin gown. “I came in a nightcoach, and then a hackney, andsuchan adventure it was!”
The details of that adventure Nell could well imagine, Mab being the sort of young lady whose life was never dull. “You didn’t travel here alone! Your papa—”
“My papa,” interrupted Lady Amabel, with grim voice and irately sparkling eye, “is a cruelly unfeeling beast. He is curst high-handed—certainly he has tried my civility too high! And it is never the least use disputing with him because he doesn’tlisten—well! I thought that since I am fated to be melancholy, there is no one I would rather be melancholy with than you!”
Foreseeing a dramatic exchange of confidences, Lady March attempted to settle herself more comfortably among the myriad embroidered cushions upon the daybed, which was made of oak painted a chocolate red and ornamented with floral arabesques, its two paneled ends angling stiffly outward. “Thank you!” she said drily. “I hesitate to point out that I already have Cousin Henrietta to bear me company.”
“Your Cousin Henrietta,” Lady Amabel responded bluntly, “is less likely to elevate your spirits than plunge you smack into the dumps! Never have I known so dismal a female. No wonder you are so pulled-about.”
This intelligence that she was not at her best Lady March accepted philosophically. Not only was Nell without vanity, in the eye of other than her vanished husband she cared not how she looked. “I would just as soon not have Henrietta,” she confessed, casting the closed door a guilty look. “She was wished upon me by my family. But you will not lead me up the garden path so easily as that, my dear! I think I need to know what—other than a hackney coach!—has brought you to me in the dead of night.” She cast a pointed glance at the bulging portmanteau. “Am I to conclude you mean to stay?”
“Well, er, yes.” Lady Amabel had the grace to look abashed. “I trulyhavecome to be with you in your hour of need, Nell—if you should not object!”
Lady March pulled her fur cloak closer and regarded her young friend. Amabel’s expression was guileless. More to the point, her pretty nose, framed so becomingly by her tucked silk bonnet with lace frills and ribbon bowknot, was red. “Poor child, you’re freezing!” Nell rose to ring for her sleepy servant and request a room made up for her guest. “Come closer to the fire. You may not wish to stay with me when you discover how cold is this old mausoleum of a house. It is full of the oddest drafts—due to the secret passages, I suppose.”
“Secret passages?” echoed Mab, big eyes opened wide, as she joined Nell at the fireplace. “You’re bamming me.”
“No such thing, I promise you; Marcham Towers was in the possession of a Catholic family during the Civil Wars. We have a priest hole and a hidden attic and two secret passages that I know of. There is rumored to be an entrance in this very room, but I don’t know where. Marriot would. Unfortunately we cannot ask him.” Here Lady March’s composure deserted her. “Oh, Mab! I have been teasing myself with thoughts of all the dreadful things that might have happened to him, and it upsets me dreadfully, and yet I cannot think what to do!”
“There, there!” soothed Lady Amabel, whilst reflecting it was extremely awkward to try and comfort someone considerably taller than oneself. “You have been dwelling too much on it! Not that youshouldn’tthink about Marriot—gracious, how could you not wonder what the blazes he is up to! You would wonder even more had you not stayed here in London, because there wassuchtalk. One contingent even had it that Marriot had run afoul of the spies of that fiendish Frenchman— the Serpent of Corsica! The Fiend of the Bottomless Pit! Not that I believed such stuff for a minute, no, nor anyone else, despite all these invasion scares. But there is something very queer about it, Nell. Even Papa said Marriot’s disappearance was too smoky by half.” A trifle belatedly, it occurred to Lady Amabel that this was no cheerful choice of topic. “Anyway, now that I am with you, you may think aboutmytroubles, which will be an excellent antidote foryourdistress!”
The suspicion that her vanished husband might have fallen victim of some devilish stratagem had also crossed Lady March’s mind. It was not a thought that she wished to long entertain. “You have not told me what your troublesare,”she gently pointed out. “You and your papa have had a difference of opinion, I conclude—but why?”
In response to this not unreasonable question, Lady Amabel abandoned her role of comforter for one of a damsel in sore need of being soothed herself. “Oh, Nell! Papa has said I may not marry Fergus!” she wailed, and burst into gusty tears.
“Fergus?” echoed Eleanor, as she enfolded Mab also in her huge fur cloak and allowed the damsel to weep all over her silk gown. It was not the first time during the several years of their acquaintance that Nell had thus provided comfort to the motherless and highly volatile Amabel. “Who is this Fergus, pray?”
“Nell, could you but see him!” Lady Amabel raised a countenance as bedazzled as if her beloved were indeed within her sight. “Fergus haseverythingprime about him! He is a gentleman of substance, a veritable Adonis, a particularly elegant, handsome man!Allthat I could wish!”
“Then wherein lies the problem?” Lady March suspected her young friend was fashioning mountains out of molehills, and not for the first time. Amabel possessed a keen sense of the dramatic, as perhaps need not be explained. “Surely your papa must approve this paragon.”
“He must, must he?” Mab’s blue eyes flashed, and her delicious lip curled. “You would think so! You would think that any father with anounceof human feeling would not deny his only daughter the gentleman upon whom her heart was set—especially when that gentleman is handsome as Adonis, and rich as Croesus, and a baron to boot—but not Papa! Fergus spoke to him very properly. Do you know what Papa said when he was made aware that I was being offered a highly flattering alliance?Doyou, Nell?”
Fascinated, Lady March gazed upon her friend’s indignant features. “Tell me!” she begged.
“He said that I was a little zany, and Fergus a dandified popinjay!” Mab’s lower lip trembled. “Oh,botherthe man! Sometimes I wish I were an orphan, although I am sure no girl could be fonder of her papa than I am. But howdarehe speak to Fergus in such a disrespectful manner—to say nothing of the cruel way in which he has used me!” She sniffled. “My case is truly desperate! Now you see why I am grown so melancholy, dear Nell, and why I have come to you. Together we shall endeavor to bear with resignation our irreparable losses!”
Though Lady March had been trying very hard for the past six monthsnotto believe that her loss was irreparable, she was not so poor-spirited as to point this out. It was almost as good as a play to see Mab enact a Cheltenham tragedy. However, since the hour grew ever later, and her eyelids accordingly heavy, Nell deemed it time the curtain descend. “You have been wrested from your lover’s arms,” she said sympathetically. “Poor Amabel.”
Paradoxically in a young lady so inclined to the dramatic, Mab was also very honest. “Er, not exactly,” she admitted, pink of cheek. “Though I very nearly was, because Fergus cut up so stiff at being called a popinjay. And so he should have, poor lamb, because heisn’t,Nell, I promise you.” She lowered her eyes. “But I shall leave you to judge that for yourself!”
“Will you?” As the result of a pang of premonition, Eleanor looked severe. “How is that, miss?”
Mab’s cheeks turned even pinker. “I daresay Fergus will call on you, once he discovers I’m in town.”
“Mab!” Eleanor’s voice was stern. “What will your father say to that, do you think?”
“Nothing, I hope, since he won’t know about it!” Looking irresistibly earnest, Mab clutched Lady March’s hands and gazed pleadingly up into her face. “Nell, I suspect you won’t like this above half, but I have run away from home.”
“Run away—” Words failed Eleanor. As if it were not trial enough that Marriot had disappeared, victim of some wicked fate upon the precise gruesome nature of which Cousin Henrietta speculated a good twenty hours of each day, now Nell must anticipate the momentary descent of Mab’s father’s wrath upon her head. Mab’s sire was gentle neither of tongue nor temper. “You wretched child!” Nell sighed.
But Mab was not attending to her strictures, nor trying to disarm. Instead she was gazing in an astonished manner at the wall behind Lady March. Puzzled, Eleanor glanced over her shoulder. She, too, stared as a portion of the wainscoting swung silently away.
Through the opening stepped a disheveled masculine figure. He straightened and stood blinking in the candlelight. No damsel with a sense of the dramatic could forego such an opportunity. “It’s a ghost!” shrieked Lady Amabel, with relish, and fainted dead away.
Why Lady Amabel should swoon upon sight of him, Lord March could not guess. In fact, there were any number of points upon which Lord March was uncertain, among them why he should be entering his own house via a secret passage, clutching to him a shabby valise, in the dead of night. Anticipating enlightenment, he glanced hopefully at his wife. But Eleanor, too, surprised him, not in the keen rush of pleasure he experienced at sight of her, because there was to Marriot no more pleasurable sight existent than his countess, with her amber eyes and faintly aquiline features and heavy chestnut hair, but she was not accustomed to stare at him in such an owlish manner, as if he was the last person she expected.
He set down the valise. “Hallo, puss! You look surprised to see me.”
“Surprised!” As if released by his words from a trance, Lady March flew straight into her husband’s arms. “Marriot, you wretch! I am so prodigious glad you have come home! Oh,wherehave you been?”
Lord March was not the least bit reluctant to be passionately embraced, and responded with equal fervor to his wife’s caress. Oddly, if felt as though a great deal of time had elapsed since last he had engaged in such delightful husbandly pursuits. Apparently he was more in love with his wife than ever, decided Marriot, then abandoned that confusing speculation—for he had hitherto thought that man could never adore woman more than he adored his Nell—for the greater satisfaction of raining kisses upon her cheek and throat and brow. Because Lady March enjoyed receiving her husband’s salutes as much as he enjoyed presenting them, and initiated further such activities in her own turn, it was many moments later when they resumed speech. That they did so at this point was due only to a mutual discovery of the need to draw breath. As he did so, Lord March gazed in a fond fashion upon his wife’s face, which he held cupped between his palms. “Nell! You are crying!” he observed, dismayed.
“Naturally I am crying!” Lady March wiped her face on the sleeve of her dress. “You have been gone so long! Oh, Marriot, are youtrulyhere? I cannot believe that you have at last returned.”
“Of course it is truly me.” Lord March’s devotion to his wife was not lessened by her occasional tendency to talk nonsense. In proof of that devotion, he drew her close against him, her chestnut hair against his chest. “Who else would it be, little goose? And I am glad you’ve missed me, although I’ve only been to White’s. Come to think on it, I’ve missed you too!” Nell drew back to gaze searchingly up at him. What disturbed her, Marriot could not fathom. With tender fingers he tilted up her chin and diverted her attention with an extremely ardent kiss. Nell made a little noise deep in her throat and flung her arms around Marriot’s neck. In so doing, her fingers encountered a lump on the back of his skull. The hair around that lump was damp and matted. Amorous intentions abandoned Lord and Lady March in the same moment. “Marriot, you’re hurt!” cried Nell. His lordship merely winced.
Closer inspection revealed that the injury was not serious, merely an egg-shaped swelling, apparently the result of some recent sharp blow. “Damned if I can explain it!” responded Marriot when questioned as to the injury’s source. Gingerly he fingered his sore head and sat down on the pillow-strewn daybed. “I seem to recall being set upon by footpads.”
“Footpads! Marriot!” Eleanor, who had not yet recovered from the shock of her husband’s abrupt reappearance, dropped down before him on her knees. “You could have been killed! Indeed, I feared you had been. There was a rumor that you had run afoul of Napoleon’s agents. There was even a suggestion that you might have eloped.”
“Eloped?” Lord March spoke absentmindedly, his attention on settling his wife and her voluminous fur cloak comfortably on his lap. “Why the deuce should I do such a cork-brained thing as that?”
Nell leaned back against her husband’s shoulder. “I believe the theory was that you might have shot the cat. Don’t scowl at me, Marriot; it wasn’tmysuggestion! You cannot deny that you have grown a trifle absent-minded on various occasions when you have imbibed a trifle too much.”
To these wifely strictures upon the subject of strong drink, Lord March responded with unimpaired good humor, perhaps because between strictures his wife was nibbling on his ear. “I’d have had to be drunk as a wheelbarrow to forget I was mad foryou,puss!” he said frankly, and then several kisses later added, “There! You’ll know better than to think such a thing again.”
“But Ididn’tthink it!” With icy fingers, Lady March stroked her husband’s lean face. “It was Mab.”
“Mab?” Lord March caught his wife’s cold hand and warmed it with his breath. In so doing, he glimpsed Lady Amabel, sprawled gracefully upon the floor. “Should we try and revive her, do you think?”
Eleanor glanced over her shoulder at her uninvited guest. “Leave her!” Nell said callously. “She looks comfortable enough, and she’s too close to the fire to take chill. Oh, Marriot, I have been in such a pucker! I had begun to wonder if you would never return!”
Why his usually level-headed countess had suddenly taken such a bird-witted notion, Lord March could not imagine, but he was not slow to set her fears at rest. Another lengthy interlude followed, the mood shattered only when Marriot abruptly raised his head to frown at Lady Amabel’s inert figure. “What’s this about a ghost? Why should Mab swoon at sight of me? The brat has known me all her life.”
Nell sighed. Explanations were in order. “What do you expect after an absence of six months?”
“‘Sixmonths?”Lord March stared disbelieving at his countess. “You jest.”
“No, she doesn’t!” Stiffly, Lady Amabel rose. While she had been quite content to lie as one senseless whilst Lord and Lady March conducted their reunion, Mab was relieved to remove herself at last from the hard, cold, and exceedingly uncomfortable floor. “You have been missing for quite that long, Marriot, and I wish you would tell us what the blazes you have been about.” In eager anticipation of his answer, Mab perched upon an embroidery-covered chair.
Lord March’s answer was not swift in coming, was indeed so very tardy that Mab had ample time to inspect the lush plant life of the chair upon which she sat—roses and daisies and strawberry blossoms, leaves and fruit—and to discover a caterpillar worked cunningly into the design. “I wish you two would stop cuddling!” she said crossly, glancing up from her inspection of the chair to discover Lord and Lady March gazing rapt into each other’s eyes. “While I am glad to learn that someone has been made heart-whole again, the sight of the pair of you hanging upon one another’s lips and swearing eternal devotion makes me wish to gnash my teeth! I’m beginning to think that Papa was right; there is something dashed smoky about your disappearance, Mar-riot. Do you mean to tell us you don’t know you were missing? And why did you feel obliged to use a secret passage to enter your own house?”
“I don’t know.” Lord March released his wife to rub his temples, as if by that simple expedient memory might be restored. It was not, alas. “The last I recollect is leaving White’s and being set upon by footpads— though I’m damned if I know if I was set upon then, or tonight.” He touched his wound, and grimaced. “Or both!”
“Oh!” gasped Nell, concerned. “Youarehurt! I will send for some hot water—”
“No!” Mab interrupted firmly, thus demonstrating that she was the only occupant of the solar who had not temporarily set aside her good sense.“Think,Nell! Marriot has no explanation of his six-month absence, and returns home like a thief in the dead of night. It looks very much to me like there’s something very havey-cavey going on here, and until we are certain that there isn’t, Marriot’s presence had much better not be broadcast.”
“Havey-cavey!” Upon this slight to her miraculously restored husband, Lady March’s bosom swelled. “How dare you suggest such a thing, Mab? And after we have taken you in!”
“I’m not suggesting anything, but telling you what other people may think.” Lord March appeared a great deal more interested in his wife’s swelling bosom than his own dire predicament, Mab thought. She wrinkled her nose. “You have been somewhere for the past six months. In a stable, from the smell and look of you!” Lord March wrinkled his own nose, sniffed and looked appalled.
“Never mind!” Eleanor didn’t mind the smell of horses, was so glad to have her husband restored that she wouldn’t have minded if he’d smelled much worse. Prompted by Lady Amabel’s ominous hints, Nell drew back to take a good look at her spouse. He looked little different than he had six months past, she decided as she gazed upon his angular, mobile, utterly charming face. Marriot was not especially handsome, but possessed a magnetism that rendered mere good looks superfluous. There were minor alterations; always athletic, Marriot was thinner than Nell remembered. His dark hair was longer than it had been six months past, and was currently as disheveled as any fashionable gentleman might achieve after hours spent before a looking glass. The most startling difference was in his clothing: knee breeches and unpolished boots and a simple white shirt open at the throat. However, there was no alteration whatsoever in the fond expression in his green eyes. “Darling!” murmured Nell huskily, as she lifted her fingers to trace the outline of his lips.
“Ahem!” interjected Lady Amabel, causing both Lord and Lady March to look at her askance. “It is very nice that you are so pleased to be reunited, but don’t you think it would be wise if we were to expend some thought upon what Marriot has been about? You don’t realize what a sensation you created by disappearing, Marriot. People are naturally going to be very curious, even more curious than I—and much less inclined to believe that you don’t know where you’ve been, or what you’ve been doing for six months.” Pointedly, she regarded Eleanor, settled so comfortably upon his lordship’s lap. “I do not mean to be a spoilsport, but perhaps if you were to apply your mind, you might recall.”
Amabel’s arguments were not without merit. Lord March’s reflections during the moments since his emergence from the secret passage had had little in them of anything but his wife. Reluctantly, he set Nell off his lap and beside him on the daybed. As he did so, his hand brushed against the book she had been reading and knocked it to the floor. He picked it up.“The History of Serpents?”he inquired.
Nell took the book. “Nothing is worse for a dragon’s digestion than apples. I have been reading all manner of strange things these past months, Marriot, while praying you would return.”
Marriot was coming to accept the fact of his long absence. His wife looked as delectable to him as a feast must to a starving man. “Eleanor, forgive me!” he begged, enfolding her in his arms.
“Anything!” gasped Nell, breathless.
“Oh, the devil!” muttered Mab, as Lord and Lady March again embraced. Such obvious, uninhibited affection was enough to cast a less fortunate maiden into the dismals. Not that Mab begrudged her friends their happiness, even though it quite wrung her heart with envy. Her papa was the most heartless wretch in nature to forbid her such happiness of her own. A popinjay! One could not blame Fergus for keenly feeling such rudeness.
Lady Amabel’s father claimed she was fit for something better, but Mab seriously doubted whether something better existed than the well-heeled and well-situated, perfectly correct and unassuming and gloriously handsome Baron Parrington. Perhaps Marriot might be persuaded to put in a good word for Fergus with her papa? It was a consideration. This was no moment to intrude the topic, judging from the lack of attention that Lord March awarded the much more pressing question of where he’d spent the last six months.
Mab cast his lordship and his lady an envious, exasperated glance. Then her gaze fell upon his shabby valise. Perhaps therein lurked a clue as to his recent whereabouts. Mab rose from her chair, grasped the valise and deposited it at—and inadvertently upon—Lord March’s feet.
Thus recalled to his surroundings, Marriot awarded Lady Amabel an ungrateful frown. “Limb of Satan!” he remarked. “Will it satisfy you if I vow upon my solemn word of honor that I don’t know where I’ve been?Nowwill you go to bed so that Nell and I may, er, talk privately?” He winked at his countess. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
“How I missed you, Marriot!” responded Lady March with her endearingly crooked smile. “But Mab is right, as usual—even if her papahasaccused her of acting like a loony! We must apply ourselves to this puzzle of where you’ve been. It will be the first question Cousin Henrietta asks upon discovering you’ve returned, and you may be sure that whatever you tell her will be speedily spread all about the town. Even if you cannot remember, we must have some story ready, I think.”
“Cousin Henrietta!” Lord March’s mobile features wore a look of keen distaste. “You cannot mean to tell me that wretchedly interfering female is in this house.”
“I am afraid so. She descended upon me immediately she heard of your disappearance, and has had me cudgeling my brain as to how I may be rid of her ever since.”
“Damnation!” muttered Lord March bitterly. Withstanding the temptation to cradle her husband’s mistreated head against her breast, Nell turned away. Her reflection in the oriel window caused her another, wryer smile. How carefully she had dressed in this lilac silk gown with white satin sleeves, and edged with lace, as she had dressed countless other nights, on the slender chance that Marriot might come home. This night hehadreturned, to find her rumpled and disheveled from the heavy cloak, her gown stained with Mab’s copious tears. Not that he had seemed to mind. Eleanor turned back to gaze dotingly upon her spouse. How she loved the man.
That glance Mab intercepted, as well as the keen manner in which Lord March returned it; hastily, she cleared her throat. “Mayhap we may find an answer to the mystery in Marriot’s valise. I’ll just open it, shall I?” She suited action to words. Then her blue eyes opened wide, and her pretty lips formed a perfect O. “Lawks!” she said.
‘Lawks’? Lady March was very curious as to what had inspired her friend to make noises like a chambermaid. She, too, approached the valise. Her amber eyes also widened. “Mercy!” she breathed.
By the conduct of his companions, Marriot’s own interest was aroused. He lowered his fond gaze from his wife’s startled face to the contents of the valise. By the sight that greeted him, Lord March was bereft of speech.
Mab brought forth a candelabra. Twinkling in the soft light were countless expensive jewels. Emeralds and rubies, diamonds and pearls—“Good God!” he breathed, at length.
Lady Amabel plunged reckless fingers into the valise, held up an enormous diamond, cut as a rose, in a simple gold setting with a hanging pearl. In quick succession she brought forth a bracelet set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies in enameled gold; a brooch composed of a diamond spray of leafy flowers set in silver; a parure of rubies and emeralds. Then she looked quizzically at Marriot. “I did not think you would gothisfar,” Mab murmured. “Even in your altitudes!”
“In my—” Lord March’s blank expression changed to consternation. “You don’t think I stole these things?”
“What elsecanwe think?” Mab dropped the jewels back into the valise and closed it. “Whether you stole the jewels or not, you are in possession of them, and therefore in the devil of a fix.”
Eleanor stirred. “No! Marriot could not do such a thing. I forbid you to even think it, Mab!”
“But we must think about it, my darling!” Lord March fondly pointed out. “Having the things, we must decide what to do with them. Unfortunately, one cannot just toss such expensive baubles in the trash.” His own smile, as he studied his wife, was crooked. “What a pretty pickle! You will be sorry I have come home.”
“Never, Marriot!” Eleanor was less stricken by the suggestion that her husband might have engaged in skullduggery than by his obvious distress. “I would not care if you robbed the—the Bank of England! And I know very well you didn’t, or anyone else.” She hugged him. “It is very late and we are all very weary! Things will seem less difficult in the morning. I suggest we retire.”
“An excellent idea.” Lord March put his wife away from him, picked up the valise, and approached the wainscoting. “I will take up residence in the attics until we have determined what must be done.”
“In the attics?” Lady March was saddened that her husband’s long-awaited homecoming should end on so sour a note. “Then I will come with you, Marriot.”
To turn down so generous an offer when in sore need of his wife’s companionship was the act of a true nobleman. Noble Lord March was, whether or not he had recently taken up burglary as a sideline. “No,” he said firmly. “Not until this mystery is cleared up. I would not have you waste yourself, my darling, on a man who may be a common thief—or worse!” So saying, he stepped back through the wainscoting. The panel swung shut.
If Lord and Lady March were less than thrilled with the puzzle into which they had been so abruptly plunged, Lady Amabel was enthusiastic enough for all three. She did not like to see her friends made miserable, of course, but the energy required to amend this topsy-turvy situation must very effectively distract a damsel from her own sore heart. Not that Mab’s heart wasbroken,precisely; it was merely severely wrenched. Nor did she despair of persuading her papa of the injustice he had done her. How this miracle might be accomplished she was not yet certain, but trusted enlightenment would come.
These optimistic reflections having occupied her until she arrived at her destination, Mab paused outside the door of Lord and Lady March’s bedchamber, hand upraised to knock. Voices came faintly from within.
Had Marriot overcome his scruples? Unhesitant, Mab pressed her dainty ear to the door. Those peevish tones definitely did not belong to Lord March; were indeed gloomily prophesying his lordship’s fate. “Perhaps,” said Cousin Henrietta as Mab entered, “he has been taken by a press gang.”
“Moonshine!” commented Lady Amabel with all the self-assurance of a young lady to whom nothing save the object of her girlish dreams had ever been denied. “If this is the way you have been going on, Henrietta, it is no wonder poor Nell has fallen into a melancholy. We must try and elevate her spirits, not cast them down!”
Upon being interrupted in mid-lament, the object of Lady Amabel’s strictures blinked and stared. Cousin Henrietta was a short, plump, wispy white-haired female midway through her fifth decade. Her round face might have been attractive had it not been marred by lines of discontent. “Lady Amabel!” she tittered. “I did not expect—that is, how doyoucome to be here?”
“By coach, how else?” Frankly curious, Mab gazed about her. The bedroom was charming, incorporating a small fireplace decorated with imported colored marbles; small mullioned windows with lozenge-shaped panels and ancient soft green glass; plaster walls painted in brilliant shades of greens and reds, yellows and blues, featuring a running design of humans and animals amid a large quantity of leaves. “Like you, I have come to be with Nell in her hour of need.”
The irony of this statement—Henrietta served no needs but her own—the older woman let pass. “Poor, poor Eleanor!” she cried, and clasped her hands to a plump bosom swathed in an unhappy shade of puce. “I have been endeavoring to discover just why Marriot may have left in so clandestine a fashion. Are you certain, Eleanor, that you and he did not have a falling-out?”
Having completed her inspection of the chamber, Mab turned toward the huge four-poster bedstead that stood on a dais at one end of the room. From the depths of the formidably carved structure came a single word. The tone in which the word was spoken was irritable. The word was “Poppycock!” In less hostile accents the speaker added, “Come here and sit by me, Mab, and share my chocolate! Perhaps between us we may persuade Henrietta that Marriot hasnotstuck his spoon in the wall.”
Lady Amabel was not slow to accept this invitation; her stylish high-necked morning dress with tucks around the hem was not designed for arctic temperatures, and Mab was shivering despite her shawl. The bedroom was very cold, Cousin Henrietta’s bulk absorbing the large portion of the fire’s warmth.
“I did not say Marriot had ‘stuck his spoon in the wall,’ as you so inelegantly phrase it,” that worthy protested, while with a disapproving expression she watched Lady Amabel climb onto the huge bed. In spite of her efforts at comfort and consolation Henrietta had never received so hospitable an invitation from the bed’s occupant and was consequently feeling very ill-used. “I only seek to prepare you for what I fear must be a very unpleasant event. We must face facts! Were Marriot able, he would have long since sent us word.” Meaningfully, she hesitated. “Providing, that is, that hewishedto.”
Mab had paused to admire the hangings of the ancient bed, white linen embroidered in red and blue and green silks. The glance she awarded Henrietta was a great deal less appreciative. “Are you hinting that Marriot has developed petticoat-fever, ma’am? I think you mustwantto see Nell in the pathetics. It is nonsense anyway, because Marriot would have to be drunk as a wheelbarrow to give another female a second glance, and he isn’t addicted to the bottle, so there!” She disappeared from view. “I daresay we shall have word of him any day.”
Henrietta frowned at the bedstead; unless she was very much mistaken, she had just been given a sharp set down by a most impertinent chit. Lady Amabel had no proper way of thinking, else she would not speak so rudely to her elders. But Henrietta had known for years that Mab was a hoyden and a madcap, a sad romp upon whose unseemly spirits a check should have been imposed. Unfortunately, Mab’s father did not adhere to Henrietta’s belief that young ladies should look very demure and never say a word.
Henrietta’s own voice betrayed none of her chagrin. “I am very much afraid that any word we have of Marriot must be unhappy at this point, and so I have warned Eleanor. She will not heed my advice, unfortunately. Perhaps you may help me persuade her that she must prepare herself to receive very bad news, Lady Amabel.”
What Eleanor was prepared to do was throttle her cousin, thought Mab, a sentiment that she heartily endorsed. “But I don’t think shewillreceive bad news,” Mab responded, nudging Nell, who was staring murderously at an intricately carved bedpost. “I’ve the oddest notion that Marriot will turn up any day.”
Had she heard Eleanorlaugh?wondered Henrietta, eyeing the four-poster. Surely not! “I hope we may not have Marriot brought to us with his toes turned up! You do not perceive the evils that await the unwary, Lady Amabel. There are ugly customers in the world, and devilry afoot. Look at Bonaparte—I mean, I hope we shall nothaveto look at him, but I wouldn’t count on it! I have heard that he has under construction a monstrous bridge by which his troops will pass from Calais to Dover, directed by officers in air balloons; and also that a Channel tunnel is being engineered by a mining expert. Mark my words, we shall all awaken one morning to find we have been murdered in our beds!”
The bed upon which Lady Amabel currently reclined was very comfortable, even though its owner was in possession of all the blankets and was trying so hard to contain an untimely onslaught of giggles that the whole structure shook, not to mention the lavish lace that trimmed her huge, absurdly flattering nightcap. “I am not certain who you expect to murder us,” Lady Amabel remarked. “Marriot or Bonaparte? This is a very foolish conversation. Marriot has come to no harm.” She nudged the giggling Nell. “I feel it in my bones!”
All that Cousin Henrietta felt inherbones was a continuous dull aching, the result of being confined during inclement weather in this drafty old mansion. Henrietta was not among the numerous admirers of Marcham Towers. Those individuals with a passion for antique architecture and furnishings might alter their opinions, she thought sourly, if obliged to winter in the house. Not that Henriettawasobliged to do so, save by her sense of duty, which was almost as strong as her fondness for prying into the intimate details of other people’s lives. Henrietta was not a prattle-bag precisely, but more a parasite. She was positively agog to learn why Lord March had deserted his lady. Now Lady Amabel had appeared on the scene to distract Eleanor just when Henrietta had been in momentary expectation of becoming her confidante. It was very bad. “You cannot be certain to what lengths Marriot may have been drawn,” she ominously remarked.
Having wrested from her hostess a fair share of the blankets and accepted from her a cup of rapidly cooling chocolate, Mab was very luxuriously disposed. “That is very true,” she responded solemnly. “I have already considered that Marriot might have run afoul of Bonaparte’s agents—perhaps even the Mad Corsican himself! I have heard it said that Bonaparte has disguised himself as a British sailor and is patrolling English shores at night aboard a fishing smack! Women should be allowed to join the militia, I think.Wewould not fire the beacons by mistake. But if not by Bonaparte’s agents, perhaps Marriot has been abducted by some other fiendish sort. Perhaps even tinkers! Although I do not know why they should abduct a grown man in the heart of London—but one never knows with that low, vulgar sort!”
Henrietta primmed her lips. “You mock me, miss, and you should not; age is the best advisor of youth. Moreover, horrid thingsdohappen in London, as you would know if you read the newssheets. Just the other day Lady Nelson was set upon by footpads, and relieved of her jewels and purse, in broad daylight!” Her expression grew suspicious. “In truth, I am surprised that your father took no better precautions foryoursafety. You were not here yesterday and yet are here this morning, and therefore must have arrived in the middle of the night.”
Though Mab could not see Henrietta due to the intricate carvings and enveloping draperies of the bed, she heard the curiosity in her voice. “I was in no danger,” Mab responded serenely. “You may trust Papa for that. Enough about my travels! Now that I am come to bear you company, how do you propose to entertain me, Nell?”
“Entertain you?” All merriment had abandoned Lady March upon mention of footpads.
“Entertainment!” Upon hearing this shocking suggestion, Henrietta was hard put to maintain a semblance of civility. “Marriot is missing and you talk ofentertainment.Lady Amabel? Oh, shame!”
“Don’t fly into a pelter! I did not mean that we should embark upon a round of dissipation.” Mab suspected it was as much the result other Cousin Henrietta’s appearance as of her spouse’s disappearance that Nell was looking so pulled-about. “However, there are a great many more worthwhile things to do with one’s time than to sit around and brood.”
With this viewpoint—brooding being one other own favorite occupations—Henrietta naturally did not agree. Before she could speak, Eleanor did so. “What had you in mind, Mab?” said she.
Mab was pleased to see Nell rouse; putting off the inquisitive Henrietta was very uphill work. “I thought we might explore the house,” she responded with a meaningful glance.
Lady March did not take note of her friend’s speaking expression, being engrossed in the bone designs of fruit and birds and flowers which adorned her bedpost, as well as in her own unhappy thoughts. “Why should I wish to explore my own house?” she inquired plaintively. “I live here.”
This was an awkward business! Lady Amabel charitably decided that prolonged exposure to a lugubrious curmudgeon like Henrietta must blunt the usual keenness of anyone’s response. “Not in the attics!” she responded, and in case her point was not taken gave Eleanor a sharp pinch. “I’ll wager there must be all manner of treasures hidden away.”
“Treasure?” In addition to her other little flaws of character, Henrietta was not free of avarice.
“Treasure indeed!” If belatedly aroused, Nell’s perceptions were acute. “Broken furniture and outdated clothing, not to mention mice. It is very dreary stuff, Mab. Still, if it will please you—”
“Oh, yes!” Mab peered cautiously through the bed-hangings and was very satisfied with Henrietta’s look of distaste. “I don’t mind mice; we’re used to them at the Hall. They don’t make a nuisance of themselves if you have a broom and don’t mind the mess attendant upon squishing them. We will need to have a broom along with us anyway, because I daresay the attics are full of dust and cobwebs. Do not look so unhappy, Nell! I will defend you! It is not often that the creatures willattack—though I do recall an instance when one of our dairymaids had a mouse run up her skirts—” Mab had the satisfaction of seeing Henrietta abruptly depart the room. “Silly widgeon!” she remarked, though did not explain whether this unflattering judgment applied to Henrietta or to the unfortunate dairymaid. “Now we are private at last, Nell. What a dreadful creature Henrietta is! I wonder you haven’t asked her to leave the house.”
“Would that I might!” Lady March leaned back among her pillows and heaved a great sigh. “Henrietta is such a prodigious bore that one feels sorry for her, somehow—although I may yet lose my temper if I must listen to much more drivel about being trained in a school of sorrow, and resignation and consolation and the will of God! You must not antagonize her, Mab. Henrietta is very likely to write to your father, if she suspects he doesn’t know you are here.” She pushed at the wide lace of her nightcap, the better to view her young friend. “He must be very worried about you, Mab.”
“I doubt he has even noticed that I am missing.” Mab’s pretty face was wry. “You know what Papa is! Do not be imagining that he will be as distrait as you were over Marriot. If he notices I am not there, he will simply assume he has forgotten where I’ve gone. But if it will please you, I will send him a note. I will remind him you wrote and asked me to come and share your vigil. Papa can’t take exception to that, because he is always saying I must learn to be kind to those who are less fortunate than I! And youareless fortunate, dear Nell, because I don’t have to hide Fergus in the attics.” She laid a thoughtful finger alongside her nose. “Perhaps Fergus may be able to help us straighten out this coil.”
Lady March knew her young friend too well to be surprised by this intimation that she was destined to become closely acquainted with the gentleman whom Mab’s father had stigmatized as a popinjay. “I suppose I have been dull as ditchwater,” she allowed.
“I shall tell Papa that I consider it my duty to animate your spirits,” mused Mab and then smiled. “Which you can’t deny I alreadyhave!Since my arrival things have gotten positively lively. The cook, incidentally, is very wroth this morning, because it appears one of the servants raided the larder in the middle of the night. We need not worry that Marriot shall starve, at any rate!” Curiously she observed her companion, whose shadowed eyes hinted at insufficient sleep. Precisely what had troubled Nell’s slumbers, Mab sought to discreetly discover. “Did Marriot, ah, change his mind about—”
“I know what about!” snapped Eleanor. “No, he did not!”
“Thenthatis why you are feeling so very cross!” Lady Amabel gave her friend’s hand a sympathetic little pat. “Sometimes the gentlemen can be such perfect gudgeons, with their silly notions of what is honorable and what is not. Still, in this instance, Marriot doeshave a point. I daresay that under the circumstances it would be easier on you, were you to have to see him hanged—not that I expect things to come to that!” Her piquant face turned pensive. “How much Marriot must love you, to act in such a way! Fergus would not be half so self-sacrificing. I vow I am quite envious.”
What in her present situation anyone could find to envy, Lady March could not decide, being in no mood to appreciate her husband’s nobility of character. Another matter concerned her more deeply at this moment.“Hanged?”she echoed.
Lady Amabel’s tender heart was wrung by her friend’s horrified expression; apparently Nell did not altogether realize the implications of their fix. Would anything be served by an avoidance of the truth? Mab decided it would not. Perhaps awareness of the perils of the situation might assist Lord and Lady March to concentrate their minds.
“I do not like to be the one to tell you this!” Amabel said sadly. “Though I am notaltogethercertain, Nell, I think jewel thieves are always hanged.”
With footsteps hastened by a persistent vision of her husband dangling from the gallows, Lady March made her way to the attics. She had not exaggerated when she told Mab about the more unusual amenities of the house. The secret room in the attics had been contrived by an earlier Lord March who, in the course of a stormy political career, had incurred the displeasure of both Charles II and Cromwell. Entry was through a secret door, which to the uninformed eye merely appeared as a triangular flap of plaster framed in wood between three beams.
Though not commodious, the hidden room was comfortable enough. Light entered through a small window cunningly placed so as to be visible from neither ground nor roof. Because the room backed onto one of the house’s main chimneys, it was tolerably warm.
Old carpeting lay thick upon the floor, to muffle footsteps and sound. Lord March himself lay stretched out, snoozing, beneath the old fur cloak on his narrow bed. On the floor beside him an empty tray bore mute evidence as to the identity of the larder thief.
Lady March stood gazing somberly down upon her spouse. “Oh, Marriot!” she whispered, softly. “Hanged!”
Lord March was instantly alert. He swung his long legs over the side of the bed and reached to light a candle that stood on a small chest beside an old Toledo walking sword. This chest, the bed, and two simple stools comprised the chamber’s furnishings. The only other luxuries were the painted cloths—featuring such classical subjects as Venus pursuing Adonis—that hung upon the walls.“Whowas hanged, Nell?”
Sadly, Lady March gazed upon her husband, who was looking nigh-irresistible, his green eyes laughing up at her, his dark hair tousled from sleep, “No one, yet,” she said ominously, as he helped relieve her of her burdens, which included a basin of warm water and a cloth with which to bathe his wound. “Mab assures me that thieves invariably meet that unhappy fate. Not that I believe you are a thief, Marriot! But I fear someone who didn’t know you as well as I might not feel so certain of your innocence.”
Lord March himself was not altogether convinced that his honor was so pristine. “It’s the very devil of a coil,” he responded, wincing as Nell pressed the damp cloth to his head. “Gently, darling! I have lain awake half the night trying to remember what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been, but to no avail. It is the queerest sensation, to find that all memory of a portion of your life has flown straight out of your mind.”
Lady March, too, had enjoyed fitful slumber, her rest disturbed by a persistent recurrent image of her spouse clad in naught but stolen jewels. “We assume the gems are stolen, but perhaps they are not. Perhaps you came by them in some unexceptionable way.”
“Unexceptionable?” Lord March turned and caught his wife’s ministering hand and pulled her down to sit beside him on the bunk. He dragged forward the valise. “Certainly I would like to think so—but we must be reasonable, my love!”
Gloomily, Lady March stared at the valise’s contents. It was most unlikely that any one person could claim such a large quantity of jewels. “Perhaps you meant to make me a present,” she suggested without much hope.
“A present, Nell?” Marriot held up a chain of heavy gold set with huge pearls interspersed with rubies. “I would hardly consider this in your style! And though my memory has played me false of late, I have forgot nothingbeforeI left White’s that fateful night—including the fact that you aren’t fond of jewels.” He dropped the chain back into the valise and shoved it aside. “As for me dancing the Paddington frisk, don’t think it! We’re not done for yet. I’ll have a word to say to young Mab about giving you such a fright.”
“You must not scold Mab, Marriot; she promises to be the most resourceful of allies.” As her husband sought to repair the worst of the ravages wrought to his person by his adventures, Lady March wrapped herself in the fur cloak. “Even now she diverts Cousin Henrietta so thatmydisappearance will not be remarked. I left them talking about the preparations our countrymen have taken against the threatened French invasion. Mab was trying to persuade Henrietta to join the militia, I think.”
Lord March stripped off his shirt. “I wish her joy of the task.”
Wistfully, Lady March eyed her husband’s bare, bronzed torso, its excellent muscular development shown to good advantage by the flickering candlelight. “It wasyouwho turned me absolutely sick with fright! Can you not imagine my horror when you failed to come home?”
Marriot paused in his ablutions, which he was performing with the only means at hand, the water with which his wife had bathed his head. How delectable she looked curled up on his bed, the fur cloak clutched around her, chestnut curls coming loose. He had a sudden impulse to bury his fingers in that heavy hair, to press his lips against her throat, to fling aside the cloak— How intently her amber eyes fixed on his face, how lovely was the flush on her cheeks, how inviting her crooked smile.
Hastily Lord March donned the fresh shirt that she’d brought. Eleanor sighed.
“I regret the anxiety I’ve caused you,” said Marriot, taking up a stance at a prudent distance from the bed. “I am even sorrier that I seem destined to cause you still more. The longer I ponder my possession of those accursed jewels, the more questionable that possession seems. I very much fear that I’ve been up to no good.”
Lady March was in this moment a great deal less concerned with her husband’s fears than with her own rapid pulse. “I don’t care a button what you have been up to,” she said crossly. “I wish you would cease acting somissish,Marriot! The very least you might do after causing me so much anguish is kiss me—even if your scruples forbid you doing else. We are supposed to be secret, remember. We will not long continue so if we must converse at a shout.”
This latter argument—the last person whom he wanted involved in his dilemma was his Cousin Henrietta—brought Lord March back to the narrow bed. “Vixen!” he said, and awarded his wife a chaste salute. Lady March, however, possessed not a single scruple, at least in regard to her racing pulse, and the caress that she in turn pressed upon her husband had nothing in it that was chaste. Some time elapsed in this manner, while Lord and Lady March struggled with his lordship’s conscience.
Eventually, and reluctantly, Marriot won. Gently, he disengaged himself. “Try and understand. I cannot come to you with a stain upon my honor, Nell.”
Neither did Lady March care a button for this inconvenient selflessness. “You don’t need to come to me! We are already married!” she tearfully pointed out. “And it is very bad of you to be sodistantwhen at any moment you may be hanged as a thief!”
Though Lord March was hard pressed to keep to his good intentions—with such sweet abandon did his wife weep upon his chest—the thought of his own imminent execution was a great help. “I trust it will not come to that,” he soothed, as he wiped the moisture from her cheeks. “You must be very brave, my dear, and help me to establish my innocence. We cannot expect the authorities to believe that I have no notion of how I came by these jewels. The best thing I can do is keep dubber-mum’d for the nonce.”
“‘Dubber-mum’d’?” Lady March allowed herself one last sniffle. “What isthat?”
“Be quiet.” Lord March dropped a caress upon the tip of his wife’s nose. “That is, ‘dubber-mum’d’ meansto keep a still tongue in one’s head.” He frowned. “I wonder how I came by that queer phrase. There are more: to snack the bit means to share the money; hub and grub are food and drink—I fear, my darling, that the company I have been keeping is not quite the thing!”
“You must try even harder to remember.” As if to aid her husband in this enterprise, Lady March rubbed her nose against his manly cheek. “That is the only way we may make sense of this. No matter how little you may think of yourself, I know you have done nothing so dreadfully bad. Oh,whymust you remain hidden away like—like some common thief?”
All that Lord March could think about while holding his adored wife so close in his arms had little to do with his mysterious forgotten past. Abruptly, he abandoned the bed and perched instead upon the chest. “I do not care to see my family plunged into some vile scandal,” he retorted. “Don’t argue with me, Nell! My mind is quite made up on this point. My return must not be made public until some reasonable explanation of my absence has been devised.”
Though Lady March was not all disposed to keep her distance, she temporarily acquiesced to her husband’s obvious intention of keeping her at arm’s length. Clearly, the quickest resolution to this absurd dilemma was to solve the perplexing problem of the stolen gems. “But no one even knows you have them!” Eleanor pointed out.
This happy notion had also occurred to Marriot, only to be regretfully dismissed. “We don’t know that. And much as I would like to tuck the blasted things away somewhere and forget their existence, I cannot do so. For my transgressions—whatever they may be!—I would not haveyoustand the consequence.” His mobile face was wry. “Poor Nell! You will wish you weren’t so eager to have me come home.”
“Bosh!” In lieu of a husbandly embrace, Nell burrowed closer into the fur cloak, a meager substitute. “It would take more than a little inconvenience to make me suffer a revulsion of feeling, Marriot. If only Cousin Henrietta were not here, so that we wouldn’t have to be put to these abominable expedients and shifts! I dare not send her awaynow,lest her suspicions are aroused— you know how she is! Let her get a notion that something is in the wind and she will be forever breathing down my neck.”
Lord March’s green eyes rested somewhat wistfully upon his wife’s neck, which was encircled by the ruff of her high-waisted white cambric gown. Lady March caught his glance. Equally wistful, she continued, “I am not good at dissembling, but I shall try very hard! Perhaps Henrietta may attribute any oddity to the anguish I suffer as result of our separation—oh, Marriot! Truly I am full of admiration for your nobility of character, and I think it is very good of you to try and spare my feelings, even though it makes me melancholy, and I would much rather you would not. I truly do not care if you stole those wretched jewels!”
So moved was Lord March by this highly biased outburst that he arose from the chest to pace in very great affliction up and down the room. “A pretty companion that would make me!” he said bitterly. “I cannot think a criminal would be the proper husband for you, Nell.”
“A criminal? Pooh!” Not only did the fur cloak lack the ability to comfort, it had grown stifling hot. “You refine too much upon it.”
“No, I do not.” With amusement, Lord March watched his wife struggle to be free of the cloak. After a moment, he crossed to her and plucked it away. How very desirable she looked curled up on his bed, watching him through those clear, cool amber eyes. “I have given every appearance of being a very loose fish. Yes, I know you cannot enter into my feelings upon that head, but I beg you will oblige me in it all the same—tiresome creature though you may think me.”
“I do not think you are tiresome! No, nor a loose fish!” Anxious that her husband be rid of these apprehensions, Lady March flung herself upon his chest, grasped his arms, and gazed anxiously up into his face. “You have overlooked the most pertinent point of all. Iloveyou, Marriot.”
Green eyes met amber, and held. “And I,” Lord March said huskily, “love you, Nell!”
No little time later, Lord and Lady March were snuggled very comfortably beneath the fur cloak upon the narrow little bed. “I should be very angry with you,” remarked his lordship to his wife. “Ihadmeant to deal with you from a discreet distance—don’t poker up on me, love. I like it excessively that you have persuaded me I should not. Unfortunately, this does not alter the situation, about which we have not yet decided what to do.”
“Whatcanwe do?” Now that racing pulses no longer plagued her, Lady March could approach the problem with a much clearer mind. To further speed her thought processes, she leaned across her husband’s chest, propped her elbows on either side of him, and gazed dreamily down into his face. “First, I suppose, we must find out if a large amount of jewelry has been stolen recently. I dare not ask Cousin Henrietta lest she grow suspicious. I think Mab and I must develop a passion for the newssheets.”
“I dislike to involve you in this business.” Lord March indulged his impulse to bury his hands in his wife’s thick hair. “I will undertake my own inquiries.”
“No!” Pleasant as it was to be caressed, Lady March abruptly drew back. “You must not!”
In lieu of her hair, Marriot stroked Eleanor’s bare shoulder. “Whyever not? I will be very careful and leave by the old tunnel after the household is asleep.”
How best to explain this conviction that disaster would befall them were Marriot to step foot outside Marcham Towers? Frantically, Nell thought. “If you didn’t steal the jewels, then how came you to have them? Even now someone may be looking for you—if not the jewels’ owners, then the thieves responsible for their disappearance. I’ll warrant you have not thought of that!” Her eyes filled with tears. “Pray oblige me in this, Marriot! Let Mab and I see what we may discover. To lose you again, so soon after having you restored to me, would be more than flesh and blood can tolerate!”
Appalled that he had inadvertently distressed his wife, Lord March rained kisses on her shoulder, neck and cheek. “Don’t go into high fidgets!” he soothed, “We will try it your way. You and Mab find out what you can. Meantime I will strive my utmost to avoid Cousin Henrietta. Marcham Towers is large enough to safely hide several fugitives, especially one who knows its nooks and crannies like the palm of his own hand.” If not better, he silently amended, having already discovered that appendage to be inexplicably callused.
Eleanor, too, had noted those new calluses, about which she breathed not a word. So relieved was Nell to have Marriot restored that she cared not a fig if he hadmurderedsomeone. In point of fact, Nell had several times experienced an urge to commit murder herself.
Nell set aside all thought of Cousin Henrietta, refusing to further tarnish this golden hour. “I brought you some things to make you more comfortable,” she said.
Marriot’s smile was frankly appreciative. “So you did.”
Nell blushed and giggled, “Rogue! I meant that I had brought another candle, and some fruit, and some books so that you may not be bored. Very highly, I recommendThe History of Serpents—did you know dragons get fat on eggs? I assure you it is true. The adult dragon swallows eggs whole, then rolls about ‘til the shells are crushed inside him. And in case you do not care for dragons, I have brought you Pliny’sNatural History,and Foxe’sBook of Martyrs,and several more.”
Now it was Lord March who propped himself up on an elbow. With lazy amusement he watched his wife struggle to fasten herself into her high-waisted dress— rumpled now, and damp from the water basin, and none improved by a close acquaintance with cobwebs and dust. “When will you return?” he inquired.
“As soon as I may. Or perhaps I will send Mab.” Lady March smoothed ineffectively at her tumbled locks. “What a sight I must look. It is not kind in you to laugh at me, you wretch!” Her own smile faded. “Marriot, there is something we must consider. I do not think you stole the jewels, of course—but if we cannot prove it, then what?”
No trace of amusement remained on Lord March’s features as he reached over the side of the bed and plucked his shirt from off the floor. “There is another possibility, though you will not care to consider it. Perhaps Iamguilty of theft—in which case I shall take my punishment like a man. My darling, do not look so! I doubt myself that will turn out to be the case.”
“No, no, I do not think it!” Nell pressed cold fingers to her cheeks. “I have just remembered the most appalling thing. Marriot, when days passed and you did not come home—I would not do itnow,but then I had no notion—oh, blast! I called in Bow Street!”
Fergus Ridpath, Baron Parrington, gazed without noticeable enthusiasm upon Marcham Towers. For the record, let it be stated that few people, especially of the feminine persuasion, could gaze with a similar lack of enthusiasm upon Lord Parrington. At seven-and-twenty Fergus had golden hair and brown eyes set in an amazingly handsome countenance, nicely fashioned shoulders and calves and all else in between. This day he wore a topcoat of light tan broadcloth with collar of gold velvet, a high-crowned beaver hat, gloves of York tan, buckskin breeches, and tall boots with tassels and white tops. “This is Lady Amabel’s direction,” he said reassuringly to his companion. “Allow me to assist you to mount the steps, Mama.”
Bedazzling as was Lord Parrington to behold, similar approbation did not apply to his sole surviving parent. Lady Katherine’s figure was stooped, her countenance raddled; once a great beauty, she now appeared older than her actual years. Nor was her personality any more pleasing than her person. “Lady Amabel!” she muttered irritably, as she contrived to mount the steps with the combined assistance of son and silver-headed cane. “Plague take the chit!”
Lord Parrington’s admirers were prone to wax eloquent about his unflagging patience regarding his vituperative parent. “I know you do not mean that, Mama!” he said cheerfully. “You are merely cross because you do not like to travel. I warned you of how it would be, but you were determined to accompany me to town. I did not realize you were so taken with Lady Amabel. She will be prodigious pleased by so high a mark of favor.”
“Taken with her, am I?” One of the disadvantages attached to unflagging good humor and an upright unsubtle nature was the tendency to attribute to other people the sterling qualities possessed by oneself. Lady Katherine did indeed wish Amabel might be carried off by plague. Her usually docile son had inexplicably taken the notion that he must set up his nursery, and for his purpose had settled upon the loveliest girl in the neighborhood, unfortunately the daughter of a lowly baronet.“Takenwith her? Gad!”
Lord Parrington made no response to this cryptic remark, being busy anticipating Lady Amabel’s reaction to the singular stroke of good fortune that was about to befall her in the person of himself. Fergus was not vain, precisely, but he had been brought up to have an excellent notion of his own worth. His mother doted on him, and Fergus expected other ladies to similarly react. Thus far, though his experience had been somewhat limited, he’d had no cause for disappointment. Lord Parrington smoothed the sleeve of his broadcloth topcoat.
While the baron and his mama had thus engaged in rumination, the ancient door had opened to them, and they had been admitted into the great hall. There they were left to inspect the suits of armor and racks of spears, the screen of carved and wainscoted wood that stood at one end of the chamber. More precisely, Lord Parrington inspected those antiquities. Lady Katherine took firm grasp upon her cane and glowered at the staircase. At length the servant reappeared and conducted them past the carved balustrades and newel posts picked out in bright colors, and into the solar.
Not Lady Amabel awaited there, as Fergus had expected, but a short, plump, agitated-looking lady with wispy white hair. “I am so sorry!” gasped this worthy as she hastened to greet them, an act accompanied by a great fluttering other hands. “Amabel will wish she had been here to welcome you—so kind of you to call! So condescending! It is the fault of this queer old house that she is not with us at the moment; things—and people!—are never where one expects them to be. But I am forgetting to introduce myself! Henrietta Dougharty—March’s cousin, you know!”
“March?” Lady Katherine settled stiffly upon the chocolate-red daybed, her hands resting before her on the knob of her cane. “Dougharty? I seem to know that name. Are your people from Suffolk?”
Looking very gratified, Henrietta perched primly on a nearby embroidered chair. “Why, yes!” she replied. Lord Parrington left the ladies to the exploration of respective genealogies. As result of Mab’s failure to greet him in a properly flattered manner, he was becoming somewhat miffed. True, Mab could not have been certain he would come to London as result of her cryptic summons. The gist of that letter, Fergus pondered once more. He could make no sense of the strange goings-on at which Mab had hinted. She had called her papa the greatest wretch in nature, Fergus reflected. Mab was a great deal less charitable toward her parent than the young man he’d called a popinjay.
“Fergus! Pay attention!” his own peevish parent snapped. “Dougharty and I have discovered we are old acquaintances. Tell me, ma’am, how is it that Lady Amabel came to you? An unexpected visit, was it not?”
Henrietta was gratified beyond measure by this familiar treatment—Lady Katherine might have married a mere baron, but she was a duke’s daughter, a fact none other acquaintance were permitted to forget. “Quite unexpected!” agreed Henrietta, her expression arch. “It was not me she came to, precisely, but Eleanor—-that is, Lady March. How I wish I knew where they have got to! The attics, perhaps.”
“Attics?” Lady Katherine began to wonder if this relic of her childhood—it had been established that the ladies had been girls together in Suffolk—had grown queer in the head. “Plague on’t, why theattics? I do hot scruple to tell you, Dougharty, that this is an exceedingly ill-run house. And inconvenient.” She gazed disapprovingly about her. “It is a veritable antique.”
“It is also very cold.” Henrietta pulled her square Scotch shawl of silk and cotton around her shoulders, which were somewhat prematurely swathed in black bombazine. “The attics were Lady Amabel’s suggestion. I believe she wished to explore them. There was some talk of forgotten treasures.” She shuddered. “And mice!”
Though Lady Katherine was too starched up to shudder, she fumbled for her vinaigrette. “Mice!” she repeated, astonished. “What does the chit want with mice?”
Henrietta struggled with the temptation to unburden herself to this sympathetic listener, and lost. “She said she wished to smash them with a broom! I daresay she didn’t mean it, any more than she meant it when she suggested we ladies should join the militia, and arm ourselves with spades and axes, and prepare to see that the beacons are properly lit.”
Upon receipt of this startling intelligence, Lady Katherine cast her son a pointed glance. Occupied with a vision of Lady Amabel advancing upon one of the many circular martello towers that had recently sprung up about the countryside, Fergus did not notice his mama’s look. Mab would have her skirts pinned up, he mused, thus displaying her pretty ankles, and would defend herself with a pitchfork. Though in reality he would never condone such an improper action, it made an amusing thought. He then fell into pleasant contemplation of Lady Amabel’s ankles, which he had never seen.
“Stab me!” muttered Lady Katherine, growing steadily more out of charity with her son.
“So you may say.” Henrietta leaned closer, increasingly drawn to this lady who was obviously no admirer of the irrepressible Mab. “It is my impression that Lady Amabel’s arrival had something veryoddabout it. I know Eleanor did not expect her, else I would surely have been told. Furthermore, unless I am very much mistaken, and I do not see how I could be, she arrived in the middle of the night!”
Though Henrietta might be shivering in the chill air of the solar—Fergus having unwittingly stolen a leaf from her own book in his inspection of the fireplace, and now blocking all the heat—Lady Katherine was considerably warmer. Not only was Lord Parrington’s mama dressed to withstand the most inclement of weather, muffled up in twilled worsted, a tippet with long hanging ends wrapped around her neck, and a bonnet of gros de Naples with ribbon ties concealing her hair and ears and a portion other face; but she also experienced the heady flush of a hunter whose quarry has abruptly come into sight. That Lady Katherine did not intend her son to marry anyone, and thus rend the delicate fabric of her own very comfortable existence, perhaps need not be explained.
“I have harbored doubts about Lady Amabel for some time,” she whispered, leaning so far forward that she almost touched the knob of her walking stick with her chin. “One does not like to cast aspersions, but I have seen no indication that the chit has the slightest sense of what is and isn’t nice. I will be frank, Dougharty! You at least I know will feel just as you should! I was actuallygladto hear that the chit had come to London, for she had set her cap at my son.”
“Oh, I say!” Henrietta stared at that Exquisite, currently studying Diana bathing upon the chimneypiece through his quizzing glass. “I feel for you, Lady Katherine—indeed I do. I have long held that Amabel is incorrigible. She possesses what I fear is an incurable levity—but I must not speak unfavorably of a guest in this house.”
Disappointed, because she wished very much to hear further adverse comments on this topic, Lady Katherine once more sat erect. “We were very nicely placed in the country, before Fergus took the notion that he must come to London. Nor could I dissuade him, though ordinarily he is a good obedient boy, and very considerate, and a great solace to me.” She looked arch. “Fergus could serve as a model of good breeding for any amount of romantical misses, I vow! Certainly any number of misses have wished that he might. Though I should not say so, Dougharty, my son is a bachelor of the first stare,”
Lord Parrington would remain a bachelor, thought Henrietta, had Lady Katherine her way. Henrietta saw nothing to censure in this ambition which, had she possessed a son, she would doubtless have shared. In fact, Henrietta wished Lady Katherine every success in detaching her son from Amabel, to whom by prolonged exposure Henrietta had not grown endeared.
Impatient for agreement, Lady Katherine poked Henrietta with her cane. Henrietta stared. “Isaid,”repeated Lady Katherine, “that my son is a bachelor of the first stare.”
“Indeed!” Henrietta blanched, aware she’d caused offense. “A gentleman of position and substance—well-connected—any young woman must count herself fortunate!”
Lady Katherine was not pleased by this restriction; in her opinion, no female youngorold could be insensible to her offspring’s good looks and charm. She did not quibble, lest her displeasure reduce her new-found ally to incoherence. Though Lady Katherine ordinarily derived considerable satisfaction from causing lesser beings to quiver like blancmange, no further adverse intelligence concerning Amabel could thereby be learned.
“Most young women would realize their good fortune,” she remarked, surveying the solar with unabated distaste. “From Lady Amabel’s absence, we must assume that she does not. Ihadhoped Fergus would not be disappointed in the chit, but my hopes are unfulfilled, alas. Now perhaps he may be persuaded to go home! This racketing about the countryside is no treat for a woman of my age—or enfeebled health.” Recalled to her weak condition, Lady Katherine partook of her vinaigrette. “It is a mother’s duty to sacrifice herself. Fergus has not the least notion of how to go on, the lamb.”
Well did Henrietta know the discomforts of travel, due to her own frequent journeys from relative to relative, undertaken not only in search of scandal but also to escape the tedium of her own shabby little house. Sympathetically, she regarded her companion.
“Who is a lamb?” inquired Lord Parrington, having tired of Diana bathing amid monkeys and birds and beasts upon the fireplace. Secretly, he had also grown weary with waiting for Amabel to grace the solar with her presence. Though Fergus was far from the popinjay Mab’s father considered him—there was nothing of the fop in him—he was very correct. No son of Lady Katherine’s could fail to be so. Relentlessly coached in deportment by his mama, Fergus had all his life trod the road of dignity and decorum. One of the things that attracted him to Lady Amabel was her refreshing spontaneity. Between Mab’s mysteriously urgent note and subsequent failure to appear, however, he was beginning to feel ill-used.
“You are a lamb, my son!” Doting looks sat ill upon Lady Katherine’s raddled face. “We will take our leave now, Dougharty. You may tell Lady Amabel we called to see her. A pity the chit didn’t see fit to spare a moment of her precious time. But that is the way with these young girls. Inourday we were better brought up!”
Though a trifle out of charity with the subject of this tirade, Lord Parrington was not so quick to censure as his parent. “You are merely tired, Mama!” he soothed, and assisted her to rise. “Else you would realize there is doubtless some good reason for Lady Amabel’s absence, and would not beSOout-of-reason cross.”
Devoted as she was to her sole offspring, Lady Katherine sometimes found his tendency to see the best in everyone extremely annoying. Since this was one of those times, she irritably shook off his helping hand. “I’d like to know what that reason might be!” she snapped.
“Can it be you do not know?” Henrietta was misled into crediting not Lady Katherine’s true sentiment, but her words. “About Marriot?” It was clear from the callers’ blank expressions that they were not aware of the bizarre disappearance of Lord March. Eagerly, Henrietta explained, concluding, “Whether it was a press gang that took him, or French agents, or tinkers, no one can say! We are in anxious expectation of more news—although I expect that when the news doescome, it will be much too dreadful to bear!” She pressed her hands to her bombazine-swathed bosom. “Poor, poor Nell!”
“Faith, I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Disapproval was writ large on Lady Katherine’s ruined face. The inexplicable disappearance of a peer she could not help but consider ill-bred.
This aspect of the situation did not present itself to Fergus, who had exchanged his vision of Mab lighting beacons for one of that damsel tending selflessly to Lady March, understandably disconsolate and prostrate. He had not previously realized this generous side to Mab’s nature. Of course he must forgive her for not putting in an appearance in the solar when her reasons were so pure. “What agoodgirl she is!” he said.
A good girl? Lady Katherine had no doubt for whom this sobriquet was intended. She took firmer grasp on her cane. “Nothing of this sort has ever happened in our family!” she somewhat unnecessarily pointed out. “Doubtless the explanation will turn out to have to do with a woman. When gentlemen make jack-puddings of themselves, some female is generally involved.” The look she bestowed upon her son clearly indicated the opinion that he was threatened by this ignominious fate.
“Pray give Lady Amabel our regards,” murmured Lord Parrington, oblivious to his mama’s malice, bending in a courtly manner over Henrietta’s hand. “And tell her that I shall engage myself to call upon her again tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow;Ishall require your services then!” To underscore her point, and relieve her burgeoning displeasure, Lady Katherine prodded her son with her cane. Far too well-bred to take exception to this treatment, Lord Parrington smiled ruefully. “If not tomorrow,” he told Henrietta, “then soon!”
Though Lady Amabel’s reasons for not greeting her callers in the solar were not what Lord Parrington imagined, they were still very sound: first, Mab didn’t realize that she had visitors; and second, she was engaged during that portentous interlude in playing at whist with Lord March. So far as the cards were concerned, as had rapidly become apparent, Lady Amabel’s luck was out.
“You will be wondering why I have run away from home!” she said, throwing down her cards. “It is because Papa is so stubborn—well,youknow what he is! Or do you? It is very queer how you recall some things, and others you do not.”
“Not so queer as all that.” Lord March pushed aside the abandoned cards and stretched out his long legs on the bed. “I remember everything up to the point when I ‘disappeared’ on my way home from White’s. Only then does memory fail. It is my theory I was attacked by footpads, and struck, and lost all notion of who I am until the other night when I was again assaulted.” His expression was wry. “You look skeptical, brat! I cannot blame you for doubting so farfetched a tale. But if you are doubtful, others will be even more so, I think.”
“Doubtless you are correct.” Mab drew her cloak closer about her and settled more comfortably upon the wooden chest. “Let us test your theory! How much are you aware of what has happened, during your absence, in the world? Do you know, for instance, that Bonaparte spent the summer drilling hisGrande Armée?They marched about in rhythm singing songs about sailing for England. Now he has crowned himself Emperor. It’s said he paid the husband of an actress thousands of francs to stage-manage the ceremony.”
“And at the last moment Mme. Bonaparte confessed to the Pope that she was no more than a legalized concubine, and a hasty religious marriage took place. There were conflicting versions—clever Josephine trapped the Emperor, or the Emperor trapped the Pope, or the Pope stood his ground and made them both look absurd.” In his turn, Lord March looked ruminative. “It would seem I remember some things.”
“Mayhap the rest will come back to you.” Lady Amabel wrinkled her pretty nose. “Perhaps ifIwere to hit you on the head—”
“Pernicious wench!” responded Lord March, amused. “Since whist is too dull for you, shall we play a rubber or two of piquet?” Mab immediately agreed. A brief silence descended upon the secret room.
“Blast!” muttered Mab, a reckless player. Hoping for a change each rubber, she had risked all on the chance of a maddeningly elusive coup. “I think that during your absence you must have been an ivory tuner, or a Captain Sharp! A gentleman should not trounce a lady shamelessly at cards, but at least let her think she may win.”
“A lady, perhaps.” Lord March grinned. “But not a little baggage that he once dandled on his knee.”
“Did you really?” Mab’s imagination was caught by this suggestion. A gentleman fond enough to bounce her upon his knee might well be persuaded to intercede on her behalf with her misguided papa.
“I did.” Marriot’s long acquaintance with Lady Amabel had taught him to recognize and distrust the speculative gleam currently present in her blue eyes. Loweringly, he added, “And very damp you were! No, my girl, you will not pitchfork me into this battle of wills you are having with your papa. I have difficulties of my own to resolve, in case you have forgot.”
A good-hearted girl, Lady Amabel could not argue this point; and even had she been inclined to, there was not sufficient time. With a faint groan of protest, the secret panel swung slowly open. Mab leapt to her feet, clutching the ancient Toledo sword.
“What the deuce?” inquired Lady March, somewhat faintly, due to the sharp blade pointed at her throat.
“How was I to know it was only you?” responded Amabel, lowering the sword. “I thought perhaps Henrietta had discovered the entrance.”
“Even if she does discover it, I do not think we can permit you to cut her throat, infant.” Lord March’s tone was preoccupied, his attention all for his wife. Eleanor was dressed for the out-of-doors in a long black redingote with high collar and sleeves, a straw hat turned up in front and trimmed with green ribbons, half boots of kid, buff-colored suede gloves, and huge bearskin muff. “You’re cold, Nell! Come here and sit beside me and let me make you warm.” Lord March made room for her beside him on the bed.
“Marriot!” Eleanor sighed, blushing, and complied.
Lady Amabel sighed also, not only from envy, but also because she foresaw that Lord and Lady March were again on the verge of abandoning practical matters in favor of romance. “I wish the pair of you might try for a little common sense!” she scolded. “To cuddlenow islike Nero fiddling while Rome burned. ItwasNero who did so, was it not? No matter! Nell, what did you find out?”
“Hmm? Ah!” With difficulty, Lady March detached her gaze from her husband’s face. “I have been in such a whirl. Lest she demand to accompany me, I dared not let Henrietta discover I planned to leave the house. To do so without her knowledge was no easy feat! She did not remark my return, fortunately. She was entertaining someone in the solar, so I simply slipped by.”
“Entertaining?” Lady Amabel’s lively curiosity was aroused. “Who?”
“Had I paused to discover that, I would have never escaped.” Looking both irritable and tragic, Eleanor reached into her huge muff and withdrew a bottle of claret. “You’re going to need this, Marriot. We all shall, unless I am mistaken about what I heard in the streets.”
“In the streets?” echoed Lord March, glancing in some perplexity from the claret bottle to his wife’s mournful face. Even in the grip of a fit of the blue devils she was nigh-irresistible. “My darling!” he murmured, touching tender fingers to her face.“Mydarling!” responded Eleanor, passionately kissing his hands. “I will not let you be hanged!”
“Hanged? Piffle!” Impatient of these ill-timed declarations, Mab reached for the folded newssheet which had also been hidden in Nell’s muff. “I admit that Mar-riot’s case does not look especially promising, but we shall make a recover—damnation!”
This exclamation, uttered in shocked tones, temporarily roused Lord and Lady March from preoccupation with themselves. Both turned to Mab. Wide-eyed, that young lady was avidly scanning the newssheet. “A parure of rubies and emeralds!” she read aloud when made aware of their attention. “A brooch composed of a spray of diamond flowers set in silver leaves! A heavy golden chain set with one hundred and sixty pearls, every sixteen divided by a large ruby—the latest in a series of appalling, brutal robberies that has for several months plagued the metropolis—the most unstinting inquiries are being made! Marriot!”
Lady March, whose nerves were not surprisingly shattered, found in this unsympathetic pronouncement cause for grave offense. “How can you think—as if Marriotcould—and after I took you in without a word of the scolding you deserved—”
“Come, Nell, do not take on so!” interrupted Marriot, and drew his wife into his arms. With a last incoherent utterance, which sounded amazingly like “ungrateful little twit,” Nell subsided upon his chest.
Philosophically, Mab accepted her friend’s censure, though from any other source it would have prompted her to cut up very stiff. “We are agreed that Marriot is incapable of so abominable a proceeding,” she remarked. “It is my opinion that Marriot interrupted a robbery in progress and was consequently knocked on the head, which caused him to at last remember who he was—and caused him to forget why he was missing all this time.” Keenly she regarded Lord March, who had disposed of his wife’s inconvenient high-brimmed bonnet so that he might better kiss her brow. “Unless you are playing some deep game, Marriot? I thought not.”
Was the absurd child disappointed? Reluctantly Lady March removed herself from her husband’s chest. “I should not have fired up at you! I am very sorry for it, Mab. This discovery has utterly sunk my spirits. I had hoped there might be some easy way out of this fix—” In her brown eyes was an anxious expression. “Whatdothey do to thieves, exactly? Is anyone certain?”
Though Lord March had not been thrown into a state of consternation so extreme as that which affected his wife, recent events had left him somewhat distressed— so much so that he broached the bottle of claret without a thought for the lack of a glass or the fact that it had not been benefitted by a severe shaking up. “I do not know precisely,” he admitted after taking a deep drink. “I believe that the theft of property worth more than one shilling may be punishable by death.”
“One shilling!” Lady March gazed at the shabby valise, the contents of which would have been worth a great deal more than one shilling even had they been made of paste. So disheartening was this realization that Nell plucked the claret bottle out other husband’s hands. “I shall go mad! I am sure of it!” she vowed, and drank.
“Come out of the mops!” said Mab, as in an effort to make herself even more comfortable she tucked her feet—clad in thin pointed shoes without heels—beneath the molting fur cloak. “Naturally you cannot help being alarmed a little by the intelligence that Marriot is in possession of a fortune in stolen gems— but it is no more than we had expected! Frankly, Nell, I do not see why you are making such a fuss.”
“A fuss!” Lady March looked quite extraordinarily beautiful when animated, or so her husband thought, responding with keen appreciation to her flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes. “So would you fuss, Mab, if there was a very real possibility that your—whatishis name? Fergus!—might be hanged! There is no way we may be rid of the jewels without attracting attention, or none that I can think of—Marriot can hardly walk boldly into Bow Street Public Office, and hand over his valise, and say ‘here are your missing baubles, but how I come to have them I have clean forgot!’ ”
Since she had not been invited to partake of the claret that Lord and Lady March passed back and forth so freely, Mab toyed with the fan. “They mightbelieve him,” she doubtfully put forth.
“Yes, and they might not.” Sadly, Eleanor gazed upon her husband. “I cannot care to take that chance.”
“Nor can I.” In an attempt to think more clearly, Marriot rose from the narrow bed and began to pace the floor. “Even I must concede that this errant memory makes for a very lame tale. Nor do I care to implicate someone else in my troubles, as would be the case if anyone were to try and give back the gems.”
“Perhaps we could say we had just found them?” suggested Amabel, as Eleanor hastily bent to snatch her discarded bonnet out of Marriot’s pathway.
“Certainly!” responded Lord March drily. “We could also assure them that pigs may fly.”
Not surprisingly, in view of this uncooperative attitude, conversation lagged. Lord March paced the floor, from his claret bottle taking an occasional absent-minded drink; Lady March plucked morosely at the green ribbons of the bonnet she held on her lap. Lady Amabel, meanwhile, sulked behind the bedraggled feathers of her antique fan.
Mab was the first to recover her good humor, perhaps because her own peril was the least. “Then we must discover who the real thieves are!” she said.
“Exactly so.” Belatedly aware of his selfish usurpation of the claret bottle, Lord March passed it to his wife. “I see nothing for it but that I must undertake inquiries.”
“Inquiries? No!” As she leapt up off the bed, Lady March inadvertently crushed her own bonnet underfoot. “What if you run afoul of the real thieves?”
“And what if Bow Street has got windyouhave the jewels?” The fan having proved inadequate for her purposes, Mab cooled herself with the newssheet. “I agree you cannot remain hidden here forever, Marriot, but we must not be rash. Your queer disappearance gained a great deal of observation in the world. You are bound to eventually be recognized if you go wandering around the streets.”
Lord March roused sufficiently from his preoccupation with his wife, who’d flung herself into his arms, to recognize the force of Mab’s arguments. That young lady’s fine application of logic did not endear her to him. Marriot had scant liking for this hidden attic room. Though he did not verbalize this dissatisfaction, it was obvious in the choleric glance he awarded the meager furnishings of his chamber, the heavily carpeted floor, the painted cloths hung on the walls. Commented Lady Amabel acutely, “You would be much more uncomfortable in Newgate—or wherever it is they imprison thieves! Truly, I think it is very nice that the two of you dote on one another, and I wish very much that someone might feel similarly toward me— but I feel constrained to point out that if you mightceaseto dote for but a moment, we might discover a way out of this pickle.”
Thus abjured, Lord March slowly released his wife, who with an equal lack of enthusiasm removed herself from his chest. Nell sat down on the bed. Marriot propped one foot up beside her. “Well?” he said.
A realistic damsel, Amabel refrained from comment upon the fascination with which Lady March was prone to observe her husband’s shapely limb. “I have been thinking how we may most effectively go about solving this puzzle, and I think you must make a reappearance, Marriot.”
“No!” wailed Nell, clutching convulsively at her husband’s calf. “I beg I may hear no such thing!”
Lord March patted his wife’s chestnut locks pressed against his knee, “I fear you must, my love. Try and be my good, brave girl! You would not wish me to remain hidden away here forever, Nell.”
On a deep breath, Lady March drew herself erect. “You are right. I am being unforgivably foolish,” she said.
“Nonsense! You are a darling!” Marriot caressed Nell’s cheek, in return for which he was awarded her irresistibly uneven smile.
Never had Mab seen a more affecting scene. “It is true that Nell and I have little chance of discovering anything of particular import,” she inserted, recalling her companions to her presence, and their purpose, before mutual adoration rendered them insensible. “But if you are to undertake your own inquiries, it must not be with the chance of landing in gaol. In short, before you make your reappearance among us, we must devise some unexceptionable tale of where you’ve been.”
Though not habitually an early riser, Lady Amabel had adapted that custom whilst at Marcham Towers; by it she was free to pursue her own inclinations unmolested, while Henrietta remained abed. Inclination this morn had taken Mab to the secret attic room with a breakfast for his lordship and brisk words of encouragement. The breakfast his lordship had appreciated, if not the good advice, in response to which he irritably bade his visitor leave him to his reading, this day a translation of Antonio de Torquemada’sThe Spanish Mandeula of Miracles,which recounted such wonders as the woman who was shipwrecked on an African shore and produced two sons sired by an ape.
For his short temper, Lady Amabel bore Lord March no grudge. It was no easy thing, this concocting an unexceptionable explanation of a gentleman’s prolonged absence from his world. As Mab walked into the solar that matter also occupied her own mind.
That Lady Amabel was rapt in thought was apparent to the young gentleman who awaited there; the better to observe her, he did not immediately speak. As always, Mab was a joy to look upon, this day clad in a pretty high-waisted cotton dress suitable for winter, and a fringed shawl—but did acobwebadorn her dark hair? Was thatdustupon her skirts? And why was she clutching a very sorry-looking fan? In search of enlightenment, Fergus cleared his throat.
Made aware of the intruder, Mab shrieked and clasped her hands, consequently doing further damage to the ancient fan. Upon realizing the identity of the intruder, she let out her breath. Briefly she allowed herself to contemplate the baron, to admire his golden hair and godlike countenance, his crisp high shirt collar and flawless cravat, smoothly fitting blue cloth coat, snug fawn-colored pantaloons, gleaming hessian boots. “Fergus!” she breathed. “You came!”
Lady Amabel’s appreciation of her good fortune, however belated, did much to console Lord Parrington for any previous neglect. “Hullo, Mab!” he said. “After your urgent letter, how could I stay away? In point of fact, I arrived yesterday.”
“And you did not immediately come to see me?” Mab wore an enchanting pout. Then she recalled Eleanor’s remark that Henrietta had been entertaining callers in the solar. “Oh! Youdid!And I was not here to greet you. How ungrateful you must have thought me—but I promise I was not!”
“I know you are not.” Lord Parrington’s presence in the solar at so very early an hour is readily explained: his parent also habitually rose late.“Idon’t think your manners lack polish. Neither will Mama, I’m sure, when she comes to realize you were engaged in consoling Lady March.” He arched a brow. “What a mystery this is! Mama styles it the celebrated scandal of the disappearing Lord March.”
Fergus’s mama was a gorgon, Mab unkindly thought. “Your mama is also come to town?” she asked, as she sat down upon an embroidered chair.
“Naturally.” Lord Parrington looked startled at the question. “She would not have liked to be left behind. I daresay it was due to the rigors of the journey that she was miffed by your seeming inattention—which is a thing no one could fairly blame in you, since Lady March was prostrate. Leave Mama to me! She will eventually come about.”
Were Lady March prostrate, Mab reflected, it was not for the reasons envisioned by Lord Parrington; and were the baron’s mama to become reconciled, ever, Mab would feast upon her tattered fan. That latter item she turned over in her hands. “If one may inquire?” Fergus delicately inserted. “Mab, why have you dust on your skirts and cobwebs in your hair?”
“Dust?” Lady Amabel glanced at her guilty skirts and brushed hastily at her dark curls. “I was in the attics—Nell has taken a notion to investigate them, and I felt obliged to humor her! She is under a dreadful strain, poor thing!” Her latter statement was all too true, Mab mused. She narrowed her eyes, the better to observe Lord Parrington, who had withdrawn to the oriel window. “I don’t supposeyouknow what happens to thieves?”
“Thieves?” Mab’s abrupt switch of topic caused the baron to blink. I’m happy to say I do not. Is that the dire event you hinted at in your letter? Have you been robbed, Mab? What a shocking thing.”
Several things during this conversation with the object of her maidenly affections were to Mab coming clear. Fergus was not quite the cavalier imagination had painted him. This discovery was not surprising, since Mab knew the baron little better than many another modern damsel had known her prospective husband, lack of close acquaintance being in that day no good reason not to wed.
“Robbed?” she said vaguely. “Not a bit of it! I can’t think where you took such a singularly foolish notion. Perhaps, Fergus, you might know something about how things are done at Bow Street?” She observed his indignant expression. “I should have known that you would not! I expect you number no magistrates among your acquaintance, either. A pity! I would have liked to ask—but never mind that!”
Perhaps his mama had not been wholly mistaken, decided Fergus, in her claim that Amabel’s behavior merited reproof. From the nature of her queries, one might easily conclude that Mab was engaged in mischief of some sort. “You owe me an explanation,” Lord Parrington said with grave propriety.
Lady Amabel eyed her caller’s manly countenance, which was looking very solemn, and recalled that his mama was amazingly high in the instep—no fitting member of a conspiracy to outwit the forces of law, in short. There was little hope that anything she told Fergus would not be in turn related to his mama, Mab now realized. “Where shall we live after we are married?” she asked abruptly. “I mean, what will happen to your mama?”
“Happen to her?” Fergus felt in some way that it was a trifle indelicate to discuss living arrangements before the knot was properly tied. Charitably, he made allowance for the strain imposed upon Mab by the misfortunes of her friends. The baron was not so very high a stickler as his mama, who was of the opinion that as result of these misfortunes Mab should give unfortunate Lady March the cut direct. “Why should anything happen to her? Do you fear Mama will feel you have usurped her position? You need not! She will be happy to show you how to go on.”
“I see.” Mab could not imagine that Lady Katherine would be pleased to show any daughter-in-law anything other than how much she was disliked. Previously, Mab had not been aware of how firmly Lord Parrington remained tied to his mama’s apron strings. Later, Mab would have to seriously ponder whether she wished to spend her married life with a gorgonish mama-in-law that would always be loading her with reproaches and pulling a long face.
“Are we to be married? I was under the impression your papa refused to give us his consent.” Fergus moved from the oriel window to the chimney where Diana bathed. Once arrived there, he turned back to gaze suspiciously upon Mab. “The greatest wretch in nature—is that what you were talking about?”
How calmly he spoke of her impassioned letter— clearly, Lord Parrington was inclined toward no romantical high flights. Closeted alone with the young lady whom he wished to marry, a highly unusual circumstance, he had not uttered a single improper word, nor given the tiniest indication that he harbored any ardent thought. A young ladymightbe gratified by such restraint, Mab supposed. After witnessing high romance as enacted by Lord and Lady March, however, she was finding Fergus distinctly flat.
Mab tossed aside her fan and abandoned her chair.
“Perhaps I exaggerated a trifle, Fergus, but Papa had forbidden me to see you again, and I was feeling very out-of-sorts.”
“Forbidden—” Lord Parrington gazed down upon the young lady who had joined him on the hearth. Mab was a very pretty damsel, he decided, even with dust smudged on her fair cheek and cobwebs in her dark hair. Any offspring of their union would have been attractive. However, there were in the world a great many other young women potentially capable of producing healthy, attractive offspring, young women whose papas weren’t unalterably—and inexplicably— opposed to himself. “I am sorry to hear it. There remains nothing for us to do but say goodbye.”
“Saygoodbye?Just because Papa has taken one of his tweaks? I call that dashed poor spirited!” Lady Amabel’s voice was very near a shriek. Upon espying the baron’s horrified expression, she lowered it. “I crave forgiveness for ripping up at you, Fergus—not that it wasn’t what you deserved!”
Though Lord Parrington was blessed not only with unusual beauty but also quickness of perception, he was at a loss to comprehend how his attitude displeased. This viewpoint he explained.
To his explanation, Lady Amabel reacted with a wrinkling of her pretty nose. “Papa decrees that we may not marry, and you intend to abide by his dictates! Have you not a ha’porth of spirit, Fergus? I think you must not. Had I realized how it is with you, I would never have run away!”
“You ran away,” Fergus repeated slowly, as if to impress the magnitude of such arrant misconduct on a disbelieving brain. “How could you do such a thing? I am very disappointed in you, Mab. I can’t imagine what Mama will say.”
Lady Amabel gave not a button for Lady Katherine’s prospective remarks. “If you do not think she’ll like it, then don’t tell her!” Mab snapped. “Save for Nell, and now you, no one knows that I ran away. Even Papa does not! And considering the state I found matters in here, it’s a very good thing Idid,what with Nell being made to fret even worse by that odious Henrietta, not to mention Marriot!”
Not tell his mama of Amabel’s misconduct? Here was a novel thought. Though Fergus was not certain of the propriety of withholding information from his parent, he foresaw that revelation could only lead to a further cutting up of his own peace. Fergus’s peace was important to him. In part, his amiability resulted from a keen dislike of raised voices and hurtful accusations, as is sometimes the case.
Currently, it was Amabel’s raised voice that he disliked. “Tell me, do you really want to join the militia?” he asked, and smiled.
Lady Amabel, who wished to quarrel no more than did Fergus, seized gratefully upon this distraction. “Of course I do not!” she chided with twinkling eyes. “It was merely a means by which to distract Henrietta from Marriot. She is prone to go on at length in the most bloodcurdling manner. I wished to give her thoughts another direction.” Her smile faded. “As you have sought to do with me, Fergus! Since you no longer wish to marry me, you may go away.”
Could he have heard correctly? Had Amabel justdismissedhim? It was a unprecedented situation for Lord Parrington, who was much more accustomed to being courted than given hiscongé. Perhaps she had not meant it? A quick glance at her stubborn expression convinced him that she had. “We must not be hasty!” he protested lamely.
“Iam not hasty,” responded Amabel with a sad little catch in her voice and a shocking disregard for the truth.“Iam not the one who allows myself to be dictated to, who has not the least capability to manage my own affairs—” Prudently, Mab refrained from direct censure of the baron’s dictatorial parent. “—the one who abandons his dearest friend just when she needs him most! But do not concern yourself, Fergus! We will not much longer be a household of defenseless women. Soon Marriot will come home.”
“Will he, do you think?” Lord Parrington had not previously considered how difficult life must be for the ladies so mysteriously left behind.
Amabel lowered her gaze to the mantelpiece. “I’m sure of it! Why, I could tell you—but I must not! You do not like secrets! The thing is, once Marriotdoesreturn, he might be persuaded to put in a good word with Papa, who has always doted on him, and adjudged him up to all the rigs.” Through her lashes, she peered at her companion. “I will tell you this much, Fergus. Marriot’s absence has averygood explanation—but you must promise me not to breathe a word!”
As was not surprising in so cosseted a young gentleman, Lord Parrington secretly yearned after a more adventurous life. Could Mab’s sudden interest in robberies and magistrates have to do with Lord March? he wondered. Could the vanished peer have run afoul of Bow Street?
If so, Fergus wanted no further part of the business. “You may trust me,” he responded stiffly. “Upon my honor, Mab!”
Here was a pretty pickle; did shenotreveal confidences, Lord Parrington would take offense. Unfortunately, Mab knew not what tale to tell, the explanation of Marriot’s disappearance not having reached its final draft. She cast about in her mind. Nor was her ultimate utterance surprising in view of the recent invasion scares. Looking very conspiratorial, Mab leaned closer to the baron and breathed, “Spies!”
Spies? Whatever Fergus had expected, it was not that Lord March was involved in an attempt to thwart the ambitious Corsican. Indeed, so stunned was Fergus that he failed to wonder what the Emperor of the French had to do with thieves and magistrates and Bow Street. “Jupiter!” he gasped.
“Do not press me! I can say no more.” Though Fergus had proven more gullible than she had anticipated— and a great deal less up to snuff!—Mab thought it would be foolish to press her luck. For that reason, she refrained from asking the baron’s opinion of failing memories. Too, Mab was feeling a little lonely, as must any young lady disappointed in romance.
Perhaps there was yet hope for Fergus. Perhaps his apparent disinterest was merely result of a very high sense of decorum. “We are alone, Fergus!” she coyly pointed out.
Somewhat blankly, his thoughts still occupied with enemy agents, Lord Parrington gazed around the solar. “So we are. Ah, you mean that we should not be, and you are perfectly correct. Pray forgive me for placing you in so equivocal a position, Mab! I would not have done it for anything. You will permit me to take my leave.”
The baron’s leave-taking was not what Lady Amabel had in mind, as she quickly made apparent by clutching his coat-sleeve. Lord Parrington looked astonished by this temerity. “Gudgeon!” said Mab, though fondly. “Imeantthat you should kiss me!”
To this generous invitation, the baron returned a startled look, young ladies who invited gentlemen to kiss them not being something of which he had been brought up to approve. He did not long adhere to that lesson, however. “May I?” he echoed, staring fascinated into Mab’s upturned face. Rosy-cheeked, she nodded.“MayI, by Jove!”
It was, Lady Amabel decided, a very nice kiss, if hardly of the caliber recently—and frequently—bestowed upon one another by Lord and Lady March. One must bear in mind that years of practice had led to the expertise currently enjoyed by Marriot and Nell. Fergus showed promise of someday attaining a similar artistry, if only he could be pried out from beneath his mama’s foot. Mab thought she would like to devote herself to that project, once this troublesome business of Marriot’s was tidied up.
But of trouble Lady Amabel had as yet seen little, and one of its harbingers at that moment stepped into the solar. At the bacchanalian scene being there enacted, Henrietta gaped.
From the solar Lady Amabel proceeded next to the master bedchamber, where she scratched loudly at the door. When that portal opened, Mab dashed into the room, slammed the door shut behind her, and with her pretty person barred the entry, as if imminent invasion might be repulsed by outstretched arms and heaving breast.
“Gracious!” said Lady March, who wore a confection of cambric muslin held together by orchid ribbons, and over it the ancient fur cloak. “Whatever has happened to put you in such a tweak?”
“If you had discovered you had to live with Fergus’s mama, you would be in a tweak also!” Mab sought to catch her breath. “She is a gorgon! A tartar! And what she will say to this piece of business, I shudder to think! If only your odious cousin had not stepped into the solar atjustthat moment—but it is too much to hope she will remain silent!”
“I fear you are correct. Henrietta has never remained silent about anything in all her life. Do you think you might tell me what we are talking about?”
Amabel looked rueful. “Have I not said? What a pea-goose you must think me! But when I think of how difficult it was to persuade Fergus to kiss me, I vow I could spit nails!”
“Hekissedyou?” Lady March echoed, astonished. “Mab!”
“You must not censure him! Fergus is not in the petticoat-line, I assure you—indeed, he might never have kissed me at all, had I not intimated that he should.” Mab sighed. “In point of fact, I had to ask him outright!”
“You had to—” In an attempt to clear up her confusion. Lady March shook her head, thus adding to the disorder of her chestnut locks, which were already in riotous disarray. “If your young man isn’t, er, romantic,why are you so set on having him, Mab?”
“Had you ever seen Fergus,” Mab said gloomily, “you would not ask me that. He is very near perfection—or would be if it were not for his gorgonish mama, who will doubtless make a piece of work about nothing— oh, blast! For Henrietta to step into the solar atjustthat moment was the unluckiest mischance!”
In a cravenly manner, Lady March reflected that she was very happy to have been spared the resultant kickup. “Poor Mab!” she sympathized. “Was it so very bad?”
“Bad?” Amabel’s delightful features were chagrined. “I should say it was! There is a want of openness about my conduct, an unsteadiness of character—I am a harum-scarum young woman, and a hardened flirt! A wicked girl, she called me—wicked!How can you bear to have that sneaking gabble-grinder around you, Nell? She did not scruple to announce it her duty to tell Lady Katherine what has transpired—as if Fergus was a penny the worst of it! Oh, I do not mean to make a kickup, but I am cursedly provoked!”
“Perhaps she will reconsider,” offered Lady March, without any real hope that Henrietta would bypass an opportunity to cast a blight upon Amabel’s romance. “I might speak to her about it.”
“You’ll speak to her, I warrant!” Mab brushed futilely at the fur that had drifted from off the cloak onto her high-waisted, dust-smudged dress. “I’m surprised she hasn’t already brought you the tale. Perhaps she knows I am here before her—or is composing Lady Katherine a note.” Briefly, Mab looked hopeful. “I wonder if the old gorgon might think I’ve been compromised, in which event she would have to give us her blessing, so that her son’s good name could be saved.” Her spirits plummeted. “More likely she will decide I’m some scheming hussy who has led her son astray!”
Obviously some soothing comment was called for, but Lady March could think of no hope she might hold out.“Iwill declare you have been compromised!” offered a deep voice from the depths of the formidable four-poster bedstead.
“You—” A sensible girl, Lady Amabel didn’t for an instant think the bed had suddenly come to life, although she was so startled by this new entry into the conversation that her voice rose to a squeak. Should she swoon, she wondered—but this situation was fraught with possibilities too interesting to waste. “I thought I left you reading Torquemada’sMiracles,”she said sternly. “What are you doing in Nell’s bed?”
In response to this singularly inappropriate question, which caused Lady March to turn very rosy, Lord March emerged from the depths of the old bedstead, and settled himself against one of the bone-inlaid posts. He wore a floor-length robe of expensive brocade, tied at the waist, and a self-satisfied smile. “I was so taken with the tale of the shipwrecked lady and her ape,” he explained, “that I had to share it with Nell. Shall I cut up stiff about your treatment by young Parrington, brat? As head of the household in which you came perilously close to being seduced? A young girl under my protection! Oh, shame!”
“You are the one who should be ashamed, Marriot!” Though Lady March’s tone was chiding, her expression was not. “You must not tease Mab. This unfortunate development can’t enhance her position with Parrington’s mama.”
“Nothing could do that,” Mab wryly pointed out, as she followed Lady March to the great bed, where Lord March was toying absently with his wife’s charming nightcap. “It’s very kind of you to offer to help me, Marriot, but no one knows youarethe head of the house!”
“They will soon enough.” Lord March made room for his wife on one side of him, and Lady Amabel on the other, and shared the molting cloak among the three of them in an attempt at warmth. “I’ve decided my reappearance must be no longer delayed.”
“Was that why you came down from the attic?” Mab tried to imagine how it would feel to snuggle up to Fergus in this manner—without, of course, Nell on the other side. “Perhaps you should reconsider, Marriot. If the site of your reappearance is your wife’s bedchamber, Henrietta is going to think it very odd.”
“Henriettais very odd.” Thus Lord March disposed of his cousin. “So that we may be rid of her is one reason why I have decided to come but of hiding.”
“It is a pity you didn’t think of Henrietta in the first place!” Lady Amabel answered. “Once she was finished hauling me over the coals, she tried to interrogate me— as if her conduct was above reproach, which it isn’t, because she didn’t tell me Fergus and his mama had called. That is who you heard her talking to in the solar, Nell! And they came to seeme!It’s true, I assure you. Anyway, Henrietta is agog to discover why Marriot showed you a clean pair of heels, Nell. She said you would do better to prepare for tragedy than to rummage with me through the attics, and then she took to shuddering, and muttering about mice. I think it will be very nice when you reappear, Marriot, because Henrietta doesn’t expect that you will, and her nose will be put out of joint!”
Lady March, gazing across her husband’s enviable chest at Mab, glanced at the door. “Keep your voices down,” she warned. “I wouldn’t put it past Henrietta to eavesdrop.”
“Would she?” Lord March succumbed to impulse, and nuzzled his wife’s chestnut hair. “Listen at keyholes?”
“Certainly she would.” Mab reclaimed Marriot’s wandering attention by jabbing her elbow in his ribs. “She is a very rubbishing sort of person, I think! But this is fair and far off. We must put our heads together—or rather, I wish the pair of you wouldnotput your heads together because I am feeling oppressingde trop.”
Recalled to the unsatisfactory condition of her young friend’s romance, Lady March raised herself from her husband’s chest and patted his smooth cheek. “Poor Mab! We shall not allow Henrietta to cut up all your hopes.”
Moved by this noble attitude, Lord March saluted his wife’s hand. “No, we shan’t,” he said. “I’ll send Henrietta packing, and demand that Parrington make reparations for the honor he has so carelessly besmirched. Will that suit you, brat?”
“Have you gone off your hinges?” Lady Amabel seriously doubted that anything would please her again. “Your own behavior is open to very unfavorable interpretations, Marriot! Nell, you need not be looking at me like a thundercloud! I did not say Marriot has done anything so dreadful—but we must not forget that he has lost his memory and gained what are likely stolen jewels.”
So he had, and by this unpalatable reminder Lord and Lady March were reluctantly recalled to the present. Marriot gazed in a somber manner at the shabby valise that he had brought with him from the attic, as well as the Toledo walking sword. “If only I could remember!” he mourned.
“Oh, Marriot!” Eleanor’s sigh was heartfelt.
“Well, you can’t!” briskly interjected Mab. “And we can’t simply wait until your memory returns, if ever it does. But you must have thought of some explanation for your absence, else you would not have left the attics. May we know what it is? Which reminds me, I had better tell you that I hinted to Fergus that you were involved in thwarting the French—don’t frown at me, Nell! I didn’t know what else to say!”
“By all means, don’t scold Mab.” Marriot gave his wife a little squeeze. “It isn’t like you to kick up a dust over a trifle like espionage, puss! However, I fear that tale won’t stand up to investigation—not that I am ungrateful, Mab!”
Lady Amabel contemplated giving his lordship’s ribs another jab. “It is not kind of you togammonme,” she said sternly. “I am devilish out of humor, and so would you be, had you had your odious Cousin Henrietta ripping up at you about bacchanalian scenes.”
Lord March wondered what his odious cousin would think could she but see him at this moment, disposed regally in the middle of the ornate four-poster, wrapped in furs, with a lovely lady on each side. Doubtless the sight—or her own indelicate deductions—would inspire her to apoplexy. Hopefully, Marriot eyed the door.
Unacquainted with his lordship’s own indelicate thoughts, Amabel continued to speak. “I can understand why you wouldn’t care to say you’d been involved with enemy agents, or even tinkers, or a press gang— and Nell wouldn’t like it to be said you’d eloped with another female. But we must say you were somewhere—I do wish you would cease gazing at Nell in that mawkish manner, Marriot!”
Lord March, who looked not the least mawkish, despite Lady Amabel’s unkind accusations, removed his fond gaze from his wife’s patrician face. “I wishyouwould try to be a little more understanding, brat! How would you feel if you hadn’t seen young Parrington for six months?”
Mab would not see Fergus for a great deal longer than six months, she thought, did his mama’s will prevail. She drew a deep breath, inhaled a quantity of the fur which wafted richly through the air, and sneezed. “Would you mind,” she gasped, when she had caught her breath, “having been kidnapped?”
“Kidnapped?” Lady March’s voice was horrified. “Mab!”
“Imagine how I must have felt!” Lord March threw himself into this new role. “Alone and ailing—of course I must have been ailing, else I could easily have overpowered my captors, all of them!—without wifely sympathy or succor.”
“Nell! Do you succor Marriot at this moment, I vow I shall wash my hands of you both!” To emphasize her displeasure, Mab gave a little bounce. “You seem to have forgotten that the tale must satisfybothHenrietta and Bow Street. Though I do not know a great deal about such things, I conjecture that the runner who could not find you will want to know where you’ve been.”
“I thought of that.” Marriot smiled at Lady Amabel’s impatient expression. “You must not be cross with me, Mab; I have been thinking very hard of a reasonable explanation of why I hopped the twig—departed so suddenly, that is! And I have decided I must have gone to Cornwall.”
“Cornwall?” Eleanor looked mystified. “Why?”
“Because I had to go somewhere, my darling, and Cornwall is further away than most. We do have holdings there.” He shifted position, between the cloak and the ladies having grown quite warm. “I suppose you will ask me why I embarked upon such a journey in the middle of the night.”
Now that Lord March had withdrawn his manly presence, lounging instead amid the pillows at the head of the large bed. Lady March and Lady Amabel were left to huddle together beneath the cloak. Neither found this activity half so satisfying as when Marriot had lent them his lean bulk. “I wouldn’t ask that,” said Mab, after judicious thought. “Nor would anyone else who knew you, Marriot. Don’t get on your high ropes, Nell! You cannot deny that Marriot gets absentminded when he’s had a drop too much to drink. To use the word with no bark on it, there is no telling what he’ll do when he’s three parts disguised! It would be just like him to set off for Cornwall in the middle of the night, without luggage—and without letting you know!”
“That may be.” A trifle sulkily, Lady March pushed back her tousled locks. “But it wouldnotbe like him to forget to send me word for six months!”
“Perhaps I did send word, but it went astray.” Lord March sought a comfortable position against the high, intricately carved headboard. “The advantage of this particular explanation is that the servants can be instructed what to say. Personally, I would prefer to say as little as possible.” He looked at the valise. “Unfortunately, a mysterious silence would not satisfy Bow Street.”
“Or Cousin Henrietta,” added Nell drily. Though Eleanor would have infinitely preferred to keep her husband safe in the attic room, she realized Marriot would be miserable locked away. Too, there were advantages to having a spouse in residence. She blushed. “Why did you go to Cornwall, Marriot?”
“Business called,” suggested Mab, inspired by a nibbled knuckle. “Perhaps a dishonest bailiff who absconded with some revenues—perhaps Marriot was so displeased that he personally tracked down the culprit. No, that won’t fadge; if Marriot did apprehend the bailiff, the man would have to go to gaol, and I do not think we will persuade any of your servants to be put in prison merely to add credence to our tale! Maybe you were in an accident, Marriot, and your senses were disordered—you lay for days in a high fever, raving, within inches of losing your life!”
“High flights!” Lord March did not look especially thrilled by this highly dramatic theory of what had chanced. “It would be quite an accident that left me incapacitated for six months.”
Lady Amabel, who now had the fur cloak all to herself, looked meaningfully upon Lord and Lady March, both of whom were currently arranged comfortably amid the pillows against the intricately carved headboard. “I think itmusthave been quite an accident!” she remarked.
Marriot grimaced. “Point taken, brat! The thing is, we must have an explanation that gives rise to the leastspeculation and comment. I do not care to have anyone delve too deeply into my activities these last months, especially since I don’t know what they were.”
“Oh, Marriot!” Having come across her nightcap, Eleanor set it back upon her curls. “Perhaps we should give this notion up—at least wait until it is safer for you to reveal yourself.”
“It may never be safe, love.” Lord March assisted his wife’s efforts with the nightcap. “We don’t know how I came by those accursed jewels, but someone must—and if that someone is to enlighten us, I must make an appearance.”
Lady March was doubtful. “It sounds dangerous.”
Before Lord March could respond with appreciation to his wife’s concern for his well-being, Lady Amabel interrupted. “If you don’t like my explanation for your absence,” she said crossly. “Pray, Marriot, what tale do you mean to tell?”
“The obvious one.” Very tenderly, Lord March gazed upon his wife’s face. “Unless Nell would mind it dreadfully, I think we will have quarreled.”
Not much later that same day, the astonishing tale of Lord March’s reappearance had already gotten round. Currently, the chief source of this news broadcast was holding forth in London’s largest bookshop, Mr. Lackington’s Temple of the Muses in Finsbury Square. “Quarreled! Can you credit it? And all this time she allowed me to go on thinking he’d been kidnapped by tinkers, or taken by a press gang!”
Henrietta did not lack for an audience, comprised not wholly of the person to whom she spoke. Books and periodicals had little power to interest those elegant browsers fortunate enough to be within earshot. “Stab me!” returned Lady Katherine, who was this day bundled up in a quantity of black wool topped by a bonnet of purple velvet covered with lace, trimmed with purple ribbons, and finished off with a short lace veil. “Here’s a pretty business.”
To this encouraging display of interest, Henrietta responded with a smirk. “You do not know the half of it!” For that matter, neither did Henrietta, which was a source of considerable chagrin. Especially, Henrietta was curious about the cause of Marriot’s quarrel with Eleanor, a quarrel that had taken him to the wilds of Cornwall. “Take my word for it! There’s more here than meets the eye.”
Lady Katherine was perfectly content to accept Henrietta’s account of her cousin’s homecoming, as were those other individuals so fortunate as to have chosen to wander this day through the Temple’s aisles. “Plague on’t, stop shilly-shallying!” demanded Lady Katherine, whose interest in the celebrated scandal of the disappearing Lord March was not one whit diminished by the fact she’d never set eyes on the gentleman in all her life. “Tell how this miracle came about.”
Unaccustomed to being the center of attention, even the vituperative attention of a Lady Katherine, Henrietta smoothed her three-quarter length pelisse of plush, a shaggy cotton velvet with a long nap resembling fur, which she wore over a simple walking dress. Upon her wispy hair was a helmet hat made of willow with a military feather over the crown. “Well?” demanded Lady Katherine.
Henrietta started, setting her feather a-tremble. “Marriot has been in Cornwall—something to do with his holdings there and a bailiff who turned out to be less honest than he should—I do not know the whole of it, because the Towers is at sixes and sevens, as you might imagine—although Marriot professes himself displeased with all the fuss.”
Lady Katherine was stricken with a similar dissatisfaction, result of her informant’s paucity of detail. “Faith! What about the quarrel with his wife?”
Henrietta’s awe of her companion was in no way lessened by this display of vulgar curiosity; Henrietta liked nothing better than to have a cozy chat with someone as fond of tittle-tattle as herself. Unfortunately, she could not provide enlightenment. “I don’t know!” she sighed. “Whatever it was about must have been very dreadful, to cause Marriot to set out for Cornwall in the middle of the night.”
Lady Katherine’s raddled face was avid. She leaned closer, balancing on her cane. “Do you think she—er?” she delicately asked.
“‘Er’?” Henrietta looked puzzled. “Ah! No, I don’t think it. At least she hasn’t while I have been at Marcham Towers—I do assure you that, had Eleanor’s affection strayed, I would know! That is what has me in such a puzzle. When I asked Marriot why he had chosen such a queer way to go about his business, he said he must have been three parts disguised!”
Lady Katherine pursed her bloodless lips. “Is the man a drunkard?” she inquired.
“A—” Henrietta would allow no outsider to serve her family up as gossip fodder, fond as she herself might be of tossing out the occasional juicy tidbit. “Nothing of the sort! It is merely that Marriot does not have a hard head, and when he drinks more than is prudent— which he does not do often!—his thinking goes astray. Or so Eleanor has it!Iwould not be surprised if he returned home in that condition, because he did so in the same manner as he left, in the middle of the night!” People were making a habit of midnight arrivals, Henrietta reflected; first Mab, now Marriot. Every instinct hinted that mischief was afoot at Marcham Towers. The precise nature of that mischief, Henrietta could not guess, but she did not intend to budge an inch before she found out. “Last night Marriot certainly was not in residence—yet when I went to see Elinor this morning after I had dispatched my note to you, there he was!”
“After?” Lady Katherine’s attention had been caught by a discrepancy in the chronology of Henrietta’s account. “If you didn’t mean to tell me March had returned, what was the purpose of this meeting to be? It had better be good, Dougharty! To be out in this abominable weather isnotwhat I can like!”
Lady Katherine had liked it well enough only moments past, reflected Henrietta, her military feather trembling anew with the force of the reprimand. Nonetheless, that reprimand did not long deflate her spirits. Denied the opportunity to console Eleanor for tragic tidings of her husband, Lady Katherine would make an excellent second best. Not that Lady Katherine’s lamented spouse had indulged in shockingly irregular conduct. A pity the same could not be said about her son! “You must prepare yourself,” Henrietta said with relish, “to hear very bad news.”
“Bad news?” Lady Katherine snapped. “What the devil are you prosing on about?”
There were few things Henrietta enjoyed better than to let drop dire hints. “Never has there been anything equal to it!” she prophesied in tones of doom.
“Equal towhat?” Lady Katherine did not care to be made participant in a cat-and-mouse game. Irritably, she raised her cane.
Though Henrietta flinched, she would not be balked of her triumph. “We must be discreet!” she murmured, looking sharply around. “One does not knowwhomone may trust, what with all these robberies—not that I have anything worth stealing, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions, all the same! That is why I wished to meet you here instead of at Marcham Towers. Not that we might not be robbed, of course, but so we might not be overheard!”
Lady Katherine considered it most likely that they would be overheard in the Temple, so thick was the press of people in the aisles. This contradictory viewpoint she promptly put forth.
“Oh yes! I do not doubt it!” Henrietta responded serenely. “But we shall not be overheard by Mab.”
As result of this simple statement, Lady Katherine experienced a sinking sensation in her midriff. “Stab me!” she said.
“I feel for you, Lady Katherine!” Henrietta’s glance was sympathetic. “Truly I do! To discover in such a manner that your own son—oh dear, oh dear! I promise you I doubted the fidelity of my own eyes.”
Her companion would no longer have a problem with her vision, Lady Katherine thought grimly, did she succumb to the impulse to scratch out those sharp orbs. “Discoverwhat,and in what manner?” she snapped. “In plain English, if you please!”
Henrietta did please; seldom was opportunity granted her to strike such a blow. “I fear your son has fallen victim to Lady Amabel,” she confided. “Unless he goes about kissing young females as a matter of habit, he must!”
“Goes about—” In an attempt to avoid swooning from the shock of the intelligence that her son was earning some notoriety as a philanderer, Lady Katherine groped for her vinaigrette. “There is some mistake!”
“None at all, I promise you!” Henrietta had the temerity to pat Lady Katherine’s hand. “I walked in on them embracing—it was in the solar. Such a distasteful business! I would not have expected such goings-on, even from Lady Amabel. So you may be sure I told her, and read her a very stern scold.”
A scold was far too mild a retribution for the young lady who had left Lady Katherine’s son debauched. “That scheming hussy!” moaned Lady Katherine into her vinaigrette. “She has led my poor lamb astray! Never have I been so dismayed!”
“Of course you have not.” During moments of disaster, especially disasters of her own devising, Henrietta was at her best. “Anyone must have been disgusted with Amabel’s conduct, and so I told her! Even though your son seemed to feel thatIshould come under the gravest censure for having intervened. Meddling, he called it—but I do not hold it against him! Between you and me, Lady Katherine, I suspect I arrived in the very nick of time!”
Lady Katherine did indeed in that moment resemble a gorgon, one of those snake-haired sisters whose terrific aspect turned beholders to stone. “The nick of time!” she echoed. “Has it gone so far asthat?”
“No.” Henrietta was very sorry to admit that it had not. “But there is no saying it might not have! Clearly Lady Amabel is no better than one of the wicked, else she would not have lured your son into a squalid little debauch. This is such a dreadful business! You have my utmost sympathy.”
Lady Katherine was in much greater need of a means of revenge, some method by which Amabel’s presumption might be repaid. Howdaredthe minx cast out lures to Fergus—and how dared he rise to the bait? Lady Katherine would have several sharp words to say to her offspring regarding his newly developed penchant for amorous vagaries. In such a dreadful manner did Lady Katherine glower that the aisles closest to the ladies were rapidly cleared.
“I won’t have it!” For emphasis, Lady Katherine pounded her cane on the floor. “I won’t have it, do you hear?”
Henrietta could hardly have failed to do so, along with anyone else in the bookshop; the proprietor himself came forward to ascertain who was assaulting his floor. As result of this intervention, Lady Katherine limped haughtily to the door. “Curst busybodies!” growled Lady Katherine, as they passed outside.
Henrietta did not think her companion referred to themselves. “What will you do?” she asked. “It is no good applying to Eleanor or Marriot regarding Amabel; they are a great deal too wrapped up in themselves.” And very queer it was that they should be so affectionate, she thought. Marriot’s homecoming was very warm for a fellow who had disappeared for quite six months following a quarrel. “And I fear that Amabel herself showed not the slightest remorse, or intention of mending her wicked ways.”
“She’ll mend them, or I’ll know the reason why she doesn’t!” Lady Katherine’s ruined face was a study in mingled outrage and chagrin. “But I shall have to be very subtle. I think I must require your assistance in this matter, Dougharty—fiend seize the wench!”
While Lady Katherine was pulling a long face over Henrietta’s accounting of Lord Parrington’s misdeeds, and both dowagers were heartily wishing Lady Amabel to perdition, Mab was putting Henrietta’s absence to very good account. At this particular moment, she was fluttering her eyelashes in a wholly outrageous manner. “You could not stay away!” she murmured, highly gratified. “I know how it is! But I would not wish to get you in trouble with your mama.”
“If you did not wish to land me in the briars, you shouldn’t have asked me to kiss you!” he snapped.
This was no loverlike tone, surely? Mab’s long lashes ceased to flutter, and she blinked. Perhaps Fergus was merely ill at ease? “I know what will cheer you! We will enact another bacchanalian scene!”
Lord Parrington did not find this sally amusing. “No, we shan’t!” he retorted, and for good measure fell back a pace. “Am I not already in difficulties enough? When I think what Mama will have to say— She will be devilish out of humor. My thoughts are of the most desponding cast.”
Lady Amabel peered through her long lashes at Lord Parrington. It must be obvious to even the most casual observer that the baron was in the dumps.
Herself resourceful, Mab had little patience with young men who shilly-shallied around the helm of their own ship of fate. “Fergus,” she said bluntly, “if you did not wish to see me, why the blazes did you come to Marcham Towers?”
It occurred to the baron that he’d been less than diplomatic. “Naturally I wish to see you,” he responded, in tones that were as unenthusiastic as they were polite. “But the purpose of my visit wasto speak with that female who burst in on us, the bosom-bow of my mama’s! What was her name? Dougharty?”
He thought to persuade Henrietta not to relate his transgressions to Lady Katherine? Definitely there was a craven streak in Lord Parrington, Mab decided sadly, else he would not lower himself to try and turn Henrietta up sweet. She derived a certain perverse satisfaction from informing the baron he had come too late.
“Too late!” Fergus blanched. “Say you’re hamming me, Mab. Admit it, there’s a good girl!”
“But I’m not.” In proportion to Lord Parrington’s unease, Lady Amabel’s patience grew short. “Henrietta has gone to report your misconduct to your mama. Good gracious, Fergus, you have put yourself in a regular taking over this business. What do you think she may do to you? You are a grown man!”
Not surprisingly, this unsympathetic attitude did nothing to reconcile its target with its source. “Mama will not do anything to me,” Fergus responded stiffly, “except fly into the boughs and make a dreadful kickup. No one can raise a dust like Mama, as you would know, had you ever seen her in a pelter—and you may be grateful you have not.” Were there justice in the world, it would be Mab who suffered his parent’s wrath, Fergus silently added. Was not this cursed business her fault?
Happily, Lord Parrington kept this last reflection silent, else Lady Amabel might have grown so exasperated that she boxed his ears. As it was, she barely managed to refrain. “You had better come in and meet Marriot,” she said repressively, and gestured toward the door of the solar. “Since you’re here. Don’t raise your eyebrows at me, Fergus! I assure you Marriot is within, and Nell also. Believe me, I have no more desire than you for anothertête-à-tête.” So saying, she swept before him into the solar.
Lord Parrington did not dislike the notion of furthertête-à-têtes,precisely; the disruption of his last such encounter had only temporarily soured him on romance. No opportunity being given him to explain these nuances of sentiment, he followed Lady Amabel into the solar. Lord March was indeed present, as Mab had promised, and Fergus was privileged to make the acquaintance of this mysteriously disappearing and reappearing gentleman, who was dressed casually in a morning coat of superfine with plated buttons, buckskin breeches, boots with wide turnover tops of light brown. “Hallo, Parrington!” said Lord March. “So you are the young man who’s been leading our Mab astray.”
“Oh no, Marriot!” With an unfriendly glance at Fergus, Mab resumed her place beside Lord March on the chocolate red daybed, where before the baron’s arrival she had been receiving instruction in how to play macao. “It is I who have led Fergus astray. Perhaps we must assure him that I did so in a brief fit of madness. Which has since passed.”
“Ah. It was a misunderstanding.” Lord March cast an experienced eye on Mab’s sulky face. “We shall say no more of it. Least said, soonest mended, brat!”
Thus reminded of the sometimes unfortunate results of her hasty temper, Lady Amabel returned Lord March’s glance. Ruefully, she smiled. “That’s the ticket!” said his lordship, and gave her a little hug.
Lady March, meanwhile observing Lord Parrington, understood why Mab considered the baron a veritable Adonis. Certainly he was very near perfection, at least in form. Eleanor was considerably more interested, however, in substance. She suspected, from Lord Parrington’s frigid demeanor, that his nature was cold. But Mab must be the best judge of who she wished to kiss.
Since Mab in these moments did not seem to care to converse with the baron, let alone kiss him, Nell stepped forward. “May I offer you some refreshment?” she inquired.
“Thank you, no!” Fergus was relieved to be diverted from the spectacle of Mab rubbing shoulders with Lord March. Marriot’s charm was as palpably experienced by members of his own sex as the opposite, and consequently Fergus was piqued. Lord March was deucedly friendly with Mab, the baron thought. He also thought it very strange that Lady March didn’t seem to mind. “I called in hopes of persuading your cousin not to repeat, er, certain erroneous impressions she had received.”
“I am so sorry!” Lady March indicated that Lord Parrington should be seated in one of the lavishly embroidered chairs. “Henrietta has a disposition to meddle, alas. It is the result of not having enough worthwhile things to occupy her time.” Nell paused, then her crooked smile flashed. “I will be frank! Formality would be foolish, when you have been pitchforked willy-nilly into our affairs. Henrietta takes every pleasure in setting people at loggerheads.”
This blunt disclosure, while not relieving his apprehensions, did prompt Lord Parrington to award his hostess a second, closer glance. She was a well-setup female, he discovered, though not so flamboyantly attractive as Lady Amabel. Mab currently not standing high in his favor, Fergus found much to admire in Eleanor’s muslin gown with elbow sleeves and pearl buttons, her paisley shawl with amber tones, even the classical coils in which she wore her chestnut hair. “These last months will have been difficult for you,” he remarked. “You will be glad that Lord March has come home.”
“Oh, yes!” Lady March’s expression, as she turned toward her spouse, was very fond—so fond that Fergus found it in himself to pity her because Lord March was intent on Lady Amabel. Lady March was too unworldly to realize that a blatant flirtation was being carried on right under her nose. Thought of such an innocent enduring the abuses of a gazetted philanderer—for no one but a philanderer would turn that irresistible charm upon any lady other than his wife—wrenched the baron’s heart. Or perhaps Lady Marchdidrealize her husband’s perfidy and chose to put a good face on it. Here was a female worthy of a gentleman’s highest regard—one, moreover, with troubles worse even than his own.
Unaware of the role assigned her by Lord Parrington, Nell could not imagine what caused that young man to stare. She decided he must be curious about Marriot’s reappearance, as who would not. “My husband has been in Cornwall—I fear his bailiff had absconded with some revenues—too, we had had a difference of opinion—” Lord Parrington’s sympathetic expression caused Nell a guilty pang, and her voice trailed off. How she loathed deception! But she would loathe it even more were Marriot taken as a thief. “But nothing to signify!”
Doubtless that difference of opinion had concerned a woman, thought Lord Parrington; perhaps even Mab. “Of course it does not signify. All that must matter to you now is your husband’s return.” Fergus frowned. “Then it was not true when Amabel hinted that enemy agents were concerned.”
“Enemy agents?” Lady March recalled Mab’s tale. “No, it was not. I am sorry to say so, but Mab’s fondness for adventure sometimes leads her to say things she should not. Doubtless Mab would have liked it very well had Marriot become involved with spies and smugglers, but I assure you Marriot would not have liked it at all!” Her expression was amused. “My husband is no corsair.”
Lord Parrington, watching Lady March’s husband attempt to teach Lady Amabel macao, suspected Lord March was a great deal more adventurous than his wife thought. Certainly Mab seemed to be enjoying her game very well; scarce a moment passed that she didn’t giggle or flutter her eyelashes or blush. “You must not hold Mab’s impulsiveness against her!” Lady March added. “She means no harm by it.”
Nor did a carrier of the plague mean harm, reflected Fergus, and lack of intention did not lessen the number of death carts. Not that he suspected Lady Amabel had dealt him a fatal blow. In the coolest of manners, Lord Parrington had decided it was time he fix his affections, and had settled upon Mab as a suitable wife. Now he began to wonder if his mama had been correct in claiming the hour was unripe.
Lady March could not help but be aware that her visitor labored under some strong emotion, though she could not guess at the considerations that exercised his mind. In point of fact, Lady March would have been surprised at those considerations, for Fergus did not give the appearance of a young man experiencing grave self-doubts. For the first time made aware that he possessed other than sterling qualities, young Lord Parrington was responding with near revulsion, and for his divergence from his usual unexceptionable behavior he unhesitantly blamed Mab. Fergus had never dreamed of ripping up at elderly ladies, or withholding things from his mama, before that young woman’s entrance into his life.
His impeccable manners had deserted him along with his usual good humor, Fergus realized; as result of his continued silence, Lady March was looking very puzzled. Fergus cast about in his mind for an innocuous topic of conversation, one that would involve neither profligate peers nor impulsive misses. “Even though your husband was not engaged with enemy agents, we may be sure others have been!”
Though the antics of the Corsican’s hirelings were not something with which Lady March usually concerned herself—Lady March had had much more immediate troubles these last several months—she gallantly tried for an appropriate response. “Mab thinks women should be permitted to join the militia!” Nell offered weakly. Retorted Lord Parrington in an ungallant manner, “Mab would!”
Lady March had become aware that young Lord Parrington had not the aspect of a young man very far gone in infatuation, as Nell had assumed must be the condition of any gentleman kissed by Mab. In fact, Lord Parrington had done no more than render the merest observances of civility—to Mab, at least—while in this room. Had they quarreled? wondered Nell. And then she wondered, somewhat indelicately, why Mab had wished to kiss the baron in the first place. Still, Mabhadwished it, else she would not have done so. Perhaps there was something Nell could do to set her friend’s interrupted romance aright.
Enemy agents and the militia having served him poorly, Lord Parrington sought some alternate topic. It would not do for Mab to realize her perfidy had left him feeling like a leaden lump. Why was it he had never before realized Mab was a dreadful flirt? Just as his mama had claimed? She was so busy with Lord March that she had no thought to spare himself. Some marital bliss he might look forward to! A wife whose flirtatious glances were directed ever elsewhere. “What think you of Bonaparte’s coronation, ma’am?” he asked.
“Hmm?” Lady March was pondering the means by which she might best assist romance. “The coronation? I was not there. Oh! You mean, what do I think of what I’ve heard? I have heard very little about it, in truth. Henrietta has had a great deal to say on the subject, being an avid reader of the newssheets, but I have not paid her the heed I ought.”
“You have had other things with which to concern yourself.” Lord Parrington promptly set himself to remedy Lady March’s abysmal ignorance of the monumental events that had lately transpired in the world.
To Lord Parrington’s attempts at enlightenment, Eleanor paid scant heed, though at some other time she might have been very well entertained by his account of the five-hour long coronation procession, and the ceremony which took place in Notre Dame. When the baron’s voice trailed off, she roused. “You will think me a poor sort of hostess! Pray forgive my inattention. There is a great deal on my mind—not that it excuses my air-dreaming!”
“Do not regard it,” responded Fergus, ever kind.
Dared she ask outright if Lord Parrington and Mab had quarreled? Nell glanced at the baron’s godlike countenance, and in its marble immobility found very good reason why she should not. Yet one wished to do something to right whatever had gone amiss. Then there was the ever-present puzzle of how Marriot had spent his six-month absence. Eleanor sighed.
Lady March had good reason for preoccupation, decided Fergus, chiefly her husband’s blatant flirtation with a scheming little minx. Lord Parrington experienced another compassionate pang. “I must take my leave of you niw,” he murmured. “I will have to render my apologies to your cousin some other time.”
“You mean to apologize to Henrietta?” Eleanor looked startled. “Whatever for? Perhaps I should not say so, but it sounds to me like Henrietta should apologize toyou!”
“No, no!” Lord Parrington hoped he was gentleman enough to admit when he was wrong. “I spoke much more sharply to her than she deserved.”
In Eleanor’s opinion, no one could speak more sharply than Henrietta deserved. “As you wish,” she said doubtfully. “Henrietta will be sorry that she wasn’t here to receive you herself.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Few knew better than Fergus how elderly female minds worked. “Though the circumstances of our meeting have not been auspicious, I hope you will not hold it against me, Lady March. If you should not mind it, I would like to call on you again.”
Call onher?Eleanor was puzzled until she realized the baron sought an unexceptionable excuse to visit Mab. His mama must be quite a tartar, Nell decided. “We would be pleased,” she replied. Satisfied, for he had formed the noble intention of consoling Lady March for her husband’s neglect, as well as the ignoble intention of giving Mab a sorely deserved set down, Fergus took his leave.
Satisfied though Lord Parrington may have been with the outcome of his visit, others were a great deal less. No sooner had the door closed behind the baron than Lady Amabel cast herself upon Lady March’s breast and burst into noisy tears.
Due to these developments, as well as her ever-present concern for Marriot, Lady March’s spirits were not greatly improved the next day. Nor were the efforts of her companion directed toward that goal. Indeed, Henrietta might have expressly sought to do the opposite. “I do not stand on ceremony with you, Eleanor! “ she uttered. “You must perceive that to leave any gentleman alone with that young woman is to invite disgrace!”
Lady March scowled at her reflection in a plate glass shop window. “Henrietta,” she said untruthfully, “I have not the most distant guess what you are talking about!”
Why Eleanor was frowning in that dreadful fashion at her own image, Henrietta did not know. Hadshebeen decked out in such a pretty conversation hat—a sarcenet confection lined with silk and crowned with flowers, which covered one ear and tied under the chin with blue ribbons—she would have been feeling quite top of the trees. And had she been privileged to wear a walking dress with a gathered flounce above the hem, and a military pelisse— Alas, poor relations possessed no such stylish things.
“I am talking about Lady Amabel.” Henrietta’s lack of material possessions was compensated for in part by her ability to spread discontent. “I most earnestly conjure you to keep a close eye on that girl. Your fondness blinds you to her faults, I think, else you would not have left her behind with Marriot.”
“Left her—” Lady March stared. “Have you windmills in your head, Henrietta? Marriot has known Mab from the cradle.”
“Tut!” Such staggeringnaïvetécaused Henrietta to shake her head. “That makes it all the worse. You must not permit yourself to be blinded by affection, Eleanor, although it is to your credit that you don’t wish to think poorly of the chit.”
Lady March’s thoughts regarding her companion, on the other hand, did her no credit at all. Only this reflection enabled Nell to swallow Henrietta’s strictures with a semblance of good grace. “You are making a piece of work about nothing. I wish to hear no more of this.”
“But, Eleanor, you must!” Henrietta was in the habit of considering no wishes above her own. “Else you find yourself again left wondering when—if!—your husband will come home. Anyone must see how it is with you and Marriot, even if you do not choose to tell me exactly why you quarreled. Odd that we did not suspect earlier—but sometimes these tendencies do not become apparent until mid-life!”
Lady March had rapidly come to regret the generous impulse that had prompted her to ask Henrietta’s company on this foray into Oxford Street. She would much rather have remained in Marcham Towers, where Marriot and Mab had progressed from vingt-et-un to hazard and faro and other games of pure chance. Yet if she had stayed within doors, then Henrietta would have also, thereby cutting up everyone’s peace.“Whattendencies do you accuse Marriot of belatedly displaying?” she inquired crossly. “I warn you, Henrietta, that I don’t care for this farrago of nonsense!”
“Of course you don’t!” Henrietta looked arch. “But I could never forgive myself if I did not drop a gentle hint. You are very unworldly, are you not, dear Eleanor? Not that I mean to suggest you should be any other thing! Those of us who have had to make our own way, as it were, learn very quickly to recognize a spade, and to call it by name! In short, I fear that Lady Amabel’sscruplesare not what they should be.”
If only Mab could be persuaded to be conciliating, or Henrietta more forbearing—but Mab and Henrietta held each other in equally keen dislike. “Fudge!”
retorted Eleanor, who was more disposed to take Mab’s behalf. “I never heard anything half so absurd.”
“Absurd, you call me?” Henrietta’s plump cheeks turned pink. “When you discover Lady Amabel kissing Marriot you may change your mind!”
“When I discover—” The novelty of this suggestion caused Eleanor to pause mid-stride. “Henrietta,” she chuckled, “you are a goose! Mab and Marriot are friends. You must not suspect poor Mab of being a coquette just because you happened to see her kiss Lord Parrington. Most young ladieswouldlike to kiss Parrington, I daresay. Mab was merely resourceful enough to do it! If behavior is to be censured, Henrietta, yours was worse than Mab’s. All she did was kiss a young man for whom she feels a deep affection.Youwere the one who carried tales.”
As is not unusual among those who ascribe to plain dealing, Henrietta did not like that practice applied to herself. “Well!” she gasped.
“No,notwell!” Lady March abandoned herself to the ill humor attendant upon her cousin’s countless spiteful remarks. “In point of fact, it was very ill done. Mab does not deserve that you should seek to do her so poor a turn, nor I daresay does Parrington. He seemed a perfectly unexceptionable, amiable young man. Yet you must do your utmost to pose them difficulties. Henrietta, I wish you would not be so busy about other people’s affairs! But I did not mean to scold you. We will say no more of it.” She directed Henrietta’s attention to a shop window displaying silks and muslins and calico, then to a plumassier’s stock of fancy feathers and artificial flowers, and at last led her into the Pantheon Bazaar.
Though Henrietta was not in the habit of dagger-drawing with those beneath whose roof she sojourned, she did not kindly accept criticism from any source. “You seem to have a high opinion of Lord Parrington,” she remarked, laying Eleanor’s unkind words smack at Lady Amabel’s door.
“I do.” Lady March was relieved that Henrietta did not mean to sulk. “He was quite unassuming and polite, in addition to being handsome as an Adonis, as Mab had claimed.” Privately, Nell thought Mab’s papa hadn’t been far off the mark when he called the baron a popinjay. Still one could not fairly censure a young man for being a trifletoocool and polite. “Indeed, I doubt there is anything in Parrington to disapprove.”
Here was high praise! As she judiciously fingered some cottage twill, Henrietta wondered what it meant. Perhaps she had been mistaken in assuming that Eleanor’s devotion to Marriot was complete. Perhaps Eleanor had, or was at least tempted to—Parringtonwasvery attractive, and there was a scant couple years difference in their ages— Gracious! Little wonder, did the wind blow in this direction, that Eleanor had not hesitated to leave Marriot alone with the flirtatious Lady Amabel. Were her husband lured into an entanglement, Eleanor could pursue inclination with a guiltless conscience. Henrietta dropped the cottage twill and turned upon Lady March a horrified glance.
“I hope that now you don’t mean to tell me Parrington is also to be censured!” protested Nell upon glimpsing Henrietta’s Friday face. “Because I do not wish to hear any such thing. And since I have given Parrington leave to call on us, you may as well reconcile yourself to his frequent presence in Marcham Towers—yes, and I must have your word that you will cease to publish the details of our daily existence to the world!”
With this last ungenerous accusation, Henrietta could not fairly quarrel; it was largely due to her efforts that so many rumors and speculations had greeted Marriot’s return. By the indication that her suspicions were not without foundation, however, Henrietta was both horrified and thrilled. One did notwishdisgrace to descend upon one’s family—but if Lady Katherine had been overset by the intelligence that Lady Amabel had kissed Fergus, the intelligence that Nell contemplated doing likewise would render her prostrate. “Gracious!” Henrietta said aloud.
Already regretting her hasty words, Lady March gazed in a somewhat gloomy manner upon a pair of elegant French gloves. “We understand each other, I think,” she added somewhat lamely. “Now let us talk of other things.”
Understood each other? Henrietta fancied she understood Eleanor very well indeed. Amabel wasn’t the only female who hankered after Lord Parrington. Nell would like to be equally resourceful. Perhaps it wasn’t Marriot whose misconduct had sparked the quarrel that had resulted in his disappearance. Perhaps it was Eleanor who was at fault.
“Why are you staring at me in that exceedingly odd manner?” Lady March inquired plaintively. “If I have wounded your sensibilities, I am sorry for it, but there were things that needed to be said. Now tell me your preference as regards these gloves.”
That matter at length settled, as result of which Nell became possessor of a pair of gloves she neither needed nor liked, the ladies proceeded back out into the street. Slowly, they strolled down the busy thoroughfare to where the carriage waited. Avidly, Henrietta drank in the sights of street sellers and pedestrians, shop windows displaying everything from colored prints to china and glass.
Nell’s concentration was focused on less frivolous matters. “Those robberies you were telling me about,” she said abruptly. “Have there been further developments? Have the thieves been caught?”
Eleanor’s question caught Henrietta by surprise.“Whatrobberies—oh! I have read no more about it lately—but you may be sure the culprits will not long escape the notice of Bow Street.”
“Ah.” Lady March hoped she might be sure of no such thing. “Then what will happen to them, do you think?”
“What will happen to the thieves, you mean?” A queer question, Henrietta thought. “The same thing that usually happens to thieves, I suppose. They will be clapped in prison, there to await their trial.”
The ladies had arrived at the carriage, an elegant cabriolet that sported the family crest. “And after they stand their trial,thenwhat?” inquired Eleanor, as she climbed inside.
“Why, then I suppose they will be either transported or hanged.” Henrietta settled her bulk on the cotton-upholstered seat. “You are very interested in these robberies, Eleanor!”
Little did Henrietta realize the extent of her interest, Lady March thought grimly. Nor did Eleanor intend she should find out. “Anyone must be concerned. If this menace is permitted to continue unchecked, it will be safe for no one to venture out-of-doors.”
With a pleasurable shudder, as if she expected to be momentarily set upon, Henrietta surveyed the street. Discovering no dangerous-looking scoundrels lurking among the pedestrians and street sellers, the porters and ballad singers and clerks, she sank back on her seat. “I make no doubt the rascals will eventually be brought to justice,” she said indifferently. “There have been handbills distributed, and reward offered.”
Handbills? Reward? With every fresh disclosure, Eleanor grew more apprehensive, until she expected momentarily to be taken into custody herself, in connection with a certain shabby valise currently hid beneath her four-poster bedstead. “I know little of such things,” she murmured. “What exactly is done to people who break the law?”
Though Henrietta was little better informed, it was not her practice to admit ignorance. She drew on her active imagination, well-fueled by the newssheets. “The most dreadful things, upon my word!” she responded knowledgeably. “You would not believe the half of it!”
“Such as?” Nell prepared to hear the worst.
Henrietta was not long at a loss. “I could not reconcile it with my conscience to speak to you of such improper things,” she said piously. Then her glance sharpened. “Why are yousocurious, by the by? Since you do not wear jewelry, you are not likely to be robbed.”
The last thing Lady March wished to do was further rouse Henrietta’s suspicions. Already Marriot hesitated to send her packing, lest she sense something in the wind. “Anyone must be curious!” Nell protested. “When you said you had read no more about the robberies lately, did you mean that none have occurred recently, or that you have not been reading the news-sheets?”
“I meant that, to the best of my knowledge, no further robberies have occurred for several days.” Henrietta would have sooner given up her morning chocolate than her newssheets—this, despite her taste for sweets. What possible reason could Eleanor have for this sudden interest in crime and punishment?
Abruptly, an explanation presented itself. Henrietta’s eyes bulged. “Eleanor! You don’t think that Marriot—”
“Of course I do not!” Frantic to put off her companion, Eleanor looked—and sounded—very cross. “I beg you will not be such a ninnyhammer, Henrietta! I merely do not care to think I may be murdered in my bed.” This unfortunate choice of words prompted her to grimace. “By thieves!”
Henrietta abandoned the intriguing notion of why thieves should thus comport themselves in Lady March’s bedchamber for even more intriguing speculation upon what connection thieves might have with the bizarre behavior of Lord March. Or perhaps their involvement was with Lady Amabel, whose conduct had lately been more than strange. That some connection existed, Henrietta was certain. Her instinct for mischief was acute.
Nor was Henrietta distracted by Eleanor’s attempts to throw her off the track. “Just whydidMarriot disappear in that queer manner?” she inquired.
“He did not mean to disappear, precisely.” Now it was Lady March who fixed her attention on the street. “We have explained all that. What has Marriot to do with the present conversation? I thought we were talking about thieves. Of course, we are much less likely to fall victim to such villains now that there is again a man in the house! Not that the servants weren’t there all along—but you know what I mean!”
“Do not distress yourself, Eleanor!” In point of fact, Henrietta didnottake Lady March’s meaning, nor know what had prompted the distressed look on her patrician face. “I will not press you further for an explanation, even though it’s my opinion no one can seriously credit the story you’ve put about. Cornwall! Poppycock! But that’s no bread-and-butter of mine. Just remember, Eleanor, should you wish toconfidein someone, that my concern must always be your best interest!”
“Thank you, Henrietta! You are very good.” Only barely did Lady March repress a shudder. Confidences as rendered up to Henrietta would speedily be noised about the town. “I will bear in mind your offer—though I cannot imagine what I would wish to confide in anyone about!”
“Can you not?” Henrietta brushed futilely at the wisps of white hair that had escaped from beneath her domed straw bonnet to tickle cheek and brow. “But I am promised to say no more on that head!” Once more she glanced out into the street, then frowned. “How odd!”
“What is odd?” Eleanor thrust aside a graphic vision of her husband being taken into custody for the possession of stolen goods, and summarily hanged. “What are you looking at?”
Henrietta was looking at a bonnet of red silk trimmed round the front with black velvet and ornamented with a black feather—a bonnet which she fancied she’d seen several times before. Could they be beingfollowed?The bonnet was swallowed up in the crush of traffic and pedestrians. “I had thought—but it was just my imagination!” she replied.
While Henrietta imagined that she was being followed by a red silk bonnet trimmed with black velvet and a feather, Amabel was indulging in some imaginative reasoning of her own. “Fergus’s ardor has cooled,” she said sadly. “It must have done—I never was so snubbed—not that he was all that ardent in the first place! Wouldyourequire that a girl ask you to kiss her, Marriot?”
Lord March glanced up from his book. “That would depend upon the young lady,” he responded with quirked brow.
Lady Amabel wrinkled her pretty nose, which was a not unbecoming shade of pink. Mab was not looking quite herself, result of having passed a very agitated night, during which visions of Lord Parrington and his mama had paraded incessantly through her head. “You are bamming me,” she said. “I know you don’t truly want to kiss anyone but Nell. Nor should you! Butdidyou wish to do so, even did it land you in the briars, surely you wouldn’t then tell a girl she shouldn’t have asked you to in the first place!”
Since further opportunity for a perusal of its pages was to be denied him, Marriot set aside his book. “This young man of yours sounds like a dull stick.”
“A dull—oh!” Amabel was hurt. “How prodigious unfeeling you are, Marriot. Fergus is no such thing. And if he is, it’s entirely his mama’s fault. I’ll tell you what, Marriot: sometimes I wish I’d stayed in the country.”
With this sentiment, Lord March sympathized; sometimes he wished he’d remained safely indoors on a certain fateful evening instead of sallying forth to White’s. This opinion he put forth.
“One cannotblameFergus for being prodigious concerned about what his mama may say to him,” insisted Mab, as she paced the solar. Mab was this day in perfect harmony with her Elizabethan surroundings, in her round gown of yellow spotted muslin, wearing a tall steeple hat she’d retrieved from the attics, and carrying a lute. “I don’t doubt for a moment that the old tartar can kick up a dreadful rowdy-do. If only Fergus had a little more resolution! The next thing I know his mama will have persuaded him to hedge off.” She paused by the counting table. “Bother the woman! Let us talk of something else.”
Lord March, seated on an embroidered chair, stretched out his long legs, clad this day in unmentionables and hessian boots, with which he wore a buff kerseymere waistcoat, and a single-breasted morning coat of olive-green cloth. “Gladly, brat!” he said.
“Am I being a dreadful bore?” Looking rueful, Lady Amabel drew up a studded, velvet-upholstered stool. “I apologize. I’m not accustomed to being treated in a cavalier fashion, Marriot—no, or to admirers who blow first hot, then cold.” She rubbed her reddened nose. “Not that Fergus was ever other than lukewarm! It will serve me right for putting myself forward, you think. But I don’t mean to go boring on aboutmysad fix! I havn’t forgot that yours is much worse.”
Though Marriot had hardly overlooked his problems, Mab’s lamentations had allowed him a temporary respite. Now, unhappily, he recalled that he had a veritable quicksand from which to extricate himself, and no means of rescue in sight. “I had expected some indication from someone by now,” he admitted. “Apparently I was too optimistic. The only reaction to my return that I have noticed is a great deal of gabble-grinding as to why I went away!”
“Yet someone must know the truth of it.” Mab looked enchanting in her tall hat, which was made of the white bark of a lime tree and adorned with fringes and braids and peacock plumes. “What about the person—or people—who hit you over the head? Who may or may not have been the thieves? And what about the thieves themselves, whomustknow you have the jewels?”
“I could well be a thief myself, remember.” Lord March reached out for the lute. “We must not discount that possibility—or the possibility that ho one knows Ihavethe accursed things, although I can’t think how that might have come about.”
Lord March’s thinking, Mab had noticed, went forth much more lucidly when his wife was not in the immediate vicinity. It must be very nice to command such devotion, she thought sadly, recalling Lord Parrington’s preoccupation with whether his parent had got the wind up.
But prolonged contemplation of Fergus and his mama would only cast her into despair. “You’re not scorched, are you, Marriot? Run aground? Because if youdidsteal those jewels, there must be some reasonwhy.”