Authors: Bath Charade
The Bath Charade
F YOU VALUE YOUR
safety,” Sir Bartholomew told Miss Laura sternly, “do not leave the shelter of these walls, lest your life fall victim to such imprudence.”
“She’ll leave,” muttered the reader, turning the page and continuing to read.
Laura nodded submissively. Sadly however, though appearing to be the mildest and softest of her sex, wholly devoted to Sir Bartholomew’s will, and looking up to him as a superior being (Here the reader made a sound perilously akin to an unladylike snort) not half an hour had elapsed before the beguiling child descended into the castle garden and from thence through the outer gate into the mysterious forest beyond.
With a light step, she hastened toward the blackberry patch, but scarce had she picked a dozen of the luscious fruit before darkness descended all about her in the form of a voluminous cloak. Two iron-muscled arms clamped fast around her from behind, and she heard the dreaded but unmistakable sound of Count Rodolfo’s evil laughter.
“So, sweet beauty, you are mine again!”
Carolyn Hardy glared up in disgust at the ornate ceiling of Bathwick Hill House library. “I knew it,” she muttered. “What an idiotish female Laura Lovelace is!”
To be sure, Miss Hardy, with her glossy black curls, rosy cheeks, and sparkling aquamarine eyes, had felt an instant empathy with a heroine possessing soft ringlets the color of a raven’s wing and eyes of sapphire-blue, but Miss Laura’s insistence upon behaving at every turn in the stupidest manner possible had soon put empathy to flight. It was all very well to be desired for one’s beauty, Carolyn thought; nonetheless, it would have been gratifying had the author allotted Miss Laura at least a modicum of intelligence as well.
Miss Hardy had small opinion of comeliness in and of itself. After all, she was the acknowledged beauty of her own family but thought it no great distinction, since most of the other younger members of the Hardy family were male and since only two of them (and her godmama’s son, who didn’t count) might have given her any competition.
Indeed, since she lacked the height and willowy figure (not to mention the vast fortune) required to be considered a diamond of the first water, in most gatherings of highborn young females her appearance would have occasioned little remark. That she was generally popular despite these deficiencies could be attributed to her generous spirit and vivacious personality, although neither quality was particularly noticeable when, as was presently the case, Miss Hardy suffered from boredom.
She was curled up on a claw-footed sofa in the library’s west-window embrasure, doing her best to forget the chilly, gray October day outside by concentrating on this latest offering from the pen of the author who currently enjoyed her greatest favor, but it was slow going. She found herself constantly wondering why Sir Bartholomew Lancelot did not wring his beloved’s graceful swanlike neck instead of worshipping the ground she trod upon.
When the heavy, carved door of the library swung open, Carolyn looked up from her book with a frown of annoyance occasioned more by her irritation with Miss Laura than with the interruption, but her grim look was enough to halt in her tracks the thin, mousy-looking lady who had opened the door.
“Oh dear,” Miss Judith Pucklington said, hitching more securely onto her shoulders the several shawls with which she had draped her meager body, “I don’t wish to intrude, but Shields informed me that there was a fire in here, and I thought—”
“Come in, Puck, do,” Carolyn said instantly. “You look half frozen, which is not to be wondered at, I’m sure, since I believe this may well be the only warm room in the house, except for Sydney’s snuff room, of course, but you will not wish to be sitting in there.”
“Goodness me, no,” Miss Pucklington replied, still poised on the threshold like a timid bird ready to take flight at the least hint of danger. “I should never go into that room without his leave. Indeed, I should not have entered this one had Shields not assured me that Cousin Sydney is still away from home.”
Carolyn chuckled, setting her book aside and daintily stretching her limbs, cramped after more than two hours of reading. “’Tis the odious smell of snuff that keeps me from invading that particular sanctum of his, but nothing more. Surely you do not fear Sydney, Puck!”
“Oh, no,” Miss Pucklington protested, distressed, “for although Cousin Olympia has frequently insisted that he had a most violent temper as a child, one simply cannot credit it, for he is always most kind, although I cannot like his man—so odd looking, you know, and Ching Ho being such a queer name—but I should never presume, in any case.” Her gaze drifted wistfully to the hearth. “What a very large fire that is, to be sure.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” Carolyn agreed, regarding the leaping blaze with satisfaction. “I found that I couldn’t see to read if I sat near the fire, and I was freezing here by the window, so I directed the youngest footman—Abel, I think his name is, although even after more than three weeks of living here, I cannot keep all the servants’ names straight in my head—”
“Oh, dear me, no. There are ever so many.”
“Yes, well, Sydney does like his comforts, and he can afford them, I daresay, thanks to his Uncle Henry Beauchamp’s having left him this house and his entire fortune besides. At all events, I asked young Abel to pile the wood on. He filled the basket, too, to overflowing, so we can be as lavish as we like. But do come in and shut that door, Puck. There is the most chilling draft while you stand there.”
“Oh dear, how very sorry I am,” exclaimed Miss Pucklington, pulling the door to with a snap and remaining pressed up against it, “but I am persuaded that I ought not to disturb you, my dear. To be sure, my own room is like an ice house, but after Cousin Olympia’s saying so firmly that we ought not to waste Cousin Sydney’s money on mere creature comforts—”
“Rubbish,” Carolyn said. “Sydney would be the first to squander his fortune on creature comforts, for he doesn’t believe them mere at all. As to disturbing me, you will be doing no such thing, for I am quite out of patience with the characters in this book, and I shall welcome your company. Indeed, I begin to wonder how such foolish books as this one ever amused me.”
Miss Pucklington eyed the slim, gilt-edged blue volume curiously as she moved to take a seat in one of two matching wing chairs facing the fire, scooting it to an angle that allowed her to face Carolyn without craning her neck. “That cannot be the book Cousin Olympia gave you at breakfast,” she said as she produced her knitting bag from beneath her myriad shawls and withdrew a tumble of brightly-colored wool from its depths.
“Good gracious, no,” Carolyn replied, wrinkling her nose. “Godmama cannot have read so much as the first page of that book, for even she could not be so daft as to believe I would read such fustian. I expect ’twas the title made her hope it would do me good to read it. ’Tis called
, and you must know she was a trifle displeased with my behavior when we took tea with the dowager Viscountess Lyndhurst on Wednesday last.”
Miss Pucklington smiled, bringing a twinkle to her pale blue eyes. “As I recall the matter, Cousin Olympia’s displeasure had less to do with the viscountess’s tea than with the fact that you spent the afternoon chatting with the young viscount. A most unsuitable young man for you to know, Cousin Olympia told me. A reputation, you know,” she murmured, blushing.
“According to Godmama and Sydney,” Carolyn said with a grimace, “every gentleman in Bath under the age of a hundred and three is unsuitable for me to know. But
won’t help their cause, for it was written nigh onto a hundred-fifty years ago and ’tis a treatise on the excellence of the Puritan way of life … Godmama cannot have known that, for the Saint-Denis family has always held by the Anglican faith. Well, since there has been an Anglican faith, at all events,” she amended. “And there is nothing amiss with Viscount Lyndhurst, reputation or no. He is certainly no Count Rodolfo!”
“Count Rodolfo? Whoever is Count Rodolfo?”
Carolyn indicated her book. “He is the villain of this lurid tale, and quite my favorite character.”
Carolyn shrugged. “I know one is not supposed to like the villain, Puck, but at least Count Rodolfo is not stupid. He never misses an opportunity to do evil. Right from the very first, when he abducted Miss Laura Lovelace from the convent—”
“From right under the noses of the nuns who raised her, for of course Laura is an orphan.” She sighed. “All the best romantic heroines are orphans, you know, though personally, I have never found the orphaned state to be a romantic one.”
“No, for you are one, too, are you not?”
“I suppose I am,” Miss Pucklington said with a small frown. “Mama died during my third Season and dear Papa went aloft nigh onto ten years ago, which is when I began to live with Cousin Olympia. But one does not think of a woman of my years in such terms, of course. Your own case is a far more melancholy one.”
“Perhaps,” Carolyn said, still thinking about her book. “One wonders what became of the parents of all those heroines. This author, who calls herself ‘a Gentlewoman of Consequence, residing in Bath,’ after the fashion of her ilk, writes that Miss Laura’s parents died in each other’s arms, which I thought romantic but odd, especially since I have been unable to discover why they died. It doesn’t make any difference to the story, of course, and one doesn’t really want to know the details.” She grimaced, remembering with painful clarity the deaths of her own parents within days of each other, though definitely not in each other’s arms. The gruesome sights, smells, and sounds of typhus could not be thought romantic by anyone.
Miss Pucklington clicked her tongue in distress. “You must not dwell upon such sorrowful memories, my dear.”
“Not sorrowful ones,” Carolyn said frankly, “just rather horrid ones.” Then, seeing that her companion looked more distressed than ever, she added, “Truly, ma’am, though my parents’ deaths were awful and I am most sincerely sorry for their suffering, it has been nearly seven years since their passing, and I do not grieve for them. In point of fact, I didn’t like them very much.”
Miss Pucklington’s eyes widened and she looked anxiously around as though she feared someone else might have heard. “You must not say such things, Carolyn. ’Tis vastly unbecoming.”
“Why? My parents were both distant, chilly persons who scarcely ever paid me any heed. That my mother always smelled delightfully of flowers is the most pleasant memory I have of either of them. Doubtless she expected to notice me when the time came to present me at court, and Papa doubtless expected to have to frank me for a Season or two, but since they both died before either event came to pass, I did not receive even that much of their attention. Indeed, since they sent me here to Bath to school when I was nine, and since I generally spent my shorter holidays with Godmama and the others at Swainswick, it was only by the greatest mischance that I happened to be at home in Devon when the typhus struck. Even then, it was only because my old nurse insisted upon my staying away from them both that I chanced to witness the dreadful effects of the disease that killed them.”
“Because she insisted you stay away?”
“Of course.” But Carolyn had the grace to look ashamed of herself as she added, “I had then a lamentable habit of wishing most to do that which I have been commanded not to do, a habit I trust I’ve outgrown. I made a mistake that time, of course, and was most fortunate not to have become ill myself.”
“I should think so.” Miss Pucklington would have said more, but the library door opened again just then, startling them both.