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Authors: Joan Smith

Tags: #Regency Romance

Bath Belles

BOOK: Bath Belles
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BATH BELLES

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

“It’s not very
large, is it?” Mama said as she peered through her spectacles at a residence that very much resembled a doll’s house. Mama was prone to understatement and euphemism.

“No wonder we had such trouble finding it,”
I replied, squinting into the setting sun, whose rays slanted through the narrow spaces between our little brick house and the larger, grander ones on either side.

My sister Esther, who was only a few years beyond an interest in dolls, exclaimed, “I think it’s sweet!”
Esther was seventeen, prettier than any doll, and spoiled beyond redemption. “Just like a child’s playhouse.”

“Yes, indeed, but we are not children,”
I pointed out while Esther was busy showing Mama the classical pediment, and soon we went up the walk toward the door, passing through a pair of clipped yews that were the only horticultural embellishment.

Mama looked around at the neighboring homes and commented, “The location is considered good, I believe.”

Graham Sutton, who had purchased the house, had assured me it was an easy walk to New Bond Street. The house rested on Elm Street, halfway between Mayfair and Soho, Graham had said, though I subsequently learned it was rather closer to Soho. I took the key the lawyer had given me and opened the door. Then I felt, suddenly, the greatest reluctance to enter. Mama smiled sadly, took my arm, and said, “It must be done sooner or later, Belle.”
With her encouraging me, I went into the house where my fiancé, Graham Sutton, had been murdered two years before, just a month before we were to be married.

The house, left to me in his will, was to have been our home. Two years had elapsed before my coming to claim it because of a legal tie-up. Graham’s half-sister from Reisling, whom he scarcely knew, had contested the will and lost. I received the house, its contents, and his carriage; his cousin and good friend Eliot Sutton was left the remainder of the estate.

I had looked forward to living with Graham in London, where he was making his way in a legal career. With him dead, however, I intended to sell the house and return to Bath with my mother and sister. I was born and raised there, and it would take more than a doll’s house to pull me away. Graham’s aunt, Yootha Mailer, had a summer home in Bath, where Graham and I met and eventually fell in love. I was probably the only lady in all of England for whom the sulphurous waters of the Pump Room carried the scent of romance.

The house had gaslight, but it would have been disconnected. As evening was fast approaching, I said, “We’d better scare up some candles before dark,”
and plunged into the hallway. The fanlight displayed a half circle of light on the marble floor and wood paneling within. There was no gleam anywhere, but only the dullness of dust-coated surfaces. We entered timidly and turned right at the first archway into a scene of awful confusion. Every piece of furniture was askew, chairs turned upside down, books and bibelots knocked to the floor, cupboards open with their contents scattered about.

“Good gracious, what a mess!”
Mama said mildly, employing her customary understatement. The place looked as though a tornado had ripped through it.

Esther exclaimed with more joy than dismay, “We’ve been burgled!”

“Let’s have a look at the rest of it,”
I said, and darted back into the hall to find another doorway. The dining room was similarly disarranged. Going through the place room by room, I found that every single chamber was in the same state. Someone had started at the bottom and gone to the top, setting everything at odds.

“We had best call a constable,”
Mama suggested.

“Yes, but first let us find a hotel room for the night,”
I countered.

We had come up to London on the mail coach from Bath, taking a hired cab from the coach stop to the house, and were bone-weary. Three defenseless women walking the streets after dark seemed a bad idea. Graham had been murdered in the safety of his own home. God only knew what would befall us in this wicked city.

The “convenient location”
close to New Bond Street was little help. We turned away from New Bond in error and ended up in Soho before we finally hailed a passing hackney. When my father was alive, he had always stayed at Reddishes Hotel, and no other one occurred to any of us. We went directly to Reddishes and got booked in before calling a constable. The clerk advised us that a Bow Street Runner was what we wanted, and a Runner it was who came to our aid some hours later. A Crawler seemed a more suitable description.

Officer Harrow was a gruff, plain-spoken man who wore a ridiculous broad-brimmed white hat and a straight blue jacket. He listened to our story, showing interest only when the words “two years ago”
came up.

“You oughtn’t to have waited two years to report it!”

“You oughtn’t to have taken two hours to come!”
I shot back swiftly, and explained the delay.

After hearing me out, he gave his verdict. “London is full of thieves, ladies. Lock up your purses—and your daughters, ma’am,”
he added, with a bow to Mama. She grabbed for Esther’s hand and held it tightly. “What you’ve had is squatters. You’re lucky there’s a stick of lumber left in the place, after two years standing vacant. I’ve known them to carry off the doors and shutters. Oh, you can count yourself lucky you’ve still got the foundations. Two years! If you can figure out what’s missing, send me a list, and I’ll keep an eye peeled for it in my rounds of the fencing kens—that’s the warehouses where they keep stolen goods—but it will have been hawked long since.”

“Where are these warehouses? We’ll go ourselves,”
I told him.

He cocked his head to one side and stared at my ignorance. “That you will not, Miss Haley. Stop Hole Abbey is no place for a lady. It’s the thieves’
lair, you see. You wouldn’t even understand a word they say, for they have their own jargon.”

“We don’t know what is missing. We were never in the house before,”
I pointed out.

This earned us a highly suspicious glance. “It’d be silver plate and knickknacks they carried off first,”
he said.

I remembered seeing silver candlesticks on the dining table that afternoon, and some jewelry on Graham’s dresser. I mentioned this to the officer, who nibbled his quill and concluded that the burglar had been in a hurry, which seemed unlikely, considering he had had two years of uninterrupted time in which to carry out his depredations.

This ignited the officer’s interest to the point of offering to come around the next day and “look us over,”
as he phrased it. He had already examined Esther quite thoroughly, I can assure you.

Mama allowed, after he left, that it was “very strange,”
and that the officer was “not terribly helpful.”

“We’ll send home for some servants tomorrow and have them set the place to rights before selling,”
I decided. “Hotchkiss and Bettie will come.”

We had only planned to stay one or two nights and make the house our headquarters. As our family carriage wasn’t accustomed to traveling more than ten miles, we had opted for the coach. And as we had opted for the expensive mail coach, we had taken only those seats that were absolutely necessary.

“Does that mean we’ll be staying in London longer?”
Esther asked hopefully. Though both Mama and I had spoiled her quite dreadfully, we had not succumbed to her pleas that we remove to the house for a Season or anything of that sort. November would hardly have been the time for it if we had. It did begin to look as though she might get a week in the city, however.

“Yes, you wretched child, we must stay,”
I told her.

She clapped her hands and danced in glee. Her blond curls bounced up and down, and her blue eyes sparkled.

Looking across the room to a mirror that was tarnished with age, I noticed no such enchanting reflection of myself. It wasn’t the dimness of the light nor the splotching of the mirror that accounted for it, either. I looked tired and dispirited, the way I felt. Ever since Graham’s death I had lived in a sort of disbelieving limbo. My hair never was gold like Esther’s, nor my eyes blue, but I had allowed my brown curls to grow longer, thus robbing them of their bounce. Sorrow had taken the glow from my eyes and the roses from my cheeks. My gown hung a little slack on me, as I had lost weight. Over the past two years I had come to more closely resemble Mama than Esther. If Graham were to enter the room this minute, it would be to Esther that his eyes turned, not to me.

Esther’s fluting question pulled me from my distraction. “Can we go down and eat in the dining room?”
It wasn’t directed to Mama but to me. Since my father’s death, his duties had somehow devolved on me. I was the one who had to make the hard decisions and receive reproachful glances. One such decision was required of me that moment. How could we go below without proper evening clothes? We had only a bandbox each, containing nightgowns and linens.

“I’m afraid not, Esther,”
I said, and explained the problem.

“It’s not very grand here. We could go as we are,”
she parried.

“It is rather grander than that, my dear,”
Mama told her, but not without a questioning look to the tyrant.

We ate our dinner in our room, discussing what was best. “We’ll go back to Elm Street first thing in the morning,”
I decided. “We’ll do what we can to set things right, then call in an estate agent and turn the house over to him to sell. I wonder what commission he will expect.”

“Grenier at home takes four percent,”
Mama told me.

“Then no doubt a London agent will take five,”
I concluded. “Graham paid close to five thousand for the house. I’ll ask five—two years must have given some appreciation, with our inflation rate.”

“And the agent will get two hundred and fifty guineas just for showing a few customers through your house,”
Mama said wistfully. “Six months of our income. My, it seems an easy way to earn one’s money, does it not?”

“Yes, but it saves our loitering around town, you know. He will handle the whole for us. The buyer might require a mortgage—I believe the agent helps with that.”

“You could take the mortgage yourself,”
Mama pointed out.

“What is the point of that?”

“Why, the house would be easier to sell if it had a mortgage, and you’d get your money by installments, with good interest. We don’t need an agent at all is what I’m saying, Belle. Why give away two hundred and fifty guineas? We could have a nice holiday in London on such a sum.”

It was a point to ponder. “I shall put a sign in the window while we’re there, at least,”
I agreed.

Esther and Mama nodded conspiratorially at having cajoled me a step forward. “And a notice in the papers,”
Mama added. “That will not cost more than a few shillings, and it will bring the house to the attention of anyone who is looking.”

“Since we are staying, could we go to the theater one night?”
Esther asked eagerly. “Please, Belle. I’ve never been to a real theater. We can have our gowns brought by Hotchkiss. We can call on Graham’s aunt Yootha, too, and she’ll invite us to a party. She is very sociable. We can go shopping on Bond Street—Graham said the house was within walking distance. Oh, it’s so exciting!”

Some little excitement invaded my own being at her words. I had been so miserably depressed after Graham’s death I had hardly felt like living at all, but gradually the melancholia had lifted. I had put off mourning clothes, and now, at last, I began to feel a new burgeoning of spirit within me.

Yes, why not stay, if it would please little Esther? Heaven above knew she had a dull time of it at home, and so had I. Even Mama looked with lively interest to see my reaction. Poor girl, she was feeling dull, too. I wasn’t the only one who had lost my mate. Papa had died only three years ago, and he had been her life. So many dire calamities befalling us had made me feel, at times, that we were all living in the Book of Job. All Mama’s doings had spun around Papa’s parish work at the cathedral. My father had been nothing so grand as a bishop, but only a minor ecclesiastic.

“We’ll call on Yootha Mailer tomorrow, Mama, shall we?”
I asked, to advise her that the tyrant was seeking her view.

“I’ll drop her a note tonight”
was her reply, her face split wide in a smile, and she gave another of those conspiratorial winks at Esther, as though to say, “We’ve conned her.”
I was not the ogre you might think, but someone had to manage the budget and the little difficulties that crop up in even the simplest of lives.

Mama was already rushing to the desk. “See, the hotel has this letter paper right here, and a pen as well.”

They did not think to provide ink, so the letter was postponed till the next day. The reluctant tyrant was too backward to go down into the public lobby for a pot of ink. We ate what we could of the hotel fare. There was no hiding the taste of warmed-over beef, and the custard served for dessert was a block of hard stuff sitting in whey.

“A little runny,”
Mama said forgivingly.

Esther and I pushed ours away and finished the meal with bread and butter. The tea was potable, and the general mood one of rejoicing.

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