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Henrietta primmed her lips. “You mock me, miss, and you should not; age is the best advisor of youth. Moreover, horrid things
do
happen 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 for
your
safety. 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 of
entertainment.
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 will
attack—
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 you
are
less 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 already
have!
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!”

“Then
that
is 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 does
have 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 not
altogether
certain, Nell, I think jewel thieves are always hanged.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

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.
“Who
was 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 nothing
before
I 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 that
my
disappearance 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 was
you
who 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 so
missish,
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 so
distant
when 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.”

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
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