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“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 the
attics
? 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 very
odd
about 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 actually
glad
to 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. “I
said,”
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 young
or
old 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. I
had
hoped 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. In
our
day 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 be
SO
out-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 does
come, 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 a
good
girl 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;
I
shall 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!”

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

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,
you
know 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 his
Grande 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 if
I
were 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.

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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