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“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 cuddle
now is
like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. It
was
Nero 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.
“My
darling!” 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 Marriot
could—
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. “What
do
they 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—what
is
his 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 might
believe 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 wind
you
have 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 might
cease
to 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.”

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

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’s
The 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 a
cobweb
adorn her dark hair? Was that
dust
upon 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! You
did!
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.
“I
don’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 suppose
you
know 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.”

BOOK: Maggie MacKeever
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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