Authors: Margaret Bennett
Tags: #Nov. Rom
“You must forgive my tardiness, Lady Chadlington, but I have been unwell.”
“Say no more, my lord. Word travels quickly when one is in the country, and so we must be the ones to beg your forgiveness for such an intrusion. We heard you were ill and, ordinarily, would never dream of imposing on you. It was just that we feared one of the horses might go lame if we did not stop and tend to the shoe immediately.
“Right you are, and I’m told my head groom is personally handling it. An excellent man
, Grimsley. You should be on your way within minutes.”
his information did not illicit the enthusiastic reply Melvyrn had hoped for from either lady. In fact, daughter looked to mother, who touched a gloved hand to her turbaned head and said, “Yes, of course, my lord, and while we wait, might I trouble you for a spot of tea. We’ve been shopping all day in Dover, and I am quite famished. Do you know, Sylvia dear, I do believe this will cause us to miss our dinner.”
“Indeed, Mama,” Sylvia Chadlington replied on cue, as she trained her china blue eyes on Melvyrn. “Papa insists on keeping country hours and must eat the same time every day.”
Bailey’s prediction was spot on, mused Melvyrn, who used his hand to hide his guffaw, which sounded like a strangled cough. “Then you ladies must share my repast. You understand, of course, that on such short notice my cook hasn’t prepared a proper meal.”
“Nonsense, my lord,” piped up Lady Chadlington, obviously pleased at how things were turning out. “Whatever you have will be fine with Sylvia and myself. It is so kind of you to offer. We were running late anyway, and this delay
will make us that much later. And there is nothing worst than an overcooked meal, as I’m sure you will agree?”
concurred, just as Hixon. He gave his butler instructed to set two more places and, a short time later when dinner was announced, led the ladies into the dining room. Immediately, Melvyrn discerned Bailey’s hand in the table settings. He sat at the head, naturally. The Chadlingtons, however, were seated half way down the twenty foot table, one on either side. A feeble fire burned in the grate, and the room was colder than a wine cellar.
The first course consisted of a w
eak broth followed by boiled chicken. Throughout the first course, with malicious delight Melvyrn fabricated a diet that one of London’s best physicians had prescribed especially for him. When Lady Chadlington commiserated with him for having to endure such pabulum, he congratulated himself for graciously accepting her understanding and sympathy without even a hint of a smile.
Sylvia was more taciturn, though by her expression,
the second course of mushy peas and soggy potatoes were hardly an improvement over the boiled chicken. Throughout the meal, she directed a number of peculiar looks toward him, but it wasn’t until the watery custard arrived that she broke her silence. “I am surprised a man as large as yourself can survive on such meager fair, my lord?”
“Sylvia dear, what must the Earl think of your manners,” Lady Chadlington interjected, scowling at her daughter.
“I only refer to the fact that Lord Melvyrn is a sportsman, a noted Corinthian, in fact,” Sylvia said to her mother before turning to Melvyrn. “Also, rumor has it that you gallop your horse across the cliffs daily, my lord.”
“What you hear is true, Miss Chadlin
gton,” Melvyrn replied. “I’ve been used to a much more active life. But alas, this last bout of fever has quite undone me. Still, I do take my stallion out and pay every evening for it. Such a strenuous ride quite puts me off my feed. You may have noticed how little I ate?”
“I am sorry, my lord,” replied Sylvia contritely, lowering her long dark lashes which contrasted dramatically against her creamy white complexion. “I
never meant to pry.”
Melvyrn bit back a sarcastic reply. “
Of course not, and I appreciate your concern.” The chit knew exactly what she was doing. While appearing to be a guileless innocent, she’d let him know that people suspected his health wasn’t as precarious as he wanted them to believe. But Melvyrn had been on the Town too long. He knew every trick the matchmaking mamas and their conniving daughters ever conceived, and so he had not been gulled by her demure act. She was a beauty, all right, but he wanted nothing to do with her. It was time for him to press home his advantage. “Then you will understand, Miss Chadlington, that I tire easily and by nightfall am completely worn out.”
“Having a somewhat delicate constitution myself,” Lady Chadlington said, “of course we understand.”
Thus, after retiring to the drawing room and a few sips of tepid tea, Lady Chadlington soon made to take her leave. Sylvia, however, showed less interest in departing, but she did not gainsay her mother.
With his unwanted guests headed out the
front door, Melvyrn pulled out his pocket watch and saw that he was behind schedule. Taking the stairs two at a time, he sincerely hoped Bailey had thought to bring up something decent for him to eat while he changed clothes.
The full moon’s brightness competed with the night’s sky strewn with stars, bathing the landscape in a silvery light. Even with soot rubbed across her forehead and over her high cheekbones, she worried she might be recognized by Melvyrn and knew the best disguise would have been a darker night. But Tolly claimed the revenuers were less likely to expect any smuggling activities going on under a bright moon.
Hall’s head groom, had saddled Devon, a sleek chestnut with a black mane and tail, and had the gelding waiting for her when she reached the stable.
“He’s been frisky all day, Miss Rosalind,” Thomas said in a gravelly whisper. “Knowed he’d be going out for a run tonight, he did.”
Rubbing the length of the chestnut’s velvety nose, Rosalind smiled at the old man who’d taught her to ride. “It amazes me how well he can move in the dark.”
“He’s a savvy one, all right,” replied Thomas while giving her a hand up so she could put her left foot in the stirrup, then throw her other leg over the horse’s back. When she’d first enlisted the help of c
ertain staff members at Ashford Hall, Thomas had loudly voiced his disapproval. First, he’d stated that he’d never knew a lady to ride astride. To compound the insult, she’d feared he have an apoplexy when she asked him to teacher her how. But like everyone else, once Thomas understood she meant to proceed with her plan with or without his help, he did all he could to aid and abet his mistress. In fact, every member of the Hall’s staff had helped in some way to save the lives of brave Englishmen fighting this war.
“Ready Miss,” Thomas said and then mounted a sturdy sorrel.
Rosalind nodded and put her heel to Devon’s flank, and together, they took off at a trot across the fields to the woods behind the Hall toward the cliffs. They rode in silence, keeping a watchful eye out for strangers.
following a small path long the cliff, Rosalind drew in the reins where the descent to the beach wasn’t so steep. Guiding Devon down a barely discernable path that led to the water, Rosalind allowed the chestnut to pick his own way, with hooves crunching on small pebbles. Behind her, she heard Thomas’s sorrel following.
They rode along the beach for a quarter of a mile until they saw
with several men standing about at the edge of the surf. Rosalind pulled Devon into a small out crop of brushes and rocks at the base of the cliff.
“Just tie Devon up in these trees tomorrow night,
Thomas. No need for you to lose any sleep.”
“I hope I knows my job, Miss,” Thomas grumbled, but not unkindly. “Me and Devon’ll be here waiting for you like always.” Though they had the same conversation numerous times, Rosalind always left feeling guilty keeping the old man from his bed. But she also knew he’d have it no other way. “And you be careful, Miss,” he added. “
If not them revenuers, no tellin’ what rapscallion might be out with a moon like this.”
Giving him a brigh
t smile, she handed him the reins, then turned and walked toward the small sea craft, feeling Thomas’s gaze at her back. She knew he wouldn’t leave until Tolly was at her side.
oments later, the huge man separated himself from the others and was at her elbow. Without a word, he picked her up and tossed her into the lugger, a wide-beamed boat with two sails. As she nimbly stepped around the lines and sails to take a seat close to the bow, she saw that the Earl was not yet aboard and waited patiently for Tolly to give the signal to the other four men to push the craft into the water.
Several minutes passed
, and Rosalind wondered at the delay until she was a tall figure strolling down the beach. Despite the woolen cap and workman clothes he wore, she recognized the broad shouldered gentleman as the one she’d encountered in the woods collecting herbs.
“You’re late.” Tolly’s tone was gruff.
Rosalind knew he tolerated no nonsense. Obviously, as a new crew member his lordship would learn the hard way.
“Blasted females,” Melvyrn said in a half whisper. “Lady Chadlington and her simpering daughter happened by so one of their horses could throw a shoe at my front gate.”
No more was said, but Rosalind could tell by his movements that Melvyrn was still angry over whatever theatrics Sylvia had pulled. She couldn’t help smiling to herself, for she was glad the Earl thought Sylvia foolish.
Tolly introduced the Earl to the other crew members as Phillips. When he pointed to her,
she lifted her chin as Tolly said, “There’s Ros. He’s young and green, so stay away from him.” He didn’t wait for Melvyrn to reply but instead gestured for him to take a seat in the middle of the boat.
They shoved off and soon raised the two sails, which bellowed with the brisk northwest, sending the l
ugger clipping over the waves. As the crisp wind swirled around her, Rosalind shivered and tucked a stray curl under the black knit cap before pulling it lower. After a while, mist rose up from the channel’s surface, dulling the moon’s brightness. The cloudless sky, however, provided enough light for visibility. The crossing was uneventful, and shortly before sun up they were in sight of the dark French coastline. Tolly guided the craft to the mouth of a small river and pulled it close to the shore where the trees hung over, giving them some cover. After giving the command for everyone to get some sleep, Tolly stepped over legs and lines to stretch out beside Rosalind.
several hours, they rested. At one point the Earl rose and walked back to the bow. Still seated next to her, Tolly came to his feet and met Melvyrn midway and then gestured the two of them go ashore to talk. Though they had moved away from the boat and talked softly, Rosalind could still see and hear the two men.
n asked, “What town are we near?”
Wissant,” Tolly answered.
“How big is it?”
“Small, a fishing village.”
“I’d like to scout about, learn the area some?”
Tolly shook his head and pointed to the boat. “No, you’d best stay here ‘til it’s time to load up.”
“What about the lad?”
“What about him?” Tolly almost growled.
“He doesn’t look strong enough to tote keys?”
Tolly was quiet for a moment. “He’s a job to do when we meet up with the Frenchman.”
“The lad speaks French,” Tolly said, turning his back on the Earl.
hey returned to the boat. Tolly again used gestures for Melvyrn to remain at the stern of the boat and sat next to him. Late afternoon they ate bread and cheese from a satchel that had been stowed in the stern.
dusk, they shoved away from the shore and headed back out into the sea. With the wind up, the sail filled out, and the boat skimmed across the waves. When the moon was high in a nearly clear sky, Tolly called out to one of the men to give the signal.
Lighting a covered lantern, the man stood in the bow and opened and closed a shutter three times. It wasn’t long before they sighted an answering signal.
They made for a small, rocky cove, where the old Frenchman was waiting on the beach with two ragged looking figures behind him. The crew including Melvyrn hopped into the surf and dragged the
up to the beach. Rosalind cautiously made her way to the back of the boat where Tolly reached up and, circling her waist with his large hands, lifted her over the side of the boat, and set her down on the rocky sand.
Glancing up the rising dune, she
saw the village men hurrying down and forming a line to begin the relay. Aware of Tolly following behind her, Rosalind started up the beach to meet Jacques and quickly introduced Tolly to the soldiers. He pointed at the lugger and told the men, “Get aboard, and sit low so you ain’t seen.”
you come next?” Jacques asked.
In three days,” Rosalind said, looking at Tolly.
shook his bushy head. “Too risky crossing so soon. Besides, word is they’re sending another cutter, the
, to Dover along with more excise men.”