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Authors: Carola Dunn

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The Tudor Signet

BOOK: The Tudor Signet
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THE TUDOR SIGNET

 

Carola Dunn

 

Chapter 1

 

“Pique, repique, and capot.”

In the pale January sunshine filtering through the tall windows of the inn’s coffee room, the handsome young face opposite Lord Malcolm was aghast. “It can’t be. Let me see.”

Malcolm spread out the tricks he had taken and lounged back in his Windsor chair, languid hands linked across his natty waistcoat, striped in coquelicot and pearl-grey. He watched as Sir Ralph Riddlesworth feverishly scanned the cards. Drooping eyelids hid the glint of triumph at this unbelievable stroke of good fortune. A devilish promising start to his mission!

“Another partie,” begged the youthful baronet, blue eyes appealing. “I’ll win it back. It’s a family heirloom.” He reached for the signet ring, a topaz incised with a sphinx seal.

Malcolm’s hand shot out and grasped his wrist in a grip of iron. “Not so fast, my friend. You pledged the ring because you had already lost all your blunt.”

“I’ll borrow some,” said Riddlesworth sullenly, massaging his wrist. “Everyone knows me here.”

His gaze sceptical, Malcolm scanned their surroundings. The Golden Hind was one of the busiest inns in Plymouth, but at present the room was nearly empty. The Mail had come and gone; the stage coach from London was not expected for another hour. By the next window two respectable middle-aged females gossiped over a pot of tea, and a retired sea-captain with a wooden leg drowsed over his ale in the inglenook. The waiter had played least in sight since bringing their bottle of claret, now scarce half emptied, and a sealed pack of cards. No doubt he was resting tired feet before the next rush.

The fair young man--no more than one or two and twenty, some six years Malcolm’s junior--looked discomfited. “The landlord will oblige me,” he muttered.

“Ah, but I do not choose to wait while you make your arrangements,” Malcolm drawled, “nor, in fact, do I choose to play any longer. My thanks for the entertainment. Now excuse me, if you please.” The ring safely bestowed in the inside breast pocket of his burgundy-red coat, he rose, bowed, and moved towards the door.

Riddlesworth followed him, plucking at his sleeve, pleading in a low voice for a chance to win back his heirloom. He was taller and heavier than Malcolm, who felt like a kestrel pestered by a crow.

“Enough, my dear fellow, pray don’t make a cake of yourself.” Distastefully brushing his sleeve, he continued out into the lobby and called for the landlord.

“I shall stay here tonight, my good man,” he announced loudly, “and drive on to Corycombe in the morning. Tell my groom we’ll leave at nine.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Riddlesworth’s dismal visage brighten. Well and good!

Half an hour later, the collar of his multi-caped topcoat turned up against a chill wind off the sea, Malcolm strolled through the streets towards the Hoe. The few passers-by hurried, their wraps hugged close about them. As the dusk of the short winter’s day closed down, lamps flickered to life in shop windows.

Passing a gold- and silversmith’s establishment, Malcolm glanced at the display in the leaded-glass bow window. Casually, as if drawn by something seen there, he pushed open the door and entered.

A bell attached to the door tinkled to announce his arrival. From a back room, pushing aside a heavy crimson velvet curtain, a small, balding man emerged behind the counter. He peered through thick-lensed, gold rimmed spectacles at his visitor, took in glossy beaver, caped greatcoat, gleaming white-topped boots.

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“You are the proprietor? The goldsmith?”

The little man bowed. “Ebenezer Willett, goldsmith, silversmith, jeweller, at your service, sir.”

“You have been commended to me for your discretion. I have a confidential task for you, if you think yourself capable of it.” Malcolm took out the ring and laid it on the counter. “I want a copy of this. Not the ring or the topaz, just the seal. It must make an impression exactly like the original.”

Willett pushed the ring back towards him with the tip of one long, delicate finger. “Can’t be done, sir.”

“You don’t do such fine work?”

The jeweller drew himself up. “The finest in Plymouth, in Devon, nay, in the West Country, though I say it myself!”

“Then it is impossible?”

“That I didn’t say, sir. Since you ask, I won’t be a party to forgery, not for a thousand pounds.”

With a nod of approval, Malcolm drew his wallet from his pocket and extracted a folded parchment. This he unfolded and laid on the counter beside the ring. “My name is Malcolm Eden,” he said softly. “I’m on government business. Here is my commission from the Admiralty, signed and sealed by the First Lord himself. It’s no forgery, I assure you.”

Holding the parchment beneath the oil lamp suspended from the low ceiling, Willett perused it carefully from start to finish, studying the impressive seal closely. Then he turned and subjected his customer’s face to the same rigorous examination. One or both apparently satisfied him. He returned the credentials, picked up the ring, and held back the velvet curtain.

“You’d best come through, my lord, where we shan’t be interrupted.”

Malcolm ducked under the curtain. The workshop behind was brightly lit, especially the bench which held an assortment of jewellers’ tools and work in progress. Willett took off his spectacles, fixed a glass in one eye, and studied the topaz in its heavy, ornate gold setting with increasing enthusiasm.

“Remarkable! Early sixteenth century English work, unless I miss my guess. There are few Tudor pieces left which have not been reset, and fewer still of such quality.”

“Can you copy it?” Malcolm asked impatiently, consulting his pocket-watch.

“Oh yes. Even the finest Tudor craftsmen were a trifle crude by modern standards. They had not the tools we have today. Besides, if you don’t want the sphinx carved into a gem, it’s a comparatively simple matter of making an impression and using it as a mould. Gold, silver, brass?”

“Brass will do. You can have it ready by tomorrow morning?”

Willett cast a glance at his crowded work bench. “Your business is urgent?”

“It is. You will be well paid to postpone your other work.”

“It’s not the money.” His narrow chest swelled with injured dignity. “I’ll do it for England and our brave boys in the Navy. You may call for your seals any time you please tomorrow morning, my lord.”

“Excellent! Remember, don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. Lives may depend upon your silence.”

The jeweller nodded solemnly, already clearing a space on his bench. “Not a word,” he promised.

Malcolm went on his way to the Hoe, walking briskly, a gentleman out for an evening’s exercise. Nothing too out of character there. He was known in Town as something of a dandy, a fop even, bored by everything but the cut of a coat, yet even a dandy needs to stretch his legs after two and a half days on the road.

The first stars twinkled in the darkening sky, vying with the lanterns on the masts of the countless vessels in the Sound. Drake’s Island was a black mound rising from the pallid waters, Mount Edgcumbe a mere shadowy bulk. In the distance, the periodic flash of the Eddystone lighthouse warned ships off the cruel rocks. A solitary figure in naval uniform stood gazing out over the estuary. The empty left sleeve of his coat was pinned across his breast.

Malcolm paused briefly beside him. “Well met, Des. Can you come to Corycombe tomorrow evening?”

“Not tomorrow.”

“The next night? Good. I’ve much to tell you.” Malcolm walked on.

Any watcher, he hoped, would have seen a chance meeting between strangers, an exchange of words about the view, perhaps, or the weather. It was cold enough for comment, the air now holding a hint of frost unusual in this sheltered south-western corner of the realm. Des must be freezing, the stump of the arm he had lost two years ago at Trafalgar probably ached like the very devil.

Nonetheless, though unaccustomed to conspiracy, the captain surely knew better than to abandon his contemplative pose too quickly? Resisting an impulse to glance back at his friend, Malcolm turned his steps towards the town and the welcome warmth of the Golden Hind.

* * * *

“I’m having trouble with my badger,” said Mr. Barwith broodingly as Mariette ladled chicken soup into his bowl.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Uncle George.” Mariette regarded with affection the lined face beneath the old-fashioned tie-wig. Tucking a stray strand of raven hair behind her ear, she tasted her soup before asking, “What is the difficulty this time?”

“To tell the truth, it looks more like a pig,” the elderly gentleman confided. “I wish you will come and look after dinner. Your advice is always excellent.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Now do eat your soup before it grows cold. Cook has made a rabbit pie and you know how soggy the crust gets if it stands.”

“Rabbit pie? Excellent! Your cousin has been out with a gun, I suppose, since you prefer inanimate targets.”

As always, Mariette was taken by surprise by her unworldly, reclusive uncle’s occasional flashes of perspicacity. “Yes,” she said wryly, “but I shall enjoy the pie, which I daresay makes me a hypocrite, especially as I used to enjoy fishing.”

“I too, my dear. I never cared for shooting.” He broke off a piece of his roll and surreptitiously fed it to Ragamuffin, lurking under the table. “Where is Ralph?”

“He rode into Plymouth, to see his friends.” And to gamble, as she was all too aware. She didn’t think Uncle George knew, though, so she quickly changed the subject. “I have been rereading Hume’s
History of England
, Uncle, as you suggested. I do understand it better this time, but there are still parts which puzzle me.”

For the rest of the meal they discussed David Hume’s version of English history, with its strong bias in favour of the Scots. As Uncle George finished off a dish of bottled plums and custard, he fell silent, his thoughts doubtless returning to his badger.

Ragamuffin at their heels, they repaired to the front hall. A spacious chamber never distinguished by any particular architectural merit, it was now home to a veritable menagerie of animal sculptures. Pride of place was taken by a huge chunk of Dartmoor granite destined to become a lion. From one end emerged an unidentifiable muzzle and two ears, from the other a rump and the beginnings of a tail. Mariette patted one prospective flank as she passed, winding her way between the smaller sandstone sculptures. She left footprints in the gritty dust on the floor, for Mrs. Finney was long since resigned to the pointlessness of the maids’ efforts to clean around the creatures.

Mariette’s favourite was a diminutive fox. The red Devonshire sandstone was the perfect colour; the poor beast couldn’t help it if it had one leg shorter than the others, lacked a tail, and squinted. Ragamuffin, who seemed to consider it an insult to caninedom, growled at it as usual.

The badger was definitely porcine. “The legs are too long,” she said judicially, studying it under Uncle George’s anxious eye, “and it’s fat. Its face looks a bit squashed, I’m afraid.”

He gave a sad nod. “Too short in the nose. As I feared. I can reduce the legs and girth, but it’s impossible to lengthen the face without reducing the whole in proportion.” Standing back, he squinted at his handiwork and suddenly smiled. “Rather a handsome pig, don’t you think, my dear? After all, there is no reason I should not make a statue of a pig. A useful creature! Let me see, now.”

He picked up hammer and chisel. The chink of metal on metal followed Mariette to her favourite sitting room at the back of the house.

Ragamuffin slumped on the worn hearthrug. The fire’s flickering light brought a sheen to his thick coat, mahogany patched with white. Mariette kicked off her slippers and curled up on the shabby sofa with a Minerva Press novel, tucking her warm, dark-blue woollen skirts about her ankles.
Gentleman of the Road, or, The Lost Heir
made a change from Hume. Nonetheless she hoped Ralph would come home soon. Bell-Tor Manor kept country hours and the dark winter evenings dragged on endlessly. A game of draughts or backgammon would while away the time.

It was not long before she heard hurried footsteps in the passage from the back door. She looked up as her cousin burst into the room, neckcloth awry, hair tousled.

“You’ve missed dinner again,” she said, dispassionately surveying his dishevelment. “Did you dine in town?”

“No! Yes! What does it matter?” Ralph cried wildly. Tossing hat and gloves onto a chair, he flung himself into another, which creaked under the assault. He ignored Ragamuffin’s enthusiastic welcome. “You’ve got to help me, Mariette!”

“What is it this time?” She bit back a sigh as he covered his face with his hands. Ragamuffin, rebuffed, returned to the hearthrug and she reached down to scratch behind his floppy ears. “Have you lost the whole of your quarter’s allowance already?”

“Worse,” he groaned. “Where’s Uncle George?”

“Working on his badger. You’re safe, he’ll be busy all evening. So you can tell me...Oh, Ralph!” At last she noticed his bare finger. “Your ring? You’ve wagered your ring again?”

BOOK: The Tudor Signet
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