Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
“As to that, I’m the one ought to speak to Des,”
Duke interrupted. “Thing is—a bit of a pal of mine. I’ll tip him the clue. Not like Des to be so rag-mannered.”
I was surprised to hear Duke and Maitland were friends, for they were of such very different types. “I doubt we’ll see him again, since he’s been exposed, but really I hardly blame him for trying to recover his money. It is only natural.”
“The way he went about it is not natural, but very havy-cavy,”
Mr. Sutton insisted. “Why did he not write you a letter and explain himself?”
“That occurred to me, too,”
I said. Duke scratched his ear, but he had no excuse to offer on his friend’s behalf. “It is odd the way he went about his business, but he knows now the money is not at Elm Street. I don’t think he’ll bother us again.”
Mr. Sutton nodded thoughtfully. “Don’t let an unfortunate beginning put you off our city. London’s not really such a bad place, you know. And have there been any other troubles? The lawyer has discharged all his duties, I trust? Turned over Graham’s carriage and personal effects?”
“Not the carriage—though he gave me a letter telling me its location and directing the stable to turn it over to me when I want it. I am thinking of hiring job horses for the duration of our visit.’’
“Now there is one way I might be able to help you! Let me hire the team for you. A lady can’t go down to Tattersall’s. If you want to give me the solicitor’s letter, I’ll collect the carriage as well. You’ll need a place to stable the rig and horses.”
I smiled gratefully at his kindness. “We could use some help in such matters. I expect I’ll put the carriage up for sale when we leave.”
“It was a dandy landau Graham had. It won’t be any problem finding a buyer,”
Mr. Sutton said. “I expect you’ll want to dispose of other personal effects as well. I’ll tell you what, Miss Haley, why don’t you let me take charge of all that? You won’t want to have to sort through his shirts and boots—it would be too painful for you.”
“I was going to have Hotchkiss, our servant, do it, but you would have a better idea how to dispose of Graham’s things. I want to give it all to charity.”
“That’s what Graham would want.”
Duke leaned forward and intruded upon our talk again. “I didn’t hear any details about your house being torn apart, and about Des having the gall to let on he wanted to buy it. He is up to anything.”
“Why don’t you speak to Miss Esther, Duke?”
Sutton suggested in a patient way.
was supposed to ... That is ... By Jove, she’s a taking little thing, ain’t she?”
Mr. Sutton agreed. He shook his head and rolled his eyes ceilingward as Duke wobbled up and sauntered across the floor to make a bow to Esther.
“He is really the best of good fellows,”
he assured me. “A bit of a trial to his friends, but we all tolerate his idiosyncrasies. And he is extremely eligible, too.”
“But is he of sound character? Esther is a simple Bath miss. I don’t want her meeting just anyone.”
“Despite his being a friend of Maitland, Duke is unexceptionable,”
he assured me.
“And is Mr. Maitland less so?”
Mr. Sutton considered the question gravely. He was like Graham—he wouldn’t blacken a man’s character unjustly. When he spoke, his words were tempered. “I don’t think he is a gentleman Graham would want you to know. I don’t mean to imply he is a scoundrel, but he is a city buck, and young ladies from Bath might find him unmanageable.”
Esther had been casting covetous eyes on Mr. Sutton and didn’t waste any time in joining us. Duke got up and followed like a puppy at her heels. “Did you remember to ask Aunt Yootha about the key, Belle?”
“Mrs. Mailer, Esther!”
I reminded her. “No, not yet.”
I explained about the key in Graham’s parcel, and Mr. Sutton went to ask Yootha about it.
She came forward to have a look. “No, it’s not for my house. Graham had no reason to have a key, but try it anyway if you like.’’
Her saying he didn’t have a key was good enough for me. I was surprised when Mr. Sutton went and tried it in the lock. What did he mean by doing such a thing? It was almost a hint that Graham had gotten a key without permission. Esther and Duke went with him, and I did likewise. Of course the key didn’t fit Yootha’s lock—how could it? He unthinkingly slid the key into his own pocket when he was finished.
“I’ll take the key, Mr. Sutton,”
I said, and held out my hand for it.
“Oh, forgive me! I wasn’t thinking what I was about,”
he said, and gave it to me.
As we returned to the saloon, he explained why he had wanted to check the key. “The thing is, I had a key to Aunt Yootha’s house a few years ago and lost it. I thought Graham might have found it. It was similar to that brass key. I used to keep an eye on things here for my aunt while she was in Bath.”
In the saloon I noticed from the corner of my eye that Mama and Mr. Stone were engrossed in a discussion of Bath. Mr. Stone was a regular visitor there, to take the waters. Mama was playfully chastising him for his lack of familiarity with the cathedral.
“Next visit, you shall take me,”
he said, and she blushed like a blue cow. Mama, imagine!
“Your Mama is churchy, I see,”
Duke said to Esther.
“We are all churchy, sir,”
she informed him. “My father was a clergyman.”
“I went to church once,”
he said solemnly. “There were candles, and singing. It was monstrously moving.”
“But it did not move you to return, eh, Duke?”
“I daresay I’ll have another go at it. Bound to—marriage, funeral.”
Yootha served us a very fine dinner, and conversation was lively throughout. Despite the fact that Two Legs Thomson sat beside me, he didn’t find an occasion to mention buying my house, but he did flirt outrageously.
“Have you thought at all of replacing young Sutton in your affections, Miss Haley?”
he asked archly.
I bristled at his bad taste and said, “No.”
“There’s a deal of young prettiness going to waste, then.”
Across the table, I watched Duke watching Esther. He didn’t eat two bites, and the meal was very fine, too. If he could pass a few more meals in this abstaining fashion, it would do his figure a world of good. But Esther didn’t honor him with any flirtation. She was too busy batting her lashes at Eliot, and I think she received a little something in the way of encouragement, too, though he was properly attentive to me.
After dinner, the older members retired to a parlor for a few hands of cards, leaving the younger population alone. It was as good as a comedy to watch Esther try her burgeoning charms on Eliot and Duke try his more determined ones on her.
“My uncle Gerald is a bishop,”
he told her. “Perhaps he could give your papa a leg up the ecclesiastical ladder.”
“I don’t think so. My father is dead, Mr. Duke.”
“Ah, sorry about that. It ain’t a bishop he needs, then, but an angel. No angels in my family. By Jove,
could have a word with those in charge above, Miss Esther.”
A shot from my eyes stopped him like a bullet, and he sat rubbing his ear. Later there was more leaden-tongued eloquence from him, and before we left it was agreed that the gentlemen would call on us the next day.
“We cannot go out and leave Mama alone. We must either stay in, or all five of us go out together,”
Eliot incurred more favor by coming up with a clever solution. “Quite right, we cannot trust this pair of frisky puppies alone,”
he said, honoring me with a special smile. “We shall have your mama ride bobbin with them. Old-timers like you and me, on the other hand, Miss Haley, can be trusted to visit the Tower of London and St. Paul's without falling into vice. We shall take two carriages and all meet there for the tours.”
“But you must have seen those attractions a dozen times. It will be boring for you,”
I pointed out.
“I have not seen them with you,”
Duke looked much impressed with this piece of gallantry and tried to emulate it with Esther. “You and I have never seen them together either, Miss Esther,”
he said. “In fact, I’ve never seen them with Mrs. Haley either, though I must have seen them two dozen times with visiting aunts and cousins. I daresay the dome at St. Paul’s won’t look much different, and the old hippo at the Tower will look as much like Lord Liverpool as ever, but if you’ve a mind to see them, I’ll gladly pass up my afternoon at Jackson’s Parlor and take you and your mother to look at old buildings Instead.”
Esther considered this outing and found it better than staying at home. “Very well, but we cannot go till afternoon. You promised me a new gown, Belle,”
she reminded me. “We shall choose our materials in the morning.”
Then she turned her bewitching gaze on Mr. Sutton and asked, “What kind of gown would be proper for the theater, Mr. Sutton? We plan to attend the comedy at the Haymarket—would it be possible for us to go without a male escort?”
“My aunt can better advise you on gowns,”
Sutton told her, “and as to a male escort—why do you speak of going unescorted, when I have given your sister firm instructions I am to be her cicisbeo during her visit?”
Duke spoke up swiftly. “I mean yours, Miss Esther. Very happy to be of use to you. I shouldn’t mind seeing that tired old comedy again, I promise you. I have never seen it with you, in any case. About the gown,”
he added, his voice wafting off as he gazed at her, “blue. Sky blue, like your eyes.”
Esther primped her curls, waiting for the inevitable likening of them to gold, but the compliment didn’t come. “And bring a stout shawl,”
Duke said instead. “It’s colder than Hades at the Haymarket.”
“I should hope so!”
Mr. Sutton laughed.
Duke gave him a heavy frown and added, “Cold as ice is what it is. Miss Makepiece caught a chill when I took her there last week and blamed it on me.”
When conversation flagged, Mr. Sutton suggested a little music. I play only indifferently, but Esther plays not at all, so it was for me to tackle the piano while he accompanied me in a rich baritone and Duke tapped out a counterpoint with his toes. We sang “Tu Mi Chamas.”
I selected it as it was one I was familiar with. Graham had often sung it for us at Bath while I played. If I closed my eyes, I could be back there....
The music brought the oldsters in to join us. We performed a few more numbers, and it was time to go home. We had four offers of a drive from the four gentlemen. It was Mr. Stone who carried the day, much to my disappointment. But there was tomorrow to look forward to—a day filled with unusual pleasures. And when we entered our saloon there were enough embers that it was possible to build up the fire and warm milk for cocoa.
We discussed our evening and were all pleased with it. “What did you think of Mr. Stone?”
I asked Mama.
“Poor Mr. Stone, he is not at all well,”
she said, shaking her head and happily taking on his troubles. “The gout, you know. He drinks a little more wine than he should. I wonder if your papa would mind my playing cards for money. Dear me, and I fear I lost nearly a shilling, Belle. Mr. Stone is such a clever hand with cards.”
Esther and I outlined the afternoon we had arranged and discovered to our astonishment that Mama had made plans of her own. “Mr. Stone is taking me for a drive,”
she said, and giggled like a schoolgirl. “I thought you would be here to stay with Esther, Belle. I had no idea Mr. Sutton would ask you out.”
“Mr. Stone—that old soaker! I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with him if I were you. It’s no great matter. Esther and I will go together with Mr. Sutton and Mr. Duke.”
Esther was very happy with this arrangement. I was less happy, and quite unhappy that Mama was showing such signs of giddiness over Mr. Stone. I was sure she would ask Esther and Mr. Duke to join her, but she made no such offer,
“I begin to think it is you who need a chaperon, Mama!”
I said in jest.
“At my age? Why, Belle, you cannot think it is romance! We are only going for a drive, and Charles mentioned stopping off to visit his daughter.”
“Charles, is it?”
“He asked me to call him Charles, but I did not ask him to call me Bridget.”
“Who is this Charles Stone, anyway?”
I demanded. I heard echoes of Papa’s stern tone and noticed that Mama assumed the mousish look she had worn whenever Papa was angry. I regretted it as soon as I had spoken.
“He’s a very fine gentleman, Belle. He used to be an M.P. for some place in Wiltshire. Quite unexceptionable, and besides, I am only going for a drive with him.”
“Oh, Belle, you’re as bad as Papa!”
“Your papa was not bad!”
Mama said, and burst into tears.
That was the conclusion to our evening out. Such unusual social activity had left us all on edge. The tyrant relented and said more calmly that we must all be a little careful with London gentlemen.
“You weren’t so careful with Eliot Sutton,”
Esther reminded me.
“That’s different. He’s Graham’s cousin,”
We soon went up to our beds. Memories of the evening floated through my mind as I lay trying to sleep. I thought of the little brass key and wondered whose door it opened. It niggled at my mind, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying my memories. Mostly I thought of Eliot Sutton, who was so very much like Graham. Was it possible he and I ... But it was early yet for that.
We had just finished breakfast and were putting on pelisses and bonnets for our shopping spree when there was a knock at the front door. “Maybe it’s someone to see the house!”
I exclaimed, and rushed to admit the caller.
I stood blinking at Mr. Maitland, accompanied by Mr. Duke, and a very odd pair they made, the one so tall and gallant, the other so stumpy and rumpled.
“As you see, it’s me again, Miss Haley,”
Mr. Duke said, and stepped in uninvited.
“We are just going out,”
I objected. Mr. Maitland had enough manners to stay on the doorstep, but in the end I nodded him into the hall, as Mr. Duke was already in the saloon, babbling some inanity to Esther.