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Authors: Maggie MacKeever

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Lady in the Stray

BOOK: Lady in the Stray
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LADY IN THE STRAW

 

Maggie MacKeever

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Marmaduke’s treasure! Just fancy!” said Charlot. “It is yours now, Vashti—I wonder what it is!”

The lady at whom this enthusiasm was directed blinked her big amber-colored eyes, then turned to observe her younger brother with an expression of faint surprise. “We do not know that there is a treasure,” she responded vaguely as she studied him. Short jacket of greenish-gray material with knee breeches to match, white shirt, cotton stockings and shoes of black calf—nothing essential had been forgot. Nor, judging from the various lumps and bulges that protruded from Charlot’s young person, had any members of his menagerie been left behind. “You look neat, if a trifle shabby,” she sighed. “One glance and our cousin’s solicitor will know we are poor as church mice.”

Charlot had scant interest in matters sartorial, as was right and proper in a young gentleman ten years of age. “You are a chucklehead!” he said severely to his sister, over the chatter of the lovebirds in the battered cage he clutched to his thin chest. “You told me Papa was used to say our Cousin Marmaduke had a treasure—yes, and that Papa wished to have it for himself. Look sharp about you, Vashti, do!”

If Vashti did not look precisely sharp about her, she did avoid tripping over Mohammed, Charlot’s serene Afghan hound, who had sat down smack in front of her. “But Papa was very vague about what Cousin Marmaduke’s treasure might
be!”
she apologized. “If I could only remember—but it was very long ago. Indeed, it was very long ago that Papa mentioned anything to me at all—
not
that I mean to suggest he is an unkindly man, because he could hardly be expected to speak to us, when we are
here
and he is imprisoned in France.” She bit her luscious lower lip. “Or
was!”

Charlot wriggled, owing to a sudden flare-up of animosity between two members of his menagerie— specifically an amiable white rat and a garden snake. “Don’t fall into the mopes, Vashti! Perhaps in London we may find someone who has had word of Papa.”

Vashti glanced doubtfully along the busy street, drew closer to her brother. “Perhaps.”

“Pudding-heart!” Young Charlot took firmer grip on his shabby valise and the battered birdcage. “Although anyone would be a trifle cravenly, had Aunt Adder been ringing peals over
them
for years! Why are you in the mopes, sis? She can’t rip up at you now.”

Vashti did not like to explain that this expedition to London had not been her decision, nor that during the long journey she had suffered grave doubts. “I find it hard to believe in my good fortune. Pray do not regard it!” she apologized.

“Poppycock!” said Charlot. “You told me yourself that you were never more pleased with anything in all your life than when Cousin Marmaduke turned up his toes.”

Looking very guilty, Vashti sought firmer purchase on her own burdens, which included a well-used portmanteau and a perforated box. “Never more pleased—  I’m sure I never said any such thing.”

“Oh, yes, you did!” responded Charlot. “You even thought we should take the money the solicitor sent us and return to France, only it wasn’t enough!”

“Yes, but—oh, dear!” A fine example she set her impressionable young brother. Vashti wished to sink.

Having reduced his sister to embarrassed silence, Charlot was free to study his surroundings. He was fascinated by London, the tall houses and tenements, the busy shops; the raucous bustle of carts and carriages, street-sellers and ballad singers. Especially Charlot was fascinated by the rich aromas that constantly assaulted his nostrils—tarts and baked potatoes and kidney pies. “Don’t fall into the dismals, sis! We may yet contrive to return to France. A through ticket from the City costs four pounds, thirteen shillings, and sea passage even less.”

Vashti, who had been attempting to match her brother’s energetic pace, now paused to draw breath. Immediately she had done so she regretted her action, for she realized they had attracted no little attention from passers-by. Vashti supposed she and Charlot did make a queer spectacle, carrying all their worldly possessions, and a great many nonhuman companions besides. “Charlot!” she murmured, nudging that young man. “People are staring at us.”

“Let ‘em!” Charlot indifferently replied, resting the battered birdcase on Mohammed’s back. “You let what other people may think bother you too much— like Aunt Adder! She never fretted me half so much as you. Don’t dare tell me again how good it was of Aunt Adder to give us shelter when we arrived in that fishing boat from France! Aunt Adder wasn’t the least bit generous. Didn’t you tell me she turned Valérie out into the street?”

Vashti did not care to speak of Valérie. “You were but an infant when we came to this country, Charlot, and I was scarce sixteen. If not for our aunt, things might have gone very ill with us. I wonder why Cousin Marmaduke left his estate to me. I don’t believe I ever met the man.”

“Aunt Adder said he did it just to spite her,” Charlot cheerfully observed.

“Yea; but Aunt Adder
would
say that, because she made it her practice to think the worst.” Hearing the note of censure in her voice, Vashti winced. “I know you will not agree, Charlot, but I still think I should not accept our cousin’s bequest.”

Charlot retrieved his birdcage from Mohammed’s back. “Clunch!” he said.

Vashti was aware her brother believed she hadn’t a ha’porth of spirit; it was an opinion that he often aired. “I know you think I am a chucklehead, and perhaps you are right—but it still doesn’t seem proper to accept a legacy from someone I never met.”

Charlot snorted. “Does it seem righter that Aunt Adder should treat you like a serving-wench?”

Vashti glimpsed her reflection in a shop window. Shabby brown pelisse, gloves that had been carefully mended, a bonnet of willow chip that was far from new—she
looked
like a serving-wench. “Aunt Adder said Cousin Marmaduke was a spendthrift and a scapegrace.”

Charlot meantime had taken firmer grip on his birdcage, which dangled at a perilous angle, to the vociferous dismay of its occupants; and was squinting down the length of Fleet Street in hope of espying the entrance to Chancery Lane. “What Aunt Adder said was that Cousin Marmaduke was queer in the attic, but that was because he left you Mountjoy House.” Before his sister could comment, Charlot accosted a pedestrian and inquired the whereabouts of Lincoln’s Inn.

A short time later, Charlot and Vashti stood before a charming brick gateway. Beyond that gateway awaited Marmaduke Mountjoy’s solicitor and an overdue explanation of their cousin’s bizarre bequest. Whistling, Charlot bounded forward through the pretty brick gate. Vashti took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, upon which rested her misgivings, returned tenfold.

Lincoln’s Inn consisted of three rows of large and uniform buildings that formed three sides of a square. In the center of this open space a Corinthian column supported a handsome sundial embellished with four naked boys. Water spouted out of triton shells. It was a scene so appealing as to prompt the Afghan hound to closer inspection and the subsequent bestowal of his canine approval upon the column, thereby earning the censure of several passing barristers, dignified in black gowns and gray wigs. Before acrimonies could develop, Vashti grasped Mohammed’s collar—in the process very nearly dropping her box and portmanteau—and stammered an apology. The barristers proved most amenable to apologies uttered by slender young women of medium height with delicately classical features and amber eyes and honey-colored curls. They also proved very gallant. Embarrassed, Vashti hurried after Charlot into the spacious gardens located on the north side of the square.

Here were gravel walks and rich grass plots and rows of fine trees. Here was also the late Marmaduke’s solicitor, standing on the long terrace walk that had been elevated to command a fine prospect of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He was a pleasant-looking gentleman of eight-and-twenty, whose perplexed expression was enhanced by the spectacles through which he peered at Charlot. Unabashed, Charlot matched the solicitor stare for stare.

Feeling more than a little foolish, Vashti cleared her throat. “Mr. Heath?”

“Er? Ah!” The solicitor started and flushed. “That is, yes! Am I correct in assuming that I address Mademoiselle Beaufils?” Vashti nodded mutely, and he frowned. “Forgive me, mademoiselle, but you are not what I had been led to expect.”

“I’m not?” Vashti was sorry she had disappointed this earnest gentleman. Then she wondered who had spoken of her to Mr. Heath. Her cousin Marmaduke? But they had never met. “I am forgetting my manners. This is my brother, Charlot, Mr. Heath.”

Brother, was it? The solicitor supposed he must give Mademoiselle Beaufils credit for trying to wrap clean linen around her disgrace. She did not
look
like a lady of equivocal character, but Lionel had it on his late client’s authority that Vashti Beaufils was—if such a thing could be said of a female—a shocking loose-screw. Among the less exceptionable compliments Marmaduke had paid his heiress were “a regular dash” and “a thorough romp, full of frisk.”

Mademoiselle Beaufils did not appear, at this moment, especially frisky; if anything, she looked as if she suspected her cousin’s solicitor was not altogether in possession of his faculties. “Perhaps we would be more comfortable in my chambers,” Lionel offered belatedly. He wondered how far this strange young woman had walked, carrying her battered portmanteau and her perforated box.

Perforated box? Lionel eyed that item warily. As if its occupant were aware of the solicitor’s disapproval, an irate yowl issued from within. “It’s only Calliope,” explained Charlot, looking curiously around the chambers Lionel shared with two barristers, both currently exercising their right to plead in open court. “She doesn’t enjoy travel. Please, sir, won’t you tell us about Cousin Marmaduke?”

Lionel watched Vashti sink, with a little sigh of relief, into a chair. “Marmaduke Mountjoy was a ne’er-do-well,” he said flatly. “Ordinarily I wouldn’t be so plainspoken about a client, but you must already know your cousin’s character, Mademoiselle Beaufils.”

Vashti glanced away from the window, through which the pretty gardens could be glimpsed. “I must?” She recalled her Aunt Adder’s caustic comments on the subject. “I suppose I must. Why
are
you staring at me, sir?”

Once more Lionel flushed, and hastily averted his gaze to the hound, Mohammed, currently stretched out across his feet. Mohammed returned the interest, large pink tongue lolling out. Though the solicitor would have liked to remove himself from such close proximity to so very large a dog, he did not think he dared. “Forgive my rudeness, Mademoiselle Beaufils, but you look so young.” He eyed Mohammed’s sharp white teeth.

“I do?” Vashti was under the impression that the tribulations of the past ten years had left her looking every year of the six-and-twenty that she was.

Charlot had been too long seen and not heard. “Thank you, sir! Do you think you might tell us more about our cousin’s legacy? We do not wish to appear impatient, but it is a matter of no little importance to us, because we haven’t a feather to fly with! There must be some money attached to the estate, else you wouldn’t have advanced us the funds to make the journey, I think. It’s
my
opinion living in London would suit us to a cow’s thumb, but my sister has taken it into her head that we must return to Paris and search for our father, now that there is peace between England and France.”

Lionel stared at Charlot. “But it was ten years ago that the Comte Defontaine was imprisoned.” Was that a
rat
poking its head out of the boy’s pocket? The solicitor dared so inquire, and thus learned that the rodent’s name was Bacchus. Also disposed around Charlot’s person were Python the garden snake, Greensleeves the frog, and a turtle so newly acquired as to be unnamed. “By your father you
do
refer to the Comte Defontaine?” Lionel continued, when these introductions had been made.

Charlot looked puzzled. “Who else?”

Who else, indeed? Lionel considered it no part of his duties to speculate upon the possible paternity of a precocious come-by-chance. “I do not know that I would advise such a journey. I am not alone in thinking the peace will not last. The terms are infamous, as you must know: France keeps all she gained and is to be repossessed of all she lost. This entire business is a source of great annoyance to every reasonable person in the United Kingdom. More to the point, your cousin was a trifle extravagant. After the various claims against the estate were settled, little remains but the house. You look bewildered, mademoiselle. Yet you know what your cousin was.”

Again that odd insistence that she possessed some insight into the late Marmaduke’s character—which had been lamentable, by all accounts. At some later time, Vashti thought, she must discover what prompted the solicitor’s pointed remarks. “Do you mean that there is no money, sir?”

Cautiously, in concession to Mohammed’s proximity, Lionel shifted in his chair. “I do not mean that, precisely.  You could realize a fair amount of capital from the sale of the house, certainly enough to enable you to return to France.”

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