Patricia Veryan - [Sanguinet Saga 05] - Nanette

BOOK: Patricia Veryan - [Sanguinet Saga 05] - Nanette
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PROLOGUE

The April morning had been sunny, but towards afternoon a
light mist crept in from the Channel to ooze stealthily along Dover's
cobbled and bustling streets. An inquisitive mist this, for its damp
intrusion missed no carriage, cottage, mansion, shop, nor place of
business; invading each with silent but stubborn persistence as though
determined to pry into every nook and cranny of the ancient town.
Coming at length to that venerable inn called "The Ship," it seeped
through open casements and unlatched doors, curled about the tap, and
slyly insinuated itself into the coffee room. Not until it reached two
adjoining chambers on the upper floor was it held at bay by windows
tightly closed, curtains drawn despite the early hour, inner doors snug
and bolted, and a brightly burning fire upon each hearth. In vain did
the mist writhe, twist, and contort itself; it was at last obliged to
acknowledge defeat and swirl sulkily upon its thwarted way. And how
furious would this pervasive vapour have been (had it indeed possessed
reason and curiosity), to learn that of all the many secrets harboured
in old Dover town on that spring afternoon, one of the most intriguing
was unfolding in the very rooms to which it had been unable to gain
access.

The first of these, a private parlour, was occupied by a tall
gentleman of middle age and grim aspect. The cut of his coat and the
set of his shoulders hinted at the military, and the restlessness of
his manner hinted at extreme anxiety. He stood with hands clasped
behind rather broad hips, his thinning brown hair rumpled by reason of
having been clutched in desperation several times during the past
half-hour. His pale blue eyes held a frown, and turned constantly to
the closed door of the adjoining bedchamber. Increasingly exasperated,
he began to pace up and down, and by one o'clock his pacing resembled
that of a healthy Siberian tiger chafing against imprisonment. Drawing
forth his timepiece, he consulted it, groaned aloud, and glanced once
more to the closed connecting door, his lips pursing in frustration.
Animadverting to the chuckling flames upon the unfailing inability of
all females (however ravishingly lovely they may be) to be prompt, he
voiced his suspicion that his ladies were doubtless happily engaged in
idle gossip, then resumed his pacing.

A gallant and intrepid gentleman was Major James Stroud, but
in this instance, his vexation was unwarranted. In the adjoining room
the ladies in question were in fact disrobing with almost feverish
haste. The elder of the pair, a neat woman with soft brown hair and
kindly grey eyes, was very obviously an abigail. That she enjoyed the
familiarity with her charge that only long service can bestow was as
obvious, for ignoring a flood of adjurations that she attend to
herself, she continued to unbutton the fine lawn bodice of her young
mistress's petticoat, while wailing softly that it "would never do…
never

do!"

The recipient of this dismal verdict was a vibrantly lovely
brunette. She was small of stature, standing not above five feet in her
stockings, but having a generously curved figure that forbade her being
classed as 'petite'. In a husky little voice that betrayed a barely
contained agitation, she now exploded, "Have done! Oh, have
done
,
Lindsay! Your petticoat—off with it!
Vite
! One
glimpse of Brussels lace beneath your round gown and I am betrayed. Ah!
Thank heaven we are much of a size!" She shrugged her way into the
sensible cotton (and lace-less) petticoat, emerging with curls sadly
awry and the discovery that she and her abigail were less of a size
than she had fancied. "Supposing," she amended, peering ruefully at her
somewhat flattened bosom, "only that I do not breathe too deeply!"

Lindsay came to slip her blue round gown over the dark head,
then knelt to fit her brogues onto the girl's smaller feet. "Oh,
dear
Miss Nanette…" she said distractedly, "
must
we?
What the
ton
will say I scarely dare to think!
And—your
papa . .
! Oh, ma'am! I dassn't… I just
dassn't!"

Paling, Miss Nanette checked, then reached forward to caress
the woman's sallow cheek and say wistfully, "But—you would not have him
take me back . . ?"

Lindsay gulped, pressed clasped hands to her lips, and blinked
tears away. "As God be my judge… I
know
it's
against all law and reason! Your dear sweet name must be sullied!
You'll ruin yourself, my dearie… But—oh, I
must
help you!"

She was swooped upon, kissed, and thanked profusely; then
Nanette stood and, stepping up and down experimentally in the
strange-feeling shoes, said, "You will not forget, dear Lindsay? Keep
the hood well forward until Major Stroud has you safely into the cabin
on the packet. When you reach Calais he will at once take you to the
home of his cousin. There, you will change clothes and be sent to stay
with his cousin's old nurse until I call for you."

Lindsay said nothing, and discerning a glittering droplet on
the averted cheek, Nanette gathered her close and murmured emotionally,
"Never weep, my faithful one. We shall be together again— very soon."

"Oh, miss," sobbed Lindsay, clinging to her. "But—suppose…
just
suppose
he catches us! Major Stroud is such
a… fine gentleman! He would be as good as dead! And—what your papa
would do to me . . ! While, as for
you
— Oh, my
poor little lamb!"

Nanette's hazel eyes lost their fond glow and acquired a
defiant flash. "He shall not catch you!" she asserted fiercely, "for
you will have quite disappeared. Major Stroud will rejoin his regiment.
And—me…" She did not finish but, turning to the mirror, began to take
down her hair. The distraught Lindsay was urged to hasten "for time it
is of the essence. I must board the Accommodation Coach at two o'clock
if I am to reach the convent and my dear Sister Maria Evangeline before
dark."

Moaning her dismay that her adored and highly born charge must
submit to the horrors of such crude transportation, Lindsay stepped
gingerly into a rich travelling gown of beige linen, fastened high to
the throat with brown velvet frogged buttons. A matching silk-lined
brown velvet pelisse was placed around her shoulders and the hood drawn
closely about her face. For a few seconds, awed by such finery, she
scanned the stranger in the mirror. Then, catching sight of her
companion, she gave a yelp of shock. Miss Nanette had vanished: in her
place stood a girl who bore every appearance of a halfwit. The
luxuriant tresses had been twisted into a tight and untidy knot atop a
head that had exchanged its proud uptilt for a forlorn droop. The
erectly carried shoulders sagged, and as she watched in astonishment,
the hazel eyes, usually so full of fire or laughter, slowly crossed,
the firm little chin lolled stupidly, and a lacklustre voice with a
decided country accent asked, "Does ye think as how me friends would
know me now, ma'am?"

"Good… gracious . . !" gasped Lindsay. "I wouldn't have known
you myself—me that's cared for you since you was in the schoolroom! Oh,
miss! We just might do it! We really
might
escape
him! All of us!"

But wrapping Miss Nanette in her own neat cloak, she thought
prayerfully, "May God help us if we don't!"

Chapter I

Sir Harry Redmond's London residence was not so much situated
on Hill Street as hidden there. It was a tall, thin house, and the
landlord having indignantly denied his tenant's blithe request that the
trim be painted red ("'to perk up the old shed a trifle"), its
black-and-white facade remained, and was so discreet as to render it
even less noticeable. Despite this anonymity, however, and the puny
dimensions that were dwarfed by such great edifices as Hilby House,
several doors distant, it was comfortable and adequate for the present
needs of its occupant.

Having survived to the age of seven and twenty without
becoming leg shackled, Sir Harry was also blessed by the accolade of
'Corinthian'. He was a notable whip, a bruising rider to hounds, was
said to have once knocked Gentleman Jackson off his pins— although he
never bragged of that achievement if it was truth—and was generally
acknowledged to be a jolly fine sportsman. He did not demand a surfeit
of elegance in his surroundings, a fact that proved no deterrent to his
many friends. Nor was Anderson, his major domo and former batman,
dismayed by the litter of riding crops and thongs, spurs, newspapers,
periodicals, and old copies of the Racing Calendar that were wont to
clutter the lounge. Only when Joseph, the butler at Sir Harry's country
seat, came into Town did Sergeant Anderson become implacable. On these
rare occasions his master was obliged to refrain from allowing his
friends to mar the tables with their spurs or contribute their debris
to his own, and the house took on an awesomely tidy lustre that
prevailed until Mr. Joseph took himself and his supercilious nose back
to Hampshire.

The kitchen was located in the basement of the house and was
another kettle of fish entirely, and it was to this spotless domain
that Sergeant Anderson made his way shortly after eight o'clock one
rainy May evening. The Sergeant was a husky man in his early forties.
He enjoyed robust good health, but had been so unfortunate as to lose
his right leg below the knee at the Battle of Talavera, and it was not
easy for him to negotiate the winding iron staircase. He appeared
neither disgruntled nor downcast by this circumstance, however. His
eyes were bright and he whistled cheerily as he thumped down the steps
anticipating his evening cup of tea with the housekeeper—an event which
had, over the past year, become the highlight of his day.

Mrs. Thomas heard both thump and whistle approaching. She
smiled a knowing smile at the gleaming tea kettle, adjusted the lace
cap upon dark hair that showed only a few streaks of silver, and cast a
swift and critical glance around the room. Surely, had they been aware,
the objects she scanned must have trembled before that keen scrutiny,
but with little cause. For the pots and pans hanging in a neat row
above the stove winked and sparkled in the glow of the candles; the
tiles had a mellow gloss; plates, cups, and saucers shone upon their
shelves; and everywhere was order and neatness. Mrs. Thomas gave a nod
of satisfaction, and added boiling water to teapot. The Sergeant was
early tonight, just as she'd hoped he would be. It was her custom to
have both cook and housemaid ousted by nine o'clock; but tonight,
knowing Sir Harry would not dine at home, she had made her plans
accordingly, and the balance of the evening would not be disturbed by
Mrs. Ford's gloomy prognostications of the Doomsday she felt imminent,
or the housemaid's tittering laugh that never failed to bring an
harassed look to Anderson's strong countenance.

"Come in, Sergeant," she called, turning to smile at him as he
beamed his way through the door.

He thanked her, pulled out her chair, then sat down himself,
saying politely that he hoped he did not inconvience her by arriving at
so early an hour, and delightedly aware that the tea tray was ready and
the pretty woman prepared for just so early a visit. Mrs. Thomas's
colour was heightened a little as she poured him a cup of tea and
handed it across the table. She assured him that it was no slightest
inconvenience and, setting sugar and milk where he might help himself,
observed that it was a terrible night for a wedding. "Not that anything
could mar the joy of Lord St. Clair and his lovely bride, I've no
doubt," she went on, preparing a cup for herself. "And didn't Sir Harry
look dashing? You must be so proud of him, Sergeant, for he does you
credit. Such a handsome young man. I find it hard to believe when
people tell me his brother is the best looking of the pair, and more
closely resembles his late papa."

The smile died from the Sergeant's loyal brown eyes. Had
anyone else addressed so unfortunate a remark to him, he'd have set
them down proper. His plans for Mrs. Thomas, however, did he ever
muster sufficient courage to mention them, did not include a set-down.
Therefore, he merely muttered that Sir Colin Redmond had been an
exceptionally well-favoured gentleman, God rest his soul, and prepared
to direct the conversation toward music, and thence, hopefully, to the
concert in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, Robert Burns
once again proved all wise and, together with countless other mice and
men, Sergeant Anderson's best-laid plans 'ganged aglie'. His brow
darkened as the front door bell began to ring stridently, and excusing
himself, he left the cozy kitchen and began to toil reluctantly
upstairs again.

Swinging the front door open to the accompaniment of a barrage
of pounding, his resentment was increased as he beheld the tall,
drenched young man who stood on the doorstep, a valise at his feet, and
the overcoat he should have worn instead wrapped around an armload of
heavy volumes. "Mr. Mitchell…" said the Sergeant hollowly. "We thought
you wasn't coming."

"Oh, no. Did you?" smiled Mitchell Redmond. "Wouldn't miss St.
Clair's wedding for the world. Is my brother from home?"

Anderson nodded. "Gone to the wedding, sir."

"What—another? Egad! Regular epidemic."

"Same one," Anderson said woodenly, making no move to admit
the dripping figure before him. "St. George's s'arternoon. Reception at
the Earl's house on Bond Street s'evening."

Redmond blinked through the streams that trickled from his
bare head. "But—St. Clair's to be shackled on the
fifteenth
."

"Today," Anderson imparted, the barest trace of scorn touching
his voice, "
is
the fifteenth." He peered towards
the flagway as a distant and impatient bellow apprised him of the fact
the jarvey had not been reimbursed.

"Oh, blast!" Redmond slipped past the guardian of the door.
"Be a good fellow and pay him, would you?" This request encountering
only a bleak stare, he shrugged and added an apologetic, "Cannot seem
to find my purse."

BOOK: Patricia Veryan - [Sanguinet Saga 05] - Nanette
3.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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