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Authors: Joan Smith

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Strange Capers

BOOK: Strange Capers
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STRANGE CAPERS
Joan Smith

 

About the Author
Publishing Information

We that are true lovers run into strange capers.
—William Shakespeare
As You Like It, Act II, Scene 4

Chapter 1

Rachel, Lady Savage, was a scoundrel and a thief. In deference to her social position she was called a “clever, managing woman,” but this was sheer euphemism. She was the most larcenous lady who ever made her curtsies at St. James’s. She even stole her husband from another lady, but did it before he got to the altar with his first love so that her marauding tactic was not indictable.

Once shackled to John Savage, she blackmailed some highly placed friends into obtaining a knighthood for him, and, much more important, the right to call herself Lady Savage. The house in which she resides on the southeast coast of England was wangled out of her cousin, Lord Aiglon, by a wicked piece of subterfuge. When Sir John died of weariness from trotting to keep up with his lady ten years ago, Rachel went in tears to Lord Aiglon and threw herself on his bosom.

I wasn’t acquainted with Rachel at the time, but I’d be willing to wager that she went in rags and tatters and billeted herself on him in London till he finally turned Thornbury over to be rid of her. As to myself, she stole me from my home in Kent. Sir John was Mama’s brother.

When I tell you I am the eldest of four girls and two boys, you will realize she met with little opposition to her scheme. I was initially invited to visit her at Thornbury for one summer, the invitation dropping hints of the superior company I would meet, the salubrious sea breezes, the change of scene, but not a single word to indicate that Thornbury was a decaying shambles of a place with too few servants and a great deal of work to be done.

I never escaped from Rachel. My return home was put off so many times that at last it ceased to be spoken of at all, and I became a part of the little Thornbury household. Fortunately, I rub along with Rachel and like her despite those foibles that have alienated so many of her family.

The scheme that occupied her dishonest mind in the summer I write of was the accumulation of sufficient funds to have a holiday in London. This was to occur the following spring, and the excuse for it was to present her niece, Isabel Godwin, to society. Isabel’s mama, Rachel’s own sister, was I can only assume a deal less capable than Rachel in managing her affairs.

“Aiglon, I am sure, will be happy to let us use his London residence as a pied-à-terre for one Season,” Rachel said firmly. “It is the least he can do for his cousin. God knows he has done little enough else. This shabby place,” she said, casting a disparaging eye around her saloon, “is scarcely fit to live in. I shall write and tell Riddell we need a carpet for the front stairs.”

Riddell was in charge of minor business affairs for Lord Aiglon, and was vigorously courted by Lady Savage though she had never actually met the man. “I shall ask how his mama goes on. She has the gout, you remember he mentioned in his last letter.”

“Flu, Rachel,” I reminded her. “It was the flu Mrs. Riddell had.”

“I believe you’re right. How very clever you are, to be sure. Then we shall put the blue carpet from the spare guest room on the stairs. Willard can cut it into strips and tack it in place. The guest room is useless in any case, with the canopies rotted into decay and removed.”

I glanced to the saloon curtains
(n
é
e
bed canopy) and noticed they were not far from moldering. I had not thought it worth the effort last year to make them from the guestroom canopy, but at the time I was unaware that she had gotten fifty guineas from Riddell for new ones. Rachel has
some
conscience. She would generally move old furniture or hangings out when she took money to purchase new ones. Other than the dovecote, for which she got a hundred pounds and supplied absolutely nothing, she usually had something she could show her unwitting patron if ever he should chance to visit her.

“If Lord Aiglon ever drops in on us, Rachel, we are undone. Revealed as the criminals we—
you are
.”

At this Rachel’s nose pulled down into her chin. This tactic strengthens my hope that she has some vestige of a conscience. Rachel’s nose is not really overlarge, but it seems to be placed rather lower on her face than other people’s noses, and slides lower yet when she feels guilty or displeased. Her eyes are brown and wide-spaced. The combination of these features gives her face an equine cast, though I do not mean to say that she is downright ugly. Merely she is not pretty. She has nice brown hair that is honey colored when the sun shines on it. She is tall, thin, and extremely elegant. There is no expensive flamboyance to her wardrobe, but the few outfits she does possess are unexceptionable—of good quality and materials and fine workmanship. Rachel is the sort of woman who “found an excellent little French modiste” who conjures up gowns at low cost.

“There is no fear of Aiglon’s coming,” she replied. “He has never once been here in the decade since I took over the running of Thornbury for him. He is a sorry fellow, what they call in London a Corinthian. A pity to think he inherited all the Aiglon estates, but the family does not believe in splintering. It is quite understood, however, that the head of the family looks after those less fortunate. Like me,” she added, lest her meaning had escaped me.

“No, I shouldn’t think he’d be able to leave London if he wanted to. Now that he is with the Foreign Office, he would be busy. Especially at this time,” I added.

The reason “this time” was particularly demanding had to do with the fear of Bonaparte’s invasion. We were more aware of it than most, situated as we were on the east coast where he would be most likely to land, though the whole of England was readying its defenses. One assumed the Foreign Office would be in a state of hysteria, and thus Bonaparte’s possible invasion saved us at least from Lord Aiglon’s equally fearsome invasion of his own estate.

“I shall just dash my note off to Riddell about the stair carpet, Constance, and then you and I shall trot it into the village. Ask Willard to lift the guest-room carpet and give it a sound beating before he installs it on the stairway. The bit that is under the bed must go at the bottom, where it will show. The rest of the staircase is so dark it would be a waste to put new carpeting there,” she rationalized. Perhaps such managing skills deserved a reward, but I
did
feel guilty for her.

Rachel trotted off to the study and I went in search of our factotum, Willard. I found him polishing the little crystal pendants that decorate a pair of wall lamps in the front hall. Willard was about seventy years old, frightfully stooped at the shoulders, but a willing slave to Rachel, whom he adored. No one, he told me, cared that Thornbury was falling into ruin—till Rachel came. Apparently Willard deemed such renovations as switching mildewed curtains from one room to another to be high style. One could only wonder what the place was like before she arrived.

“Oh, aye,” he said, nodding his head. “That’ll be grand, a carpet on the front staircase. We’ll be the talk of the neighborhood. I’ll just give the rug a bit of a beating, slice her up, and lay her down. It’ll be done in no time.”

In fact, it would involve a few days’ work and a deal of hammering and pounding, but Willard always disavowed the difficulty of his efforts like the good slave he was.

I left the front hall and went up the uncarpeted stairs to my room to make ready for the jaunt into Folkestone. Dover was just as close, but the prices were a little higher there, so we had fallen into the habit of considering Folkestone “our” town.

Living in rural isolation, with our closest neighbor a mile away, we make much of a trip to town. Any excuse is good enough, and we usually find at least two a week, sometimes more. But no matter how often we go, we prepare a careful toilette. I brushed my dark brown curls from my forehead, vainly admiring their red highlights that glinted in the sun. Any lady in the land could rhyme off her “best feature,” and I would not hesitate a moment to call my chestnut hair mine.

I don’t actively dislike my eyes either: hazel in color, of decent size and reasonably lashed. For the rest, I wish I could hang a veil below my eyes and hide my nose and mouth like a Muslim woman. But then the veil would protrude rather far. In other words, my nose is not small. It is a well-shaped nose and would look unexceptionable on a gentleman. I can’t decide whether it is an added misfortune or a benefit that I have a mouth and jaw large enough to balance it. Mickey Dougherty, the local flirt, tells me I am handsome. As no one has ever told me I am beautiful, or even pretty, I cherish his description.

I set a bonnet, carefully chosen to reveal as much as possible of my best feature, on my head, tilted it over my eye, and put on my dark green pelisse. I was quite satisfied with my outfit till I reached the landing and looked at Rachel. I always looked unkempt beside her. She was such an authoritarian, she had every hair on her head under complete control. It sat like silk, smooth and shiny, and her navy pelisse was similarly perfect. Her gloves, which I know for a fact are three years old, looked brand-new. She was fingering one of the little crystal pendants Willard had been polishing.

“Pretty little thing,” she said with that light in her eyes that denotes a scheme. What she hoped to do with the pendants was beyond me.

We went out the front door, where the gig awaited our pleasure. Willard couldn’t be in two places at once, so when he was busy at home, we found the weather to be of a kind that lured us into the gig. A fairly stiff ocean breeze made it necessary for me to hold on to my bonnet and pelisse, but Rachel’s behaved themselves perfectly while she handled the ribbons in the same manner.

It was lively on the coast that spring. Martello towers had sprung up, and guards patrolled back and forth. There was a regiment of soldiers in barracks performing maneuvers, and in towns and villages the militia, too, was practicing. Many a telescope was trained on the Channel, looking to see if Napoleon was crossing in his flat-bottomed boats. It was considered more likely, of course, that he’d come by night, and for that purpose furze stacks were placed at mile intervals, ready to be lit in case of invasion. They were the signal to chime the church bells in a prescribed and menacing way that would alert the citizens to danger.

All this military activity in no way interfered with the usual fishing, coastal shipping, or even pleasure-boating. I noticed Mickey Dougherty’s lugger was out. Here on the coast the swift and maneuverable three-masted luggers are highly suspect. They are commonly used for smuggling.

Rachel took a sharp look at Mickey’s boat, and her lips pulled down in dismay.

“Post the note to Aiglon for me, Constance, if you don’t mind. I’ll nip in to see Madame Bieler while I’m in town,” Rachel said.

“You think Mickey’s brought in some new silks?” I asked blandly.

It was generally understood, though never actually said, that Madame’s inexplicable supply of silks came from France via Mickey’s lugger.

“Very likely, but it’s a wee bottle of brandy for Willard I have in mind. He’ll be tuckered out after installing the new carpet on the stairs. Willard earns his keep. You might check to see if there’s anything for us at the post office as well.”

When we went to Folkestone, we did not visit the tourist area of town known as the Leas. This area stretches along the clifftop for over a mile and offers an excellent view of the sea and a purplish-blue haze that we called France. Of more interest to shoppers is the old fishing town that extends down to the harbor and contains, among other things, Madame Bieler’s shop.

I left Rachel and went to the post office, where a delightful surprise awaited me. I had received a letter from home. Rachel had three letters, one bearing Aiglon’s crest. I judged from its light weight that no folding money or bank draft was enclosed. I assumed it was from Riddell and that he was refusing some past request. This was all to the good. Rachel requested many items that she knew would be denied, but after several refusals Riddell usually acceded to some demand.

With the letters in my reticule, I strolled along the main street looking in shop windows and enjoying the bustle of activity till I came to Madame Bieler’s discreet sign. I learned from Madame’s assistant that Lady Savage was not there. She had been in and had already left. I glanced up and down the street looking for her, and was surprised to see her coming out of an old used-book shop. Rachel is not a great reader of anything but social columns and fashion magazines, yet she had a parcel in hand, and it wasn’t the wee bottle for Willard. That would be in her reticule.

Just as I caught her eye and began crossing the street, Mickey Dougherty came strolling along toward her. Mickey was a handsome addition to the town. It hasn’t many young bachelors to offer, and none who looked as fine as Mickey. He’s a strapping six-footer with blue-black hair and a pair of laughing blue eyes that have ruined more than one woman. With no honest job and no money of his own, he manages to keep up an excellent appearance and drives the finest horses in the county. The fact that this disreputable gentleman has a foothold in society is due to his mother, Lady Ware. She used to be the plain Mrs. Dougherty from Ireland, but when her husband died she married an aging baron, Lord Ware, and moved herself and her son into his estate west of town.

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