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Authors: Laura Matthews

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The Lady Next Door

BOOK: The Lady Next Door
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THE LADY NEXT DOOR

 

Laura Matthews

 

Chapter One

 

Fortunately there was no one in the kitchen at the time. The scullery maid had swept the ashes from the bread oven, deposited the loaves within, and hurried off to the larder to set out the eggs for Mrs. Crouch’s planned custard. Mrs. Crouch herself had left for the fishmonger’s some time previously, so the room was still, save for the sizzling sound of the roasting pork fat dripping into the pan, and the dull mechanical thump of the turnspit. Near the fire hung the great kettle on an idleback, and suspended from the kitchen rafters were a large ham, the bread car, bunches of herbs, and several cheeses.

In her hurry to insert the loaves, Molly had set Mr. Geddes’s breakfast tray on the hearth and subsequently forgotten it. There had not been a moment’s peace the whole of the morning, what with Mr. Oldham scheduled to move into his lodgings that day, and she had failed to noticed the strange sack which Mr. Geddes had absentmindedly left beside the empty mug. It took no more than one stray spark landing on it to cause the ensuing explosion.

The windows onto the kitchen garden were blown out and brass and copper pans hurtled about the room. Acrid smoke overwhelmed the normal pleasant aromas of baking bread and hanging cheeses, and the scullery maid, fearful of yet further damage, huddled behind the stone basin until she heard her name called.

“Molly! Are you all right? What happened?”

Timidly the maid presented herself at the doorway into the kitchen, surveying the damage with a wary eye. “I don’t know, ma’am. I just put the loaves in the oven and went into the larder for a moment when— BOOM!—the whole place seemed to shake and there was breaking glass and clattering pans. I didn’t do nothing different than usual.”

“You suffered no harm?” asked the young woman, her natural alarm beginning to abate somewhat.

“No, ma’am. Naught but the fright. Think you it will happen again?”

Her employer cast a puzzled glance about the shambles of the kitchen The pork loin rested greasily on the stone floor in a spreading pool of water from the kettle. The bread oven seemed to have suffered no harm, but the hearth itself had chipped and cracked in numerous places, and the remains of the breakfast tray were almost unrecognizable. A faint glimmer of understanding lightened Miss Findlay’s face. “Mr. Geddes’s tray?”

“Yes, ma’am. Beth brought it down and gave it me, but I had to put the bread in. I meant to tidy it away soon as I set the eggs out for Mrs. Crouch.”

“Of course. Molly, will you run up and beg Mr. Geddes to spare me a moment of his time—here in the kitchen?”

But it was unnecessary to do so. Even as Miss Findlay made the request, the door from the hall had pushed precipitately open and a young man entered, his wig askew and his brocaded waistcoat yet unbuttoned. “My pouch of gunpowder,” he mumbled unhappily. “Left it on the tray. Is anyone hurt?”

“Luckily, no, Mr. Geddes, but only by the grace of God.”

“I’m frightfully sorry, Miss Findlay. I’ve been experimenting with dipping waxed string in the very smallest amounts, you see. Catches flame ever so much more quickly that way.”

“I dare say,” she replied dryly, and might have had a great deal more to say on the subject had not the door opened once again to admit a short, elderly lady who peered nearsightedly into the wrecked room. “Don’t alarm yourself, Aunt Effie! There has been an accident, but no one has suffered any harm, if we may discount poor Molly’s nerves, which I am not at all sure we can. Will you take her into the parlor and pour her a glass of wine?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” the girl protested stoutly. “Long as I know it won’t happen again, I’ll just start to clear the mess before Mrs. Crouch gets back.”

Miss Findlay said only, “I am sure Mr. Geddes will wish to compensate you for your unnerving experience, Molly,” before she took hold of her aunt’s arm and gently ushered her out the door.

Left behind, the young man frantically dug in his pockets, one after the other until he at length extracted a crown which he pressed in the astonished girl’s hand. “Very sorry, miss. Won’t happen again, I promise you. Careless of me. Usually I keep it quite away from any flame. The pouch, that is.” He backed uncertainly toward the door and made her a formal bow before disappearing from sight. Once on the other side of the green baize door, he wiped his forehead with a spotless handkerchief which he proceeded to tuck distractedly up the sleeve of his shirt. He listened for the sound of voices, and discerned that Miss Findlay and Miss Effington were in their drawing room at the front of the house. His hesitant tap was promptly answered and he apologetically presented himself in the sparsely furnished room.

“I realize our arrangement was that I could lodge here so long as I caused no damage with my experiments, Miss Findlay. The thing is, if you consider the matter in a certain light, I didn’t actually cause any damage with my experiments. I left a pouch of gunpowder on my tray—which I never meant to!—and only by the most unlucky chance was it not found before it— ah—exploded. I shall pay for all the damages!” He regarded her beseechingly. “It’s so terribly difficult for me to find a place where I can work. Won’t you let me stay?”

“Gunpowder?” Miss Effington asked sharply, turning to her niece. “Marianne, I cannot believe it at all safe to have gunpowder about the house.”

Mr. Geddes found and applied his handkerchief. “If I were to promise not to further my experiments with gunpowder, would you permit me to stay? There are any number of other things I’m working on, none of which is the least bit dangerous.”

His earnest countenance, so at odds with his untidy appearance, caused Miss Findlay to reconsider the verdict she had mentally established. “I won’t be able to keep any of the servants if you put another scare such as this in them, Mr. Geddes. True, it was not entirely your fault, but I shudder to think what the consequences might have been if Molly had been in the kitchen..

“I know.” The young man’s face paled. “Never would I have forgiven myself if I had caused anyone harm. If you say I may stay, I promise not to keep even the least bit of gunpowder about, nor anything else that could prove injurious.”

“Very well, Mr. Geddes.” Miss Findlay sighed. “Since dinner is bound to be late, I would request that you go around to Mr. Hobart yourself and ask him to come to reglaze the windows. I have a new lodger arriving and I cannot myself leave just now.”

A grateful smile broke the gloom of his youthful countenance and he pumped her hand with enthusiasm. “Thank you, ma’am. Your faith in me is not misplaced! I’ll bring Mr. Hobart, and I’ll fix the clockwork for the turnspit, too, as soon as I return.”

“The turnspit is quite ingenious, Mr. Geddes. My cook is rapidly spreading its fame, and I don’t doubt you will one day have a whole slew of houses desiring them.”

“I have my eye on a little workshop off Blossom Street where they could be made.”

“I don’t suppose it has living quarters,” she said wistfully.

“No.” He laughed as he released her hand. “You will give me a list of the damages?”

“Certainly.” She watched ruefully as he left, his wig still askew and his waistcoat unbuttoned, but obviously unaware of his condition, as she heard the front door thump home behind him. “I’d best give Molly a hand in the kitchen, Aunt Effie, if you are settled now. Mr. Oldham said he would arrive around noon with his belongings. I’ve sent Beth out for a bootjack for his room. Can I get you anything?”

“No, my dear. It was extremely kindhearted of you to allow Mr. Geddes to stay, Marianne, but I think it most unwise.”

“Oh, he’ll be more careful in the future, I think. He’s a pleasant, serious young man, if a bit absentminded. I feel rather aged when he calls me ‘ma’am,’ though.”

Miss Effington surveyed the glorious auburn hair, the lively hazel eyes, the delicately molded features, and the trim figure her niece presented, and said with a snort, “For six and twenty you do very well, Marianne. Don’t let me keep you. If you will just hand me my spectacles, I’ll have this finished by the time Mr. Oldham arrives.”

Because she was too vain to wear her spectacles when anyone but her niece was nearby, Miss Effington was forever misplacing them, and such a request as she now made, rather than a simple chore, was often the labor of a profound search. Marianne had taken to noting where her aunt most frequently deposited these invaluable items, and when that failed on any given occasion, she produced the alternate pair she had long since found it expedient to keep in her own bedchamber. It was not necessary on the present occasion to resort to the spare, as she found the spectacles negligently resting in a potted palm near the drawing room door where her aunt had relegated them in her hurry to the kitchen. "I won’t be but a short while, Aunt Effie. If there is too much to do, I’ll send around to Mrs. Whixley to see if she can spare Sadie for an hour or so."

Indulgently deciding that of course of all days, Mr. Geddes would have to leave his gunpowder on his tray when they were expecting Mr. Oldham, a very proper gentleman who maintained a respectable practice in York as an attorney. Only recently had Marianne completed the restoration of the other half of the first floor where he would lodge in the four rooms which were directly opposite to, and the exact match of, those occupied by Mr. Geddes. Sitting room, dressing room, bedroom, and dining saloon were more than adequate accommodation, Mr. Oldham had assured her, as he carefully inspected the old furniture (newly refinished), the floral coverlet (embroidered by Aunt Effie), the new sash windows (to replace those which rattled and let in an intolerable amount of cold wind), and the fireplaces (freshly swept and checked for draw). If he noticed the wainscoting was scarred in several places, or that the rug was somewhat worn, he did not say so. Nor had he objected to the handsome price Marianne unblushingly asked for the rooms. If one had to be a landlady, one might as well do it properly.

Marianne had almost reached the door to the kitchen, when there was an imperative summons from the front of the house. No respectful tap on the brass knocker, this, but a determined, angry drumming, much as though the visitor intended to work his way through the hapless oak portal. All the servants were busy on various errands in preparation for the new lodger’s arrival, and Marianne herself retraced her footsteps with some annoyance at the persistent pounding. It would not be Mr. Oldham; he was far too genteel to engage in such sport.

Without the least hesitation, Marianne drew open the door to find before her a man of perhaps her own age, his brow furrowed with extreme displeasure, and his lips pressed tightly together. The hand which wielded the door knocker so vigorously, also sported a variety of rings just visible for the elegant fall of lace at his wrists. He wore a red velvet coat which flared out over matching breeches, and his waistcoat sparkled in the sunlight with its gold embroidery. Rows of gold buttons danced before her eyes, on the length of the coat, the cuffs, and waistcoat, on the knee breeches, and echoed in the gold buckles on his shoes, and in the gold fob he wore. That he came directly from the hands of his friseur was evident in the tight curl of his powdered wig and in the heated flush of his cheeks from the hot curling irons. Though Marianne had never before met him face-to-face, she knew precisely who he was.

“In what way may I help you, Sir Reginald?” she asked pleasantly.

“I wish to speak with the owner of his house—immediately,” he rapped out impatiently.

“You are.”

With sharp eyes he surveyed disparagingly from the top of her flaming hair to the satin shoes, unfortunately spattered with grease, which poked out from under her simple gown with its embroidered muslin apron. “Do you realize, madam, that an explosion in. your house has blown out full half a dozen windows in mine?”

“Did it? I’m so sorry. I shall, of course, have the damage repaired. Mr. Hobart, the glazier, has been sent for. If you wish, I will have him attend to you first.”

Her apologetic smile and casual acceptance of the situation merely exasperated him. “Perhaps you fail to realize that Barrett House is but newly constructed. I have only this week taken residence. It is no small matter to have my windows blown out from under me!”

“I could hardly have failed to notice your new house a-building, sir.” Marianne replied dryly. “For no less than six months there has been a continual racket of men at their work—hammering, sawing, cursing—and no little damage caused to my own house and garden in the process. I shall have your windows taken care of directly. Now, if you will excuse me. . ."

“What assurance have I that such a disaster will not take place again?” he asked with insulting condescension.

“I should think it highly unlikely, sir. A pouch of gunpowder was accidentally left on a breakfast tray, and caught a spark from the fire.” When his contemptuous expression did not soften, Marianne suggested sweetly, “You might, of course, sheath your house in gold buttons, which would doubtless render it impervious to gunpowder explosion. Good-day, sir.”

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