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Almost a Lady
By Jane Feather
Random HouseJane Feather
All right reserved.
The two women walking arm in arm down The Leas along the seafront in Folkestone drew admiring glances from those they passed. There was something striking about their physical differences, one tall and well formed, creamy skinned, dark haired, with large golden-brown eyes, the other small and slight, with the pale freckled complexion that so often went with red hair and lively green eyes.
Meg Barratt paused, slipping her arm out from her companion's, and turned to look across the waters of the Strait of Dover. She rested her folded arms on the wall and lifted her face to the salt spray. The breeze caught her hair, sending red curls flying around her triangular face. She laughed and put a hand to her fashionable straw bonnet.
"I can smell a storm brewing, Bella," she observed.
Her companion, who had stopped beside her, sniffed the wind. "It doesn't look like a storm. The sky's blue, the sea's blue, not a cloud in sight."
"Look over there." Meg pointed towards the horizon. A dark shadow of a bank of cloud was just visible.
The duchess of St. Jules shook her head with amusement. "You always did fancy yourself as a meteorological expert."
"It's my country breeding, lassie," Meg returned in a fair approximation of a broad Kentish accent. "And I can also tell when the tide's coming in."
"Even I can do that," her friend scoffed, peering down at the line of waves creeping up over the sand below the wall. "Besides, you have only to look at the harbor."
Meg glanced towards Folkestone harbor, where a flotilla of boats were at anchor. The air of urgency was clear even from this distance. Sailors and porters rushed hither and thither, leaping from ship to shore as the boats were readied for an on-tide departure. Some were private yachts, some small merchantmen, and out beyond the harbor bar sat two men-of-war, handsome frigates both of them.
Her eye was drawn to a sloop-of-war anchored just inside the harbor. The row of guns on her upper deck gleamed in the afternoon sun. Here too there was the impression of haste and preparation. A dinghy drew up alongside the sloop and a man stepped out of the boat and onto the rope ladder dangling down the ship's side. He went up with an agile speed and grace that Meg could only admire and swung himself over the deck rail in one movement. She watched as he climbed to the quarterdeck, a small figure in the distance but somehow, to Meg's imagination, a significant one.
She shrugged at the fancy and turned away from the wall, preparing to resume the walk. "Where's Jack this afternoon?"
"At dice with the Prince of Wales," her friend returned succinctly. "Prinny will lose his shirt, of course, but in a classic triumph of hope over experience he sits down at the tables with Jack absolutely convinced that this time his luck will change." She chuckled and linked arms with her friend as they continued their promenade. "I think I've had enough of Folkestone, what do you think, Meg?"
"I think it's time for me, at least, to return home for a while. My mother's letters begin to sound plaintive," Meg replied. "Poor soul, she tries so hard not to lament my lack of a husband, but she's really in despair. After all this time I've spent with you and Jack in London, and still not even a hint of a suitor." She shook her head in mock dismay. "I'm a lost cause, clearly."
Arabella shot her a sideways glance. "If you don't mind my saying so, Meg, it's not so much lack of a suitor, it's lack of the right kind," she declared. "You seem to be attracted only to the un-marrying kind."
Meg gave a heavy sigh, although her green eyes sparkled with mischief. "How right you are, my dear. For some reason I'm only drawn to bad men. They're the only ones who are any fun."
Arabella grinned. "I can't help but agree with you. Jack's not exactly the epitome of propriety and he wouldn't be so much fun if he were."
"The baby's had an effect on him, though," Meg observed thoughtfully. "Since little Charles was born he's become much more . . ." She sought for a word. "Not exactly respectable, he's too much of a gamester for that, but considered in his manner."
Arabella nodded, a slight smile on her lips at the thought of her husband and child. "Talking of Charles, I must get back. I asked the nursemaid to have him ready by four o'clock so that I could take him for an airing in the carriage."
Meg glanced again towards the horizon. The bank of cloud was closer and the sea beneath its shadow was dark gray and restless. "I don't think you'll go far with him this afternoon."
Arabella followed her gaze. "Perhaps you're right."
"You go on home. I want to go to the lending library. Mrs. Carson said she would put aside a copy of Mrs. Radcliff's The Italian for me, but she won't keep it for more than a day."
"Very well, you take the footman. It's only a step to the house from here, so I'll go home alone."
"No," Meg said firmly. "A duchess needs a proper escort. I, on the other hand, am quite accustomed to racketing around unaccompanied. Besides, the library's only just up the hill." She gestured towards a narrow lane leading up steeply from The Leas towards the High Street.
Arabella didn't argue with her. Her friend needed her solitude at times, and in this tiny seaside town no one would object to a woman past the age of discretion taking a walk unescorted. And even if they did, much Meg would care. "I'll see you later then."
She went off with a farewell wave and Meg turned up the cobbled lane, so narrow that the medieval houses on either side almost formed a roof as they leaned across it and towards each other, casting deep shadow over the damp and slimy cobbles that never felt the sun's warmth.
Out of the sun the mid-April afternoon had a chill to it, exacerbated by the strengthening wind that now and again whistled down the funnel of the alley. Meg drew her cashmere shawl closer around her and wished she had brought a pelisse. Her lavender cambric gown was the height of fashion but too flimsy to offer protection against the elements.
She broke into the sunshine again as the lane debouched onto the High Street. The wind was still fresh, though, and she was glad to reach the shelter of the lending library at the top of the street.
"Good afternoon, madam," the woman at the counter greeted her warmly. "I have Mrs. Radcliff's book for you." She reached down and placed a volume on the counter. "Two other ladies are waiting for it."
"I'll read it quickly," Meg promised, caressing the book with her fingertips. "If it's anything like The Mysteries of Udolpho, I won't be able to put it down."
"I think it's even better," the woman said, dropping her voice a little and glancing conspiratorially around the almost deserted library.
Meg nodded with a smile. "I'll just take a look around, Mrs. Carson, and see if anything else takes my fancy." She wandered off towards the shelves of books lining the rear wall of the library.
She picked out a copy of William Wordsworth's tragedy The Borderers and as usual became quickly engrossed. It was with a shock that she realized almost an hour had passed. She had no reason to feel guilty, but absurdly she did as she returned to the front of the library. "I didn't realize the time . . . I'll borrow this too, Mrs. Carson." She handed over a shilling.
"Best hurry home, Miss Barratt," the woman advised, wrapping the books in brown paper. "Looks quite dark out there now."
Meg glanced towards the bow window. The sun had vanished and it was now as dark as dusk. "There's a storm brewing." She tucked the books wrapped in brown paper under her arm and hurried into the street.
There were few people about now, and those there were moved quickly, heads down, as they tried to beat the approaching rain. Thunder rumbled. Meg picked up her skirts and walked fast towards the lane that would take her back down to The Leas. Once she reached there the Fortescus' hired house was barely two hundred yards along the seafront. Heavy drops of rain splashed onto the cobbles as she turned into the now dark alley. At least there would be some shelter beneath the overarching roofs of the houses. She looked down the lane and saw a carriage drawn up about halfway along. She frowned. The alley was so narrow there would barely be room for her to squeeze past on either side.
She paused to tuck the books more securely under her shawl just as another crack of thunder rolled across the sky and the rain began in earnest. It was so heavy it penetrated the lane; surprisingly cold and unsurprisingly wet, it soaked her hat in seconds. There were no sheltering doorways, the houses opened directly onto the street, and resigned to a drenching, Meg set off towards the faint glimmer of the sea at the far end. The rain rushed through the kennel in the middle of the cobbled lane heading down the steep slope for the sea below, and the cobbles themselves quickly became even more slimy with mud and floating refuse. Meg's sandaled foot slipped twice and she grabbed onto the doorframe of a house to regain her balance. The carriage below her still hadn't moved and she wondered what business could possibly cause such a large vehicle to enter such a narrow space. She couldn't see the horses, who were at the front facing the sea, but it would need at least four, and they would be impossible to maneuver.
She dismissed the puzzle with a brusque head shake and continued more carefully on her way, rain dripping down the back of her neck. Her skirts were soaked, the hem filthy with mud and slime, her sandals were ruined, her shawl bedraggled, her bonnet resembled a mound of wet straw.
As she approached the carriage the door swung open as if in invitation. Meg frowned and a flicker of apprehension made her heart beat faster. It was ridiculous, of course. There was nothing to be afraid of in this sleepy seaside town, but the open door was barring her from edging past the vehicle. She was still finding it difficult to keep her footing on the steep slippery cobbles and this merely increased her apprehension.
She approached cautiously, and called out, "Could you close the door please, I need to pass." There was no response. Irritation replaced apprehension. Maybe the rain had drowned out her voice but how could the occupants of the carriage not even think that someone might want to pass? And why the devil were they sitting there with the door open in the middle of a rainstorm?
She tried to pass the carriage on the other side, resting her hand on the back as she stepped cautiously around. Suddenly the vehicle lurched forward. Her foot slipped and she fell backwards into the rushing water of the kennel. For a split second she realized her danger . . . the water in its headlong flood was going to carry her beneath the carriage down to the sea. And then she realized nothing more.
She opened her eyes onto a strange and different world. A pitching, tossing world. She was lying flat on a cot that was more like a box than a bed, but when this world gave a particularly violent heave she saw the point of the wooden sides. It was dark and however hard she stared into the gloom she couldn't manage to make out anything that made any sense. Her head was muzzy and aching and her stomach felt somewhat uncertain. It seemed easiest simply to close her eyes again, so she did.
When next she awoke it was to a light-filled world of quiet rocking. A voice cackled, "Wake up . . . wake up."
Gingerly Meg turned her head sideways, aware of a tenderness somewhere at the back of her scalp. A large scarlet bird with very long tail feathers was sitting on a perch regarding her with remarkably bright beady eyes. "Wake up," it repeated and gave a cackle of laughter.
Meg wondered if she had died and this was some mad afterlife peopled by scarlet talking birds and an eternally rocking foundation. "Do be quiet," she said to the bird, who was still punctuating its repeated instruction with manic laughter. To her astonishment it fell silent.
Carefully she lifted her head and felt the soreness. There was a lump just behind her right ear. That was reassuring. Bumps belonged to the real world and were inevitable when one fell backwards onto hard cobbles. She'd been drenched and the water from the kennel had been about to carry her in full flood beneath the wheels of the carriage . . .
The accident had not damaged her memory at least. Every detail of those moments was as clear as daylight. But what had happened afterwards? She lifted the coverlet and peered along her body, clad, astonishingly enough, in an extremely elegant nightgown.
"G'day . . . g'day . . ." the bird ventured, tilting its head, the beady eye glinting as it watched her.
"Good day," Meg said, sitting up in the box. An array of windows showed a gently moving sunlit sea. So she was on a boat . . . not too difficult a conclusion. But how, not to mention why? She looked around at the compact paneled space. It was surprisingly comfortable, a carpet that looked to be Aubusson on the floor, cushioned benches beneath the windows, a table and two chairs in the center, securely bolted to the floor, doors that looked like cupboards set into the paneling. And one door that clearly led somewhere.
A light tap on that door made her heart jump. She swallowed but before she could say anything, the scarlet bird cawed, "Come in . . . come in."
The door opened and a man stepped inside, closing the door carefully behind him. The bird rose up on the perch and flapped its wings. Instantly Meg's visitor held out his arm and the bird swooped from its perch to the offered wrist like a falcon returning to his jesses.
Meg stared at him. "Who the devil are you?" she demanded.
Her visitor's slight smile was a gleaming white flash in a deeply tanned face. He leaned his shoulders against the door and regarded her with an amiable curiosity. "Oddly enough, I was about to ask you exactly the same question."
Excerpted from Almost a Lady by Jane Feather Excerpted by permission.
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