Read an Excerpt
THE AMERSHAM RUBIES (Chapter One)
County Mayo, Ireland, in the last years of the 19th Century.
“Liam’s got a message for you.” My youngest brother Malachy burst in through our cottage door, bringing with him a great gust of wind that sent ashes swirling in the grate and threatened to put out the peat fire.
“Not another. Who is it from this time?” I asked. “Not that awful Ted Shaughnessy again.” Several boys in the village had been pestering me to go to the midsummer’s eve dance with them, but they were all clod hopping louts, having never read a book in their lives and interested only in girls and beer. Every night I prayed that I’d find a way out of this place and wouldn’t end up married to one of them.
“Not Ted Shaughnessy,” Malachy looked back at the open door. “Tell her, Liam.”
The two older boys sauntered in, flinging their lunch pails down on the floor for me to pick up.
“From the big house,” Liam said. “From the mistress herself. She wants to see you.”
“Lady Hartley wants to see me? What about?”
Liam looked at me scornfully. “You don’t think the mistress of the manor discusses her business with the likes of me, do you? The butler told Mr. Murphy and Mr. Murphy told me when he handed me my pay packet.”
“Pay packets?” I had forgotten what day it was. I looked around and realized that someone was missing. “Where’s Da?” I asked.
“Off down the pub as fast as his legs could carry him, of course,” Liam said.
“Oh no. You didn’t try to stop him?”
“I don’t enjoy getting hit around the head myself,” Liam muttered.
I sighed. “You’d better all give me your pay packets right now since there won’t be much left of Father’s this week.” Since our mam had died he had taken to drinking. Lately he was more drunk than sober, and he took it out on us children, which was why I was eighteen years old and still stuck at home. I couldn’t leave until the boys were grown up and safely on their own.
My thoughts returned to more cheerful subjects. “So when does the mistress want to see me?”
“As soon as you can get there, I suppose,” Liam said.
“Supper is all ready in the pot.” I glanced at the open door. “I suppose I can trust you to serve yourselves and not set the place on fire if I go now.” I grabbed my shawl from the hook beside the door. “Tell Da where I am if he shows up.”
With that I ran out, standing for a moment on the doorstep and letting the breeze blow in my face. It was a lovely clear evening with the sun still setting over the ocean on the western horizon. At this time of year it didn’t go down until almost 10 p.m., so I had plenty of time to get to the big house and back before it became dark. It was a good mile’s walk and I didn’t relish it in the darkness.
I think I ran most of the way. Anyway I was quite out of breath and in a state of excitement by the time I went through those imposing gates and up the main driveway. What could the mistress want me for? She had hardly seen me for years, since I stopped taking lessons with Miss Vanessa and Miss Henrietta, although at one time I rather suspected that she was fond of me. Fond enough to invite me to share her girls’ schoolroom and governess anyway. Of course my mother’s death had put a stop to that when I was fourteen, and anyway Miss Vanessa and Miss Henrietta had been sent away to finishing school in Switzerland soon afterward. I had heard that Miss Henrietta was coming out this summer and there was to be a ball at the house. My pulse quickened—was it possible that Lady Hartley had remembered me and wanted me to come to the ball? Suddenly I felt like Cinderella. I stood and smoothed down my unruly hair, hesitating to go up the steps to the front door. But then the servants’ entrance wasn’t correct either, was it? I was neither servant nor tradesperson, even though my family did live in a peasant cottage and the menfolk worked on the estate. But hadn’t the mistress herself asked to see me? I took a deep breath, went up those steps, and yanked on the doorbell. The housemate’s face when she opened it was one of supercilious surprise.
“What do you think you’re doing ringing the doorbell as if you were somebody?” she demanded. “Don’t you think I’ve got enough to do with a house full of fine people and more arriving every moment? I thought you’d be Mr. Justin. He’s supposed to be arriving on the afternoon train.”
My pulse quickened again. Mr. Justin, the handsome older brother, was now an army officer and rarely came home. And I wasn’t going to be talked down to by any housemaid.
“Would you be good enough to tell the mistress that I’m here,” I said in my most superior voice. “She sent a message that she wanted to see me.” Then I watched and waited with satisfaction as she walked away. Soon there came the tap of light heels on the marble floor and the mistress appeared looking rather flustered.
“Oh, Molly,” she said. “Good of you to come so quickly. We are all at sixes and sevens at the moment with Henrietta’s ball tomorrow. I expect you’ve heard all about it. I was hoping my son would have arrived by now. Never mind. Come through for a moment.” And she ushered me through into the small reception room on the right. “I’ll come right the point,” she said. “I’ve a favor to ask. You’ve been properly educated with nice manners, so I thought that maybe I could call upon you—“
Hope surged within me. She was going to asked me to accompany someone to the ball!
“—to assist some of the ladies with their toilet before the ball. They won’t all bring their maids with them and our maids will be too busy. So I can count on you, can’t I, my dear?”
“Yes, of course,” I heard myself mumbling. So I was to be a servant after all.
“You’d better see if we’ve maids uniform that will fit you.” She started back toward the door. “And if we don’t, perhaps you have a black dress you can wear. No bright colors.”
As we came out to the hallway the front door opened and two young men came in, both resplendent in army uniform. I recognized Justin Hartley immediately. He had become even more handsome since I saw him last. I saw him eyeing me appraisingly and then recognition dawned. “Good God, is it not little Molly all grown up?”
The way he was looking at me made me blush.
“Molly is kindly going to assist the ladies before the ball tomorrow,” Mrs. Hartley said. “How are you, my darling? It’s been such a long time since we’ve seen you.”
Justin allowed her to kiss him on the cheek before turning to the young man who stood behind him. “Mother, may I present Roland Charters? Charters is a mess mate and a fine fellow of impeccable background, thus highly suitable to dance with your beloved daughters.”
I sensed the underlying sarcasm in his words. Had there been other young men who were not deemed suitable?
“Mr. Charters—or I presume it’s Lieutenant Charters—you are most welcome. I had mentioned to my son that we could use more suitable men, and he has kindly supplied us with one.”
“I suppose someone should show Charters his room so that we can get changed for dinner,” Justin said. “Come on, Chubby.”
“Here you go,” Charters said, and to my mortification he handed me his hat and gloves as if I were the housemaid.
“I’d best be getting home before it’s dark,” I said. “I’ll be here tomorrow then, Lady Hartley.” I deliberately put the hat and gloves on the hall table and went on my way before anyone could say anything.
“So did the mistress want to adopt you or marry you off to her son?” Liam asked as I walked in the cottage door.
“She wants me to help meet and greet the guests for the ball, show them to their rooms—that kind of thing,” I said breezily. “She said I had nice manners and knew how to behave which is more than I can say for some of us!”
Early next evening I appeared at the big house in my black dress. It was lucky that the black dress for my mother’s funeral had been made with plenty of room for growth, we Irish constantly expecting deaths to be around the corner. I wasn’t going to wear a maid’s uniform, that was for sure.
“Ah, Molly,” Lady Hartley greeted me. “Good. The dress looks quite suitable, but put up your hair, dear. It’s flying all over the place. And I’m going to ask you to assist Lady Amersham. Her maid will be too busy helping Lady Daphne, her daughter. She is one of the season’s premiere debutantes, you know. We are lucky to have snared her for our little function.”
I nodded and went to find Lady Amersham and was surprised to find a young woman, not much older than thirty, dressed in the height of fashion and smoking a cigarette in her room.
“You’re the maid?” She looked me up and down. “Good, you can press my gown. It became quite creased on the journey. Really Ireland is too far to travel for anything.”
I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t really a maid, but I swallowed back my pride and pressed the gown under her critical eye. I was interested to note that while her day dress was fashionable, the ball gown had the enormously puffy leg-of-mutton sleeves of a couple of years ago. I had always found them highly unflattering. She must have read my thoughts or seen my expression.
“No sense in my wearing a new gown, when I’m only a chaperon. I don’t want to outshine Daphne. Besides this fabric goes so well with the family rubies, and one is expected to wear them.”
I helped her into the dress, managed to arrange her great coil of dark hair to her satisfaction and then she opened the jewel case. A strand of perfectly matched, large red stones with one pigeon egg-sized stone in the middle lay on the red velvet.
“Be careful with them, girl,” she said, handing them to me. “They’ve been in the family for generations.”
“Is the metal white gold or platinum?” I asked as I fastened the clasp.
“None of your business, girl.” Her pleasant tone had changed in an instant. “Attend to your duties instead of chatting with your betters. And I hope you made sure that clasp is securely fastened.”
“Yes, my lady,” I muttered.
She nodded with satisfaction at what she saw in the mirror. “And I think I need my fur stole. These Irish places are always so drafty and I am so susceptible to drafts.”
“It’s a lovely warm evening,” I said, but I handed her the stole.
“And my embroidery,” she said. “I am not supposed to dance so I’ll need something to keep me occupied until the wee hours.”
She stuffed a piece of linen fabric and some threads into her bag. She looked to me like the last kind of person to do embroidery.
With a final glance at herself in the mirror she went to find her daughter. Lady Daphne was just emerging from her room. “Ah, there you are, stepmother,” she said. “What has kept you so long? I’ve been ready for ages.” She was dressed exquisitely but she was rather on the chubby side and had a pouty expression. “And you should have let me wear the rubies.”
“Highly unsuitable for an eighteen-year-old,” Lady Amersham said. “Besides they’ll be yours when you are twenty-one.”
I followed them downstairs at a discreet distance. The ballroom was ablaze with chandeliers—modern forms of lighting having not reached this remote corner of Ireland. The two women went in to be announced, and I lingered in the shadows of the doorway, not sure what I was supposed to do next.
“So Laura Amersham came after all,” I heard a woman whisper. It’s amazing how quickly she’s adapted to being a lady from a chorus girl.”
“Not exactly a chorus girl, my dear,” her companion said. “She was a leading lady—grant that much to her.”
“And Lord Amersham didn’t accompany them?” the first woman asked.
“He doesn’t approve of dancing.”
“I’m surprised he let her out alone. I gather he keeps a tight rein on her these days.”
“Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he?” They chuckled as they moved off.
Justin Hartley and Roland Charters were lingering by the door. They bowed as Lady Amersham and Daphne approached.
“Ah, Lady Amersham. How good to see you again,” Charters said. “I notice you’re wearing the family rubies. How delightful they look on you.”
“Mr Charters. I didn’t expect you to be here.” She sounded quite startled.
“Last-minute invitation. Our hostess needed more high-quality young men.” I noticed he was smirking as if he was rather pleased with himself, almost having a joke at her expense. Then he turned to Lady Daphne and bowed. “Might I have the honor of the first dance, your ladyship?”
Daphne blushed prettily and allowed herself to be led onto the floor. Lady Amersham glared then swept across the room to take a seat on the far side near the French windows.
When the dance was over Charters passed close to me to get to the punch bowl.
“Is that called softening up the fatted calf?” Justin Hartley appeared at his elbow.
Charters smiled. “With an emphasis on fatted.”
“Never mind, it’s dark in the bedroom, and it will put you conveniently close to Mama.”
“I don’t think the wind is blowing from that quarter any longer.” Charters glanced across the room and then they moved away.
The dance continued. It was indeed a lovely scene, with candlelight sparkling on jewels, satins, and swirling couples. I stood back in the shadows in case I was needed and pictured myself as one of them dancing with one of those handsome officers. As it was, nobody asked me to do anything; in fact it was as if I was invisible. I watched Lady Amersham with interest. She did not look as if she was enjoying herself. One minute she complained that she was too warm and demanded that the French doors be opened, and the next that she was too cold and put her fur wrap around her. I suspected she was used to not being the center of attention. She was certainly fidgeting all the time. After a while she picked up her embroidery.
Suddenly one of the dancers stumbled, lost her footing, and fell, knocking over a tall candelabra. It crashed to the floor amid screams, scattering candles and setting light to a skirt. For a moment there was chaos. The flames were quickly extinguished, the sobbing girl was helped to her feet, and all was returning to normal when another scream rang out.
“My rubies! My rubies are gone.”
Lady Amersham was standing with her hand at her throat and a look of absolute panic on her face. Sir Richard Hartley instantly took control. “Nobody move,” he exclaimed in a booming voice. “Don’t worry, dear Lady Amersham, the clasp must have come loose. We shall soon find them. Everyone help to search.”
“They were on my neck a few moments ago, I know they were.” Lady Amersham was hysterical now. “Someone must have stolen them. They could have run off with them through that open door.”
A thorough search was made but the rubies were not found. Sir Richard had no alternative than to summon the local police and to insist that nobody left the ballroom. The servants, then their rooms were searched, then guests’ bedrooms, then grudgingly the guests themselves.. Once again I was overlooked as I stood unnoticed beside a large potted palm. The thought crossed my mind that it was lucky for them I wasn’t the thief.
“There has been a band of tinkers lurking in the neighborhood,” one of the policemen said. “I wouldn’t put it past them to take their chances at an event like this.”
“Whoever did it certainly knew his stones,” one of the guests commented. “Out of a whole room full he picked the most valuable necklace.”
“Not necessarily,” Sir Richard said. “Lady Amersham was sitting next to the open French door. She may have been the easiest target.”
Lady Hartley looked around and spotted me. “Molly, take Lady Amersham back to her room she is quite distraught. Can we send up some brandy and hot milk, my dear?”
Lady Amersham was sobbing into her handkerchief. “My husband will never forgive me. What am I going to tell him?”
“I presume they were insured?” one of the men asked her.
“Of course. But what good does that do? They were priceless family heirlooms.”
“They may still turn up,” Lady Hartley said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “They could still be lurking in a flower pot or under a piece of furniture. So chin up.”
I escorted her up the stairs. She leaned on me as if she were very frail. As I started to undo the hooks at the back of her dress, I noticed a mark on her neck that hadn’t been there before. A dark mark almost like a bruise. Would she not have felt it if someone had savagely wrenched the necklace from her?
“Are you hurt, my lady? It looks like you have a bruise…”
“Careful with my dress, girl,” Lady Amersham snapped. “Leave it. I’ll take it off myself.”
Her shift in tone jolted me and suddenly I knew. I watched as she took off the dress very carefully.
I took a deep breath, weighing whether I should speak or not. But there was no way I could keep silent. “You took them yourself, didn’t you?” I blurted out. “That black embroidering thread—so useful for lying invisible on the floor until the right moment you jerked it to trip someone up.”
I was watching her face to see if I was getting it right. Her flash of alarm told me that I was. Emboldened, I continued.
“You weren’t really too cold. In fact I noticed you sweating. You put the wrap around you so that you could undo the clasp without being seen. And then under the wrap you slipped the necklace into a convenient pocket in a fold of that sleeve. I wondered why you wore such an unfashionable gown, when clearly you are a most fashionable woman.”
I went to examine the sleeve and she pushed me away roughly. “Foolish girl. What nonsense you talk. I’ll have you fired.”
To her surprise I smiled. “I’m not a servant. I was helping out of the goodness of my heart. And when I tell them what I know…”
“Nobody would ever believe you.”
“Ah, I think they would,” I said. “Especially because the rubies aren’t real. They are cheap copies, aren’t they? And the base metal has left a mark on your neck where you were sweating. I noticed in the ballroom that your stones weren’t sparkling like some of the ladies’.”
She was eyeing me with a look of half terror, half ferocity. “You must think you’re rather smart,” she said, “but who would believe a peasant girl’s word against mine.”
“Peasant versus actress,” I said not taking my eyes from her. “I wonder which one would be more credible. The Hartleys have known me all my life. I shared a schoolroom with their daughters.”
“All right,” she snapped. “What do you want? Don’t tell me you’re trying to blackmail me too?”
“Oh so that was it,” I said, as I put the last pieces of the puzzle together. “He was blackmailing you.”
“Why did you have to be so damned sharp?” she snapped. Then she sank back like a deflated balloon. “You’re right. Despicable man. We had a brief affair when I was alone in London last year. Amusing, nothing more. But my husband is horribly jealous and terribly self-righteous too. He’d never forgive such an indiscretion. Never.”
She took out her handkerchief and held it to her mouth.
“So Mr. Charters decided to make the most of your indiscretion, did he? He threatened to tell your husband. You pawned the rubies to pay him off?”
She nodded. “I hoped to find the money to retrieve them, but I couldn’t. So I decided the easiest thing was to make it seem that they had been stolen. I never liked them anyway, ugly old-fashioned things.”
There was a silence.
“So what are you going to do,” she asked. “Are you going to tell them the truth? Are you going to betray me—to ruin my life for one little slip?” She stared down at her hands.
“Wait here,” I said. “I’d like to help. Let me see what I can do.”
I went downstairs again. It was now after midnight and a buffet supper was being served in the dining room. I spotted Roland Charters, now being awfully chummy with Henrietta Hartley. Daphne had obviously been discarded in favor of a more attractive model. Maybe richer too. I stood waiting in the shadows, biding my time. At last Henrietta was lured away by her sister and Roland stepped outside to have a smoke. I followed him, took a deep breath to pluck up courage then came up to stand right behind him.
“I know what happened to the rubies,” I muttered into his ear, “and I think you do too.”
He spun around as if burned. “What the devil are you talking about? Are you trying to say that I stole the confounded rubies?”
“No. The rubies were never here. They were pawned to pay a blackmailer.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” he said. “Or what business it is of yours.”
“I’m a friend of the Hartley family,” I said, “and I would hate for Henrietta to make a bad choice of husband. If you do not give Lady Amersham her money back, I plan to go to Sir Richard and tell him how you got Lady Amersham drunk and then took advantage of her. If you try to pursue Daphne, I should go to Lord Amersham instead. Of course Lady Amersham will corroborate this story. I doubt that many fathers would want to entrust their darling daughters to you after that.”
He was looking down at me, eyes blazing. “Who the devil are you?” he asked, and I knew that he was beaten.
“Someone who believes in justice,” I said, and walked away, headed back upstairs to tell Lady Amersham that all would be resolved. It wasn’t until I was crossing the ballroom that I permitted myself a smile. I had used my wits and achieved something extraordinary. I had made aristocrats listen to me—to fear me even. My future didn’t have to be in a cottage in Ballykillin. I was going to teach those brothers of mine to stand on their own feet and then I’d be off—to where the world was awaiting me.
THE AMERSHAM RUBIES Copyright © 2011 by Rhys Bowen