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Deirdre Gower sat at the window, staring with glazed eyes at the frozen landscape beyond. She looked frozen herself as she sat, immobile. Her sullen gray eyes mirrored the gray skies glowering down on the meadow, where tufts of yellowed grass pushed through the remains of snow. Where had all the snow gone? There had been a foot of it last week, and no thaw or sun to evaporate it. She was struck with the fancy that Belami had taken the sun away with him.
Belami. A wan smile tugged at her lips, completing the picture of dejection. With her black hair bound in a bun and her pale face silhouetted against the wall, Deirdre looked like a delicate cameo. But inside that still facade, a storm of passion brewed.
Tall, dark, dashing, intelligent, impatient Lord Belami. It seemed a miracle she had won the affection of the most dashing bachelor in all of England, but somehow she had. And now she had lost him forever. One could hardly blame him for leaving. She had promised to marry him right away. Was it her fault that Aunt Charney had developed pneumonia? You couldn't desert a sick aunt who had raised you as her own daughter. And Dick had wanted to run off to Italy for the honeymoon besides. She would have married him if he'd agreed to remain at Fernvale till Aunt Charney recovered.
The temperature in the room hovered in the high fifties, but Deirdre's cheeks were warm at the memory of their parting. "A honeymoon in this house?" he had asked, as though she were an imbecile to suggest it. "I'd rather honeymoon in Hades! Charney would have her nose at the keyhole--providing she ever condescended to leave us alone at all."
"Dick, I can't desert her. You must seethat."
"It's only a head cold. You have dozens of relatives who could stay with her. My own mother would be happy to do it. You've put the wedding off three times already. You promised me, Deirdre. This is it. It's now--or never."
The memory of those black eyes burning into her still turned Deirdre to crystal. She felt as if she would shatter at a touch when Dick mounted his high horse and turned imperious. She should have agreed, but she knew that if he were in front of her now, making his impossible demand, she'd say no again. She'd done the right thing, but it was hard to know that while she paid for her rectitude in the frozen loneliness of Fernvale, Dick was in London celebrating his freedom with a string of flirtations.
Abovestairs in her canopied bed, the dowager duchess of Charney hollered for another blanket. She was feeling remarkably better after a month's respite from that noble guttersnipe, Lord Belami. Her chest no longer felt as though Saint Paul's were resting on it. She secretly rose from her bed every day now and walked around her room for half an hour to strengthen her legs.
The major deterrent to her recovery was concern for her niece, who came like a ghost to the room each afternoon to read in a sepulchral voice. Outside of herself, the one person in the world for whom the duchess harbored a feeling softer than hatred was her niece. Deirdre had toed the line nicely in the matter of Belami, and she must be rewarded, before she went off her looks entirely and dwindled to a spinster.
She noticed Deirdre always read books about Italy, where she and Belami had planned to jaunt off on their honeymoon. It sounded like a place of some interest. The warm temperature would heal her lungs, the accommodations were not at all expensive, and wine--her own weakness--must be virtually free. There would, of course, be a bunch of foreigners speaking some incomprehensible mumbo jumbo but one need have nothing to do with the local riffraff.
Best of all, Belami would not be there. One heard quite shocking stories of his carrying on in London. To take Deirdre to London for the spring season would be hell for the girl.
The duchess regularly enlivened her dull days by creating little schemes and mysteries. On this occasion, she decided to make the travel arrangements in secret. Many letters were sent off to a travel agent in London and replies received. "I am corresponding with an expert on pneumonia," she told her niece, who believed it. The girl hadn't the gumption to steam open the letters and see what was really going on. Obviously it would be a crime to hand such an innocent over to a rake like Belami.
Not till the day of departure was near did the duchess rise up from her deathbed like Lazarus and announce, "I have decided to take you to Italy, Deirdre. We shall be leaving on Monday. Pray tell Haskins to pack up our trunks."
The secrecy was worth it. The girl nearly swallowed her tongue in shock. It was better than a raree-show to see her stare and stammer. If a tear moistened the old lady's eyes when Deirdre pitched herself into her arms, it was blinked away too swiftly to be detected. How Fernvale rang with merry laughter then. Especially belowstairs, where the servants felt they had been released from Newgate.
"Well, is it to be Covent Garden or Lady Fiona's ball or the Addisons' rout?" Pronto Pilgrim asked his companion as they sat together in Belami's elegant saloon. "And don't say all three, Dick, for I'm worn to a shadow trotting so hard. Take a look at this jacket," he demanded, and pulled his black jacket out in front of him. It was true his ungainly stomach had shrunk an inch. He was now only stout, not fat. He straightened his narrow shoulders and puffed.
It bothered Pronto to see his friend so deranged. "We're going to have the time of our lives," the poor old sprout had promised when they went pelting off to London after the wedding was called off--again. Looked like they meant it this time. A month had passed since Deirdre jilted him.
But if Dick called running around to every party in town a good time, Pronto did not. One party a night was what he called a good time. Meet up with a couple of the bucks, find a nice quiet corner where the hostess didn't plague you to stand up with all the ugly leftover girls, have a few hands of cards and a couple of wets.
"None of them," Dick answered.
"Eh?" Pronto demanded, and leaped like a gaffed fish. "Does that mean you've got a case?" he asked hopefully.
Dick was a famous hand for solving other people's mysteries, with a little help from Pronto. Murder, robbery, blackmail--all in a day's work to the team of Pilgrim and Belami, gentlemen investigators. Pronto went on staring and deducing. A case wouldn't leave Dick's face hanging so lax. No, sir, when he had a case in hand, he was like a squirrel, scurrying around for clues to deduce from. Or like a dog chasing his tail.
"Dreamer! Don't I wish I had a case," Belami said. "No, I've done some deep thinking, and I've decided I'm a jackass."
Pronto made a puffing noise of disagreement. "Only natural. Bowled for a duck three times hand running. Must feel a bit like a discarded boot, I daresay, but not a jackass."
"Yes, I am," Belami insisted. "In a short while Charney will bring Deirdre to London again. I meant to be engaged when they arrived, and get married within a week. I'm still letting that curst woman lead me."
"Charney could lead devils in hell."
"I meant the other curst woman. Why should I marry to spite Deirdre Gower?"
"Marry?" Pronto asked. "You haven't given yourself time to say 'Good day,' let alone 'Will you marry me?' We're in and out of all the parties like a pair of darts."
"I wanted to see all the women," Belami explained. "I wanted to be engaged to the most beautiful woman in town, but the fact is, I don't want to get married at all."
"Wise choice," Pronto said, and raised the bottle of wine. "Does that mean we get to stay home?" he asked hopefully.
Belami lifted his head and smiled. There was a peculiar charm in Belami's smile. One mobile brow lifted in an arch and his dark eyes flashed. Demmed handsome rascal when all was said and done, Pronto thought. A regular Adonis, with that tall build and the best-cut jackets in London.
He was curst with a broken nose himself. His frame stood five feet, six inches in height, slightly less in width. Nice hair though, he modestly allowed. A deep chestnut brown, luxuriantly waved.
"Stay home? No, my friend. It means we go to Italy as I had planned all along. I had the itinerary arranged for Deirdre and myself. Why should I abandon the trip?"
Pronto nodded pensively. "I'd been looking forward to it. Not that you invited me," he mentioned, but between them, it was pretty well acknowledged that he'd tag along. "Italy, eh? Daresay the place is overrun with Italians and Roman ruins. Other than that, I haven't a word to say against it. At least there won't be any snow. Réal won't care for that," he warned. "Always talking about the snow mountains in Canada."
"Réal will love it. As long as there are extremes of one sort or another for him to ignore, my groom will be in his element. I'll get the brochures and maps."
Belami went to his office. Pronto noticed he didn't drag his heels this time. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to go to Italy, but Dick needed a change. Clever as Dick was, he didn't realize he'd gone into a decline. If Charney brought Deirdre to town, the two of them would get together again. Another bust-up, and another period of depression that tried to masquerade as gaiety. He was glad to see Belami was beginning to recover. He couldn't take much more fun.
At Dover, the duchess was the first person on the ship leaving for Calais, and Lord Belami was the last. While she derided her private apartment and ordered a bottle of wine, Belami stopped to buy a newspaper from the paper wagon and nearly missed the ship entirely. He hopped aboard just as the gangplank was being drawn up. A stiff wind made the deck unpleasant, so Belami and Pronto went below.
"A hot coffee would hit the spot," Pronto suggested, and ordered a pot.
Belami opened the newspaper and perused it while they drank. "Listen to this, Pronto," he said. "We should have come down to Dover a few days early. The Jalbert gang was here, but got away."
"Jalbert gang?" Pronto asked, frowning. "Is that the bunch of smashers I've been hearing about?"
"That's right. They're counterfeiters--gold coin, not bills. They have such excellent dies you can't tell to look at the money that it's fake. They make guineas with an iron slug inside, covered with gold so that the surface isn't slippery. Counterfeit coins usually feel greasy--if they're made from an alloy, I mean. The color is a little off as well."
"How would you know you'd got one?" Pronto asked, and rooted in his pockets for coins.
"The weight would be short. Iron's lighter than gold--it has a density of about eight, whereas gold is high, around nineteen. In a small coin, however, you mightn't notice the difference if you weren't paying much attention."
"Have I got one of the phonies?" Pronto asked, handing Belami three coins.
Belami hefted them, bounced them on the table, where they appeared to ring true. "They seem genuine to me," he said, and emptied his own pockets of coin. He had only one guinea, and bounced it on the table. A quick frown creased his brow. It had a less ringing sound than Pronto's money. He picked up one of Pronto's guineas and his own, hefting one in either hand. "By God, I've got one of the fakes," he exclaimed. "Mine's lighter than yours."
It seemed odd to Pronto that this should bring a smile to his friend's face. "Daresay you can pass it off in Italy, where they ain't so used to English coinage. The agent said they take any coin, so long as it's gold or silver."
"I'll keep it for a souvenir of my gullibility. I wonder where I picked that coin up," Belami said, thinking back over the past few days. "I believe it was at the inn at Dover. I paid the reckoning with a five-pound note this morning, and got this in change. I even saw the man who gave it to the clerk. You remember the old fellow with the pipe?"
"Nope. The Jalbert gang must have been at the inn."
"Not necessarily," Belami said. "They'd be more likely to pass the counterfeits off at some place other than where they were staying. I almost regret having left. The Jalbert gang got away, you know."
"Then you can catch them when we come back," Pronto decided. "Meanwhile, keep the coin for a good-luck piece."
"It would only bring counterfeit good luck," Belami said, and laughed. "Of course till the coin's subjected to the Trial of the Pyx, I'm only guessing it's a fake."
"Picks?" Pronto asked suspiciously. "What the deuce have picks got to do with it?"
"Not the digging tools," Belami corrected. "I mean p-y-x."
"Ain't that something in the Roman church?" Pronto asked.
"It holds the consecrated host, but the word only means box. At the Royal Mint, it's the box that holds the specimen gold and silver coins for testing. The Goldsmiths' Company carry out tests for purity and weight of the coins."
Pronto was aware of his friend's propensity to deliver a lecture at the drop of a hat and swiftly changed the subject. "This coffee's making me sick," he complained. Even as he spoke, he noticed Belami was rocking to and fro in his chair. "Stand still," he said, scowling.
"It's the ship that's rolling," Belami replied. "Rather heavy weather. I feared we wouldn't be leaving today at all."
Pronto's pink face blanched to white, and he wobbled to his feet. "Believe I'll just have a lie-down. Lucky if I don't flash the hash." He left and Belami strolled to the common room to see if anyone else was still up and about. He took his newspaper with him in case he was destined to be alone.
The room was thin of company, but one elderly gentleman sat at a table smoking a meerschaum pipe and having a brandy as he perused some newspapers. Belami recognized the man he had just mentioned to Pronto and went to greet him.
"Good day, sir. May I join you?" Belami asked.
"I'd be delighted for the company," the man answered.
Belami glanced at him and wondered who he might be. A stocky man in his early sixties with gray hair and a ruddy complexion. He was obviously a gentleman, and obviously not a gentleman of the first stare. The nap was worn from his jacket, and his linens were the worse for wear. A bachelor, probably.
"Are you traveling alone?" Belami asked, as he took up a seat.
"Aye, I'm traveling through life alone. The name's Captain Styger, late of His Majesty's Navy."
"Belami," Lord Belami said, and offered his hand. "That accounts for your sea legs. Does a brandy help?"
"A brandy never hurt anyone, at sea or ashore. Allow me to treat you."
Styger called for another brandy for himself and one for his companion. They fell into conversation. "I'm off to see the world," Captain Styger said. "Thus far I've only seen ports and shores. Now I mean to land and walk on foreign grounds."
"Where were you during the Napoleon campaign?" Belami said.
"I'm afraid I captained a desk at Plymouth during those crucial days," Captain Styger admitted sadly. "I took a ball in the leg during the early French blockade and they locked me up in an office."
"The infamous Orders in Council." Belami nodded. "What's your opinion of them, as a naval man?"
"Orders are orders," the man replied vaguely.
Belami was surprised. Most naval officers would rant against them for an hour. "Did you actually land at America?"
"America? No, I didn't get there."
A few more vague answers were enough to show Belami the man was no officer. He had apparently promoted himself from crewman to captain upon retirement. Belami's next item of interest was the counterfeit coin. When the brandy arrived, he said, "If you're paying with a guinea, I'd like to see it first. I got a counterfeit coin at Dover--indirectly through you, sir. You might have had contact with the infamous Jalbert gang. Do you remember where you got this guinea?" He showed Styger the coin.
"What's that you say?" Styger exclaimed, and looked around in alarm. "A counterfeit coin?" He looked so worried Belami took the notion his money was scarce, and the loss of a guinea a matter of some importance. Belami paid for the brandy himself and said, "Could you describe the man you got this guinea from?"
"Why--I--I really don't recall. How do you know it came from my pocket?"
"You were right in front of me at the desk this morning. Do you recall where you got the coin?"
Styger shook his head. "I was in a game of cards last night with half-a-dozen gentlemen. Tall and short, dark and fair--it might have come from any of them. Why do you ask, sir? Are you a government agent?" He looked askance at Belami's elegant jacket.
"Oh, no, just a concerned citizen."
"Ah. Well, as I rooked you, let me buy the coin back with genuine money."
"I'd prefer to keep it," Belami said, and turned the conversation to other topics.
It wasn't the brandy that did the mischief. Belami rather thought it was the man's pipe tobacco that was turning his stomach queasy. When the ship gave a lurch that sent their drinks sloshing to the table, Belami rose and said, "I'm going to see how my friend's making out. I left him in the cabin nursing a bout of seasickness. Nice talking to you, sir."
"My pleasure. Do you mind if I have a look at your newspaper?" he asked, as Belami left it on the table.
"Help yourself. It's pretty wet from that spilt brandy."
"It'll soon dry," the captain said, and picked it up.
By the time Belami reached his cabin, he scarcely had the strength to open the door. He lay on his bunk, wondering why he had ever left firm land.
On the other side of the ship, the duchess of Charney was asking herself much the same thing as she huddled into the blankets. Deirdre Gower, on the other hand, was as lively as a cricket. It was the first time she had ever left England. Europe spread before her like a fairyland. Paris, Venice, Rome. She'd come home a world-weary sophisticate, dropping phrases in foreign languages. She'd meet princes and potentates--perhaps she'd even have a few affairs.
When she returned to London, dripping with the glamor of foreign travel and wearing risqué gowns, she'd smile condescendingly on Lord Belami and whatever provincial lady he had married. Then he'd be sorry. He'd be trotting at her heels like a pup, and she'd dismiss him carelessly.
"Deirdre, bring the bucket!" the duchess called, interrupting her niece's reverie. And Deirdre brought the bucket.