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It was late night when the hackney coach clattered to a weary halt in front of a very fine several-storied Elizabethan brick town house. A damsel descended stiffly from the carriage, paused to take a firmer grip on her bulging portmanteau as she stared up at the turrets and chimneys and wonderful bay windows which rose the full height of Marcham Towers to just below the battlemented parapet. Cold moonlight reflected in countless diamond-shaped windowpanes. She marched up to the front door.
Brisk assault on that ancient timbered portal brought forth a sleepy servant who admitted her to an entrance hallway with carved ceiling and marble chessboard floor, suits of armor and racks of spears upon the walls. The damsel gazed curiously about. Though she had known the March family forever, their country estates abutting upon her papa's own, this was her first visit to Marcham Towers. She followed the servant up a great staircase with carved balusters and newel posts, then waited as he knocked discreetly on a door.
That portal, too, swung open, to frame a slender chestnut-haired lady on whose endearingly irregular features sat an anxious look. As her amber gaze lit upon the newcomer, the lady blinked. Her anxious expression faded, to be replaced in turn by disappointment and bewilderment. "Why, Mab!" Lady March said at length.
"You thought I was Marriot," Lady Amabel responded wisely, as she shifted her portmanteau from one hand to the other. "I didn't think of that, and very sorry I am for it, Nell, if you got your hopes up for naught." She craned her lovely little neck to peer into the room beyond. "I take it you've had no word from the rascal yet?"
Lady March steppedaside, gestured for her guest to enter, bade the servant fetch them refreshment and Lady Amabel to make herself comfortable. "You do not wish to discuss your husband in front of the servants," remarked Mab with her usual acumen, as she divested herself of her long-sleeved, high-necked sapphire velvet pelisse. "As though they have not noticed that he has failed to come home for quite six months! Oh, Nell, I have heard the queerest tales. The whole countryside is abuzz with speculation. What do you think has happened to Marriot?"
Eleanor stood at her projecting oriel window, somberly looking out. "I do not know what to think, my dear, except that Marriot did not disappear by choice--I have not the most distant guess of where he may have gotten to, and it makes not the slightest difference how much I cudgel my brain! The fact is that he departed White's one night six months ago and never returned home. He simply vanished. Not even Bow Street has been able to trace him one step."
"Bow Street!" Lady Amabel's shudder was prompted not wholly by pleasurable dismay upon hearing mentioned those relentless representatives of the law, but also by the chill temperature of Lady March's solar. Mab snatched up her pelisse and moved closer to the fireplace. "Oh, Nell!"
Lady March did not similarly suffer from the chill temperatures; foresight, and experience of drafty Marcham Towers, had inspired her to bundle up in a man's fur cloak of the same venerable vintage as the house. "We must be realistic," she said, as she joined Mab at the fireplace, where they presented a pretty study in contrasts. At thirty, Nell was tall and slender, her features rendered exquisitely patrician by their slight irregularity, her chestnut hair worn in classical coils from which a few errant curls escaped. Mab, just turned nineteen, was both less tall and less slender, a glorious young beauty with huge mischievous blue eyes and black hair cropped short and worn in artfully disheveled curls.
"Realistic?" echoed Lady Amabel, her blue eyes opened wide. "Nell! You don't think--"
"No, I don't!" interrupted Lady March, a trifle crossly. "Had Marriot been murdered, his body would have been found. Had he been abducted, we would have received a ransom demand. So it must be something else altogether that has caused his disappearance--though I freely admit I can't think what."
Several possible explanations presented themselves to Lady Amabel as she gazed thoughtfully upon the chimneypiece, which incorporated a carved scene of Diana bathing and a mantel frieze carved with monkeys, birds and beasts. "Well, we know Marriot isn't of unsound mind, so it isn't that! I do not mean to cast a blight upon your spirits, Nell, but have you considered that Marriot may have eloped?"
In response to this suggestion, Lady March looked crosser still. "Bosh!" she said.
Lady Amabel wrinkled her pretty nose, which was enchantingly retroussé. "I know it sounds like so much moonshine, and that you and Marriot always dealt together delightfully, but I have noticed that gentlemen sometimes stray! However, Marriot is your husband, so you must know him best." She frowned. "Was Marriot in his altitudes, I wonder? I do not mean to infer that he is a drunkard, because of course he isn't, but there is no denying he was prone to take some odd notions when a trifle foxed. Is prone to do so!" she quickly amended upon glimpsing her friend's face. "Depend upon it, we shall discover Marriot is merely indulging one of his whims."
Eleanor did not reply. Even under influence of the grape she doubted her husband would grow so very absentminded as to forget home and wife for six months on end. To her severe misgivings she did not give voice, the servant arriving at that moment with a light repast. Before departing, he built up the fire and lit additional candles. With gusto, the ladies fell to their midnight feast, Mab pausing between mouthfuls to cast curious glances around the room.
The solar must have changed little in the centuries of its existence, Lady Amabel thought, as she gazed upon the ceiling with its attractive symmetrical design culminating in several Tudor roses and the plaster frieze in which Diana, her dogs and attendants hunted stags and elephants and lions in a forest of trees. The framework of the wainscoting was painted brilliant red with touches of blue and gold. Even the furnishings were Elizabethan, including a counting table with a checkered top, chairs embroidered with flowers and leaves and fruits, and stools upholstered with green velvet and studded with nails.
While her visitor thus indulged herself, Lady March withdrew to the daybed where she'd been huddling when Lady Amabel arrived, reading an edifying work entitled The History of Serpents, which solemnly stated that dragons are wont to hunt elephants in packs. Nell's own curious gaze moved from Mab to her bulging portmanteau, which had been abandoned just inside the door. "You have not told me what you are doing here."
Cautiously, Lady Amabel eyed her hostess, who at times could be a very high stickler. "Goose!" she said merrily. "I have come to bear you company in your lonely vigil. What are friends for?"
That it had taken her friend six months to come to her assistance Lady March did not point out. "But it is so very late," she said.
"Yes, but that is not my fault." Replete, Mab brushed crumbs off the skirt other white muslin gown. "I came in a nightcoach, and then a hackney, and such an adventure it was!"
The details of that adventure Nell could well imagine, Mab being the sort of young lady whose life was never dull. "You didn't travel here alone! Your papa--"
"My papa," interrupted Lady Amabel, with grim voice and irately sparkling eye, "is a cruelly unfeeling beast. He is curst high-handed--certainly he has tried my civility too high! And it is never the least use disputing with him because he doesn't listen--well! I thought that since I am fated to be melancholy, there is no one I would rather be melancholy with than you!"
Foreseeing a dramatic exchange of confidences, Lady March attempted to settle herself more comfortably among the myriad embroidered cushions upon the daybed, which was made of oak painted a chocolate red and ornamented with floral arabesques, its two paneled ends angling stiffly outward. "Thank you!" she said drily. "I hesitate to point out that I already have Cousin Henrietta to bear me company."
"Your Cousin Henrietta," Lady Amabel responded bluntly, "is less likely to elevate your spirits than plunge you smack into the dumps! Never have I known so dismal a female. No wonder you are so pulled-about."
This intelligence that she was not at her best Lady March accepted philosophically. Not only was Nell without vanity, in the eye of other than her vanished husband she cared not how she looked. "I would just as soon not have Henrietta," she confessed, casting the closed door a guilty look. "She was wished upon me by my family. But you will not lead me up the garden path so easily as that, my dear! I think I need to know what--other than a hackney coach!--has brought you to me in the dead of night." She cast a pointed glance at the bulging portmanteau. "Am I to conclude you mean to stay?"
"Well, er, yes." Lady Amabel had the grace to look abashed. "I truly have come to be with you in your hour of need, Nell--if you should not object!"
Lady March pulled her fur cloak closer and regarded her young friend. Amabel's expression was guileless. More to the point, her pretty nose, framed so becomingly by her tucked silk bonnet with lace frills and ribbon bowknot, was red. "Poor child, you're freezing!" Nell rose to ring for her sleepy servant and request a room made up for her guest. "Come closer to the fire. You may not wish to stay with me when you discover how cold is this old mausoleum of a house. It is full of the oddest drafts--due to the secret passages, I suppose."
"Secret passages?" echoed Mab, big eyes opened wide, as she joined Nell at the fireplace. "You're bamming me."
"No such thing, I promise you; Marcham Towers was in the possession of a Catholic family during the Civil Wars. We have a priest hole and a hidden attic and two secret passages that I know of. There is rumored to be an entrance in this very room, but I don't know where. Marriot would. Unfortunately we cannot ask him." Here Lady March's composure deserted her. "Oh, Mab! I have been teasing myself with thoughts of all the dreadful things that might have happened to him, and it upsets me dreadfully, and yet I cannot think what to do!"
"There, there!" soothed Lady Amabel, whilst reflecting it was extremely awkward to try and comfort someone considerably taller than oneself. "You have been dwelling too much on it! Not that you shouldn't think about Marriot--gracious, how could you not wonder what the blazes he is up to! You would wonder even more had you not stayed here in London, because there was such talk. One contingent even had it that Marriot had run afoul of the spies of that fiendish Frenchman--the Serpent of Corsica! The Fiend of the Bottomless Pit! Not that I believed such stuff for a minute, no, nor anyone else, despite all these invasion scares. But there is something very queer about it, Nell. Even Papa said Marriot's disappearance was too smoky by half." A trifle belatedly, it occurred to Lady Amabel that this was no cheerful choice of topic. "Anyway, now that I am with you, you may think about my troubles, which will be an excellent antidote for your distress!"
The suspicion that her vanished husband might have fallen victim of some devilish stratagem had also crossed Lady March's mind. It was not a thought that she wished to long entertain. "You have not told me what your troubles are," she gently pointed out. "You and your papa have had a difference of opinion, I conclude--but why?"
In response to this not unreasonable question, Lady Amabel abandoned her role of comforter for one of a damsel in sore need of being soothed herself. "Oh, Nell! Papa has said I may not marry Fergus!" she wailed, and burst into gusty tears.
"Fergus?" echoed Eleanor, as she enfolded Mab also in her huge fur cloak and allowed the damsel to weep all over her silk gown. It was not the first time during the several years of their acquaintance that Nell had thus provided comfort to the motherless and highly volatile Amabel. "Who is this Fergus, pray?"
"Nell, could you but see him!" Lady Amabel raised a countenance as bedazzled as if her beloved were indeed within her sight. "Fergus has everything prime about him! He is a gentleman of substance, a veritable Adonis, a particularly elegant, handsome man! All that I could wish!"
"Then wherein lies the problem?" Lady March suspected her young friend was fashioning mountains out of molehills, and not for the first time. Amabel possessed a keen sense of the dramatic, as perhaps need not be explained. "Surely your papa must approve this paragon."
"He must, must he?" Mab's blue eyes flashed, and her delicious lip curled. "You would think so! You would think that any father with an ounce of human feeling would not deny his only daughter the gentleman upon whom her heart was set--especially when that gentleman is handsome as Adonis, and rich as Croesus, and a baron to boot--but not Papa! Fergus spoke to him very properly. Do you know what Papa said when he was made aware that I was being offered a highly flattering alliance? Do you, Nell?"
Fascinated, Lady March gazed upon her friend's indignant features. "Tell me!" she begged.
"He said that I was a little zany, and Fergus a dandified popinjay!" Mab's lower lip trembled. "Oh, bother the man! Sometimes I wish I were an orphan, although I am sure no girl could be fonder of her papa than I am. But how dare he speak to Fergus in such a disrespectful manner--to say nothing of the cruel way in which he has used me!" She sniffled. "My case is truly desperate! Now you see why I am grown so melancholy, dear Nell, and why I have come to you. Together we shall endeavor to bear with resignation our irreparable losses!"
Though Lady March had been trying very hard for the past six months not to believe that her loss was irreparable, she was not so poor-spirited as to point this out. It was almost as good as a play to see Mab enact a Cheltenham tragedy. However, since the hour grew ever later, and her eyelids accordingly heavy, Nell deemed it time the curtain descend. "You have been wrested from your lover's arms," she said sympathetically. "Poor Amabel."
Paradoxically in a young lady so inclined to the dramatic, Mab was also very honest. "Er, not exactly," she admitted, pink of cheek. "Though I very nearly was, because Fergus cut up so stiff at being called a popinjay. And so he should have, poor lamb, because he isn't, Nell, I promise you." She lowered her eyes. "But I shall leave you to judge that for yourself!"
"Will you?" As the result of a pang of premonition, Eleanor looked severe. "How is that, miss?"
Mab's cheeks turned even pinker. "I daresay Fergus will call on you, once he discovers I'm in town."
"Mab!" Eleanor's voice was stern. "What will your father say to that, do you think?"
"Nothing, I hope, since he won't know about it!" Looking irresistibly earnest, Mab clutched Lady March's hands and gazed pleadingly up into her face. "Nell, I suspect you won't like this above half, but I have run away from home."
"Run away--" Words failed Eleanor. As if it were not trial enough that Marriot had disappeared, victim of some wicked fate upon the precise gruesome nature of which Cousin Henrietta speculated a good twenty hours of each day, now Nell must anticipate the momentary descent of Mab's father's wrath upon her head. Mab's sire was gentle neither of tongue nor temper. "You wretched child!" Nell sighed.
But Mab was not attending to her strictures, nor trying to disarm. Instead she was gazing in an astonished manner at the wall behind Lady March. Puzzled, Eleanor glanced over her shoulder. She, too, stared as a portion of the wainscoting swung silently away.
Through the opening stepped a disheveled masculine figure. He straightened and stood blinking in the candlelight. No damsel with a sense of the dramatic could forego such an opportunity. "It's a ghost!" shrieked Lady Amabel, with relish, and fainted dead away.