Read an Excerpt
The Belles Dames Club
By Melinda Hammond
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2007 Melinda Hammond
All rights reserved.
'Well, Miss Clarissa, another hour or so will see you safe back with your stepmama.' As soon as the maid had uttered these prophetic words, the carriage slowed to a halt. Miss Wyckenham's dark eyes gleamed.
'Becky, you wretch!'
'What, miss? I didn't do nothing!'
Seeing that her maid was truly alarmed, Miss Wyckenham merely patted her hand.
'No of course not. But if you did not cause us to stop, I must find out what did. Gibson, the door.' Miss Wyckenham scarcely waited for her footman to let down the steps before jumping down on to the road and making her way towards the coachman, who was inspecting one of the horses. 'Well, John?'
He straightened up.
'One of the wheelers, Miss Clarissa: cast a shoe, he has, and no way can I carry on, not on this rough road.'
'Oh dear. And are we near a village – a smithy?'
'As to that, I don't rightly know.' He broke off and looked round as three young boys came crashing out of the trees on to the road.
'Hi there – not so fast, young feller-me-lad!'
The coachman waved his whip towards them and the three boys stopped, looking back at him warily. One of them hurriedly put his hand behind his back, but not before Clarissa had seen what she thought was a sling-shot in his grasp.
'How far is it to the village?' asked John. 'Is there a smithy there?'
One of the boys, the largest and, thought Clarissa, the eldest, nodded.
'Aye, mister. You'm not a mile away from Tottenham, and there's a smith near High Cross.'
As the coachman turned back to Clarissa, the three boys took to their heels.
'Well that's a bit o'luck, miss. I'll get the horse unhitched and be on my way. If Tottenham's as near as they say then it'll take about a half-hour to get there.'
'Lord love us, you ain't suggestin' we walk there?' cried Becky, who had come to the carriage door and only heard the last half of the conversation.
Clarissa glanced at her maid's ample figure and her lips twitched.
'No, no, Becky. You and I can remain in the coach. John shall take the horse to the smithy and we shall be back on the road again in no time. Am I right, John?'
'Aye, miss. I'll pad it to Tottenham and get a new shoe for the poor nag, if you are sure you don't mind waiting here? Bramley and Gibson will stay with you, so you'll be safe enough.'
Clarissa thought of the two burly footmen that her sister had insisted should accompany her on the journey to London. She nodded as she climbed back into the carriage.
'Very well, John, off you go now.' She handed him a small purse. 'If you cannot get the animal shod today, then perhaps you can hire another team. I am determined to reach London tonight.'
The coachman smiled.
'Don't you worry, Miss Clarissa: we'll get you home right and tight.'
'I do hope he's right,' muttered Becky, making herself comfortable in one corner of the carriage. 'There's only a few hours of daylight left.'
'And that is all we need,' returned Clarissa, determined to be cheerful. 'Besides, it is almost a full moon tonight, and once we reach London the street lamps will be sufficient to guide our way to Mama-Nell.'
While Becky closed her eyes and prepared to sleep, Miss Wyckenham looked longingly out of the coach window at the grassy bank. It dropped gently away from the road towards a tumbling stream that glinted in the afternoon sunlight. They had been travelling since dawn and the idea of strolling across to the stream was very tempting. She glanced back at her maid, now snoring gently. It would be cruel to rouse her. With sudden decision Clarissa retied the ribbons of her wide-brimmed hat, opened the door and climbed out. Immediately the two footmen playing dice upon the carriage roof prepared to descend, but she raised her hand.
'No, no, do not disturb yourselves. I am going to walk down to the stream.'
'Then one of us should come with you, miss —'
'There is no need, I shall not go out of sight. I merely want a little air.'
Clarissa followed the rough path that ran diagonally from the road to the stream. There was a light breeze to offset the April sunshine, and Clarissa buttoned her tight-fitting riding jacket as she strode out towards a little wood a short distance ahead of her, glad of the chance to be moving after the confines of the carriage. There was a wider and well-worn path running beside the stream: a local right of way through the wood, she guessed, older than the turnpike road that ran along the higher ground, and much prettier too, she thought, for the ground was dotted with yellow spring flowers on each side of the path. Clarissa followed it towards the trees, enjoying the peace and solitude.
A little way into the wood the stream and the path turned sharply. Clarissa looked back. The two footmen were still sitting on the roof of the carriage and she could hear their voices quite clearly. Smiling, Clarissa carried on, eager to explore a little way into the wood. It was too early for the trees to be in full leaf and she found herself in a dappled shade. Clarissa strode on to the bend in the path, curious to see where it might lead, but stopped abruptly when she found her way blocked by the body of a man.CHAPTER 2
Clarissa stared down at the figure at her feet, her heart and brain racing. The man was lying on his back, his eyes closed. There was no sign of blood and a quick glance around showed her no other person, only a rangy black horse standing a few yards away, quietly cropping the grass. Should she call her footmen? She decided against it. She knelt beside him and reached out a tentative hand to touch his neck. It was warm and she was relieved to feel the steady pulse beneath her fingers.
'Excuse me,' she murmured, untying his neck-cloth.
The cut of the close-fitting riding coat and brocade waistcoat proclaimed the town gentleman rather than a country squire, and a fashionable tall-crowned beaver hat lay close by. Clarissa ran to the stream and dipped her handkerchief into the clear water, returning moments later to bathe the man's forehead. Not a handsome face, she thought: too hawk-like, the jaw-line too strong. She paused to brush a stray lock from his brow. The hair was dark, glossy as a raven's wing and cut short in the modern style. It was matched by the dark, straight brows and the lashes that lay against his pale cheek. He stirred.
He opened his eyes. They were grey as granite, she noticed, and for a moment they gazed up at her blankly. Then he smiled and the austere lines of his face softened into something much warmer.
Clarissa instinctively grasped the hand he held up to her.
'No, sir, I am not she. My name is Clarissa.'
The smile died as his vision cleared.
Clarissa sat back, releasing his hand.
'It would seem you fell from your horse.'
He sat up, groaning.
'The devil I did! Something frightened him.'
'Three young boys ran out of the wood a few minutes ago. One, I think, carried a sling-shot. I thought they had been hunting crows.'
'Hmm. Whether by accident or design they hit a bigger target. Little devils.' He turned his hard eyes upon her. 'What are you doing here?'
'One of our carriage horses cast a shoe. My coachman has taken the animal to the village to be shod.'
'And left you here alone?'
'No indeed. My maid and two footmen are here with me.' She saw his incredulous look and her smile deepened. 'They are within earshot, sir, believe me. But my maid is asleep. All I wanted to do was to take a short walk and I had not the heart to wake her.'
'You would have been better advised to do so, ma'am.'
'And what could she have done that I did not? In fact, the silly creature might well have fallen into hysterics, then I should have had two bodies on my hands.'
'It is not a matter for laughter, madam. Propriety demands you should be attended, for your own protection.'
The note of censure in his voice was unmistakable.
'Indeed?' she returned coolly. 'I think in this case propriety demands too much. I am in the habit of looking after myself.' She rose and watched him follow suit, a little unsteadily. 'Now, sir, if you are recovered sufficiently to mount your horse, I will leave you to continue your journey.'
'Please, don't go.' He did not look at her, but began to brush the moss and twigs from his coat. 'I apologize if I appear churlish, madam.'
'Frankly, sir, you do.'
He stopped and looked up, no sign of humour in his hard eyes.
'Then forgive me, and accept my gratitude for your assistance.'
He bowed. Clarissa gave him a slight curtsy before turning and retracing her steps out of the wood.
She knew a momentary disappointment when he did not call after her. He had not even asked her name. She shrugged. It was not important, after all. She would probably never see him again. Clarissa smiled to herself. If nothing else, it had helped to pass the time.CHAPTER 3
It was very late when Miss Wyckenham's carriage reached London. It had been necessary to dine on the road, but not all her maid's arguments could make Clarissa put up at an inn overnight.
'Lady Wyckenham has never stood on ceremony with me, Becky, and I would so much rather reach Charlotte Street tonight. Mama-Nell knows I am on my way.'
'Well it's not seemly to go arriving at such an ungodly hour.' Becky sniffed. 'Lady Wyckenham could well be abed.'
When the carriage finally pulled up in Charlotte Street, Clarissa feared her maid had been correct. The house looked alarmingly dark with the shutters firmly closed at the windows of the main rooms on the first floor. Perhaps Lady Wyckenham had left Town.
'That cannot be,' Clarissa muttered, as if to herself. 'She told me she would be here for me, and that I should come as soon as may be.' She alighted and trod resolutely up the steps, rapping loudly on the knocker. The door opened a fraction. 'Ah, Simmons, good evening.' Clarissa stepped past the butler into the hall. 'You look surprised, and no wonder. I am sorry to arrive so late, but we were delayed on the road. Please have the footmen bring in the bags. Is my lady at home?'
'Miss Clarissa! No. That is....'
'Oh. Is she dining out?'
'No – yes.'
'No, yes? Simmons, this is not like you.' She pointed to a little black page asleep on a bench against one wall. 'Ah, my lady has visitors.'
'Miss Clarissa, you should not be here. ...'
She laughed as she removed her hat.
'And where else should I be? I know it is very late, but would you expect me to sleep in the street until morning? Now, if you will have my trunks taken up,' she stopped as the faint sound of laughter came to her ears.
The butler began to wring his hands.
'Miss Clarissa —'
She did not hear him. More shouts and laughter could be heard. She ran quickly up the stairs and opened the door to the drawing-room.
Her entrance went unnoticed. The room was a large one, illuminated by dozens of candles blazing from a central chandelier and from the branched candlesticks placed about the room. The elegance of the room was enhanced by a series of large frescoes depicting stories from classical Greece, but on this occasion the scene that met Clarissa's stunned gaze rivalled anything she had heard of that ancient society. A roaring fire blazed beneath the ornate marble chimneypiece but all the furniture had been moved back to the edges of the room. A number of ladies were seated in a semi-circle facing the centre, their attention fixed on the only two men in the room: two wrestlers.
Two naked wrestlers.
A quick glance at the ladies showed Clarissa only two faces she knew: one was her stepmother, Lady Wyckenham, sitting next to a beautiful redheaded matron in emerald silk, and her stepmother's long-time friend, Viscountess Gaunt. Lady Gaunt was one of the more enthusiastic spectators, sitting forward on her chair and waving her arms as she exhorted her favourite to do better.
The combatants grappled together on the red and gold Aubusson carpet. The men fought energetically, the combined light from the fire and the candles gleamed on their sinewy limbs. Clarissa watched the men lock arms and cling together, muscles straining, shifting backwards and forwards as each tried to gain the advantage. Then it was all over. A sudden twist, a grunt, and one of the men was on his back. His opponent raised his arm in victory and a loud cheer went up from the ladies, some of whom threw their coloured scarves at him.
Only then did anyone notice Clarissa's arrival. The striking redhead looked towards the door, gasped, and quickly alerted her hostess. In a rustle of silken skirts Lady Wyckenham rose and flew across the room.
'Clarissa! Good heavens, I had quite given you up.'
Looking past her, Clarissa saw the victorious wrestler pick up Lady Gaunt's scarf and hang it about his neck.
'Mama-Nell, what —?'
Lady Wyckenham took her arm and whisked her out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
'Clarissa, what in heaven's name are you doing here?'
'I told you I was coming today – did you not get my letter?'
'Yes, yes, but I thought you had stopped on the road – I did not expect you to arrive here at eleven o'clock!' She guided her stepdaughter towards the morning-room, calling for candles to be lighted.
'Evidently. Mama-Nell, what is going on?'
'Oh, merely a little entertainment.'
'Entertainment?' Clarissa's eyes began to dance. 'Madam, those men were naked!'
Lady Wyckenham raised her brows.
'What of it? They were wrestling.'
'Do – do you make it a habit to hold wrestling matches in the house?' asked Clarissa, trying hard to keep her voice steady.
'No, no, this is the first one – it was Dorothea Gaunt's idea, and I must say it has been vastly diverting.'
'Lady Gaunt suggested this?' Clarissa stared. 'Mama-Nell, I cannot credit it.'
'No, no, how should you?' said Lady Wyckenham in soothing tones. 'My poor darling, you must be exhausted after such a long day. Let me take you up to your room, and I will ask Mrs Simmons to prepare a supper tray for you.'
'But you have not explained —'
'No, and now is not the time, my dear,' My lady ushered her towards the stairs. 'You need to rest, my love. Tomorrow we can talk. I will explain everything.'
Clarissa stopped and gave her stepmother a searching look.
'Everything. You promise?'
A small hand on her back propelled her onwards.
'You have my word.'CHAPTER 4
The next morning Lady Wyckenham was surprised when Clarissa entered her bedroom carrying her morning hot chocolate.
'My love, are you up and dressed already? I vow you put me to shame with your energy.'
'I have never liked to lie a-bed, Mama-Nell, you know that. What an extremely fetching night-cap.'
My lady put one hand up to the snowy confection fastened over her golden curls.
'Thank you, my darling, it is one of the things I purchased in Paris last year. But you should not be waiting on me, my love.'
'I intercepted your maid on the stairs: I thought we could have a comfortable coze.' Clarissa put the tray down before my lady then sat down on the end of the bed, leaning against one heavily carved bedpost.
'So, tell me, how did you leave your sister?' asked Lady Wyckenham.
'Anne was very well – and very happy to have her husband home again.'
'No doubt you were sorry to leave Royston.'
'In some ways, but ever since the war ended Anne has been expecting Henry to return from America. Now that he has done so it is only right that they should have the house to themselves.' Clarissa smiled. 'Except for one short break, he has been away for four years – they are like a newly-wed couple. I was most definitely de trop!'
'Well, my love, you are very welcome here. Henceforth my home shall be your own. I know that after your father's death I could not comfort you as a mother should —'
'You were distraught, Mama-Nell.'
Lady Wyckenham studied her cup.
'Nevertheless, I was not a good mother to you in those days.'
'But Henry had just gone off to war, and Anne was alone, so it was natural that as sisters we should comfort one another.'
'But I should have looked after you both!' cried Lady Wyckenham, her pretty face crumpling.
Clarissa shook her head.
'You know that was not possible. I was desperate to stay away from town at that time. Besides, Anne was never close to you, as I was.'
'She dislikes me.'
'No, no, not now. It is true she resented you a little, when you first married my father, but she was so much older than I, and could remember Mama so much better. It was quite natural.'
My lady gave a little laugh.
'Both William and Anne thought your father had run mad when he married me. They thought I could not make him happy, but I did, Clarissa, I did!'
'I know it, Mama-Nell. I was very young, but I remember how he changed: he came alive again when he met you.'
Lady Wyckenham smiled mistily.
'We had some good times, Clarissa. I would wish to see you as happy in a marriage. And now you are come back to live with me I shall do my best to find you just such a husband.'
'Thank you, Mama-Nell, but I have not come to town to find a husband.'
'Oh? Is there a beau back in Royston?'
Clarissa's dark eyes were alight with laughter.
'Several!' she replied saucily, 'but none that I liked well enough to marry.' She grew serious. 'I have a very comfortable income, so marriage is not a necessity for me. I thought. ...' She paused. 'I thought, if you would let me live with you, we could perhaps travel together: I do so long to see something of the world.'
Excerpted from The Belles Dames Club by Melinda Hammond. Copyright © 2007 Melinda Hammond. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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