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"Pique, repique, and capot."
In the pale January sunshine filtering through the tall windows of the inn's coffee room, the handsome young face opposite Lord Malcolm was aghast. "It can't be. Let me see."
Malcolm spread out the tricks he had taken and lounged back in his Windsor chair, languid hands linked across his natty waistcoat, striped in coquelicot and pearl-grey. He watched as Sir Ralph Riddlesworth feverishly scanned the cards. Drooping eyelids hid the glint of triumph at this unbelievable stroke of good fortune. A devilish promising start to his mission!
"Another partie," begged the youthful baronet, blue eyes appealing. "I'll win it back. It's a family heirloom." He reached for the signet ring, a topaz incised with a sphinx seal.
Malcolm's hand shot out and grasped his wrist in a grip of iron. "Not so fast, my friend. You pledged the ring because you had already lost all your blunt."
"I'll borrow some," said Riddlesworth sullenly, massaging his wrist. "Everyone knows me here."
His gaze sceptical, Malcolm scanned their surroundings. The Golden Hind was one of the busiest inns in Plymouth, but at present the room was nearly empty. The Mail had come and gone; the stage coach from London was not expected for another hour. By the next window two respectable middle-aged females gossiped over a pot of tea, and a retired sea-captain with a wooden leg drowsed over his ale in the inglenook. The waiter had played least in sight since bringing their bottle of claret, now scarce half emptied, and a sealed pack of cards. No doubt he was resting tired feet before the next rush.
The fair young man--no more than one or two and twenty, some six yearsMalcolm's junior--looked discomfited. "The landlord will oblige me," he muttered.
"Ah, but I do not choose to wait while you make your arrangements," Malcolm drawled, "nor, in fact, do I choose to play any longer. My thanks for the entertainment. Now excuse me, if you please." The ring safely bestowed in the inside breast pocket of his burgundy-red coat, he rose, bowed, and moved towards the door.
Riddlesworth followed him, plucking at his sleeve, pleading in a low voice for a chance to win back his heirloom. He was taller and heavier than Malcolm, who felt like a kestrel pestered by a crow.
"Enough, my dear fellow, pray don't make a cake of yourself." Distastefully brushing his sleeve, he continued out into the lobby and called for the landlord.
"I shall stay here tonight, my good man," he announced loudly, "and drive on to Corycombe in the morning. Tell my groom we'll leave at nine."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Riddlesworth's dismal visage brighten. Well and good!
Half an hour later, the collar of his multi-caped topcoat turned up against a chill wind off the sea, Malcolm strolled through the streets towards the Hoe. The few passers-by hurried, their wraps hugged close about them. As the dusk of the short winter's day closed down, lamps flickered to life in shop windows.
Passing a gold- and silversmith's establishment, Malcolm glanced at the display in the leaded-glass bow window. Casually, as if drawn by something seen there, he pushed open the door and entered.
A bell attached to the door tinkled to announce his arrival. From a back room, pushing aside a heavy crimson velvet curtain, a small, balding man emerged behind the counter. He peered through thick-lensed, gold rimmed spectacles at his visitor, took in glossy beaver, caped greatcoat, gleaming white-topped boots.
"What can I do for you, sir?"
"You are the proprietor? The goldsmith?"
The little man bowed. "Ebenezer Willett, goldsmith, silversmith, jeweller, at your service, sir."
"You have been commended to me for your discretion. I have a confidential task for you, if you think yourself capable of it." Malcolm took out the ring and laid it on the counter. "I want a copy of this. Not the ring or the topaz, just the seal. It must make an impression exactly like the original."
Willett pushed the ring back towards him with the tip of one long, delicate finger. "Can't be done, sir."
"You don't do such fine work?"
The jeweller drew himself up. "The finest in Plymouth, in Devon, nay, in the West Country, though I say it myself!"
"Then it is impossible?"
"That I didn't say, sir. Since you ask, I won't be a party to forgery, not for a thousand pounds."
With a nod of approval, Malcolm drew his wallet from his pocket and extracted a folded parchment. This he unfolded and laid on the counter beside the ring. "My name is Malcolm Eden," he said softly. "I'm on government business. Here is my commission from the Admiralty, signed and sealed by the First Lord himself. It's no forgery, I assure you."
Holding the parchment beneath the oil lamp suspended from the low ceiling, Willett perused it carefully from start to finish, studying the impressive seal closely. Then he turned and subjected his customer's face to the same rigorous examination. One or both apparently satisfied him. He returned the credentials, picked up the ring, and held back the velvet curtain.
"You'd best come through, my lord, where we shan't be interrupted."
Malcolm ducked under the curtain. The workshop behind was brightly lit, especially the bench which held an assortment of jewellers' tools and work in progress. Willett took off his spectacles, fixed a glass in one eye, and studied the topaz in its heavy, ornate gold setting with increasing enthusiasm.
"Remarkable! Early sixteenth century English work, unless I miss my guess. There are few Tudor pieces left which have not been reset, and fewer still of such quality."
"Can you copy it?" Malcolm asked impatiently, consulting his pocket-watch.
"Oh yes. Even the finest Tudor craftsmen were a trifle crude by modern standards. They had not the tools we have today. Besides, if you don't want the sphinx carved into a gem, it's a comparatively simple matter of making an impression and using it as a mould. Gold, silver, brass?"
"Brass will do. You can have it ready by tomorrow morning?"
Willett cast a glance at his crowded work bench. "Your business is urgent?"
"It is. You will be well paid to postpone your other work."
"It's not the money." His narrow chest swelled with injured dignity. "I'll do it for England and our brave boys in the Navy. You may call for your seals any time you please tomorrow morning, my lord."
"Excellent! Remember, don't breathe a word of this to anyone. Lives may depend upon your silence."
The jeweller nodded solemnly, already clearing a space on his bench. "Not a word," he promised.
Malcolm went on his way to the Hoe, walking briskly, a gentleman out for an evening's exercise. Nothing too out of character there. He was known in Town as something of a dandy, a fop even, bored by everything but the cut of a coat, yet even a dandy needs to stretch his legs after two and a half days on the road.
The first stars twinkled in the darkening sky, vying with the lanterns on the masts of the countless vessels in the Sound. Drake's Island was a black mound rising from the pallid waters, Mount Edgcumbe a mere shadowy bulk. In the distance, the periodic flash of the Eddystone lighthouse warned ships off the cruel rocks. A solitary figure in naval uniform stood gazing out over the estuary. The empty left sleeve of his coat was pinned across his breast.
Malcolm paused briefly beside him. "Well met, Des. Can you come to Corycombe tomorrow evening?"
"The next night? Good. I've much to tell you." Malcolm walked on.
Any watcher, he hoped, would have seen a chance meeting between strangers, an exchange of words about the view, perhaps, or the weather. It was cold enough for comment, the air now holding a hint of frost unusual in this sheltered south-western corner of the realm. Des must be freezing, the stump of the arm he had lost two years ago at Trafalgar probably ached like the very devil.
Nonetheless, though unaccustomed to conspiracy, the captain surely knew better than to abandon his contemplative pose too quickly? Resisting an impulse to glance back at his friend, Malcolm turned his steps towards the town and the welcome warmth of the Golden Hind.
"I'm having trouble with my badger," said Mr. Barwith broodingly as Mariette ladled chicken soup into his bowl.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Uncle George." Mariette regarded with affection the lined face beneath the old-fashioned tie-wig. Tucking a stray strand of raven hair behind her ear, she tasted her soup before asking, "What is the difficulty this time?"
"To tell the truth, it looks more like a pig," the elderly gentleman confided. "I wish you will come and look after dinner. Your advice is always excellent."
"I'll see what I can do. Now do eat your soup before it grows cold. Cook has made a rabbit pie and you know how soggy the crust gets if it stands."
"Rabbit pie? Excellent! Your cousin has been out with a gun, I suppose, since you prefer inanimate targets."
As always, Mariette was taken by surprise by her unworldly, reclusive uncle's occasional flashes of perspicacity. "Yes," she said wryly, "but I shall enjoy the pie, which I daresay makes me a hypocrite, especially as I used to enjoy fishing."
"I too, my dear. I never cared for shooting." He broke off a piece of his roll and surreptitiously fed it to Ragamuffin, lurking under the table. "Where is Ralph?"
"He rode into Plymouth, to see his friends." And to gamble, as she was all too aware. She didn't think Uncle George knew, though, so she quickly changed the subject. "I have been rereading Hume's History of England, Uncle, as you suggested. I do understand it better this time, but there are still parts which puzzle me."
For the rest of the meal they discussed David Hume's version of English history, with its strong bias in favour of the Scots. As Uncle George finished off a dish of bottled plums and custard, he fell silent, his thoughts doubtless returning to his badger.
Ragamuffin at their heels, they repaired to the front hall. A spacious chamber never distinguished by any particular architectural merit, it was now home to a veritable menagerie of animal sculptures. Pride of place was taken by a huge chunk of Dartmoor granite destined to become a lion. From one end emerged an unidentifiable muzzle and two ears, from the other a rump and the beginnings of a tail. Mariette patted one prospective flank as she passed, winding her way between the smaller sandstone sculptures. She left footprints in the gritty dust on the floor, for Mrs. Finney was long since resigned to the pointlessness of the maids' efforts to clean around the creatures.
Mariette's favourite was a diminutive fox. The red Devonshire sandstone was the perfect colour; the poor beast couldn't help it if it had one leg shorter than the others, lacked a tail, and squinted. Ragamuffin, who seemed to consider it an insult to caninedom, growled at it as usual.
The badger was definitely porcine. "The legs are too long," she said judicially, studying it under Uncle George's anxious eye, "and it's fat. Its face looks a bit squashed, I'm afraid."
He gave a sad nod. "Too short in the nose. As I feared. I can reduce the legs and girth, but it's impossible to lengthen the face without reducing the whole in proportion." Standing back, he squinted at his handiwork and suddenly smiled. "Rather a handsome pig, don't you think, my dear? After all, there is no reason I should not make a statue of a pig. A useful creature! Let me see, now."
He picked up hammer and chisel. The chink of metal on metal followed Mariette to her favourite sitting room at the back of the house.
Ragamuffin slumped on the worn hearthrug. The fire's flickering light brought a sheen to his thick coat, mahogany patched with white. Mariette kicked off her slippers and curled up on the shabby sofa with a Minerva Press novel, tucking her warm, dark-blue woollen skirts about her ankles. Gentleman of the Road, or, The Lost Heir made a change from Hume. Nonetheless she hoped Ralph would come home soon. Bell-Tor Manor kept country hours and the dark winter evenings dragged on endlessly. A game of draughts or backgammon would while away the time.
It was not long before she heard hurried footsteps in the passage from the back door. She looked up as her cousin burst into the room, neckcloth awry, hair tousled.
"You've missed dinner again," she said, dispassionately surveying his dishevelment. "Did you dine in town?"
"No! Yes! What does it matter?" Ralph cried wildly. Tossing hat and gloves onto a chair, he flung himself into another, which creaked under the assault. He ignored Ragamuffin's enthusiastic welcome. "You've got to help me, Mariette!"
"What is it this time?" She bit back a sigh as he covered his face with his hands. Ragamuffin, rebuffed, returned to the hearthrug and she reached down to scratch behind his floppy ears. "Have you lost the whole of your quarter's allowance already?"
"Worse," he groaned. "Where's Uncle George?"
"Working on his badger. You're safe, he'll be busy all evening. So you can tell me ... Oh, Ralph!" At last she noticed his bare finger. "Your ring? You've wagered your ring again?"
"The fellow wouldn't take a vowel," he said sulkily. "There's no need to make it sound as if I'm constantly losing it, dammit. This is only the second time."
"Good gad, once was enough." The previous occasion was all too clear in her memory. "How could you do it again?"
"I was sure he couldn't go on winning. He must have cheated. Yes, that's it, he looked like the veriest fop but he was a regular Captain Sharp, devil take him!"
"You were playing with a stranger?"
"Don't fuss so. After all, you don't care for my friends. Mariette, you'll redeem it for me, won't you? I'll pay you back, honestly."
"I daresay, and I'll lend you the money, of course, but I'll be dashed if I'll do your dirty work this time! I've never been so humiliated in my life as when I redeemed the blasted thing from Lord Wareham for you. He treated me like a particularly insignificant, yet irritating earwig." Her face burned as a vision of the baron's handsome, contemptuous countenance rose before her inner eye. "Besides, your Captain Sharp has probably vanished by now."
"Oh no, it's the greatest bit of luck!" The eternal optimism of the born gamester revived. "He's driving to Corycombe in the morning. The landlord told me he's Lady Lilian's brother, Lord Malcolm Eden."
"Another lord! I don't want anything to do with him."
"But you know Lady Lilian."
"Only to say 'good day' and 'what lovely weather we're having' if I meet her in her barouche when I'm out riding. And though she's always quite polite, she's never introduced me to her daughter or her companion. I know she's shocked that I wear buckskin breeches and ride astride."
"Well, it ain't proper."
"Jim says it's simply not safe to gallop on the moor riding side-saddle," she pointed out with a touch of defiance, straightening her heavy skirts. Safety was more important than propriety, she told herself, as warmth was more important than fashion in the draughty old manor.
"I know, I know," said Ralph impatiently, "but dammit, the point is you do know her so you can easily call tomorrow."
"And ask to speak to a man I've never met? No."
"Please, Mariette," he wheedled. "The sphinx has been in my family for nearly three centuries. It's not just a piece of trumpery."
"You should have thought of that before you wagered it."
"If you get it back for me, I swear I'll never lose it again."
This time Mariette's sigh escaped her. She had only herself to blame if her cousin relied on her to extract him from every difficulty. Though scarce six months the elder, she had always mothered him, always smoothed his path and rescued him from the consequences of his heedlessness. No wonder he turned to her when he lost his precious heirloom.
She could not let him down, but she wasn't prepared to plead with a stranger, to humble herself to a high-and-mighty lord, to redeem the ring. There must be another way!
And then a daring solution struck her, a way to combine recovery of the signet with the adventure she craved, a brief escape from her humdrum life. "You said Lord Malcolm will drive from Plymouth to Corycombe tomorrow morning?" she asked.
"I heard him tell the landlord he'll leave the Golden Hind at nine." Relieved, he smiled. How handsome he was with his ruffled blond hair, bright blue eyes, wilful mouth, and deceptively firm chin. She had no illusions about him, which was surely a sound basis for marriage--one must be practical, as maman had often repeated.
In any case, she intended to marry him. Otherwise who would take care of him? Besides, said a wistful, treacherous voice in her head, she never met any other gentlemen and had no prospect of ever meeting any.
"You have a plan?" Ralph asked eagerly. His hopeful air reminded her of Ragamuffin begging for a walk.
"A simply splendid plan." A bubble of excitement rose in her and she smiled. "I'll hold up Lord Malcolm's carriage."
His mouth dropped open and he stared at her. "B-but ... Good gad, you have run mad!"
"Fiddlesticks! I'll wear a mask and pretend I'm a highwayman. It's what Arnulfo did to retrieve the seal which proved him heir to the throne of Waldania. In my book," she explained as he continued to gape at her.
"Oh, a novel," he said dismissively. "That's just make-believe."
"Well, it won't be a real robbery. I'll only take the ring, which Lord Malcolm won by cheating so he's not likely to raise a hue and cry over it."
"All the same, you won't catch me doing anything so harebrained!"
Since Mariette had not expected him to raise a finger to help himself or her, that was no surprise. It dawned on her that he'd be suspected anyway if only the ring was stolen. "Better if you don't come," she said. "You must ride down to Plymton, or even into Plymouth, and go somewhere where they know you and can swear you were not on the road to Corycombe between nine and ten. Make it from nine till eleven to be safe."
"But I'll have to get up at eight," he complained. "Oh, very well. You had best take Jim Groom with you."
"No, it wouldn't be fair to involve a servant and he might be suspected. No one will suspect a female. I'm tall enough to pass as a smallish man, in a mask and cloak and with my hair tucked up under a hat." Dropping her book on the sofa beside her, she jumped up. "Come on, let's go and see what you have in your wardrobe that I can wear. No, the gun-room first. I'll need a pistol to wave at him."
Ragamuffin bouncing after her, Mariette sped from the room, trailed by her reluctant cousin.
The morning air was icy. When Mariette left the manor, the sun had not yet cleared the ridge of Grevin Moor, though to the north the sprinkle of snow on high Bell Tor already glistened in its slanting rays. She was glad of the warmth of Ralph's outgrown greatcoat.
She glanced back at the house. Long and low, built of grey limestone with lintels and sills of granite and a slate roof, it seemed a part of the hillside. It showed no signs of life but the smoke from the chimneys. No one called her back.
Before Ralph set off for Plymouth he had entered a final token protest, a feeble attempt to persuade her to approach Lord Malcolm in a more conventional manner. Uncle George, already absorbed in contemplation of his pig/badger, had smiled absently when she kissed his cheek and told him she was going out riding. Jim Groom, saddling Sparrow for her, had made his usual offer to go with her but was unsurprised by her refusal; his old bones ached so early in the morning.
Only Ragamuffin did not fall in with her plans. She had intended to leave him at home, for he was well-known in the district. A report of a dog of his unique ancestry and distinctive colouring accompanying the highwayman would point to her as surely as a compass needle points to the poles. However, when she looked for him to shut him in, she could not find him. She added a length of cord to her equipment.
As if the dog had read her mind he was waiting for her, grinning, outside the gate to the stable-yard. Too late to take him back
He roamed ahead as she and Sparrow started up the rocky path behind the house. As soon as they left the shelter of the trees, the east wind hit them. The sure-footed gelding took the blast in his stride, never faltering. Mariette, clinging with both legs, was certain a side-saddle rider would have been swept from his back on the instant.
Fortunately she had thought to put her highwayman's hat--an old chapeau bras rescued from the attic--in a saddlebag and to bring some extra hairpins. Though her own riding hat was firmly tied on with ribbons, her knot of hair escaped in no time and streamed in a matted mass about her shoulders. She'd never get a comb through it!
In the hollows between grey-green furze thickets and rusty banks of withered bracken, sheep huddled. Ragamuffin ignored them, intent on a rabbit trail. He followed it to the edge of Bell Brook, here a tumbling rill, then gave up in disgust and returned to Mariette and Sparrow. She was glad of his company.
The path forked. One branch twisted up the hillside towards the pile of massive stones topping Bell Tor. They took the other branch, slanting westward across the steep slope of Wicken's Down. Gorse and bracken gave way to the dark green of heather and sparse, ochre grasses. Here and there the bare bones of the moor showed through in slabs of grey rock.
At the top the wind blew fiercer than ever, and colder though the sun shone in the pale sky. The air was crystal clear but shoulders of the hill hid both valleys from Mariette. Sparrow picked his way down until Corycombe came into sight, still far below. Mariette drew rein to inspect the scene.
She knew it well. The square, red-brick house stood on the lower slope with its back to her, facing west. The road to it ran along Cory Brook, mostly hidden by a grey haze of leafless trees. Farther south, where the valley widened, brick-red Devon cattle grazed the meadows around the straggling village of Wickenton.
At one point the road emerged from the woods to cross a low spur of the moor, skirting an outcrop of rocks. That was the best spot for an ambush, Mariette decided. The rocks were tall enough to hide behind, and the ground was fairly level for several hundred yards, allowing a quick escape. She turned Sparrow's head downward again.
In the shelter of the outcrop she coiled her tangled hair and pinned it up. Concealing her face with a mask cut from a black silk stocking reluctantly surrendered by Ralph, she jammed the tricorne on her head and turned up the collar of her coat.
Ragamuffin watched, fascinated. As her face disappeared, he gave a questioning bark.
"Hush!" she said. "Come here." She took him behind a large clump of heather, tying him to the tough stalk with what she hoped was an easily released knot. "Down and stay!" she ordered.
He gave her a disgusted look and flopped to the ground.
Mariette found a spot where she could peek between two rocks and watch the road to the point where it dipped behind the trees. Now, out of the wind and after the exercise, she was quite warm. Nonetheless she shivered. She wasn't afraid, she assured herself, merely a trifle nervous. After all, she had never held up a coach before. Unconventional, perhaps, but vastly preferable to the alternative--wasn't it?
The image of Lord Wareham's sneering face flashed before her mind's eye. Playing highwayman was infinitely preferable to such a mortifying scene!
Sparrow pricked his ears and a moment later she heard the jingle of harness and rumble of wheels. Four splendid bays came into view. They moved faster than she had expected, because they pulled not a heavy coach but a smart sporting curricle, moss green picked out in yellow, driven by a man in a multicaped greatcoat. Another man sat beside him, and a third up behind. A roan mare trotted after, tied to the rear.
Swinging hurriedly into the saddle, Mariette urged Sparrow forward. The distance was too short to attain a gallop, so she did not exactly thunder down upon her victim as she had pictured herself. However, she waved her pistol at the driver and shouted in her deepest voice, "Stand and deliver!"
The effect was gratifying. She had to admire the way the driver smartly pulled up his team, keeping control as he came to a halt right beside her. By his dress he must be Lord Malcolm Eden, the others his valet, perhaps, and a groom. Her plans had concentrated on the villain who cheated Ralph of his ring and she had not reckoned on so many. Training her gun on his lordship, she hoped the servants would not risk injury to their master.
She dropped the reins on Sparrow's neck, thankful she had trained him to stand still. "Give me your purse," she ordered Lord Malcolm gruffly, "and any rings or other baubles you are wearing or carrying."
He stared at her, a frown creasing his brow. "You're not..."
"Hurry, or I'll shoot!"
Laying his whip across his lap, he reached into his pocket. "My purse." He set it in her outstretched hand.
"M'lord!" the groom protested.
"Quiet." Lord Malcolm's voice was steady, unalarmed.
One-handed, Mariette loosened the drawstring, her gaze and her gun fixed on him. With his teeth he pulled off his right glove and showed her his bare fingers.
Transferring the reins to his right hand, he removed the left glove. Bare fingers again.
As she felt in the purse, he raised his chin and turned to the small, neat man beside him. "Padgett, pray remove my tie-pin for our friend."
"Never mind." She had the signet ring. Pocketing it, she tossed the clinking purse into the curricle. "My thanks, my lord."
Laughter bubbled up at the sight of his puzzled face. With a half-choked chuckle she kicked Sparrow into motion. They swung away from the curricle and raced for the shelter of the rocks.
Ragamuffin rose behind his heather bush and woofed a greeting.
"Oh damn!" She had forgotten him.
Flinging herself from Sparrow's back, she swiftly unhitched the cord to set the dog free. Her foot in the stirrup, she sprang upwards just as a voice behind her yelled, "Don't shoot, you fool!"
Crack! A fiery flail struck Mariette in the buttocks. She lost her balance, tottered, fell. Her foot slipped from the stirrup as the world whirled about her, then her head met solid rock and blackness closed in.