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Deirdre Gower slid her dainty dancing slippers into a pair of galoshes and pulled a dusty greatcoat over her ball gown. She eased the attic window up and crawled out onto the flat roof that overlooked the countryside. From the vantage point of the roof of Beaulac, she should have had a good view of the private road up from the main road, but her vision was hampered by the swirling snow. Thick enough to show the pattern of the wind currents, the snow was like a moving curtain composed of discrete, glistening particles. Rather beautiful, really, but her mind was on another of nature's wonders at the moment?namely, her fiancé
She inched closer to the edge of the roof and was rewarded by the sight of two bobbing moons of light from a carriage. As the rig came closer, she recognized through the snow the stylish lines of Baron Belami's curricle. It was just like him to be driving an open carriage in the teeth of a howling storm. He'd catch his death of pneumonia and that would be the end of it. A respectable finish to the mismatch of the century. Her nose and fingers were cold, but her heart was colder.
For three days she had waited at Beaulac, her fiancé's home in the country, for his arrival to celebrate their betrothal, and to announce it publicly. It was to have been made at midnight, but there would be no announcement now. Such rough usage as she had endured at his hands required desperate measures. She must head him off before he reached the ballroom, and detain him. His arrival before the hour of midnight would ruin everything. She drew out her watch and squinted into the snow to read the hour. Ten minutes to twelve!
She must hurry backdownstairs, but at least it was unlikely Belami could get dried out, dressed, and into the ballroom by midnight. She would remain on the alert near the door to divert him if he tried to enter. She hastened back through the window into the attic, removed the galoshes and greatcoat, and was back in the ballroom in time, nervously watching the door. She saw her chaperone, the Duchess of Charney, enter on Herr Bessler's arm.
The long-case clock in the corner heaved and moaned, indicating to bystanders it was gearing up to do its most strenuous duty of the day?emit twelve tinny chimes. This particular dozen tintinnabulations were of more than ordinary significance. They indicated the demise of A.D. 1816 and ushered in 1817. The party assembled in Lady Belami's ballroom stood in a wobbly circle, rather thinking they ought to join hands, or sing, or at least wish their partners a happy New Year. Lady Belami was not the sort of hostess who organized matters well. She stood frowning, muttering to her companion, "I suppose we ought to ..." ?If Dickie were here, I'm sure he would ..." ?I don't know why someone doesn't ..."
Her disjointed ramblings were interrupted by a high shriek. Like every other head in the room, hers spun to the source of the noise, which was a lady near the ballroom door. "A mouse! I know it is a mouse," Lady Belami moaned. "The larder is full of them. Nothing works?arsenic, traps. Wouldn't you know one of them would decide to attend my New Year's Ball and make a shambles of it."
The shriek, however, was not followed by a series of shrieks, as it would be had the mouse continued its way into the room. It was followed by a sudden buzz of excited exclamations, then a dead, ominous silence. Lady Belami was not quite five feet tall, she couldn't see a thing over Pronto Pilgrim's head. "What is it? What's happening?" she demanded.
Pronto, no reliable source of information at the best of times, though not usually reluctant to speak, was as quiet as the rest. Lady Belami had to bolt around the corner to see what was afoot. She wished she had not. In fact, she felt very much like fainting at the awful scene that greeted her bulging blue eyes. It was like something out of a vulgar melodrama. "I'll kill him," she muttered to herself. "If this is one of Dickie's pranks, I shall personally carve him with a hot knife and feed his entrails to the carrion crows."
It was impossible to know the form under the sheet was Dickie, her son, though it was the right size for him. The face was transmogrified in some manner. A silk stocking was pulled over the head, with two holes burned in it for eyes. My, what a grotesque, frightening effect it gave. Was he playing at being Knag, the family ghost? How he used to love to dress up and scare the servants. He hadn't covered his hands in those days, but tonight he had his hands covered in a large pair of ladies? kidskin gloves. In the left hand he held his handsome dueling pistol, with the nacre insets on the handle. As she watched, the pistol was played around in a circle, threatening all the helpless guests, till it reached the guest of honor, the Dowager Duchess of Charney. This was really too bad of Dickie. If he wanted to play off a joke, he ought to have chosen someone other than the demmed Duchess for the butt of it. He was doing it to discourage the dame's notion of having him marry her niece, of course, but surely to God he might have discouraged them in a more civilized manner.
Lady Belami waited with bated breath to see what his next freakish start would be. The man's right hand went out to the duchess's wattled neck and grasped her ugly necklace. Without even asking her to unfasten it, he yanked. Just yanked, yanked, and yanked again, while poor Charney's gray head tumbled about like a rag doll?s, till at last he had the necklace in his gloved hand. Then without a word he flashed the pistol all around at the guests again, and backed out of the room without saying a single word. How very wise of Dickie. His mellifluous voice would have been a dead giveaway. The double doors slammed violently. A key was turned in the lock, and the pandemonium broke out.
Lady Belami was blissfully unaware of it. She had keeled over in a dead faint, into the arms of Pronto Pilgrim. She later claimed it was all that saved her from dying of heart failure. The body had its own wisdom; it knew when the system could take no more. She often told Dickie so, when he tried to push his pills and potions down her throat. She missed the ensuing excitement, and was heartily glad of it. While the gentlemen recovered from shock and fear and rattled at the locked doors, she lay on the floor being vigorously fanned with Pronto's handkerchief, being told to just take it easy and by jove she'd be right as a trivet in jig-time. When this news did not revive her, Pronto looked around the milling throng for someone to aid him, but the clunches were more interested in gaping and yapping, like a bunch of untrained hunting dogs.
Happening to catch Deirdre's eye, he tossed his head to signal he wanted assistance, but she ignored him. Where did she get the reputation of being such a worthy girl? The minx was smiling!
Deirdre did feel one small pang of conscience when she ignored Pronto's tacit plea, but she had more pressing matters to attend to. She meant to be the first to find Belami, and ring a resounding peal over him. She would claim a belief that he was the thief, and demand in outraged accents how he dared to subject her to this infamous insult. Bad enough he had not once called on her in London, after she had accepted his stilted offer; worse that he had not bothered to come to the ball that was to announce their betrothal. But to turn thief and steal her aunt's necklace was really the outside of enough. In fact, it was dangerously indiscreet. But when had Belami ever behaved with even a modicum of discretion? she would ask haughtily. The only decent thing he'd ever done in his life was to offer for her after all but seducing her in her aunt's conservatory, and now he was turning that into ignominy and shame.
She would not be robbed of the pleasure of telling him she had no intention in the world of marrying him. The contemplation of that had consoled her through it all. She meant to inform him as well that she only ever agreed to marry him to escape the clutches of Lord Twombley. That would set him down a peg, to be found only marginally better than an aging drunkard with a face like a cod. But now the cod had found a lady so undemanding as to accept him, so she was safe, and could give Belami his congé without fear of reprisals from her Aunt Charney.
She remembered the little door at the end of the ballroom. She darted to it and, finding it open, ran through the adjoining card room to another door that gave access to the hall. By this time, three gentlemen were hot on her heels. The men went immediately to the ballroom door and unlocked it to free the captive guests, who had not the least desire to leave the scene of the crime, so the men went inside instead to receive congratulations for their daring.
Deirdre was alone in the hall, looking all around. There was no one in sight, but Snippe, the butler, soon came forward from his little room near the front door.
"Where did he go? Did you see which way he went?" she asked.
"Who are you looking for, ma?am?" he asked, peering over her shoulder to the ballroom, where he knew by the excited voices and liberal use of vinaigrettes that the New Year had been celebrated in some unusual manner.
"The thief! He ran out this door. Where is he?" she asked.
"Thief, ma?am?" Snippe asked, his forehead corrugated with lines of astonishment, his little snake eyes opened wide. "I haven't seen anyone. I was overseeing the preparation of the trays of champagne."
"Sampling them is more like it," she charged sharply. A lying, bibulous butler, exactly what one might expect of Belami. This was not the first aberration from propriety observed in the household.
As Snippe spoke, three liveried menservants advanced, each holding a tray of filled champagne glasses, balanced on one hand, just at the level of the ear. They passed into the ballroom and were soon distributing their cargo.
Deirdre thought a moment and concluded that the thief would not have gone out by the kitchen, where he would have met several servants. He would have gone out that front door, and Snippe, into the wine, had not seen him. She marched to the door and pulled it open. When she looked outside, she observed that the falling snow had covered the ground in an undisturbed blanket of white. There wasn't a single footprint to mar its smoothness. So he was still in the house then. She pelted up and down the hall, throwing open doors and running into chambers, some lit and warmed by a fire, others dark and cold, but all perfectly empty. He had vanished without a trace, with the fabulous Charney Diamond necklace.
She looked to the carved staircase leading to the bedchambers, thinking the thief might have gone upstairs, but in the end the number of possible hiding places defeated her. And where was Belami through all this? He had arrived some minutes ago. A pensive frown wrinkled her brow. Was it possible he really was the man under the sheet and mask? She returned, not too uneagerly, to the ballroom. She saw the groups of excited guests, gesturing, drinking the champagne, discussing the theft, and joined them. Before long, she met Pronto and another gentleman carrying Lady Belami out, and stood aside, but made no offer to attend the stricken dame. It was a wonder the duchess didn't faint, she thought, forgetting, in her excitement, the heroic nature of the octogenarian.
The Dowager Duchess was having a marvelous time, and would have for days to come. Nothing had a stronger appeal to her than to have such a prime piece of depravity to hold over her hostess's head. And the whole of society would know it. There wasn't a chance of Bertie's hushing up this scandal. Hah! The baron must marry Deirdre now, to repay them for this affront.
Truth to tell, she was close to despairing of ever bringing Belami to the sticking point, especially when he had chosen not to attend the betrothal ball. Not much was beyond her notions of what a duchess might do, but announcing an engagement to a man who had quite possibly skipped the country did exceed the pale. Just like him, ramshackle fellow, but an excellent parti for all that. Good blood, good fortune, and a good brain. That he was also as handsome as a Greek statue was acceptable, though not very interesting.
Marriage to a lady of strong virtue like Deirdre would tame him of those little vices of gaming, whoring, and using too much scent. It had not yet occurred to her that the baron might have been instrumental in the theft. She was cagey, but not very inventive in her scheming.
It had occurred to others. His mother, Bertie, knew perfectly well Dick had done it, and took a solemn vow to kill him when he came waltzing in grinning the next morning with some story of having gotten snowed in somewhere. She regularly vowed to commit sonicide, as Dick called it, but had thus far neglected to execute her vows. It was no easy thing to be the mother of Baron Belami, the scapegrace darling of society. He was spoiled rotten. Handsome, rich, sought after?but really a very good son, she decided more leniently as a memory of his boyish face floated before her closed eyes.
When he was away from home, as he usually was, it was easy to think of him as still a boy. She had no mature portrait of him. What was propped on her dresser was a likeness taken on his fourteenth birthday. Since the summer when he had sat impatiently for Romney, his frame had stretched to six feet, his shoulders had grown broad and his body muscled. His nose and face had lost the last traces of childhood fullness, to reveal the perfect set of classical bones beneath. The lips, to be sure, had taken on a sardonic cast, but that was seldom in evidence when he was with his mama, whom he unceremoniously called Bertie, as though she were one of his chums.
And really she was closer to a chum than a mother in her dealings with him. It seemed a father's job to chide a son for irregularities, and Dick hadn't had a father since that portrait was taken. His eyes hadn't changed much, she thought, looking at the portrait. They were still as dark as coffee, with lashes a yard long, which she knew Dickie hated. He had actually trimmed them once, which had the effect of making them grow even longer. He liked the haughty line of his eyebrows well enough, especially the one he had trained to lift an inch higher than the other when he wished to indicate displeasure, disagreement, a question, or even plain dislike. A very expressive set of eyebrows had Dickie.
And where was he? She had hoped he would have sneaked into her chamber by now, to explain with his laughing eyes why he had done it, how he had done it, what he had done with the curst necklace, and ultimately, of course, who he meant to blame it on and how he meant to return it. He was not a thief, certainly. That at least need not disturb her mind for an instant.
A perfectly rapscallion son, but not a thief. The only thing he ever stole was ladies? hearts, and really that was not so much theft as involuntary acquisition. The present involuntary acquisition, Deirdre Gower, was to be turned off by the charade of stealing Charney's necklace. That was what he was up to.
A sound at the door caused her to sit up, but it was only a maid asking if she would like some wine, or hartshorn, or laudanum.
"My son. I want Dickie," she said in a weak voice.
"We haven't found him yet, mum," the witless maid answered, and received a pillow on the side of her head for the insolence of suggesting Dick had anything to do with the night's imbroglio. It was one thing for a mother to know he had done it; she would not allow others to say so.
"Send him up the minute he arrives from London," she ordered in her most cutting voice.
The maid left without realizing she had been put in her place. Even Bertie's most cutting voice was not very sharp. Dick had gotten his mellifluous tone from her. His papa had barked like a dog.