About the Author
Patricia Veryan lives in Kirkland, Washington. She is the author of Riddle of the Lost Lover.
Patricia Veryan was born in England and moved to the United States following World War II. The author of several critically acclaimed Georgian and Regency series, including the Sanguinet Saga, she now lives in Kirkland, Washington.
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The Riddle of The Lost Lover
By Patricia Veryan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Patricia Veryan
All rights reserved.
"Disgusting!" Jerking aside the heavy draperies that shielded her drawing-room windows, Mrs. Fortram scowled down into the rainy darkness and said in her elderly and irritable voice, "Here's another of 'em rattling up the street to shatter our quiet! Look at 'em, Hubert! Confounded idiots! There ought to be a law against routs and balls and musicales and falderals being carried on in this peaceful and refined neighbourhood!"
"Mmm," said her son, savouring another sip of his port.
For all her apparent frailty, Gertrude Fortram was not easily diverted from a Cause. Choosing to forget the many occasions on which her own parties and balls had disrupted the neighbourhood peace, she went on fiercely, "Cluttering up the streets at all hours of the night! Keeping honest folk from their rest! You'd think people could find better ways to amuse themselves than to put on clothes that belong more to midsummer than a cold wintry night, and drive halfway across Town to answer the summons of Esther Wolff, as if she were one of the almighty ton leaders! Which she is not, and so I've told her!"
Receiving only a sympathetic grunt in reply, the old lady continued, "It's not as if we were at the height of the Season. I'd thought London thin of company, in point of fact, but — Heavens! If ever I saw such a crush! Much good those special constables do! Lud, only look at how the carriages are obliged to wait in line! One might suppose Wellington himself was among the guests!"
Mr. Fortram settled his portly self more comfortably in his deep chair, stretched his slippered feet closer to the warm hearth, and turned the page of The Times. "In that case I would have accepted the invitation, Mama," he murmured, drowsily content. "I can only be glad that —"
He glanced up, startled, as his words were cut off by a shriek.
"That wretched cat!" shrilled his mother. "The fur will fly now!" His curiosity aroused at last, Hubert puffed and huffed, extricated himself from the chair and crossed to the window. "Who? Oh, Gad! The Hersh dragon! I thought she was in Bath."
"As she should be at this time of year. And — Look there! Lucinda Carden, and on Ted Ridgley's arm! Who's next? Ah, that horrid Phineas Bodwin escorting ... I cannot recognize her, but she looks a trollop, which surprises me not at all."
"Gathering of the gabble-mongers," sneered Hubert. "I wonder whom they mean to flay tonight."
"Sir Kendrick Vespa, of course!"
Shocked, he protested, "Jupiter, ma'am! They can't flay poor Sir Kendrick. Dead, y'know."
"No, I don't know! Nobody knows for sure. And his son's not gone into mourning, I heard."
"What, is Jack Vespa in Town, again? Gad, but that was a fast recover. Last word I had was that he was at death's door."
Mrs. Fortram turned her attention from the window and eyed her son with rare interest. "Well, he's not there now, and I'm glad of it, for I like the boy. What else have you heard? The gabsters who usually know everything are suddenly like so many stuffed owls. Why all the secrecy?"
"Be dashed if I know. Paige Manderville was in White's yesterday, and all he'd say was that Jack and Sir Kendrick surprised some rogues hiding in an old quarry on Jack's Dorsetshire property, and —"
"And that Captain Jack was shot down and his father pushed into some sort of underground flood. Outrageous! Despicable! Dastardly! But that was weeks ago, and despite all the flurry at Bow Street and Whitehall, with Runners and Special Constables and dragoons galloping about hither and yon, what have they accomplished? Have the culprits been arrested? No! What mischief were they about down in that old quarry? No one knows — or will admit to knowing! Why is Bow Street mum, and the newspapers scarce mention the business? That's what I'd like to know!"
"As would we all, ma'am. It's a regular mystery, especially when you consider that Sir Kendrick Vespa is — was a distinguished diplomatist."
"True." Mrs. Fortram restored her attention to the window. "The thing is, they haven't found his body yet. Might never find it. Which will leave his surviving son properly in the suds, eh?"
"Mmm." Putting up his quizzing glass, Mr. Fortram admired the points of a fine chestnut team now pulling up before the great house across the street, and murmured absently, "I wonder if his poor mama knows of her bereavement."
"Poor mama, indeed! All Faith Vespa ever did was whine about Sir Kendrick's neglect of her. I doubt she'll grieve him, though she's missing a splendid opportunity to moan and wail and weep crocodile tears all over Town. I don't see how she could know of her widowhood, at all events. The silly widgeon ran off to some relations in South America, didn't she?"
Hubert pursed his lips and returned to his chair. "So they say. I for one cannot blame her. All that scandal about her husband's lightskirts. Terrible embarrassment for the lady."
"Well, running away added grist to the gossip mills, which she'd know had she a particle of sense. Kendrick Vespa was too handsome, and that's always a danger. But had Lady Faith handled him properly ... instead of which I'm of the opinion her complainings fairly drove the man to infidelity."
Again reaching for The Times, Hubert murmured, "Now we don't know that for sure, Mama. And the Vespas, after all, rank among our most ancient and respected Houses."
"The more reason for Sir Kendrick to have guarded his name against scandal! It's downright shocking that a fine old family could be thriving one day, and destroyed the next. That's what comes of — Look! Only look! The Ottavio woman! I haven't seen her for — Doesn't she live in Dorsetshire? I'll warrant she knows what went on down at Alabaster Regis — or whatever it's called."
Joining his parent once more, Hubert put up his quizzing glass. "You're right, by Jove! I remember the little lady. French, ain't she? A duchess or some such thing."
"Italian. She claims to be the duchess of Ottavio, but her husband died just before inheriting the title, and she is no more a duchess than am I! Whatever can have brought her back into Town, I wonder? Well, that bears off the palm! Lord, are you lumping back into your chair again? Come, Hubert! Up! Up! Rouse your lazy self! No use looking so hardly done by. The whole town's talking and with the gathering of gabblers across the way there's not a doubt in the world but that Sir Kendrick's escapades with the Stokely hussy will be the prime topic. I don't mean to miss it, and so I warn you! Change your dress. I'll be ready in half an hour!"
"But — mama," wailed Hubert. "You said you didn't want to go out tonight. It's raining! And besides, you declined the invitation."
"Well now I'm accepting! Half an hour, Hubert! Stir your stumps!"
* * *
Mr. Gaylord Wolff had instructed his architect to design a ballroom in the Grecian style, and the results of that talented gentleman's efforts were much admired in London Town. Despite the cold air outside and the abundance of marble inside, the impressive room was crowded and very warm, and when a quadrille ended many of the guests made their way to the cooler dining and reception rooms where an elegant supper was spread on long tables. Laden trays were borne off to adjacent ante-rooms whose smaller tables, chairs and sofas filled rapidly. The air hummed with polite chatter, aristocratic faces were variously sad or titillated, and on every tongue it seemed was the one name — Vespa.
Seldom had the ton enjoyed a more delicious scandal. Sir Kendrick Vespa had long been known to have a mistress in keeping, in addition to other ladies believed to have enjoyed his protection from time to time. What had not been known was that the much admired gentleman had lately enjoyed a secret affaire de coeur with Mrs. Esmeralda Stokely. The widow was lovely, but she was young enough to be his daughter, and, worse, had been on the brink of marrying his eldest son prior to the young soldier's tragic death in battle.
Mrs. Fortram and Hubert, having made their way to the supper rooms, gathered plates of delicacies and drifted unobtrusively from one group to another, their eagerly stretched ears gathering a choice harvest of gossip.
"... and not to speak ill of the dead, my dear Lady Vera, but to think that lovely man could have been so devious!"
"... poor Mrs. Omberleigh. She was never good ton, of course, but my heart bleeds for her."
"What did she expect? The Omberleigh was his mistress for ten years at least, and few gentlemen keep a fancy piece for that long. My sympathies are with..."
"... poor Lady Vespa! She knew about the Omberleigh woman, of course, but to then discover the others! My dear! And now ..."
"... is it truth that The Stokely was betrothed to his own son? If ever I heard of so shocking ..."
"... and that he was involved with the Widow Stokely even while poor Sherborne was still alive! Can you credit ..."
Having at this point reached an especially fruitful source, Mrs. Fortram drew Hubert to a halt close to one of the sofas set about the fringes of the dining room.
Mrs. Anne Hersh, seated beside her friend Lady Grey, arranged her sharp features into what she supposed to be a look of piety and said with a sigh as deep as it was insincere, "Now Captain John Vespa is the one I sympathize with. First his brother, and now his father gone, and his mama flaunting off to the other side of the world!"
Not to be outdone, Lady Grey moaned softly. "How alone he must feel, poor boy. And there is no bride in the offing, as I recall."
"If there were, you would surely know of it! You always are so well-informed!"
Lady Grey smiled patronizingly. "Thank you, my love. One does not care to gossip, you understand. But when one is well acquainted — well, how can one refrain from ... hearing things?"
"Exactly! So now, do tell me, whatever do you think of this latest ghastly on-dit?"
Her ladyship, who had been in the midlands visiting her mama-in-law, knew of no 'latest ghastly on-dit' and tried in vain to hide her chagrin.
Gertrude Fortram was also chagrined, for she could not quite catch the whispered confidence when Mrs. Hersh spread the good word.
Accustomed as she was to London's gossip mills, Lady Grey uttered a shocked squeal and dropped her fan. "Another one?"
"And a foreigner, no less! The hints are that she is very beautiful, in an exotic uncivilized sort of way. At least, that's what —" Mrs. Hersh stopped speaking, and turned around.
Mrs. Fortram returned Anne Hersh's haughty stare with an unrepentant display of brown teeth, then tugged imperatively on Hubert's arm and they resumed their enlightening stroll.
The orchestra was striking up for a country dance and the guests started to drift towards the ballroom.
"What now, ma'am?" asked Hubert, as intrigued by what they had gleaned as was his mother.
"Over there," hissed Mrs. Fortram. "Manderville. If anyone knows who was Kendrick Vespa's 'other one,' that impudent young rascal does. Come on!"
"If he does know, he won't tell you," warned Hubert. "He's one of Jack Vespa's best friends."
"Then we won't ask him, you flat," snarled his doting parent. "Come — on!"
* * *
"It was the most horrid party I ever attended!" Miss Consuela Carlotta Angelica Jones twitched her cloak tighter about her small and shapely self and snuggled against the squabs of the carriage. "I wonder the musicians even bothered to play; the only reason people came was to gabble and gossip and giggle about the Vespas!" She was a little flushed, her blue eyes reflected her irritation and she pushed back a straying curl impatiently.
Seated opposite her, Paige Manderville reflected that although she could not be judged a beauty, Miss Consuela Jones was very pretty. Her disposition was sunny, her heart warm and her loyalties deep and unwavering. If she was also unconventionally frank, inclined to act on impulse (sometimes disastrously), and had a quick-flaring temper, those were qualities he found charming, so that he envied Jack Vespa, who was in love with her, and to whom she was devoted. He said an amused, "You look like an irritated little pouter pigeon, m'dear. I'll own it's as well Jack was not present this evening, but considering the party was so 'horrid,' you did not want for dance partners. Indeed, had Jack and your gallant Colonel both been present, they'd have had small chance of writing their names on your dance card."
Even in the dim light thrown by the carriage lamps it was clear that those who named Manderville one of London's most handsome bachelors were justified, but Miss Jones viewed his dark good looks without rapture. "If by my 'gallant Colonel' you refer to Hastings Adair," she snapped, "you give me too much credit, Paige!"
"Since Toby and I are both lowly lieutenants and Jack a mere captain, whom else should I —"
"Jack is not merely a captain, but was one of Lord Wellington's personal aides, which makes him very special indeed! Furthermore, how could he possibly attend a ball when he is — or is supposed to be — in mourning for his — his father. Horrid, wicked creature that he was!"
The diminutive Francesca, self-styled 'duchess of Ottavio,' who was the third occupant of the luxurious coach, yawned, and demanded, "Well — and well? What have you expect, my meadowlark? Jack was shot, so people they sympathize. But now, he is recovered, and does he go into blacks? He does not! Does he use the title that is now legally his? No! Will he stay in the Vespa mansion in Town? No! Has he once set his feets into his great house at Richmond? No again!"
"You know why Jack refuses to use the title and the Vespa properties," said Consuela defensively.
"Oh, si. I know. You know. Lieutenant Paige and Tobias Broderick, they know. But does the ton know?"
Manderville inserted quietly, "Can't very well tell 'em, can he, ma'am? Not without disgracing his mama."
"So what does your ton?" demanded the old lady. "It seethe. It revel! It is contissimo! Rumour, she spread her feathers and fly like — like the tempest about this old town! I will speak of the silliness that I was hearing at this very silly ball. One — that Sir Kendrick Vespa is not killed in that quarry at all, but has run off to some secret paradise with his beautiful Indian lady. Two — that Lady Faith Vespa did not go out to South America to visit her cousins, but that Sir Kendrick strangled her. And, three — she is buried somewhere —"
"In the quarry at Alabaster Royal, no doubt," put in Manderville derisively. "Which is what Jack and Sir Kendrick were occupied with down there when they were attacked. Burying the poor lady."
Consuela gave a squeak of rage. "No! Surely, Nonna, they did not say such things!"
"I heard much the same sort of slanderous nonsense," drawled Manderville. "Only in even more lurid detail. Is it so much worse than the truth?"
Consuela frowned broodingly at the window. "They don't know the truth. So they make up things!"
"They've learned enough to discover that Sir Kendrick Vespa, the pattern-card of a British diplomatist, was at the least a womanizing rascal. He has betrayed the Code. They won't soon forgive him."
"Me," flared Consuela fiercely, "I shall never forgive him! For what he did to my beloved Papa, and to Jack, who loved him, he should have been taken and hanged by the neck till he was thoroughly dead! Dead without question! Nor need you pretend you did not despise him as much as I."
"True," admitted Manderville. "I'd enjoy to have called out the bas — er, to have had the gentleman in the sights of my pistol."
Lady Francesca said, "All of this it tells us nothing in the matters, saving that no one of us has learned anything of what our Captain Jack hopes to discover. I myself have try many careful ways. I did the giggle and gabble with the most spiteful of the affaires of Lady Faith Vespa. That woman with the long nose, Gertrude Fortram, has learn that we are the neighbours to Captain Jack's Dorset lands, so she come and smile and coil around me like a dried-up serpent, as if I am not awareness that she have much despise for me. And why must you laugh so much, Lieutenant Paige? Have I perhaps lie in my tooth?"
Excerpted from The Riddle of The Lost Lover by Patricia Veryan. Copyright © 1998 Patricia Veryan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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