Chapter Twenty-Six - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
Had James Moriarty been privy to the opinions expressed in the sewing lofts and workshops of Gondal Town in the week leading up to the long-delayed State Ball, it is likely that the numbers of severed heads crowning the gates of the city for the crime of misspeaking the King would have trebled. The seamstresses of Gondal were a tight-knit sisterhood, however. Freely as they spoke among themselves, no word leaked to the King’s agents.
Nor did the King’s belated decision to make the inaugural State Ball of his reign a costume piece in the style of forty years earlier pass without comment in Society. One sharp-tongued old dowager observed that the dress of the day had been unflattering enough when she and her cohort were maidens in the prime of their dancing days and she trusted no onlooker would be shocked into swooning by the sight of her naked, ancient shoulders.
That risk was, fortunately, averted once the dowager in question’s family discovered that the gaieties of the season had left their great-aunt quite done up, necessitating an early retirement from Gondal Town to the shores of Aspin Water to recruit herself.
The Betrothal Portrait shifted its quarters once more and now hung above the great entrance to the palace ballroom. A succession of frantic applications were made to the Household Office to permit a procession of young ladies, their chaperones, abigails and representatives to view the portrait and study its subtleties of drapery and accessorising. It was even rumoured that a former tiring maid of the late Queen (senior enough to have been already in Palace employ at the date of Lady Elaine’s engagement) had been spotted sketching busily away before the portrait, though on whose account none could say.
As was only proper, the most intense gossip was reserved for the first lady of Gondal, Molly Hooper. On her narrow shoulders lay the burden not merely of opening the first (and therefore most important) State Ball of her brother’s reign, but of making her initial appearance directly below a portrait of the King’s Royal parents, while dressed in as close a simulacrum of her mother’s attire as an entire army of attendants could contrive. Furthermore, it was confidently expected that this same State Ball would see her engagement announced; most probably to her cousin Mr Darcy of Pemberley but (because a one-horse race is of no interest to anyone) conceivably to a) a nephew of the King of France; b) a Grand-Duke of the Holy Roman Empire; or c) any one of half a hundred Catholic lords and princes of Europe from Christiana to Valencia.
It was reliably reported that her looming responsibilities had brought to a climax her simmering nervous complaint; that she had been seen grey, wan and trembling at Mass; that her house had been turned into a fortress from which only her most trusted advisors were allowed to emerge; that the State Ball, so often postponed, might suffer yet another delay were it confirmed the first lady of Gondal had entered a decline; that the Royal Physician had been summoned —
But at this last, even the busy tongue of gossip stilled, and the ladies looked sideways at each other, shrugged, and gave a little laugh at the absurdity into which speculation had led them. For, whatever rumour whispered, how could there really be anything amiss with Molly Hooper, first lady of Gondal, when it was patently obvious that her brother the King was in the best of spirits and that his temper only improved as the hour of the Ball advanced upon them all?
At Hunsford, far from the bustle of the capital, Charlotte’s health was indifferent and her spirits worse. Her husband’s delight after the physician recommended by Lady Catherine confirmed her own month-long suspicions as to her condition should have lightened her mood, but the blizzard of injunctions, recommendations and outright superstitions that had followed would have depressed a heartier soul than hers.
Her entire life became abruptly proscribed. She might not eat cheese or sit in the sun but neither might she sit too long in the shade. Under the oppression of these conflicting proscriptions she felt she might run mad (except that too, it seemed, would harm the infant life her body shielded and was therefore also proscribed.)
Even the relief of tending to the poor was taken from her, lest the miasmas in their dwellings harm the ultimate heir to the Longbourn estate.
Small wonder that she found herself turning more and more to the church. A woman about to embark on one of the most perilous experiences of her life could surely not be blamed for attending more rigorously to her spiritual health? Hunsford’s ascetic, scholarly priest unbent to show her a tepid, distant kindness which she cherished the more because it was so vastly removed from William’s alternating transports and chidings and Lady Catherine’s endless exhortations. She came to rely on his distant, perceptive comments of a morning. They gave her a morsel of hope that the next day had something in it to look forward to.
It was therefore a shock (and not a pleasant one) when, on arriving at the church one early September morning, she found not the tall, crane-like figure that she had been expecting kneeling before the reliquary in the side chapel but a small, round-faced priest with a dusty, dishevelled appearance.
He finished his devotions, genuflected and turned.
An expression of distress crossed those doughy features. “My child; forgive me. I did not see you there.”
“Where is Father Hunter?” she asked and then, conscious of appearing brusque, “that is, I had expected to see him here. I trust he is in health?”
The little priest blinked. “Ma’am, so far as I know, he is in perfect health. But he is bid to wait on my Lord Bishop; there is a convention on canon law in Gondal Town and Father Hunter (he hides his light under a bushel, so you may not be aware how great a scholar this district has shielded these many years) is bid attend. I am here to deputise while he is absent.”
“Oh.” She sank down on a bench and, completely unexpectedly, dropped her head in her hands and burst into tears. In all truth, it was the most minor of disappointments, but for that eternal moment it felt insupportable.
The little priest’s brows knitted. “Oh, my child. You are wandering so alone and yet you need only stretch out your hand to be led home.”
What she might have said to that was forever lost. From outside there came the sound of jangling harness and the shouts and laughter of men. Abruptly a giant of a man ducked into the church. Despite his surroundings and the presence of the priest, the new arrival seemed to be bubbling over with suppressed mirth.
“It has left Rosings, I take it?” the little priest observed mildly.
“Just now, as you are hearing, Father.” His Gondalian was very fluent, but his accent was guttural, foreign. “Would you credit that the King sent no fewer than forty of his personal guard to escort it? Twice the escort he sent for Miss Darcy and this time through the garden of Gondal, not the wilds of the north. A cynical man might say it shows where his true priorities lie.”
“One would be unwise to do so and not just because the King may take offence,” the priest said severely, though Charlotte thought she detected a twinkle in his eye. “May not his grace be supposed to have learned caution from his young cousin’s adventure?”
Her heart turned over; her hand went to her lips. “Has something happened to Mr Darcy’s sister?”
Both men turned to her. The giant got in first.
“You know Miss Darcy?”
“No, I did not say that. But I am a little acquainted with her brother, Mr Darcy. We dined with his aunt when he came to Rosings with his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, but before that I saw him at Meryton, my home town, when he was visiting his friend Mr Bingley. But he always spoke so warmly of his sister — tell me, please, no harm has come to her?”
Very, very gently (she was reminded, fleetingly, of a memory from childhood: the town blacksmith cradling a half-drowned duckling between huge hands and allowing it space near the heat of the furnace) the giant’s hands cupped both of hers.
“Not the slightest harm in the world. I crossed the Adriatic not three nights ago. By that time it was known that Miss Darcy had already landed on Italian shores and the Grande Contessa di Astola (the sister of her paternal grandmother: a most redoubtable dowager, famed for her piety) had received her into her house. Given the Grande Contessa’s connections, few doubt Miss Darcy will be granted a formal audience with His Holiness, after which her entrée into the best society Rome or Naples can afford this winter must be taken as guaranteed. She will miss the State Ball, of course, despite his grace’s best efforts, but one can hardly consider her the loser as a result.”
His words were soothing but Charlotte’s nerves tingled. There was something she was not being told. She had spent too long being fed pap, for stomach and mind both.
“Tell me!” The words ripped out of her. “Tell me! What were the ‘events in the north’ which concerned Mr Darcy’s sister?”
The small, blinking, dough-faced priest laid his hand on her arm. “Come with us my child. You are in need of refreshment: as much for the body as for the spirit.”
Somehow, after a confused few moments, the three of them were sitting in the garden of the priest’s house, beneath a canopy of green leaves, with a jug of lemonade on the table together with a plate of small savoury pastries.
The giant swept her up and down with his gaze. “I should not have gossiped —”
“Tell me!” Without doubt she was possessed: there was no other explanation for her insistence on this point. And yet —
The little priest handed her a glass of lemonade. “My child, drink this.”
He fixed the giant with a hard stare. “Since you have come this far, I beg you tell Mrs Collins the whole of it. I’ll warrant her discretion against that of ten or a hundred ladies of the Court — all of whom currently think they know something of the matter and who will be spreading ever more inaccurate versions even as we speak.”
The giant inclined his head. “That is true. Well, ma’am, so I have heard this happened. The King wished to have all his family about him for the State Ball. Especially, of course, the young ladies. Miss Hooper was bid to come to Gondal Town and Miss Darcy was to come down from Pemberley. Because of the Duke of Malham’s depredations on the Great North Road, his grace the King organised an escort of some twenty troopers for Miss Darcy. But —”
He spread his hands in a gesture of futility. “For all their strength, they could not prevent her capture and kidnap. But it seems a ransom has now been paid by her family and she is at liberty.”
Charlotte choked back a gasp. At liberty, yes, but what did freedom count against a woman’s reputation? Small wonder Miss Darcy had fled the three kingdoms. How lucky she was to have a Grande Contessa di Astola to lend her countenance in her exile.
“You have my solemn word I shall not breathe a syllable of this matter. But what has this to do with the King sending forty troopers to Rosings? Miss Hooper is already in Gondal Town, and, besides, this is not the Great North Road. Surely there can be no danger of bandits here?”
Her voice betrayed her on the last few words, for surely if William or Lady Catherine took an alarm of bandits even this last shred of freedom would be stripped from her.
The giant shook his head.
“Not in the general way, but the freight that has just left Rosings is enough to attract the gentry of crime from across the whole of Europe. They are taking a famous necklace, one of the three elements of the Betrothal Parure, up to Gondal Town so Miss Hooper may wear her mother’s jewels at the State Ball. It will go under armed guard from here direct to the strongroom below the Earl of Ula’s mansion so no thief, however bold, can possibly attempt it.”
“The Betrothal Parure?” Charlotte’s voice wobbled. “Prince Gerald’s gift to Miss Hooper’s mama?”
“You know of it?”
“All Gondal knows of it. The ugliest and most ill-omened collection of baubles in all the three kingdoms.” She was quoting someone, but whom? She grasped for an elusive memory, tone and stress suddenly came together and she remembered.
Eight years old, hiding in the bushes at Lucas Lodge, away from the bustle and pomp of a garden party which was far too grand for the shy child she had been — would still be far too grand now, for the closed, frumpy, unambitious woman she had become. Her father had been made up at the news that the great Sir Vernon Hooper of Netherfield Park would grace his celebration. Charlotte and her mother had looked at each other in silent horror. Together — small as she’d been, her mother had leant on her strength then — they’d worked for days, stood over kitchenmaids and upstairs maids, leant their own hands to pestles and pastry-boards. Together they had pored over old books from the overgrown cupboard which, in the grandeur of his new rank, Papa had dubbed “the library”. Together they followed crabbed instructions and wore their fingers raw and bleeding on resisting branches to weave a welcome arch under which their guests could pass. Although Mama decreed it “The image of the picture in the book” and asserted that not even Sir Vernon could ever have seen a finer, not even in Gondal Town, Charlotte cringed, inwardly. Her worst forebodings were manifest when young Mrs Duplessis — bride of Clarence Duplessis, the master of Longbourn, and, it was rumoured, a former lady-in-waiting to the Queen herself — passed beneath the lopsided greenery and exchanged a small, sardonic grin with her husband.
That was when she had wriggled her small body into cover in the bushes, hoping no-one would find her until the party was over, praying she would not have to see any more of the guests mocking the Lucas family’s pretensions and inadequacies.
She had been there without making a sound, for what to an eight-year-old felt like an eternity. (Perhaps three-quarters of a turn, her older self observed, editorially.) Almost bored enough to think of emerging and taking her chances, she had heard voices. To be precise, Clarence Duplessis’ voice. The risk of laying herself open to one of his sarcastic remarks drove her back into her lair.
“Did your affairs in the capital prosper?”
She could not see the person addressed, but heard a prolonged sigh. Then, “I had hopes. This time, I indeed had hopes. The Queen promised to raise the matter of the governance of my late wife’s jointure with the King — ”
Her hand went to her lips. That voice’s warmth, its precise cadences were unmistakably those of Sir Vernon Hooper, master of Netherfield Park, the guest of honour.
“And the King refused to hear her?” Something sounded different in Clarence Duplessis’ voice, she had even known that at eight. Now, twenty years later, she understood what it was she had heard. Deference.
“Not exactly. I had an audience arranged, or so I thought. And then my pestilential sister-in-law interfered, roused the King’s anger and made all my preparations moot. Can you believe, she even had the effrontery to bring up the Betrothal Parure to the King? She misrepresented my attempts — my honest attempts to secure control over my daughter’s dowry, the property vouchsafed to her by her mother’s dying word — as an attempt to purloin (as she put it) the ugliest and most ill-omened collection of baubles in all the three kingdoms!”
There had been more, no doubt, but that was the part which had lingered in memory.
Back in the presbytery garden, she blinked ghosts away.
The giant laughed. “Ugliest and most ill-omened?”
She flushed. “I have not seen it myself. I heard it described so, long ago.”
The little priest looked solemn. “By a wise man, it seems. The Betrothal Parure — the necklace from which is on the road to Gondal Town at this very moment, and the ear-bobs from which were given to Miss Hooper by her guardian on her twenty-first birthday — comprises the finest diamonds the late Prince Gerald could procure. As with all such devilish baits, a tale of blood and crime is attached to every single one of the principal stones.”
“Given Prince Gerald’s character,” the giant observed, “he doubtless ensured that personally.”
Bile rose in Charlotte’s throat. She recalled modest ‘Mary Arba’, sketching on the quayside at Elbe, one of three gentlewoman of Elbe enjoying a holiday by the sea. She recalled a warm, friendly voice, marred by a persistent dry cough. She thought of a necklace she had never seen, pictured huge square-cut stones in archaic settings. Pictured old blood turned black in each crevice of those settings.
She wrung her hands.
“The King should not do this. It is wrong. It is an insult to Sir Vernon Hooper. It forces Miss Hooper to appear to honour her mother’s first husband over her own father. It is wrong. It should not happen.”
The priest and the giant exchanged a glance. The giant drew himself up.
“Forgive me, ma’am. I have business to be about. I shall take my leave.”
He was gone. In the quiet of the gardens the priest took her hands in his.
“And so have you, my child. But not here. There is a south wind rising and war may spill across the borders at any time. You have family north of Gondal Town, I believe? Write to them. A woman needs her mother beside her at a time such as this. It is the natural order of things; not the fussiest of husbands or most overbearing of patrons can gainsay it. Go to your mother, my child. Pax tecum.
The last remove of the elaborate banquet was produced, praised and eaten. The subtleties were duly admired; the iced pudding gasped at. The Countess led the ladies upstairs to dress; the Earl ordered the brandy decanters circulated around the gentlemen for one last round of drinks before they, too, headed upstairs to change.
When this absurd masquerade had been mooted, the Earl had suggested that to save time they dine already costumed in their ball attire; the Countess, always pragmatic, had drawn to his attention the sheer impracticality of the fashions of forty years ago for decorous eating, especially for those unfamiliar with managing the sleeves. He had been a general, and a good one, but in this as ever his Countess out-manoeuvred him. The Earl of Ula’s guests ate in elegant, comfortable, modern clothing. Upstairs the clothing for the ball was arrayed on stands and a legion of nervous abigails and valets waited with pomades, baubles and brushes at the ready, poised to transform the dinner party guests into revenants from an earlier reign.
He had never had the smallest particle of the dandy about him; even as a young man at court he had never bothered to primp and preen overmuch, even for grand occasions. In less than half a turn the Earl, dressed for the function ahead, was out on the forecourt of his townhouse, walking back and forth with the air of a man who felt that all his family were simply dragging their heels.
Solitary and dull his current position might be; nonetheless the Earl surveyed the forecourt of his townhouse with gratification not unmixed with a rueful calculation of what the massed outdoor cressets and the brilliant candle-light spilling from the windows was currently costing him in oil and beeswax. He consoled himself that though he must keep the cressets burning to aid early returners (himself, primarily: the rest of the party could keep it up until dawn, and doubtless would) he could order the servants to douse the candles in the public rooms once their party for the Palace had departed.
His lips curled.
How absurd! He was the Earl of Ula, uncle to the King and now, following the fall of the Duke of Malham, the richest nobleman in Gondal (how oddly shaken he had been the other day by that observation his quiet little niece had made, though. If it had not been for Georgiana’s business and Molly’s inconceivable generosity in the matter, to her own impoverishment, it would have felt odd, very odd indeed to acknowledge mousy little Molly as the financial powerhouse of the family. Dear God, if his sister had been in the room, she’d have had apoplexy on the spot!)
At that he guffawed, loud enough to startle the footmen guarding the great front doors. No, he had no need to scrimp on candle wax; not that even the flood of light pouring out from his windows could hold a candle — ha! — to what the Palace would look like tonight, prepared for the first State Ball of his nephew’s reign.
On that thought, he froze. Now he came to it. Out in this breathing night, standing here between the cressets, he knew what had been tugging at his mind beneath the gaudiness of the dinner that had passed and the prospect of the splendour ahead.
The cressets brought back memories of those other torches which had blazed over forts, guardhouses, army camps across the length and breadth of Gondal. Back when the cumbersome garb he was wearing for this preposterous frolic of his nephew’s had been his daily formal wear, light and familiar as breathing.
Holy mother! Where had all the time gone?
He heard, like the sighing of a spring breeze (though the cressets’ flames blazed up straight as delphiniums) an unforgettable contralto voice murmur, Where it always goes. Moment by moment, drop by drop, until there is a lake.
He braced, straight as if on parade. The Earl had been many things in his life, and not the least part of him had been most grateful for the chance that led Crown Prince Gerald’s eye to fix upon his unhappy sister Elaine.
Sure, that chance had lifted him to his current heights, and for years he had preferred not to contemplate the human cost of that ascension.
But he was not a bad man, nor a stupid man, nor an insensitive man.
With the smoke of those cressets he breathed in something else.
Ever since his son’s young adjutant Captain Lennox had ridden in on a near-foundered horse with news of an ill-fed, mutinous, unpaid army on the Borders he had sensed a crisis stirring for Gondal. They had hastened to the Palace, he had spent all his credit to obtain an audience with the King which, it transpired, had been so infused with simmering tension that when they emerged a turn later both he and Captain Lennox had instinctively found themselves reaching to touch their own necks, for reassurance their heads remained in place.
They had caught each other at it and exchanged the shaky smiles of soldiers who have beaten off one assault, but have no notion when or from which quarter the next will erupt.
There had been no Council convened to discuss this important intelligence. There had been no orders to remove Traquair from his position at the War Office. Instead, the whole matter swayed in limbo, put off to a more convenient season, while the seamstresses of Gondal strove against time to contrive the finery of forty years ago to grace the State Ball of the new King of Gondal and Captain Lennox raged, a caged beast, within the Earl’s house, until the time the King might deign to give him audience again.
He saw, of course what his son’s man, that untutored soldier, could not. He was the Earl of Ula. Of course he saw it.
The King was the King. But his path to the throne had not been entirely smooth. The then Prince James’ exile from Gondal from his fifteenth year until after the late Queen’s death had forced him to handle Court affairs at a remove, through lieutenants. Douglas, Lestrade and Moran, the trio of toughs who had taken Prince James’ part through the years of exile, alone knew where the bodies were buried. For the most part, they had put them there.
Yet since King James’ accession, two of those men had died. The third was discredited. In that, Princess Charis seemed to have a longer reach than anyone might have expected.
So the King had been forced by the loss of his chosen men to look to the preceding generation. Prince Gerald’s late adherents, those used to covering up dirty business — for a price — could not have been cheap to purchase. Those payments would have been demanded not just in money but in position.
Between the cressets on the forecourt, on the eve of the inaugural State Ball of his nephew’s reign, very carefully, very slowly, with the utmost consideration and no sign given to the outer world, the Earl of Ula put every last room of his mental mansion into proper order.
He gave the most thorough possible consideration to the consequences of his proposed course of action (most of which were unpleasant, and several entailed torture.)
Even against those forces his resolve held. He faced outwards, away from his home, towards the Palace, and his lips moved in a silent vow.
From behind him came a frantic roaring cry
Molly was keyed up to the most intense pitch of nerves; it was, indeed, as well her aunt by marriage had decreed they wore ordinary dress for dinner, for she would surely have wrecked her State gown. Jeannette would have a hard enough job of it getting the sauce stain out of these sleeves. The voluminous ice-blue satin of her ball-gown would have been destroyed, utterly. She let her eyes slide sideways and saw only sympathy and (discreetly veiled) amusement in her family’s eyes. Of course you have stage fright they sought to reassure her. You are about to open the inaugural State Ball for your brother’s reign, as first lady of Gondal.
She returned a wobbly smile and, once the signal was given, headed upstairs two paces behind the Countess to the dressing chambers.
“There,” Jeanette said, deftly unlacing Molly’s dinner gown. “I have a tisane for you, and lavender oil for your temples. Take it slowly, ma’am. The Palace should wait for you, not you hurry for the Palace.”
She let out a long breath. “That is true. And that sleeve needs immediate attention, in case the sauce stain sets.”
Jeanette signalled an under-maid to take the dinner gown away for attention, leaving them briefly alone. Their eyes met.
“I’ve put out your blue cloak with the white rabbit fur collar for Betsey to take to the Palace with you, look, here. You might think it’s a warm night now, but at dawn it will be a different story, especially coming straight out to it from a hot ballroom. On no account let Betsey forget it. Now, let’s begin with your hair.”
The long, soothing strokes of the brush as much as the herbal drink would have lulled her almost to the point of sleep, had it not been for the sharp edge of apprehension running along every nerve. It came almost as a relief when she heard a hammering on her door and a man’s voice calling. “Ma’am! Ma’am! Open up!”
Without conscious thought she moved and had her hand on the door-knob before Jeanette hissed, “Ma’am!” and threw the heavy blue cloak across the room to her.
She bundled heavy folds around her, concealing stays and shift, and opened the door.
“Captain Lennox! What —?”
“Fire, ma’am. You and your maid must get out at once. I shall rouse the rest of the floor.”
Her hand snaked out and grabbed his wrist. “No. All the ladies are dressing. I shall rouse them, lest they think some addle-pated young buck is raising an alarm of fire in the hope of catching them between strand and sea.”
Captain Lennox’s jaw dropped. “People do that sort of thing?”
Even in the crisis, she could not prevent the corner of her mouth lifting. “Sir: you must be unfamiliar with Gondal’s high society. We are bored, idle and by this time in the Season no idiocy is beyond us. But we are wasting time. Pray check the floor above — it is the servants’ quarters and most should be down here, but we dare not risk someone being overlooked. I will attend to the ladies. What is the safest way out?”
Captain Lennox was as direct as his military title implied.
“Use the back stairs, ma’am. And hurry!”
“Arabella, listen! The house is on fire. You have to leave now, whatever you’re wearing.”
The younger woman cowered into the corner, flapped her hands rather feebly above her head, and mouthed, “No.”
The Countess had frequently considered her daughter-in-law, beautiful and well-connected as she was, the most empty-headed woman in the three kingdoms. But the urge to slap her had never been stronger than in this moment. It might even help.
“Arabella! Come with me or I’ll call Captain Lennox and have him carry you.”
That produced a yelp of sheer horror.
“Ma’am.” Molly glided into the room, mousy as ever. “Let me speak to Arabella. Most of the other ladies and their maids have made their escape but Lady Linton is confused. I think she might respond better to your voice.”
The Countess glared at Arabella, but picked up her skirts and headed to the door, casting a glance both ways down the passageway. So far the fire seemed to be confined to the west wing, far from where they were, but who knew what might happen if the wind changed? And Lady Linton, who was very old, very large and convinced that they were still in the reign of Ambrosine XV, would be a formidably difficult person to have carried out even were it honourable to order footmen back into a burning building to do it.
Behind her, she could hear her niece’s voice, raised in reproof. “Arabella, you are being absurd and risking both our lives for your prudery. And for what? We are both in our underthings, what of it? If this evening had gone as planned, the ball gown you’d have been wearing to make your curtsey to the King would show far more of your bosom than your current very demure shift. Besides, there’s a fire. Put on my cloak, Arabella, and follow me. That, by the way, is not a request. I am the first lady of Gondal and I outrank you. So buck up and come.”
Satisfied all was under control, the Countess picked up her skirts and scurried in the direction of Lady Linton’s room.
The fire, it would appear, was largely under control. Her husband, stripped down to his shirt-sleeves and sweating like a dockhand, directing teams of footmen and gardeners and coachmen and stable boys and who the Blessed Virgin knew what riff-raff captured and pressed in off the street in firefighting, was plainly having the time of his life: needed, necessary, in charge and not at the State Ball.
The Countess might be approaching her sixtieth birthday and the procreative good extolled by priests a distant, unpleasant memory, but she shamelessly cast a prayer into the void, that the fire be extinguished (completely, soon, without casualties) and that it left her with an intact bed and that she could pull her husband into it with her.
He turned his head and caught her looking at him. His mouth opened and at his expression her knees turned to water. He grinned, then turned his attention back to the fire-fighting operation.
Rather shakily, she got to her feet. However outré the circumstances, she remained the hostess and it behooved her to check on her guests, who were distributed around the forecourt on an assortment of hastily rescued chairs, sophas, stools and benches. The Countess took in her daughter-in-law, wrapped in Molly’s blue and rabbit fur cloak, sitting on the edge of the raised parapet and whimpering quietly to herself. Deciding that was a problem she could safely leave for someone else to sort out, she crossed the forecourt to her niece who was now, she noted with amusement, wearing Captain Lennox’s dress uniform jacket around her shoulders.
“That suits you. If His Grace decides to keep up the tradition of having the State Ball as a costume piece, I may suggest to him that we should have the next en travestie and that you should come as a hussar.” Her eyes flicked up to the bedroom floor. “I don’t suppose we can convince him those ridiculous gowns were consumed in the blaze? No; he’d be bound to send someone to check. Molly? Are you all right?”
Her niece was looking distractedly at the house. “Ma’am, have you seen Jeanette? Since we — since it happened?”
“Didn’t she leave when you did?”
“Ahead of me. We both roused all the ladies, and she undertook to see them all safe out. I last saw her at the stair head. Then I heard you having difficulties with Arabella, so I told her to go, and turned back to help. I’ve not seen her since —”
“Help! Help me!”
Their heads whipped round. From the back of the house, the opposite side from the fire which had drawn all their attention, a masked giant of a man emerged driving Molly’s maid in front of him, her left arm twisted brutally up behind her back.
Time slowed to a crawl. The girl was clutching two fine leather cases to her bosom; with a sickly sense of inevitability the Countess realised what they were.
“The parure —”
The giant’s teeth flashed white in his soot-blackened face “What other prize would be worth the candle?”
“You shan’t have it!” Jeanette spat.
There came the whisper of a dagger being unsheathed.
“Will I not? Will I not?”
Molly got to her feet. “Release her. Release her now.”
To the Countess’ alarm, her niece took two decisive steps towards the giant and his prisoner.
“Jeanette. Drop those cases. Let him take them, There is no stone on this earth that is worth a single drop of your blood.”
“Molly, you can’t. The King —” The Countess gasped.
“Leave the King to me.” Her eyes did not leave the giant’s face. “He is my brother and my liege lord and he may command all of us to die for him if he so chooses, but he cannot command me to stand by and watch a woman who has cared for me since childhood murdered before my eyes. And besides, he is not here. Drop the cases, Jeanette. Then let her go, you bastard.”
The giant let out an impressed whistle. “My friend was right, milady. You are, indeed, so much more than I could have expected. Well, girl, are you going to obey your mistress?”
“Do it, Jeanette.”
Reluctantly, Jeanette let the cases fall. The giant dropped her left arm and with a great thrust sent her sprawling hard into Molly, who sat down abruptly under the impact.
With a quick thrumming of hooves, a second black-clad masked man rode into the forecourt, towing another horse behind him. In the same swift movement, the giant swept up the two cases, bowed mockingly to Molly, and leapt astride the second mount.
Both men were gone, and the firefighters only just now turning away from the blaze to take in what had happened.