Time does fly (like a banana, some say). Here we are, at the penultimate chapter of That Still Untitled Selwick Christmas Novella. Well, penultimate if we don’t count Eloise and Colin, that is.
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before.
–“Here We Go A-Wassailing”
Lady Jerard gave a delightful, silvery laugh. She looked with amusement at the warming pan. “What are you planning to do, heat me to death?”
Amy narrowed her eyes at her. “Burning is the usual sentence for witches.”
“Dear Lady Richard.” Lady Jerard moved forward with hands outstretched. “We seem to have suffered a misunderstanding.”
“Indeed. You made the mistake of underestimating ME.” Grasping exactly what the other woman was trying to do, Amy made a mad dash around her, intercepting the cloaked figure just before she slipped out through the French doors to safety. “Your missing maid, I presume?” she panted.
There was an undulation beneath the cloak and the tip of something dark and shiny appeared through one of the folds.
“I shall not make the same mistake,” said a French-inflected voice.
Amy didn’t stop to think. She swung. Jane was right; the warming pan did make an entirely satisfying thunk. She had meant to hit the pistol, but the trajectory of a warming pan wasn’t quite what she had imagined it would be. She hit the maid instead. The woman went down with a thud, sending the pistol tumbling across the snagged surface of the carpet.
Abandoning her warming pan, Amy dove for the pistol. But not soon enough. As Amy skidded across the carpet, up to her elbows in rug burn, the loathsome Deirdre neatly leaned over and scooped it up. She hadn’t even disarranged her hair.
“My, my,” said Lady Jerard, examining the pistol as though she had never seen one before. “This does change matters, doesn’t it?”
Amy really didn’t like the sound of that. There was nothing like being flat on the floor on the carpet while someone pointed a pistol at one to put one at a bit of a disadvantage.
“Not really,” said a voice from above. Both women twisted their heads to look up. Twenty feet up, the former Purple Gentian swung a debonair leg over the balcony railing. The rest of him looked awfully debonair, too, thought his wife fondly. All that was missing was his black cape and mask. “You, madam, are still a self-confessed traitor. And I heard it, too.”
With that, he jumped from the balcony, launching himself at the broad metal ring of the chandelier.
Amy scrambled to her feet, trying to figure out if she could catch him if he fell, or if that would just mean both of them falling over and being squashed flat. For a heart-stopping moment he hung suspended from the side of the chandelier, which had gone entirely perpendicular, candles tumbling down like icicles around them. Letting go, he dropped lightly onto the balls of his feet in front of an open-mouthed Lady Jerard.
“I always wanted to do that,” Richard said with a disarming grin, and plucked the pistol from Lady Jerard’s hand.
Tossing the pistol to his wife, the Purple Gentian grabbed hold of Lady Jerard’s arms, wrenching them behind her back in a decidedly unsentimental hold.
Amy found that she was jumping up and down like an idiot, wafting the pistol in the air and shouting things like, “Huzzah!” and “Well-played!” and “Serves you right!”
She came to an abrupt halt mid-cheer as the library door bounced open for the third time that evening. It wasn’t Jane, who, having set events in motion, appeared to have made herself scarce. Instead it was… ah. Amy sobered rapidly as her mother-in-law strode into the library, looking distinctly unamused.
“What in heaven’s name is going on down here?” demanded Lady Uppington, bustling into the library in a truly impressive dressing down of flowing green brocade. “It’s hard enough to get the children to sleep on Christmas Eve, but at your age, one would have thought—oh.”
The maternal tirade trailed to a halt as her voice caught up with her other senses. She looked from her son, holding his former beloved’s arms twisted around her back, to her daughter-in-law, hopping up and down and waving a pistol in the air, to the crumpled figure lying on the floor next to a severely dented warming pan.
Lady Uppington’s mouth opened and closed several times. Regaining some limited power of speech, she said, very slowly, and very carefully, “Is there something you would both like to tell me?”
Amy felt a bit as though she had been caught sticking a finger into the Christmas pudding, but Richard answered without fear.
“She is a spy,” he said brusquely, giving Lady Jerard a little shake.
“Both of them,” Amy contributed, gesturing with her pistol towards the huddled creature on the floor. The figure remained inert, although whether from necessity or policy remained unclear. Amy really hadn’t thought she had hit her that hard.
Lady Uppington’s lips set in a thin line. “Spies? Again? They’re worse than moths, these spies! They get into everything. And on Christmas!”
“I don’t think they’ve been chewing your draperies, Mother,” said Richard mildly, readjusting his hold on his captive. Amy was pleased to note that it was a readjustment that placed them in less intimate proximity.
Lady Uppington looked sourly at her son. “Oh, ha, ha. But they’re far harder to dispose of. One can’t just swat the daughter of a neighbor. It would be too terribly awkward.” She looked sternly at Lady Jerard. “Does your mother know about this, young lady?”
Somehow, through it all, Lady Jerard’s clusters of curls were still perfectly arranged. She looked arrogantly at her hostess. “No.”
“Hmm,” said Lady Uppington. “Well, she’ll have to, you know,” she said, as if she were reporting some childish transgression, like jumping in the duck pond or eating all the plums out of the plum pudding. But she spoiled the illusion by adding, “And I suppose the proper authorities will have to be told. We can’t have you running about doing this sort of thing again.”
“Out of curiosity,” said Richard, again in that mild, controlled voice, “just how long have you been doing this?”
Lady Jerard’s countenance looked more than ever like porcelain, very fine porcelain, prone to cracks and jagged edges. “The first time was an accident,” she said in a brittle voice. With a grim little smile, she added sweetly, “But a widow has to eke out her jointure somehow.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” Lady Uppington emitted one of her infamous harrumphs. “Save the affecting tales for when you’re not wearing your diamonds, my dear. If Jerard didn’t leave you with a thousand pounds a year, I’ll eat the Uppington emeralds.”
Lady Uppington was spared making good on that culinary feat by the sound of something very large hitting the library door. It turned out to be Miles, who obviously had expected it to be locked. He barreled into the room shoulder first and kept on going. He was followed, more demurely, by a bright-eyed Henrietta, a glowering Miss Gwen, and a meek-looking Jane, all in their slippers and nightcaps.
“Is something wrong?” Jane mumbled, swaying on her feet a bit as though befuddled by sleep. She rubbed her knuckles across her eyes. “The noise woke us up.”
Oooh, well done, thought Amy. If either of the spies succeeded in escaping, they would never suspect a sleepy and confused young lady, ten minutes late to the scene, of having had anything to do with their detection and apprehension.
“We all heard a racket,” seconded Miles, swirling a cricket bat in the air and narrowly missing decapitating a bust of Pliny.
Assorted spies and revelations had left him unmoved, but…. “That’s my cricket bat!” protested Richard.
“I couldn’t find mine,” said Miles, unrepentant, “and I didn’t want to come down unarmed. One never knows what one might find.”
“Spies,” said Lady Uppington tartly, as Henrietta appropriated the bat, tucking it under her own arm for safekeeping. “Infesting the woodwork. Again.”
“At least they look like small ones this time,” said Miles cheerfully. “Not the big, ugly variety.”
“No, just the local, treacherous variety,” put in Amy.
“Spyus Neighborus,” contributed Henrietta giddily. Looking at the woman standing in her brother’s grasp, she added smugly, “I knew I never liked you. And it wasn’t just all the awful poetry Richard was writing.”
“I thought it was lovely poetry,” said Lady Jerard stiffly. Amy peered closely at her. She actually appeared to mean it. Maybe she had been in love with Richard, even if just a little bit. It was an appalling thought.
Miles shook his head. “Doing it a bit too brown. Old Richard there has many talents, but verse ain’t one of them.”
“Oh?” said Richard. One eyebrow appeared over Lady Jerard’s high-piled curls. “What about your Ode to Spring?”
“Oh, for—I was only eight!”
“Ten. ‘When the leaves pop out on the tree, tra la/ And the sun shines over the sea, tra la’….”
“At least he had the sense to give it up before he turned twenty,” Henrietta waded into the fray on her beloved’s behalf.
“Sense, ha!” Miss Gwen cut off the recitation with a judicious thump of her parasol. Under the force of her glare, no one had the nerve to inquire what she was doing with a parasol inside the house, in the depths of December, at three in the morning, in the midst of a snowstorm. “If you had any sense among the lot of you, you’d think twice before leaving the library littered with the operatives of a foreign power. It is pure sloppiness.”
“I suppose we shall have to put them somewhere,” agreed Lady Uppington with a sigh. “And on Christmas, too. Too, too provoking.”
“We could tie them up with holly and stuff their mouths with mistletoe,” contributed Miles cheerfully.
“Or not,” said his brother-in-law. “Can we hurry this along? My arms are getting tired.”
“You could just hit her with the warming pan,” suggested Amy. “I found that worked well for me. And it makes such a satisfying thunk.”
The corners of Jane’s lips twitched before she stuffed them back into their bewildered expression.
“You haven’t an oubliette, have you?” demanded Miss Gwen in tones that indicated than she found the lack of one an unpardonable omission.
“Noooo….” Lady Uppington’s face brightened. “The very thing! The box room. I always forget things in there. Miles, darling, if you wouldn’t mind carrying the one on the floor?”
“Aye, aye.” Miles smartly saluted and marched his way across the library.
“I get to search her!” sang out Henrietta, scurrying along behind.
“And I,” said Lady Uppington, with a martial glint in her green eyes, “shall personally escort Lady Jerard. She and I have a few things to say to one another.”
“Now, mother….” Richard released his hold on Lady Jerard, who haughtily shook out her skirts, looking like nothing more threatening than a society matron whose nose had been put out of joint by a mismatched seating plan or too little lobster in the lobster patties.
“Don’t you ‘now mother’ me, young man. As for you, I want you to keep your hands where I can see them at all times. Try any tricks with hidden pistols and I’ll have you trussed like a Christmas goose before you can say treason. Do we understand each other, Lady Jerard?”
Now that she was no longer being held twisted into a knot, Lady Jerard appeared to have regained some of her sangfroid. “I don’t in the least understand why any of this is necessary,” she said, in the soft, muted tones that accompanied her dewy-eyed look. “It’s not as though I did anything.”
“Other than waking the entire household,” grumbled Miss Gwen, marching forward and taking a firm hold on the woman’s right arm. “And consorting with foreign agents. Before breakfast!”
That last appeared to be the final condemnation. Consorting with foreign agents at teatime was one thing; receiving them before breakfast quite another.
“To the box room with you,” said Lady Uppington firmly, taking Lady Jerard’s other arm and marching her forward.
“My mother won’t like this at all,” retorted Lady Jerard.
Lady Uppington’s voice floated back through the door. “No,” she said cheerfully. “I don’t imagine she will.”
On that sobering note, Lady Jerard was silent.
“Up we go,” said Miles, hoisting the second woman over his shoulder. A muffled squeak revealed that she wasn’t quite so unconscious as she had pretended.
Amy felt a small glow of justification. She knew she hadn’t hit her quite that hard.
Then they, too, were gone, Henrietta trotting along beside, issuing instructions. “Mind the doorframe! To the left—no, no, the right—mind her feet!”
“Well,” said Jane brightly, as the door clanged closed behind them, blotting out the agent’s anguished howl. “That made a nice little diversion. We’ll have to position someone outside the box room to take down anything they might say. I imagine they’ll have a good deal to say to each other once they’re left alone together.”
“How did you know?” Amy asked, very carefully focusing on her cousin so she wouldn’t have to look at her husband. “Was it in the message you received?”
“That?” The amusement faded from Jane’s face. “No. That was another matter entirely. I shan’t be able to stay here long. There is trouble afoot in Paris.”
“Trouble to do with royalist émigrés?” Richard asked keenly, all Purple Gentian again.
“Yes.” Jane eyed him narrowly. “How did you know?”
Richard gave a debonair shrug. “Much as I would love to lay claim to omniscience… Miles told me.”
“I see.” Jane turned to Amy. “I need reinforcements.”
This was the moment she had been hoping for, the chance to sweep back to France in a blaze of glory. And Amy realized, with a tiny flutter of panic, that she didn’t want it. Not one bit.
“Really?” Amy said, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible.
Life at Selwick Hall might not be the sort of thing that bards sang of beside the fireside when pressed for tales of heroic deeds, but there were a dozen daily amusements to keep her occupied. There was their actor-turned-butler’s Role of the Week to be laughed at, the antics of their trainee spies to supervise, Richard to be argued and then reconciled with….
No, she really didn’t want to go back to her brother’s cold stone house in the Faubourg St. Germaine with its over-decorated reception rooms and the musty wing where her father’s wigs still moldered on their stands in ever-present reminder of all she had lost thirteen years before.
“Reinforcements?” Amy echoed, her voice rusty.
Jane nodded. “I wondered if I might borrow your Miss Grey.”
Miss Grey? Not her? Amy wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or offended.
Relieved, she decided. Definitely relieved.
And just a little bit offended.
“Miss Grey? I mean, yes, of course, Miss Grey,” Amy floundered. “She’s done really quite well in our course.”
“If you think she’s ready,” said Jane, with a nice degree of polite deference, “I believe I might have a role for her.”
“Well, yes.” Amy looked to Richard. “I think she is. Don’t you?”
“Good.” Jane nodded her approval as she moved towards the door. “That will be very helpful. There are too many places for me to be all at once, and others where even a disguise won’t admit me. Your Miss Grey will be a vast help.”
Even though she knew it was the adult equivalent of a pat on the head, Amy couldn’t help feeling just a little bit pleased. It was nice to be useful, even if it wasn’t the way she had initially intended. Jane was right. One person couldn’t be in the same place all at once. Perhaps their spy academy might fill more of a real need than she had originally thought, rather than just being a way to pass the time.
As Amy puzzled that out, her husband took a slight, hesitant step towards her. Her stomach doing a little flip, she looked warily up at him. They were the only ones left in the room. There were too many questions hanging between them: France, Lady Jerard, France; they jammed in her throat like a half-masticated mouthful of particularly gluey Christmas pudding.
Richard cleared his throat. He was clearly having Christmas pudding problems, too.
Jane stuck her head back around the door. “Oh. I almost forgot.”
Amy and Richard both looked quizzically at her.
“Happy Christmas.” And the door touched back against its frame, closing Jane out, smile and all.
Well. Biting her lip, Amy turned back to her husband, who was busy examining the woodwork.
Locking his hands behind his back, he took an entirely unnecessary circular stroll, ending right back where had started. “An unusual start to the holiday.”
He was being urbane again. Urbane and civil and so polished that Amy could practically see her own reflection in him. That was the thing about polish. It might be pretty, but it was fundamentally obstructive, deflecting scrutiny, masking honest emotion. If she were in a mood to be obliging, she could do the same. She could put on her best company voice and reply with the same sort of detached amusement, pretending there were nothing at all wrong with the fact that the woman whom they had apprehended had been someone he had—much as it galled her to admit it—once thought he loved. She could smile and laugh and pretend she didn’t mind that there was still the prospect of separation hanging over them or that he had never bothered to come to bed that night.
It was what any good daughter-in-law of a marquess would do. Polite. Civilized. Controlled.
But she hadn’t been raised to that. She might be the daughter of a viscount, but he had been a French viscount. The French did things differently. They embraced in public, kissed on both cheeks, ate the odd frog leg, and weren’t afraid to admit to strong emotion. She hadn’t been raised to keep a stiff upper lip and pretend she didn’t feel what she felt, or to turn herself as chilly as the snow on the ground.
She would never make a proper society lady but she was what she was and that was that and if Richard hadn’t figured that out when they were courting and he had caught her running about Paris in the dead of night in a pair of men’s breeches, then he wasn’t as bright as she thought he was.
In short, they were going to have it out now, whether he liked it or not.
Amy squared her shoulders, looked her husband full in the eye and announced belligerently, “I won’t go back to France.”