Eleven: In Which Some Pieces of the Puzzle Come to Light
Mr Ringwood’s taste in reading matter inclined more to the racing results than to the fairy stories with which his betrothed beguiled her spare hours; he must therefore be excused for his failure to recognise a Happy Ending, even when it was unfolding under his nose. However poorly Nature had equipped him for the role of Handsome Prince, after successfully completing all the labours that his grandmother had set him, Gil disdained to have the part usurped with quite so little ceremony. ‘I am afraid,’ he stated, at his most precise, ‘that Miss Wantage is already engaged.’
‘Well, so am I!’ rejoined Sherry. ‘But that hardly signifies!’ Unused to his friend enjoying the advantage of height over him, and misliking the way that Gil was clenching and unclenching his fists, the Viscount sprang nimbly to his feet. ‘If I marry Hero before my wedding day, not even my mother will be able to make me marry Eudora.’
‘That’s right,’ said Ferdy. ‘There’s a word for it, big-something, bigonia, bigwiggy… on the tip of my tongue.’
‘Oh, you mean bigamy,’ supplied Hero. ‘That’s illegal – or at least I think it is. Didn’t Abraham have two wives? Or was it three?’
‘Don’t think I know anyone called Abraham. You don’t mean Wilbraham?’ Ferdy enquired. Irrepressibly honest, he added, ‘Don’t know anyone called Wilbraham either. Do you, Gil?’
‘Silly! He’s from the Bible!’
‘Oh, I definitely don’t know him then. Very bad ton, those Biblical chaps.’
But the Honourable Ferdy’s religious instruction was destined to be cut short, as Miss Bagshot just then threw herself upon the bosom of her bridegroom. Though Sherry was, in general, adept at evading his beloved’s embraces, he chanced to be distracted at the fatal moment by an urgent need to brush away the specks of dirt from the parlour floor adhering to his less-than-gleaming Hessians. Eudora’s thoughts seemed far from loving: indeed, she appeared intent on gouging out her husband-to-be’s eyes (an uncharitable quest, for those cornflower-blue sparklers were quite his best feature). All the gentlemen were required to separate the pair, and when that end was achieved, the lady straightway went into strong hysterics, so that Hero was obliged to empty a jug of water over her – such being the only treatment known to have been efficacious in the case previously. Pacifying the landlord, who had been drawn to the battleground by the sundry screams and crashes attendant upon the struggle, was not to be attained with so little expense. (It was fortunate, perhaps, that his Grace of Severn had come armed with sufficient blunt to buy off his rival, should the need arise.)
Once an armistice had been negotiated and quiet restored – or at least as much quiet as might be attained by eight young persons and an elderly lapdog, when squeezed into a parlour that could best be described as poky (which is to say, about as much as reigned at the Pantheon Bazaar on a sale day) – Mr Ringwood resumed his offensive. ‘Never did explain what brought you to the Portcullis, Sheringham,’ he began.
‘What brought me to the Portcullis!’ exclaimed the Viscount. ‘What brought me to the Portcullis! Hah! I might ask you the same question, Ringwood,’ he added, with an awful emphasis upon the last word.
‘No need to take a pet,’ advised his cousin. ‘Might be any number of reasons for Gil to visit Chipping Sodbury,’ and the Honourable Ferdy began to enumerate the possibilities, ticking them off on his slender fingers.
‘Idiot!’ said Sherry, not without affection. ‘You know perfectly well what brings Gil here! You got a note, too!’
‘Slipped my mind,’ explained Ferdy.
It fell to Mr Ringwood to voice the question on the lips of half the party (for Miss Milborne and Lord Wrotham seemed to be finding more congenial matters to occupy those parts). ‘What note?’ he enquired.
The two young cousins delved among the pockets of their twin blue coats. It was not a brief operation; indeed, Mr Stultz, whose services were preferred by both gentlemen, would have stared at the amount of paper that proved to be marring the lines of his creations. A violet-perfumed billet-doux (‘Sherry’s opera-dancer’), a bill for lilac gloves (‘lilac will be the new lavender, you’ll see’) and a list of the starters in the Tarporley handicap (‘won a hundred guineas on Willington Wonder’) – not to mention assorted vowels, tickets, advertisements, invitation cards and the like – were each unearthed to cries of triumph, only to be discarded in disgust. (The love letter, on being consigned to the fire, added a scent of the boudoir to the parlour, which was not unwelcome as its windows opened to the stables.)
At the final tally, not one, not two, but three notes joined the muddle of whips, gloves, cups and other clutter strewn across the coffee table. Hero took up the one addressed to the Honourable Ferdinand Fakenham, and commenced reading it aloud. ‘“If you value your friendship” – friendship’s underlined twice – “with our mutual acquaintance, be at the Portcullis, Chipping Sodbury, tomorrow afternoon without fail.” It’s signed “A Well-wisher.” Whoever can it be?’ Hero twisted the paper around in her fingers, as if it might answer her question – and perhaps, in the hands of a true heroine, it might. ‘Look!’ she continued. ‘The letter heading is from the White Hart. Isn’t that where you are lodging, Gil?’
‘Let me see that,’ said Gil. Though Mr Ringwood was not, in general, renowned for the rapidity of his comprehension, not even his grandmother truly rated him a slow top, and a suspicion of a most unwelcome nature was lumbering into the light inside his head.
Our innocent heroine blushed at the contents of the second note, and declined to read it to the company. ‘This one to Sherry is in the same hand,’ was all she would vouchsafe. ‘Whatever can it mean?’
‘Chilham!’ Gil concluded, after a cursory glance at the evidence. He threw both documents back onto the table with a gusty sigh. ‘Mistake to ask him to pack. Ought to have known.’
‘Chilham,’ repeated Ferdy. ‘Sounds familiar. Chilham, Chilham… I say, ain’t that the name of your man?’
‘Not any more,’ said Gil grimly. ‘Though how I’m to find another man half as good at getting claret spots out of cravats, I can’t imagine.’
‘Claret’s the very devil,’ said his friend. ‘Worse than coffee.’ The Honourable Ferdy commenced a minute examination of his necktie in the mirror above the fireplace, as if the mere thought might somehow have spoiled the snowy perfection of its folds.
‘You can’t let your valet go just because he wrote a few lines to your friends,’ said Hero.
‘Can’t I?’ said Gil.
‘It would be almost as cruel…’ started Hero slowly. ‘Almost as cruel… as turning a d-dependent out of your house j-just b-because…’ Here sniffles overcame our heroine. ‘J-just b-because someone fl-flirted with them,’ she finished bravely.
‘What’s flirting to do with anything?’ enquired Sherry. ‘Keep to the point, brat! And don’t sniff!’ He chucked her under the chin, quite taking the sting from his words and, indeed, restoring a hesitant half-smile to our heroine’s lovely countenance. ‘What I want to know is, what the deuce Gil’s man thought he was about, writing to me.’
‘More to the point,’ remarked Gil, ‘weren’t there three of the dashed things?’ Mr Ringwood found, on reflection, that he did not care to have his valet’s motivations examined too closely, even by so lightweight an intellect as the Viscount’s.
‘Pon my word, I think you’re right,’ said Ferdy. He must have caught some hint of his friend’s concern, for he even left off his sartorial inspection to assist, as best he could, in the hunt for the mislaid note, picking up one item after another from the coffee table and, when that failed, patting down his pockets.
‘Shove over, Ferdy!’ said the Viscount. ‘Can’t you see you’re blocking a man’s light.’
‘I see it!’ Hero retrieved the third missive from beneath the table, where some draught must have dispatched it. ‘But…’ she faltered, as she brushed away the cobwebs clinging to the paper (no doubt attracted by the spidery character of the penmanship), ‘isn’t that L-lady Saltash’s hand?’
The discovery of his valet’s treachery seemed to have resigned Mr Ringwood to any reversal. ‘That’s my grandmother’s fist,’ he confirmed, with no more than a mournful shake of his head. ‘Ought to know. Seen enough of it. Always writing to summon me to do one thing or another.’
‘But… however did Lady Saltash know where we were going to be this afternoon?’ For, despite all her reading, our heroine was not very worldly wise, and had yet to comprehend all those wiles that might be employed by a Wicked Witch. ‘And why would her ladyship write to Sherry? It was not Sherry that she was so f-furious over.’
Our poor heroine could not help sniffing just a little as she recalled her erstwhile employer’s strictures that morning upon her conduct – however little deserved they might then have been, it could not be denied that now she deserved every cutting word. Eloping! With her ladyship’s grandson! Lady Saltash would never forgive her now. But however had it come about? She was sure that she had never intended to elope. All at once, the topsy-turvy events of the day appeared to Hero to be akin to one of those wooden puzzles that so teased her Bagshot cousins, in which every piece must be slotted into place just right for the solution to fall out.
‘Thought it was too straightforward by half.’ Gil sighed. ‘Might have known the old fox was up to one of her tricks. Not like my grandmother, though, not to be around to enjoy the show.’
‘What tricks?’ enquired Sherry. ‘What show? What in heaven’s name are you jawing about, Gil?’
But a most unexpected turn of events was to forestall the unmasking of the Wicked Witch’s plot.