Somewhat Scandalous – Pearl Darling

The stale air in the bedroom hung uncomfortably still, heavy drapes pulled lankly across the windows closing the large room from the weak spring sunshine. The occupant of the high four poster bed did not move, or stretch or speak, her bony hand lightly thrown across the covers, face turned away towards the curtained windows. Henry nodded to the doctor who returned to the bedside. Closing the door softly behind him, he walked slowly across the patterned hall rug and jolted with heavy steps down the central stairs, trailing his hand on the warm wooden banister. Half-way down, he stopped on a small landing and gazed at the wall where a small portrait hung lopsidedly in a simple dusty wooden frame. A hatless blonde haired man towered over his female companion whose sharp nose pointed knowingly out of the canvas. The man held the woman’s hand and gazed at her with an intensity that leapt out of the painting. With his other hand he grasped a gold pocket watch lightly by its chain. “She’s gone, Father.” Henry reached out with a finger and tilted the painting to hang level. He avoided staring at the woman, the thin shade of which he had just left in the still room upstairs. “Mama should be with you now.” He pulled his watch out of his pocket and flipped open the casement lid. One of the o’clock on Friday the 1 st of April. He closed his hand over the fob watch and thrust it back into his waistcoat pocket, taking a sharp intake of breath as his knuckles grazed against the cold bands of metal the doctor had given him before he left the upstairs room.

“I still have the watch. And I remember what you said. I will look after her.” Hunching his shoulders, he started back down the stairs. The door to the drawing room stood open, the air almost as close as it had been upstairs. His sister lay prone on the sofa, hands under her head, staring into the fire which overheated the already warm room. “Victoria, you have to stop…” Henry took a deep breath. Now was not the time. Without bothering to flip out his tail coat, he sank onto the sofa next to her. “I am afraid it is bad news,” he said simply.

“Mama is dead.” Victoria turned her gaze to him, a gaze that stared right into his eyes, but somehow did not connect. “Mama is dead,” she repeated. Henry nodded. “She slipped away peacefully not half an hour ago. The doctor said she went in her sleep.” “Peacefully?” Victoria shifted a hand onto her side and turned back to staring into the fire. “It is a good thing.” Henry rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “A good thing to die of a broken heart?” He stopped rubbing and ran a hand through his hair.

“We should be thankful that they had very little time without each other.” Victoria rubbed her nose slowly against the remaining hand beneath her head but still would not look at him. “He shouldn’t have died in the first place. Then this never would have happened.” Henry picked up Victoria’s free hand and held it in his large palm. “I know.” She pulled her hand away and pushed it roughly back underneath her head with the other. Drawing her knees up, almost to her elbows, she tightly closed her eyes. “Why on earth did it happen though? Why us?” Henry shook his head and sighed. “I have absolutely no idea.

” CHAPTER 1 1806 Hope Sands, Devon The shovelful of dirt fell on the coffin with a thud. The vicar’s voice droned of pity and piety. No one cried. Miss Agatha Beauregard folded and refolded the obligatory handkerchief she held lightly in her hands and then dabbed at the edges of her dry eyes. She was the only mourner at the graveside; the household staff—what was left of them— were finding themselves other positions. They certainly didn’t care. “Would you like to say a few words?” With a start, Agatha realized that the vicar had paused and had asked her a direct question. She peered through her veil at the soil piled on her grandfather’s coffin. “No.” Her gaze travelled to the headstone at the head of the plot.

“In loving memory…” She snorted quietly. Grandfather had dictated the words himself before he died. It wasn’t something that she would have associated with the man who had shown neither she nor her brother affection. Her abiding memory would be of her cold, long, thin room and the hours she had spent there in punishment. “He was a God fearing man.” The vicar looked at Agatha earnestly. Agatha blinked. That might have been the case when her grandmother had died, but that was years ago, before Agatha and Peter had arrived in Hope Sands, orphaned children of a mother who had died of typhus and a father who had been killed fighting for his country. “I understand that the will has been read,” the vicar said delicately. “Mmm.

” “The church roof is leaking, dangerously near to your family pew,” he continued hopefully. “Gracious. What terrible news.” Agatha found it hard to restrain herself from saying more. The fact that her grandfather had had the headstone made and paid for before he died was indicative of the finances that had been described in his will. There was no money. The house which she had thought was theirs was mortgaged to the hilt. Grandfather had spent everything there was, although it wasn’t clear as to where it had disappeared. However, each time Grandfather paid his monthly trip to Plymouth, the household carried tales of fancy women and drink. When the kitchen maid had left suddenly, the house was silent for days, broken only by the cook’s occasional dark mutterings of the master’s advances.

Nothing changed for Agatha, except that now as part of her punishments she peeled endless potatoes and vegetables for the household table. Not to mention the dinner parties that her grandfather would hold for his ‘friends’. Agatha shivered and dabbed the handkerchief to her face again as a cold wind ruffled through her skirts. “Can I offer you some tea?” The vicar was trying his hardest to be civil. He evidently hadn’t given up on a donation to the church. “No, thank you. I must get back to the house. There are many items to sort out.” There was also her very interesting latest experiment to attend to, the recreation of a clepsydra—an ancient Egyptian water clock. She’d set it up at the back of the house against the water butt where no one could see it.

Agatha gulped back a small hysterical laugh. Grandfather’s death and funeral had been rather untimely. “I understand. Very difficult when someone dies. Is your brother coming back to help you?” Agatha nodded slightly. The gravediggers stopped shoveling wet soil onto the grave, and started throwing clods of turf on top of the mound. Then it started to rain. Damn. That really would foul up her experiment. The vicar shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, great droplets of rain slapping loudly against the hard cover of his heavy bible.

Sedately Agatha gave him one last nod and, turning on her heel, walked slowly through the cemetery. Her brother was most definitely not coming to help her. In fact, Peter’s letter on the subject had been strong to say the least. However, she wasn’t going to reveal that to the vicar. Peter, his wife and thirteen year old daughter were happy in a little place called Seaton near Ottery St Mary on the other side of Devon thank you very much. He was painting a number of canvases for an exhibition in London which was going to make their fortune. There was no invitation for her to join him. Passing under the lych gate, Agatha paused, and waited for the rain to abate. Her bedraggled horse leaned against the flint churchyard wall, its back bowed from years of use. Agatha threw a final glance to the graveyard.

The vicar had disappeared into the church. The gravediggers rested on their spades smoking dog-eared cigars. Letting out a breath, she slumped, her shoulders falling onto the top of her corset that was laced so tightly that she was hardly able to breathe. It formed part of a black worsted dress had been her mother’s. She had found it two days before as they cleared the house in preparation for handing it to its new owner, neatly folded in a trunk in the attic. The trunk had her mother’s name stamped on it in large silver letters. A small leather pouch of sovereigns had also been buried in between the sparkling clothes and elegant shoes. Agatha did not want to think of the implications behind the trunk. She was just pleased that her mother had managed to escape. And now her mother’s trunk was going to help her do the same.

Even if her brother didn’t want her, she was going to visit him, just for a short while. For after all, after him, she had nothing left. Her horse mournfully raised its head as she approached, the slowing rain running down its mane and falling with small splashes to the ground. Hitching up her skirts, Agatha trudged across the muddy road, the pair of large, serviceable men’s boots tied daintily to her ankles sloshing heavily through the puddles. That was one thing her mother’s trunk hadn’t been able to provide. Shoes. Despite Agatha’s small stature, her feet were too big for the dainty slippers that had lain amongst her mother’s belongings. The horse nickered as she reached him, shaking his bridle with a quick flick of his head and tossing the reins and saddle set for a woman to ride side-saddle to and fro. Agatha glanced back over the flint wall and unhooked the horse from the tethering post. The gravediggers had finished their cigars and now slouched away from her towards their shed in the corner of the cemetery.

Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, she vaulted upwards. With one fluid movement, she threw her legs astride of the horse’s back. Giving a quick nudge to its ribs, Agatha persuaded the surprised horse into a trot. The day their grandfather destroyed all of Peter’s canvases he had called Peter a girl, shouting it at him as Peter packed his belongings and left the farmstead forever. He also said later as he unbuckled his belt that Agatha showed more manly tendencies than her brother. As Agatha trotted along astride the decrepit horse she admitted to herself that it was true. She had never set out to be a hoyden, but it had just happened. All in the name of science of course. For example, she had to try riding a horse astride because mathematically it seemed like a much better point of balance than the silly legs on one side and lean to the right saddle that society forced women into. Then there was that interesting little book on mechanical principles she had found.

It had passed many a dark day for her, holed up in her room with her brother’s pristine Greek primer in order to decipher all the symbols. It really had been rather revealing, and fortunately she had finished it before Grandfather had burned it. And beaten her again. In actual fact, in Agatha’s opinion, men had little if any redeeming features. Having done an extensive study of the species, they all seemed rather too self-interested. Her brother had left her with their tyrant grandfather to pursue his painting, Grandfather was only interested in spending his money on ‘a good time’, and all the footmen stole from the household kitty. Goodness, even the vicar was out looking for money for the church. A raindrop slid down Agatha’s nose. And then there was her father, selfishly claimed by death. The shower abated as Agatha arrived back at the house, a small farmstead on the edge of Hope Sands.

Its dour windows looked down on her forbiddingly. She sighed heavily; it was not worth going round the back to see to the state of her water clock. Judging by the enormous puddles on the ground, the poor clepsydra would be measuring at least five hours more than it should have done. Dismounting from the horse, she slowly sloshed up the muddy path to the front door which stood slightly ajar. No one welcomed her into the hall. Within, the doors to each bare room stood open and the fire in the kitchen had gone out. A note on the large oak table explained that the cook, the maid and the footman had found work at the nearby manor. They were terribly sorry, but they had taken the last of the food with them. That wasn’t the only thing they had taken with them. Standing on the cold black and white tiles of the kitchen floor, it was evident that all the pots and pans were missing.

The jars of preserves had also vanished. Even the blackberry jam pot at the back of the cupboard in which she had been measuring the mold growth had gone. Slowly Agatha paced back through the cold, ground-floor rooms. The dresser stood bare of the usual blue and white plates, and a dark stain on the floor showed where an armchair had been taken. With a gasp, Agatha re-entered the hall and clattered quickly up the creaking stairs in her outsize boots, tripping on the top step. Her lonely, familiar room loomed in front of her. The door which she had left closed that morning was open, propped in place by the broken, open remains of her mother’s trunk. Where before a mound of clothing had packed the sturdy box, now there was merely an empty space. Two tears, the only ones she had shed that day, rolled smoothly down her nose. Crawling slowly to her knees, Agatha pushed the trunk into the room, the door banging shut behind her.

Throat burning with silent sobs, she pulled herself into the lone chair by the trunk and stared sightlessly at the wall at the far end of the room. They were only dresses. At least she had her freedom at last. Stoically, Agatha counted the pock marks in the plaster at the end of the room and waited for her tears to dry. The pock marks covered the entire wall. She rubbed at her eyes. This was an experiment she hadn’t yet got quite right. As the last tear dried on her chin, a faint noise came through the door. Straightening in the chair, Agatha cocked her head, and gripped the arms of the chair. The sound was familiar to her, sat as she had been so many times near to the top of the stairs, waiting for someone, anyone to come up and let her out of her room.

She blinked and froze. The third step on the stairs creaked, and then the sixth. Who was it? The staff were gone, the will had already been read, so no more visitors were expected. The owner of the house wasn’t due to take up possession for another week. Having met him once, Agatha knew that he would have knocked before entering. Frantically she glanced to the bedroom floor on her left. The staff had missed the habitual bowl and potato knife as they cleared the house of goods to sell. Bending sharply over the arm of the chair, she picked up the bowl, placed it in her lap and laid her right hand inside, lightly holding the bone handle of the knife. No. She wasn’t ready for that yet.

Standing quietly, she pushed the knife into her skirts and, gripping the solid bowl, shuffled to the door. Her heart thumped loudly in her ears as she waited. The handle on the door twisted slightly and then stopped. Whoever it was, the person was well versed in subterfuge. Agatha hadn’t heard any more of the normally creaky stairs as they ascended. She held her breath. The handle stopped moving. With a huff, she slumped, her shoulders aching with tension. A glint of light on the door handle sparkled as it moved slowly around again. Agatha straightened and breathed in through her nose quietly.

She shifted her grip slightly on the bowl and raised it above her head. Good god. Who was there? The door opened inwardly on its hinges, propelled by a sharp push. But no one stepped through. “I would not enter if I were you,” Agatha said, her throat tightening sharply. She coughed. “Go away and no harm will come to you.” A low laugh resounded in the hallway. The intruder thrust a confident highly-polished booted foot through the doorway. He paid no attention to her threat.

Agatha’s eyes travelled upward, taking in the pristine, white breeches encasing muscular thighs, and the expensive-looking tailored coat that hung on broad shoulders. Bright blond hair hung around a forbidding face dominated by a sharp nose. “I said, don’t come any further. Turn round and go away!” Her voice began to squeak slightly but she could not take her eyes away from the man. Blue eyes turned to observe her, pinning her to her frozen position. The man took another step in and slowly turned to face her. He smiled slightly. It did not reassure her. “Please just go. I don’t want to do this!” The man frowned and lifted a foot.

In one deft movement Agatha pulled forward her arm, hidden behind the door, and slammed the bowl on the intruder’s head. “Ow.” He put a hand to his head and tottered slightly. “What the…?” Not hard enough. Agatha lifted the copper bowl again and, with two hands, whipped it down faster. “Aagh. What are you doing?” The man sucked at his fingers and backed behind the door. Damn, she had miscalculated. Really she should have waited for him to move his fingers away before hitting him. For a few seconds there was silence.

Agatha clutched the bowl to her skirts. The man lurched halfin and half-out of the doorway. Still sucking his fingers, he felt at his head with his free hand and then rubbed them against his coat. A red stain emerged stickily against his coat, rather as if he’d rubbed jam on the pristine wool. “Goddamn it!” he cursed, taking his hand out of his mouth. “That was the first time I’ve worn this coat. Ames will be heartily displeased.” He paused and grimaced. “Actually I rather think he’ll laugh. Bloody hell, my head hurts.

” Agatha stared open-mouthed. “Wh… who are you?” she stammered. Scuttling backwards, she fell back into her chair. “What do you want?” He looked up at her and bowed shallowly. “Lord Henry Anglethorpe at your service. Your brother sent me.” The blood on his head shone brightly against his long blond hair. Agatha slumped in her seat, a rising heat burning at the tips of her ears. Lord Henry Anglethorpe. Peter had written to her of a Henry he had become friends with at Oxford whom Peter had regarded as a genius and the brother he had never had.

He was one of the only people who encouraged Peter in his art, and his earliest patron. He hadn’t mentioned that this Henry was a lord. Curling her hand round the fallen potato knife, Agatha damned Peter in her mind. Just like a bloody man. Firstly he had left her in this farmstead with nowhere to go, and now it was his fault that she had nearly brained a lord. Oh dear. This was much worse than the discovery of one of her failed experiments.

.

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