A Death in Sheffield
The sun was rising in earnest as they approached the park’s gate, but Artemis was not concerned; Lady Stanhope would breakfast in her room, and the only staff who would be up and about would not betray her. And besides, Lady Stanhope was afraid of Droughm, for reasons as yet unexplored.
“Miss Merryfield?” a voice called from the pathway perpendicular to their own.
Artemis turned in surprise to see two soldiers, apparently out for the same reason they were—to take an early morning run.
“Well met,” the fellow called out with enthusiasm. “I knew it—Colonel Merryfield’s Artemis.”
“Hallo,” she returned with a smile, finding she was very happy to see their uniforms—it reminded her of everything that used to be familiar, and now was not.
After introductions were made, the second young man offered, “A fine horse—a Barbary, I believe.”
“Indeed she is,” agreed Artemis, and decided she probably shouldn’t discuss the particulars, not with Droughm at her side, and no chaperone in sight. “Where are you stationed?”
“The barracks at Woolwich, for the time being,” offered the first. “But the latest rumor speaks of more action on the Continent.”
“No rest for the weary,” Artemis commiserated. “Is Boney swimming to shore?”
But the young man shook his head. “Don’t joke—things are in such a shambles at the Congress that there’s a real fear he’ll escape, and try to raise another army.”
This was a surprise; Napoleon was exiled on the Island of Elba whilst the Congress of Vienna tried to sort out what was to be done with post-war Europe. She’d heard nothing to indicate the former French Emperor would make another attempt to conquer the world, but of course, she’d been preoccupied of late—what with counterfeiting, murder, and attempted abductions. “Well, he’ll never raise another Grande Armée,” she declared with the scorn of the victor. “That ship has sailed.”
“Oh—he can muster up the troops; he’s famous for it,” the first man said with a touch of exasperation. “But I can’t believe he has a ha’pence left—not after the Moscow debacle.”
“And if he dares to try, the Iron Duke will give him what for,” the second man declared. “I almost hope he does escape—just so we have a chance to lay into him again.”
Thinking to include Droughm, Artemis asked, “Do you think Napoleon will try to inflict another round of misery, my lord?”
“I think it inevitable,” he said in his blunt way.
A bit taken aback, Artemis stared at him for a moment, but the others seemed to take his comment as confirmation of what they believed, and a lively discussion ensued as to when such an attempt would be made.
“Before the end of Spring,” said the first soldier. “It’s now or never. Is that your guess, my lord?”
“I make no guess,” Droughm replied, and Artemis cast him a sharp look at his choice of words.
While the others discussed the swiftness of the anticipated defeat, Artemis confessed, “I’d no idea of the rumors—it comes from being a paltry civilian.”
“Yes—didn’t they pack you off to Yorkshire, or somewhere?”
“Sheffield,” she confirmed. “Then, like a bad penny, I was packed off here.”
“I am sorry about what happened to the Colonel,” the second soldier sympathized. “To have survived so much action, only to die in such a way—”
“Yes,” she interrupted. “Thank you.”
“Perhaps I could call upon you, Miss Merryfield,” the man suggested in a self-conscious manner, and then looked to Droughm for permission.
“By all means,” said Droughm handsomely.
Struggling to hide a smile, Artemis informed him, “I am staying at Stanhope House, on Berkeley Square.” Then, for Droughm’s benefit, she added, “For the time being, leastways.”
Farewells were exchanged, and each group resumed their ride. With a gleam, Artemis glanced over at Droughm to await his comment, but he merely looked amused, and would not be drawn. He is certain of me, she thought; as well he should be.
“Tell me of Merryfield’s death,” he said after a moment.
“He was robbed and killed in San Pablo,” she replied in a level voice. “He was leaving a gaming ken in the wee hours, and was set-upon by thieves.”
He glanced at her, his expression thoughtful. “And?”
She debated. “Could I perform only one dreaded confession per day?”
“You may; but I should like to hear it, and soon.”
To divert the subject—and because she’d caught something in his manner—she asked, “What do you know of Napoleon’s plans?”
“We keep up a correspondence,” he responded mildly, and flicked his crop.
She looked ahead again, knowing he was not going to tell her whatever-it-was he knew. Interesting, she thought—that we have not known each other very long, but we seem to know each other very well, indeed.
Aloud, she offered, “It is incredible to think that the war may start up again—how many Coalitions have there been? Four or five?”
“Too many. But your friend has the right of it; Napoleon cannot hope to succeed without funding—and a great deal of it.”
Unable to comprehend such foolishness, Artemis shook her head in amazement. “Who would dare back him now? It would be throwing good money after bad.”
“Indeed,” agreed Droughm, who offered nothing more.
The horses walked for a few minutes in silence, and Artemis was already regretting that they would soon be parted. “Will you come call upon me again—perhaps later this morning? Cook makes an excellent tart, and I can ensure that mine aunt has her smelling salts at the ready.”
But his response was unexpected. “I have a different excursion in mind, and I must beg a favor from you.”
“Willingly.” Hopefully, whatever it was, it would lead the gentleman to take another round of gross liberties with her person.
“I would ask that you make arrangements to visit the British Museum with Miss Valdez, two mornings hence.”
Staring at him in surprise, she faltered, “The one who is a spy?”
“The very same. But I would ask that you not discuss that particular subject with her.”
With a knit brow, Artemis cautioned, “I have been forbidden by mine aunt to keep company with the young lady—being as how they seem to be terrified of her.”
If she thought he might enlighten her, she was to be disappointed yet again. Instead, he absently began to flick his crop. “I see. Try to contrive the meeting, nevertheless.”
She ventured, “Are they more terrified of you, or of her?”
“We shall soon see,” was all he would say, and she decided not to press him any further; she was trying very hard to avoid any behavior that could be considered childish, the encounter with Lady Tallyer serving as both an inspiration and a warning.
With this in mind, Artemis contemplated her orders. “Will you be there—at the Museum?”
“I will meet up with you, but you must not allow her to know this.”
Nodding, she asked, “What is our battle strategy?”
He tilted his head in apology. “I cannot tell you, I’m afraid—and not because I think you unseasoned, but because I fear you will embark on some course destined to make my hair turn grey.”
“More grey,” she countered, teasing.
“More grey,” he agreed with a small smile.
“Come, Pen—I am not so reckless,” she insisted. “And I must know whether I should bring my pistol.”
“Bring it, if you’d like; pray refrain from shooting her, though.”
They turned onto her street, and she realized with a pang of regret that she’d be home in a matter of minutes. “Will I see you before the Museum, Pen? Perhaps you should climb a vine, later.” The suggestion was rather bold; if she entertained him in her room there would be no hope for it—but she could not muster up a shred of regret for her anticipated ruination.
“Don’t tempt me,” was his only response.
Reminded, she told him, “I wasn’t certain what to say to mine aunt when she quizzed me about your intentions. I pretended to be rather simple, and unaware of the enormity of it all.”
A half-smile played around his mouth. “There is not a soul alive who could be fooled into thinking you are rather simple.”
“Do I tell her that you have spoken of a mutual future?” Honestly, the man was not exactly forthcoming. Besides, Artemis rather enjoyed it when he spoke of a mutual future—it brought on that breathless feeling.
“For my purposes, it does not matter—she’ll not believe it, in any event.”
A bit soberly, Artemis considered this, as they halted before Stanhope House. “No; she didn’t seem inclined to believe it—that someone like you would marry someone like me. And she is not even aware that I am the bastard daughter of an anonymous French soldier.” Her eyes slid over to him, thinking she’d best emphasize this point, in the event he hadn’t grasped its significance earlier.
But her companion was unaffected, and replied, “Just imagine your father’s consternation, if he could but discover that he’d sired an English Countess.”
“Oh; I suppose it serves him right.” She was much struck, not having looked at it in quite this way.
“Just so,” said Droughm, and left it at that.