A Death in Sheffield
“Pray invite her in, Hooks,” said Lady Stanhope, who rested a calculating eye on Artemis. “I quite look forward to making Lady Tallyer’s acquaintance.”
The lady entered the room, looking composed, well-dressed, and seemingly unaware that she was the source of any awkwardness. After the newcomer made her greetings to her hostess, she took Artemis’ hand and reminded her with a warm smile, “We met yesterday, at the park.”
“I do remember, my lady; you were mounted on a beautiful black, who looked to be a jumper.”
“He is indeed—and steady as they come.” Gracefully, the lady settled into a chair across from Artemis. “Although he is a bit head-shy.”
“Ah; the two of you have much in common.” Miss Valdez allowed an edge of malice to underlie this double entendre.
“Miss Merryfield is a fine rider,” Lady Tallyer replied with equanimity.
“But without your experience—or at least, not as yet,” added the other, with an arched brow.
Artemis lowered her gaze, and contemplated the very interesting fact that the Portuguese girl sounded a bit jealous, despite herself. Another of Droughm’s former mistresses, perhaps; the man must go through them like handkerchiefs.
“How long do you stay in town, Lady Tallyer?” asked Artemis’ aunt in an ingratiating manner. “Perhaps you will have an opportunity to reestablish old ties.” This a thinly-veiled suggestion that she endeavor to take the problem that was my lord Droughm off their hands.
“Very old ties,” added Miss Valdez, who had the felicity of being younger than Lady Tallyer.
But once again, Lady Tallyer gave no show of discomfiture, and replied in a friendly manner, “I intend to stay for the season, unless I am called away.” She then turned to Artemis and asked kindly, “And you, Miss Merryfield? How long will you stay with your aunt and uncle?”
Artemis was spared the necessity of an answer by the entrance of Torville, who assessed the scene in his desultory manner, and then straightened up to make a beeline over to Lady Tallyer, pulling up a chair beside her. Small blame to him, thought Artemis—I hear she is available.
Lady Stanhope could not approve of Torville’s oversetting her plans by making up to Lady Tallyer, and so she asked him in a pointed manner, “Lady Tallyer tells us that Artemis enjoys the park, Torville; perhaps you will take your cousin for an outing, later today. A good, long walk would be just the thing to allow the two of you to become better acquainted.”
Torville bowed his head in mock-dutiful acquiescence. “Willingly—and I’ll buy her another ice, if she’d like.” He added in a smiling aside to Lady Tallyer, “It is a simple task, to entertain my young cousin.”
But the lady did not come to engage in a flirtation with Torville, and instead turned her attention back to Artemis. “Will you ride today, Miss Merryfield? You have a very neat mare—I confess I’ve never seen a finer.”
In an attempt to regain Lady Tallyer’s wandering attention, Torville interjected, “My little cousin does not have a horse, I’m afraid.”
“No,” Artemis agreed in a mild tone. “Instead, she is on loan from Lord Droughm.”
“What?” Lord Stanhope bestirred himself to remonstrate with his wife. “You cannot allow Droughm to mount Artemis.”
Torville stifled a chuckle behind a cough while Artemis did her best to appear oblivious to his unfortunate turn of phrase.
“I could not very well refuse, my dear,” Lady Stanhope replied in an even tone, her cheeks a bit pink. “It was a generous offer.”
“Very generous.” Lady Tallyer leaned forward to touch Artemis’ knee, which Artemis found she didn’t like at all. “You are fortunate, in your friends.”
“It is much appreciated,” Artemis agreed; “Before I came to England, I rode quite a bit—nearly every day of my life—and I’ve missed it.” She added fairly, “Although riding in London is not quite the same, of course.”
“Will you return to Sheffield soon, Miss Merryfield?” Lady Tallyer tried a different tack to repeat her earlier, unanswered question. “The hills of Sheffield must offer excellent riding opportunities.”
Artemis explained carefully, “I await news of mine Uncle Thaddeus, and once that is settled, I imagine I will find my way home.” She did not specify the location of this happy place, as she was not yet certain where it was—although apparently the gardens were impressive. I will finally have a home, she thought, turning over this novel idea in her mind. How strange—although I imagine we will travel; he seems a restless soul.
Leaning to touch Artemis’ knee again, Lady Tallyer offered with a full measure of sympathy, “How clumsy of me; please accept my apologies, Miss Merryfield. I understand that your great-uncle in Sheffield is missing; it must be very distressing, not to know what has happened to him.”
“One can only presume the worst,” acknowledged Artemis, remembering how surprised that gentleman had looked, when she’d drawn and fired on him.
“Yes; we will shortly assume Artemis’ guardianship,” announced Lord Stanhope, a little too loudly and with a touch of defiance. “We are her only remaining relatives, after all.”
Miss Valdez’s eyes narrowed. “You are counting the chickens, perhaps.”
But Artemis’s uncle rose up in defiance, and Artemis decided that he must be a bit well-to-go, to be challenging the Portuguese contingent so openly. “There are no other chickens to count,” he retorted a bit belligerently. “We will control the mines, and if anyone wishes for our cooperation, they must apply to us, and to us alone.”
“My dear—” Lady Stanhope soothed, her smile stiff; “Won’t you sit down for a moment? I believe you are distressing our dear Artemis.”
Without a blink, Artemis sneaked an apricot tart and awaited Miss Valdez’s rejoinder with interest.
The Portuguese girl, however, did not deign to argue with her inebriated host, and instead looked to Torville, her face alight and her dark eyes flashing with amusement. “So then—you must cut out Lord Droughm, and marry Miss Merryfield, yes? My Wentworth would very much appreciate it.”
But Torville was intent upon his pursuit of Lady Tallyer, and so replied in a negligent manner, “Heaven forfend; Droughm is welcome to her.”
Artemis could not help but note that the other three other ladies in the room betrayed varying degrees of chagrin at his response. I hope they don’t all come to cuffs, she thought; although I’d wager good money on Miss Valdez—she has the look of a gutter fighter.
Lord Stanhope swayed slightly, and wagged a reprimanding finger at Torville. “You will do as you are told, nephew.”
But before he could continue, his wife took him firmly by the arm and steered him into the kitchen, claiming a need to instruct the cook.
The Portuguese girl watched them leave with a thoughtful eye, and—since Torville had once again claimed Lady Tallyer’s attention—Artemis seized on her chance to put Droughm’s plan into play. Leaning toward the other girl, she offered in a conspiratorial aside, “My aunt will not allow me to go shopping with you—she thinks me too young.” With an annoyed nod of her head, she indicated the kitchen. “You can see how unkind they are to me—so unreasonable, and they are not even my parents.” This last said with a touch of defiance.
With a calculating expression in the depths of her dark eyes, the other girl tilted her head in sympathy. “I am so very disappointed—we would have such a happy time together.”
“They only forbade shopping—it is not as though they forbade me to meet with you, altogether.” Artemis did her best to appear guiltily self-conscious. I am not good at play-acting, she thought; a pox on Droughm, for putting me up to this.
“Indeed,” agreed the other, quick to leap upon this opening. “I am certain they cannot object if we meet at, say, the Royal Art Exhibition.”
“Could it be the Museum, instead?” Artemis asked artlessly. “I hear there is a famous Egyptian exhibition, there.”
“Even better,” pronounced the other. “Tomorrow?”
“The day after,” countered Artemis. “Shall we meet at ten o’clock?”
“I quite look forward to it.” The other girl’s bright smile did not quite reach her eyes.
“What do you two whisper about?” asked Lady Tallyer, cutting off Torville mid-sentence. “Beaux?”
“I have no beaux; I am to marry my Wentworth.” Miss Valdez shook her finger playfully at the other woman. “And Artemis must not have any beaux—not until she finds her uncle. Otherwise they do not know the size of the dowry she brings.”
“Droughm wouldn’t care—he is rich,” intoned the Ambassador in a sour tone, and both ladies looked annoyed at this observation.
I probably should not mention the sapphires, although it would be so very enjoyable to do so, thought Artemis, and found a great deal of satisfaction in having the upper hand, for once. It felt rather like that day when the regiment had patiently waited on the hilltop at San Christoval— just before springing the trap on the unsuspecting French.
Lady Stanhope returned to the room, looking a bit grim, and absent her better half. “May I offer you more tea, Lady Tallyer? Our cook makes an exceptional pastry. ”
But the lady declined, and rose to take her leave. “I do hope you hear good news, Miss Merryfield, and I hope to visit with you again very soon.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Artemis responded politely, thinking it very unlikely. The lady was clearly pressing for information, but there nothing else to tell—not anything that Artemis was willing to relate, leastways. Or that the lady would be anxious to hear.
“I’ll walk you out.” Torville offered his arm to Lady Tallyer, and Artemis hid a smile as Lady Stanhope viewed this development with a baleful eye.
Torville did not return, and the Portuguese visitors also rose to take their leave, Miss Valdez sending Artemis a conspiratorial glance as she expressed her desire to meet again soon.
In departing the drawing room, Artemis let out a breath, relieved to have got over that rough ground as lightly as possible. Seeing her bouquet of lilacs on the table, she paused to touch the signature on the card, breathing in the scent and wishing their sender would magically appear at the front door.
“Hooks,” she asked diffidently, “would you mind saving the card for me?” She felt young and a bit silly, but the retainer assured her it had always been his intention. Unable to resist, she asked, “Have you mislaid another invitation to ride?”
“I am afraid not,” the butler replied with regret. “But if you have any private letters to be delivered, miss, I shall see to it personally.”
Fingering a petal, she frowned slightly. “No—I have only to be patient, I suppose.”
“Indeed, miss,” agreed the servant, and they parted in perfect understanding