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Fortune at Stake

Fortune at Stake by Sally James
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'I'll hazard my ring for this wench!' Masquerading as a serving girl to help her brother Julian find missing jewels, Susannah is infuriated by Lord Chalford's bet. Though she escapes him, when Susannah again meets Lord Chalford, she finds that he possesses some of those jewels--and that his father was present when Julian's father died in suspicious circumstances. Regency Romance by Sally James; originally published by Hale [London]
Belgrave House; February 1981
ISBN 9780709188346
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Title: Fortune at Stake
Author: Sally James

‘Item: one gold quizzing glass, set round with emeralds, and with an engraved representation of the large-eared African elephant on the handle. How odd! Why an African elephant, do you suppose, when the jewels came from India?’ Susannah queried, lifting her head and pushing back her unruly dark curls.

Her companion, divinely fair, who was seated on the far side of the table comparing the sheets of paper covered in Susannah’s neat but decided writing with some old and tattered pages, shrugged.

‘I cannot think we shall ever know, so why be concerned?’ she replied a trifle pettishly. ‘How long will you be?’

‘This is the last one. On the handle, the same coming apart at the centre by twisting to the right, and revealing a toothpick fashioned from ivory which has the initials JK carved at the base. The quizzing glass, not the toothpick. There, that is the last of them,’ she added and shook the sand over her papers. ‘I must say, Amanda, I would dearly love to see some of these jewels. They sound fabulous!’

‘I think it is worse, knowing what they look like, and your brother not having them,’ Amanda responded.

Susannah held her head to one side. ‘Do you? But, Amanda, is it not better to be able to imagine them rather than merely knowing there is an anonymous collection of jewels somewhere?’

‘It brings home more clearly what Julian has lost!’ Amanda said despondently. ‘Before that list was found all we knew was that there had been some jewels which disappeared at about the time his father died. We did not know what they were, or the value of them, but now, with this list, we can see they must have been worth some enormous sum!’

‘Mm. But you must admit it was exciting when this old list was discovered! If Julian had not lost that bill and started to poke behind the drawers of his desk to recover it, the secret drawer would never have been found. He had not the slightest idea it was there.’

‘It does not help us to find the jewels.’

‘No,’ Susannah conceded. ‘It makes it more certain they existed, though.’

‘We knew they existed because the bank Lord Horder deposited them in confirmed that he took them out before he came down to Horder Grange, just before he died,’ Amanda interposed. ‘They told Julian when he was twenty-one and the Trust ended.’

‘Yes, but until this list was found we did not know exactly what they were, and somehow they never seemed real to us, only a legend,’ Susannah explained. ‘But, Amanda, if there is one secret drawer at Horder Grange there might be others! It is a very old house and we know there is at least one priest hole.’

‘But everyone for miles around knows about that,’ Amanda objected.

‘To be sure, but often they did have a fairly obvious one which the searchers could find without causing too much damage, and when they discovered it empty they would go away and the priest, or whoever was in hiding, would be safe in some better-concealed place.’

‘Is there another one at the Grange?’ Amanda demanded.

‘I don’t know of one, but there could be. I’ve never lived there to search for it and Julian has only been there these past four years. Oh, Amanda, pray do not despair! I have the feeling something will happen now. This,’ gathering together the sheets of the old list and rolling them up, ‘is perhaps just a beginning. We are sure to find something else.’

‘Hardly at Horder Grange, since neither of us lives there, and we will soon be in London. We cannot go searching for secret panels or hidden passages then,’ Amanda protested, while she placed the copies Susannah had made in order.

‘No, we cannot, but Julian can!’ Susannah declared, undaunted, and tied a faded strip of red ribbon round the sheaf of papers. ‘Now this list has been discovered he will be encouraged, and I will persuade him to stay in Sussex for a time and search again. It will keep him away from those gambling hells he patronizes!’ she added calmly.

‘He does not really enjoy them,’ Amanda said quickly. ‘He is not a bit like his father, for Lord Peter was a compulsive gambler, while Julian swears he does it merely in the hopes of restoring his fortune so that his offer for me will be acceptable! Oh, if only he could find the jewels! On that old list the value is set at hundreds of thousands of pounds. If Julian had that, I am sure Papa would never favour Sir William.’

Susannah nodded thoughtfully. Her half-brother, although somewhat wild and apparently addicted to all the most ruinous forms of gambling, was, at twenty-five, a handsome and attractive suitor and she could perfectly well understand Amanda’s preference for him. He had an old title, and although his father had gambled away all of the unentailed parts of the estate, the main house and surrounding farms were unencumbered, and if he recovered the jewels which had so mysteriously vanished he would be a most acceptable parti in the eyes of Mr Timothy Grant, Amanda’s wealthy father. She shared Amanda’s belief that Julian indulged in desperate pursuits in a bid to retrieve his fortunes and be able to offer again for Amanda.

‘Has Sir William declared himself?’ she asked and Amanda nodded dolefully, her fingers restlessly pleating the pale pink muslin skirt of her simple round gown.

‘My father has told him he must wait until I have been to London, for he hopes I may receive a still better offer there. He likes the match with Sir William only because his land adjoins ours, and would be happy to see me accept him, but if a better offer came I think he would welcome it. Yet I do not want any other offer! If I refuse everyone else they will urge me to accept Sir William, and I cannot! Why, he is well over forty, and a widower, and even fatter than the Prince Regent. And Augusta is a year older than I. Fancy becoming stepmama to that detestable girl.’

Susannah giggled. ‘Dreadful!’ she agreed hurriedly as Amanda turned aggrieved blue eyes on her. ‘Is she always so very haughty and distant as she was the other evening when they came to dinner? I’m sure she would abhor having to call you Mama and obey you and be chaperoned by you just as much as you would dislike it.’

‘That would be no consolation for being married to an odious man old enough to be my father who simply wants my fortune and an heir!’ Amanda snapped.

‘Well, it is most unlikely to happen,’ Susannah said soothingly. ‘Your father cannot force you to wed him and I am sure my aunt would support you if she knew your feelings.’

Seeing that Amanda continued to take a gloomy view, Susannah tried to divert her mind by talking of the plans for their first London season, and succeeded well enough to have Amanda chatting enthusiastically about the people she had met at Christmas, when she had attended a few private parties at houses nearby, and the current fashions illustrated in the Ladies’ Magazine.

The girls were cousins, Amanda’s mother being the sister of Susannah’s father, Sir David Rendlesham. Susannah’s mother had been married twice, first to Lord Horder, Julian’s father, but she had been dead for several years. Sir David was in the diplomatic service and since he was frequently engaged on missions abroad Susannah had been educated at a select academy in Bath, spending her holidays either with an elderly great-aunt in Bath, or her maternal grandmother in London.

Neither of these ladies, however, had felt able to sustain the effort of presenting Susannah in her first season, and as Sir David was engaged on a mission’ to India, his sister had suggested that the two girls be brought out together, saying she would appreciate company for her own daughter. The cousins had been at the same school and were good friends, but this was Susannah’s first visit to Amanda’s home for several years. She was staying at The Hall until the season began, her father having left England some weeks before.

‘I do wish you did not have to go to London early, Susannah,’ Amanda said after a while. ‘It would be much more fun to go together.’

Susannah nodded, then smiled mischievously.

‘But you need not think I shall have an exciting time with Grandmama and Aunt Elizabeth,’ she said. ‘Can you not recall what it is like in Laura Place? I used to dread the holidays I spent there with my aunt. It was so much better to go to my grandmother’s even if she does live so far out in Kensington. But Aunt Elizabeth is my mother’s aunt and she has been good to me in her way, and Julian and I must pay our respects before she leaves Kensington to return to Bath. Then after a few more days with Grandmother I can join you again.’

‘I am not jealous,’ Amanda said with a laugh. ‘I would like us to travel to London together, that is all. I envy your going with Julian.’

‘I am very sure you do!’ Susannah said teasingly and Amanda blushed.

‘Don’t be idiotish! You will be going in a fast chaise, while we, because Mother suffers so badly from sickness whenever we travel, have to crawl along in that ancient travelling carriage. Think, it always take us two whole days to reach London and you will be there in a few hours!’

‘Poor Aunt Sarah! It must be miserable to be so indisposed on every journey.’

‘It is, and I do feel for her. But the moment she gets out of the carriage she feels perfectly well again, you know.’

‘I must take the list back to Julian before we leave,’ Susannah remarked. ‘He wants to replace it in the desk, for that is as secure a hiding place as we could find, and now we have the copy to take with us to London.’

‘Why bother? What purpose will it serve?’Amanda asked and Susannah shook her head.

‘I cannot tell, but it seems sense to have a copy, in any event. I will ride across to Horder Grange in the morning with it. I must see Julian to arrange the exact day we are to go to London and I will tell him also not to fear your father! I think he ought to renew his offer. His title is a better one than Sir William Andrews’ and you will have an ample fortune. Sir William is not especially rich.’

‘Father will not consider it. Apart from the fortune, he thinks Julian wild and too much like his father, too fond of gaming.’

‘Then I will certainly persuade him it is his duty to return to the Grange and continue to search for the jewels.’

‘There is no certainty they are there.’

‘No,’ Susannah conceded, `but where else could they be? Lord Peter took them from the bank and brought them to the Grange, for his valet swore he unpacked them. Yet when he died a few days later they could not be found and no one else in the hunting party knew aught of them. Julian thinks he was intending to use them as stakes in his gaming, since he had no money and very little credit, yet all the men who were there say they never saw them or heard them mentioned.’

‘His death was suspicious!’

‘Indeed, exceedingly so. It was never discovered who fired the shot that killed him, and it seemed unlikely, because he was an excellent marksman and had been used to guns all his life, that it was an accident.’

‘Was there not a suggestion he did it deliberately?’

‘People will always say that, yet why? He had received this legacy from his godfather only a few weeks earlier. He had sold some of the jewels - they were marked on the list - and redeemed the mortgages on his land and had sufficient to recover his position, or gamble again if he could not refrain from it. There was no reason for him to shoot himself. The verdict was that a stray shot accidentally hit him. It must have been so, and he had hidden the jewels without telling anyone where they were.’

Amanda smiled at her cousin.

‘You are so cheerful and certain, Susannah, that I am tempted to believe you and hope.’

‘Do so, and I will do my best to convince Julian too! Did not your mother say that she wished to visit Mrs Poulton tomorrow?’

‘Yes, for she has been suffering from an ague and I must go with her.’

‘And since I do not know her it will be convenient for me to do as I suggested.’

So it was that after breakfast on the following day Susannah set off, riding Amanda’s mare, towards the house her half-brother had inherited which lay some miles to the west of The Hall.

Susannah had ridden that way twice before while staying with Amanda and had little difficulty in remembering her way. She had dispensed with the services of a groom and enjoyed the ride across the fairly thickly wooded country, even though there was a chill in the air which a pale sun had not succeeded in dispelling.

Soon she came to the wall surrounding the park at Horder Grange and hesitated for a moment, wondering in which direction the lodge gates lay. Deciding to turn left, she followed the wall for some distance before realizing she had chosen wrongly. She halted, reluctant to retrace her steps, and then saw that the wall in front of her seemed to disappear. Pressing forward again she found that, like so much else at Horder Grange, it was in sad disrepair. The wall had collapsed long ago, judging by the profuse growth of bushes about the stones, and on closer inspection it was obvious many of the original stones had vanished. They had probably been taken by some local cottager wanting to repair his own dwelling, Susannah surmised and then looked closer. A decided path existed between the stones, which could be negotiated with ease, and it had been created by design and not chance. The explanation soon came to Susannah and she smiled to herself. They were not very far from the coast and doubtless smugglers came this way, possibly hiding their kegs of brandy somewhere in the grounds of Horder Grange. She wondered whether to mention her discovery to Julian as she led the mare along the short path, and then decided it would be better for him not to be aware she knew. He might or might not be aware himself of the activities of the free traders, but it could be embarrassing for him to know she had discovered it. Susannah knew that the vast majority of the people of Sussex, while they might not actively give assistance to the smugglers, would not betray them if they found evidence their barns were occasionally used to shelter unexpected trains of pack ponies or store mysterious cargo.

Once inside the wall Susannah soon discovered her way to the house, which was set on the slopes of a hill some distance away. She cantered towards it and went straight to the stables, leaving her horse with an ancient groom who muttered something to her in such a broad dialect that she did not understand a single word. Smiling at him, she nodded and went towards the house.

It was quickest to go through the kitchens and Susannah did not intend to be on ceremony with her brother. She went through the archway that connected the kitchen yard with the stable block and picked her way amongst a flock of dispirited-looking hens scratching away in search of food. Eyeing them morosely, his chin resting on his outstretched paws, was an ancient dog Susannah recognized as one of her brother’s favourite gundogs. He was lying on the step outside the kitchen door and as Susannah appeared lifted up his head and whined, wagging a limp tail at her.

‘Hello, Ben, won’t they let you into the house?’ she asked, bending down to scratch his ear and wondering whether he had committed some crime to be so banished, for normally Julian permitted his dogs to roam at will all over the house. She opened the kitchen door and the uncanny silence from within suddenly struck her as odd. In most houses at this time of day the kitchen would be bustling with activity, but as she stepped inside she saw there was no one in sight and, even stranger, the fire was almost out.

The dog had risen to his feet and followed her into the kitchen. After a cursory glance about him he made for the door leading onto a passage that connected with the store room and the butler’s pantry. Here the silence was if anything deeper and Susannah, somewhat alarmed by now, hurried through the baize-lined door to the large hall which was the centre of the house, several hundred years older than the rest, which had been added at various times.

Ben unhesitatingly walked across to a door which stood open and Susannah caught the sound of a log falling in the grate. She followed the dog and entered the room, to halt abruptly on the sight of her brother sprawled in a big chair before a large fire, a glass half full of wine tilted precariously in his hand as his arm rested on the arm of the chair. Ben went to lay his head on his master’s knee and Julian opened his eyes and stared blearily at the dog.

‘Ben? Where’ve you been?’ he asked in a slurred, thick voice and Susannah, exasperated, spoke briskly as she moved into her brother’s line of vision.

‘Shut out of the house which is apparently bereft of servants! But, as the master seems to find nothing wrong with being castaway so early in the morning, it is perhaps a trifle too demanding to expect the servants to be at their work!’

‘Eh? What? Susannah! Where the devil did you spring from?’

‘I came to bring the list of jewels back. I’ve copied it, as you wished. I’ll leave it here on the table and trust you do not throw it into the fire in mistake for another log!’ she said tartly and tossed the rolled sheets of paper onto a table behind her.

‘Oh, don’t shout! My head hurts!’

‘Hardly surprising!’ she snapped. ‘You’d be better in bed, Julian, if you could find anyone to put you there.’

‘They’ve all gone to London,’ he explained slowly and then an attack of sneezing gripped him and for a few moments he was helpless.

‘Who have? The servants?’ Susannah demanded when he was once more able to speak.

‘Yes. To open the town house for my grandmother. She’s due back from Cheltenham soon.’

‘Lady Horder? But you cannot have sent all the servants! There must be someone here. Where’s your man?’

‘Carter? How should I know?’ he asked irritably. ‘They haven’t been near me all morning, although I rang the bell.’

‘You don’t look capable of walking over to it,’ Susannah said frankly, eyeing him with disgust.

‘You don’t understand. I’ve been in bed for the past few days. Caught a fearful cold after getting wet to the skin the other day. The bridge had gone, after the storm. You know the little plank bridge across the river, near Pettit’s farm - ‘

‘Of course I do not! I’ve scarcely seen the house above half a dozen times.’

‘No, no, of course, forgot,’ he explained. ‘It was gone, and I had to wade through the river. Icy cold it was. Up to my armpits in the middle. Never known it so deep. Everard climbed up a tree and swung across, but the branch broke and so I had to wade in. Not keen on that sort of acrobatics anyway,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘but Everard didn’t seem to mind. Everard - what day is it?’

Susannah eyed him. fulminating.

‘Wednesday,’ she said curtly, ‘though why the day should matter to you I cannot think.’

Julian was looking at her in dismay.

‘Wednesday? You’re sure? Oh, Lord! Where are the servants?’ he added, struggling to his feet and clutching the arm of the chair to save himself from falling, sending the wine glass hurtling to the floor where it shattered into tiny fragments. ‘Carter! Where the devil are you, man? Carter! Swale!’

‘What is amiss? Why are you so suddenly concerned over the day? What does it matter if it is Wednesday?’ Susannah asked, puzzled, and turned in some relief as a deprecating cough from the doorway announced that Carter, Julian’s quiet and self-effacing valet, had appeared in response to his master’s summons.

‘Because Everard and Percy Tempest are coming to dinner!’ Julian snapped. ‘Carter, why didn’t you remind me what day it was?’

‘I did, my lord, when you insisted on rising from your bed this morning, my lord,’ Carter replied smoothly and with a murmured apology to Susannah walked across to his master and, taking his arm, persuaded him to sit down again. ‘You said, my lord, that you needed to dress in order to prepare for them, when I asked you if I should send messages to put them off.’

‘Can’t put them off, you fool! Everard’s on his way to stay with his uncle, that fat fool Andrews. And Percy - Percy wants to meet him. Rarely goes to town, Percy, you know,’ he added, turning back to Susannah.

‘Do you mean that you have visitors for dinner?’ she demanded angrily. ‘With the house in this state, no servants here and you, drunk as a pig?’

‘I’ve been ill, and I told you the servants have gone to London. But they haven’t all gone. Can’t have. Swale is here. He never goes up to town. And some of the maids. Where are they, Carter?’

‘You cannot have remembered that I told you Maggie had the cold, having contracted it from you, my lord, when she was waiting on you. She is in her bed, unable to move, and Peg has, I fear, given way to hysterics, saying she cannot do everything herself.’

‘She don’t have to, stupid wench. Swale is here too.’

‘Mr Swale, I am afraid, has been overcome, my lord. He opined that it was all too much for him at his age and he retired to his pantry. When I looked in on him a few minutes ago he was lying on the floor, having imbibed, as best as I could judge, two bottles of your best port.’

‘What? Send the fellow here at once! How dare he!’

‘I very much fear Mr Swale is at the present time unable to obey such a command, my lord. I made him as comfortable as I could with a cushion and some blankets, but he is too heavy a man for me, unaided, to carry to his room.’

Susannah, who had been listening to these revelations in amazement, found her initial disgust was giving way to an irresistible desire to laugh. She caught Carter’s eye and it was so full of sympathetic understanding that she choked, turning away to hide her amusement, while Julian berated his servants for a pack of stupid nincompoops.

‘Yes, my lord, of course. Will your lordship try to come upstairs now, and I can still send messages to put off Lord Chalford and Mr Tempest.’

‘No, I can’t, and you won’t,’ Julian said stubbornly. `I want them to come. Can’t turn round and say they can’t come to dinner after they’ve been invited, you fool!’

‘No, my lord, except that there is no one to cook the dinner, so even if they do come there would be nothing for them to eat.’

`What the devil do you mean? No one to cook? Where’s Mrs Mansell?’

‘Cook, my lord, slipped and fell down the stairs. She has hurt her leg and declares she cannot walk. It is no more than a sprained ankle, my lord,’ he added soothingly and Susannah, catching sight of Julian’s aghast expression, could hold her laughter no more.

‘Poor woman!’ she gasped. ‘Is there anything I can do for her?’ she asked Carter, but he shook his head.

‘I assisted her back to her room and there is nothing she needs yet, Miss Susannah. I was attempting to persuade Peg to sit with her when his lordship called, which is why I took so long in answering, but Peg sought refuge in tears and would not move from her own room.’

‘But what are we to do?’ Julian said wildly. ‘There must be someone else!’

‘Who is sane, sober and healthy,’ Susannah suggested.

‘I fear there are but the gardeners and the stablemen,’ Carter answered. ‘Really, my lord, it would be best if you were to permit me to help you back to bed.’

‘Damn you and your everlasting bed! I’ve had enough of bed these past few days, and I won’t put off my guests! Lord Chalford’s never had much time for me until recently, but he’s been very friendly of late, and he’s all the crack, you know. A devilish fine whip and one of the best amateurs I’ve seen with his fives. I can’t offend him, or I’d be cold shouldered by half the men in town! Be the laughing stock of the clubs if it got out!’

‘More so than if they had come to find this wretched state of affairs?’ Susannah asked dryly, but Julian was deep in thought and paid no heed to her.

‘I’m afraid his lordship is very difficult to dissuade once he is determined on some course,’ Carter said in an aside to Susannah and she gave him a quick look of appreciation.

Suddenly Julian looked up at them in triumph.

‘Mrs Skinner!’ he announced.

‘Who?’ Susannah asked.

‘The lodge keeper’s wife, Miss Susannah. I was hoping his lordship would not think of her,’ Carter said quietly, then turned to Julian. ‘She cannot manage entirely on her own, my lord,’ he remonstrated, but Julian, pleased with himself, stubbornly insisted he had found the solution to their problems, and nothing they could say would make him change his mind. Carter looked despairingly at Susannah.

‘It won’t do, Miss.’

She had been thinking hard.

‘Can you sober him up in time?’

‘Oh, yes, Miss Susannah, no trouble with that.’

‘Then that’s the first thing. I’ll see to the rest. Julian, if you’ll go with Carter now, you shall have your dinner. I’ll send for Mrs Skinner.’

Carter still shook his head in disagreement, but she ignored him, telling Julian sharply that his servants were as unreliable as their master and if he found bread and cheese on the table for his dinner he might consider himself fortunate.

‘And, as for Amanda, it’s my opinion she would be well rid of a bad bargain without you! What in the world she sees in you I cannot tell. You’re nothing but a drunken, gambling-mad fool and it’s only because I’m unfortunate enough to be your sister that I propose to help you. Now get out of my way. I shall be occupied by quite sufficient problems for the next few hours without having to take any account of you.’

And with these words she gave Julian a final disgusted look, smiled encouragingly at Carter and swept out of the room and back towards the stables.