“It’s all right, Bea. Only . . . I do wish he hadn’t lost the letter. So long as no one finds it, I suppose there’s no problem.”
“Then Mr. Rutledge is not a decrepit madman?” Beatrix asked, sounding disappointed.
“What does he look like?”
“Quite handsome, actually. He’s very tall, and—”
“As tall as Merripen?”
Kev Merripen had come to live with the Hathaways after his tribe had been attacked by Englishmen who had wished to drive the Gypsies out of the county. The boy had been left for dead, but the Hathaways had taken him in, and he had stayed for good. Recently he had married the second oldest sister, Winnifred. Merripen had undertaken the monumental task of running the Ramsay estate in Leo’s absence. The newlyweds were both quite happy to stay in Hampshire during the season, enjoying the beauty and relative privacy of Ramsay House.
“No one’s as tall as Merripen,” Poppy said. “But Mr. Rutledge is tall nonetheless, and he has dark hair and piercing green eyes . . .” Her stomach gave an unexpected little leap as she remembered.
“Did you like him?”
Poppy hesitated. “Mr. Rutledge is . . . unsettling. He’s charming, but one has the feeling he’s capable of nearly anything. He’s like some wicked angel from a William Blake poem.”
“I wish I could have seen him,” Beatrix said wistfully. “And I wish even more that I could visit the curiosities room. I envy you, Poppy. It’s been so long since anything interesting has happened to me.”
Poppy laughed quietly. “What, when we’ve just gone through nearly the entire London season?”
Beatrix rolled her eyes. “The London season is about as interesting as a snail race. In January. With dead snails.”
“Girls, I’m ready,” came Miss Marks’s cheerful summons, and she entered the room. “Make certain to fetch your parasols—you don’t want to become sunbrowned.” The trio left the suite and proceeded at a dignified pace along the hallway. Before they turned the corner to approach the grand staircase, they became aware of an unusual disturbance in the decorous hotel.
Men’s voices tangled in the air, some agitated, at least one of them angry, and there was the sound of foreign accents, and heavy thumping, and a queer metallic rattling.
“What the devil . . .” Miss Marks said under her breath.
Rounding the corner, the three women stopped abruptly at the sight of a half dozen men clustered near the food lift. A shriek rent the air.
“Is it a woman?” Poppy asked, turning pale. “A child?”
“Stay here,” Miss Marks said tensely. “I’ll undertake to find out—”
The three of them flinched at a series of screams, the sounds blistered with panic.
“It is a child,” Poppy said, striding forward despite Miss Marks’s command to stay. “We must do something to help.”
Beatrix had already run ahead of her. “It’s not a child,” she said over her shoulder. “It’s a monkey!”
There were few activities Harry enjoyed as much as fencing, even more so because it had become an obsolete art. Swords were no longer necessary as weapons or fashion accessories, and its practitioners were now mainly military officers and a handful of amateur enthusiasts. But Harry liked the elegance of it, the precision that required both physical and mental discipline. A fencer had to plan several moves in advance, something that came naturally to Harry.
A year earlier, he had joined a fencing club consisting of approximately a hundred members, including peers, bankers, actors, politicians, and soldiers from various ranks of the military. Thrice weekly, Harry and a few trusted friends met at the club, practicing with both foils and quarterstaffs beneath the watchful eye of a fencing master. Although the club had a changing room and shower baths, there was often a queue, so Harry usually left directly from practice.
This morning’s practice had been especially vigorous, as the fencing master had taught them techniques for fighting off two opponents simultaneously. Although it had been invigorating, it was also challenging, and they had all been left bruised and tired. Harry had gotten a few hard strikes on his chest and bicep, and he was soaked in sweat.
When he returned to the hotel, he was still in his fencing whites, although he had removed the protective leather padding. He was looking forward to a shower bath, but it quickly became evident that the shower bath would have to wait.
One of his managers, a bespectacled young man named William Cullip, met him as he entered the back of the hotel. Cullip’s face was drawn with anxiety. “Mr. Rutledge,” he said apologetically, “I was told by Mr. Valentine to tell you immediately upon your return that we are having a . . . well, a difficulty . . .”
Harry stared at him and remained silent, waiting with forced patience. One could not rush Cullip, or the information would take forever to get out.
“It involves the Nagarajan diplomats,” the manager continued.
“No, sir. It has to do with one of the articles of tribute the Nagarajans had planned to present to the Queen tomorrow. It has disappeared.”
Harry frowned, reflecting on the collection of priceless gemstones, artwork and textiles the Nagarajans had brought. “Their possessions are stored in a locked basement room. How could something go missing?”
Cullip let out a ragged breath. “Well, sir, it has apparently left on its own.”