eBook Mademoiselle At Arms
Mademoiselle at Arms Threatened with a pistol by the young lady he finds in a deserted mansion, Major Gerald Alderley is intrigued. Who is the beautiful intruder? And why does she disguise herself as a nun? Why is she involved in an enterprise both foolhardy and dangerous? The girl’s accent suggests an émigré but Mademoiselle insists she is English. Set on unravelling her secrets, Gerald pursues every possible clue—much to the indignation of Mademoiselle. Even with her life in danger from the villainous Valade, Mademoiselle Melusine, engaged in a desperate battle to prove her true identity, believes she is well able to take care of herself and is determined not to be rescued.   In the quiet of an autumn afternoon, the deserted mansion slept. Or appeared to do so. Concealed among the trees that edged the estate grounds, the watchers paused. There were two of them. Men of action by the scarlet coats with their grey facings—insignia of the county militia. Cocked hats and buckled swords spoke of rank. Officers were these. Too skilled to advertise their presence by a show of arms and men. The spy—if there was one hiding out in the late Jarvis Remenham’s empty house—would be taken unawares. Wary they might be. Sanguine they were not. In fact, one of them was downright sceptical. ‘Seems quiet enough,’ observed the junior officer, his gaze raking the shuttered windows of the building’s grey stone frontage. ‘Don’t be too sure,’ responded Major Gerald Alderley on a dry note. ‘I am expecting a huge rat to emerge any second. Waving a white flag, naturally.’ Captain Roding grinned. ‘Why not a French flag?’ ‘Because I don’t believe that fool Pottiswick could tell French from Arabic, even if he heard it as he says he did—which I take leave to doubt.’ The lodgekeeper had been in fine fettle by the time Major Alderley had produced his investigatory force at the gates. ‘Gabbling and muttering in a foreign tongue, that’s what I heard, sir,’ had declared the gap-toothed ancient, when he told them of the initial foray he had made, sneaking around the house in the dark. ‘One of they Frenchies, that’s what I say—if it ain’t a ghost.’ ‘A French ghost?’ ‘Well, it ain’t a rat this time, Major, I can promise you that,’ Pottiswick had rejoined, his tone affronted. ‘It had better not be, by God,’ had barked Captain Hilary Roding. Gerald sympathised with his friend’s irritation. The last time Pottiswick had called out the militia on suspicion of intruders in Remenham House, a large rodent had been all the spoil. It had certainly caused some havoc in the uninhabited mansion, chewing through Holland covers to get at the furniture beneath, and knocking down a fire guard and a couple of wooden stands. Truth to tell, more damage had been done in the enthusiastic chase carried out by the militiamen detailed to catch it. ‘I never met a rat what wandered about the place with a lantern, I didn’t,’ grumbled the old lodgekeeper aggrievedly. ‘Did you see the man?’ Gerald asked. ‘No, but I seen the light, sir. Moving room to room it was.’ He added pointedly, ‘Early this morning that were. I sent a message straight.’ ‘We had other matters on hand this morning,’ Roding told him sharply. Fiercely defensive, as usual. It both pleased and amused Gerald that Hilary adhered rigidly to protocol before the men, no matter what he might say to his major on other occasions. Besides, it was not the lodgekeeper’s business to know that “other matters” included a reluctance on Gerald’s part to allow his little company to conduct the search without him, and he’d had an engagement this morning. ‘I suppose you think I can’t manage it myself,’ had complained Captain Roding sarcastically. ‘Nothing of the sort,’ argued Gerald. ‘But on the off chance—slim, I grant you—that there is a spy down there, I don’t want to miss the fun.’ The possibility was indeed remote, for there had been no trouble with France since the Peace of Versailles had been signed six years ago. But the current rumblings of internal discontent across the Channel were productive of unease in certain quarters. Even an unlikely episode such as this could not be ignored. Besides, Gerald would not for the world have passed up the chance of a little excitement. It seemed at this moment, however, that there was not going to be any “fun”, and Captain Roding said so. ‘How disappointing,’ mourned Gerald. ‘Ah, well, we’ll check the back and then go home.’ ‘Don’t tell me,’ exploded his second-in-command. ‘I know you, Gerald. We won’t drag you away until you’ve been through the place from top to bottom.’ Alderley laughed. ‘Just around it, Hilary, that’s all.’ He added on a teasing note, ‘Though if there’s anything suspicious we can always get the key from Pottiswick.’ Hilary Roding groaned, but obediently followed Gerald as he began to make his way through the trees towards the back to a vantage point from where they might examine the rear of Remenham House. One glance swept across the place and it was immediately apparent that Pottiswick had not, this time, been mistaken. ‘Aha,’ grunted Gerald with satisfaction, squinting up at the two open shutters on the second floor. ‘A French rat with exceedingly long arms, I see.’ ‘Gad, there is someone there,’ exclaimed Hilary beside him, shading his eyes with one hand. The warm September sun fell strongly on this part of the grounds, uninterrupted by trees, its light bouncing off the glass in the mansion’s walls. He added succinctly, ‘Windows are open.’ Even as they watched, a shadow passed across one of the apertures. ‘I’ll get the key,’ said Roding, turning abruptly. Gerald stayed him. ‘Wait! No time for that. We’re going in.’ Hilary eyed him. ‘And how do you propose to get in?’ ‘Scullery window.’ ‘You’re going to break into the house? You’re mad.’ ‘Nonsense, it’ll give Pottiswick something genuine to complain about,’ said Gerald cheerfully, moving to the edge of the trees. ‘Besides, I don’t want the men blundering in here and frightening off our spy. Come on.’ ‘You’re incorrigible,’ scolded Hilary, beginning to follow. ‘No one would credit that you are three years older than I.’ ‘You always were an old sobersides, even as a boy,’ retorted the major, who was close on thirty now, yet as ripe for excitement as he had been on receiving his first commission at sixteen. Ten years of military life had taught him caution, but only strengthened a fearless zest for diving into any promising adventure with unalloyed enjoyment. Out of sight of that tell-tale window, the two officers darted across the grounds, speedily gaining the lee of the mansion walls. Hugging them, they crept stealthily around the house, Major Alderley leading, and wasting—so his captain acidly commented—a deal of time checking the windows and doors. When he tried the scullery door, and would have moved on, Hilary intervened. ‘Thought you were going to break in here,’ he said, in an impatient whisper. ‘We may have to,’ Gerald answered thoughtfully, staring at the window to one side. ‘But you said—’ Gerald tutted. ‘Housebreaking, Hilary? I take the matter of housebreaking very seriously, I’ll have you know.’ He quirked an eyebrow. ‘I thought, you see, that we might as well enter by the same way our intruder had done.’ Roding looked struck. ‘You mean there isn’t any evidence of a break-in.’ ‘Precisely.’ ‘That’s odd.’ ‘Precisely,’ Gerald repeated. He glanced up. The open windows were above them now and, unless the intruder were to lean out, they could not possibly be seen. ‘Let’s check the rest of it and then I suppose we will have to break in.’ ‘For God’s sake,’ protested his junior. ‘I thought you said you take housebreaking very seriously.’ ‘I do. I intend to remain very serious indeed while I’m doing it.’ ‘Dunderhead. Why don’t I just go and get the key from Pottiswick?’ Alderley flicked a glance back at him over his shoulder. ‘You can if you like.’ ‘Yes, and leave you to break in on your own. No, I thank you.’ Hilary Roding, despite the fact that he was both a younger and slighter man than his friend—although wiry and tough with an attractive countenance that had won him the heart of an extremely eligible young lady—had a rooted conviction, as Gerald well knew, that it was not safe to leave Alderley to his own reckless devices. It occasionally troubled the major that Hilary’s staunch loyalty had led him into hair-raising exploits at Gerald’s side, for he was perfectly aware that Hilary would not have dreamed of deserting him. They had completed a circuit of the mansion before Roding’s frustration burst out. ‘How in God’s name did the wretched fellow get in then?’ ‘Dug a tunnel?’ suggested Gerald, halting next to a pair of French windows at the front. ‘Or flew in by balloon, perhaps.’ ‘Oh yes, or walked through the walls, I dare say. And if you mean to use that dagger to slip the lock, you’ll make enough noise to bring ten spies down on us.’ But Major Alderley might have been an expert for all the sound he made as he forced the lock with the heavy blade. Darkness closed in on them as the officers stepped inside the musty interior. Gerald stood quite still for a moment or two, listening intently. Utter silence answered him. Then he could hear Hilary breathing beside him, and from outside the muted twittering of birds. As his eyes adjusted, he was able to make out the great shrouded shapes of the furniture. A brief feeling of empathy with Pottiswick passed through him. There was an eerie sense of brooding menace about an uninhabited establishment. No one had lived here since old man Remenham had died some eighteen months ago, for the heir, so it was rumoured, was a relative with property of his own. Someone, it appeared, was trying to profit from that fact. Gerald’s task was to stop him from doing so. In this spy theory, however, he had no faith whatsoever. It was his belief that the French had enough troubles of their own in these difficult times without bothering to nose out British business. Noiselessly, his booted feet stepping with careful restraint, he started forward, signalling to Roding to follow. Together they crept through the erstwhile drawing room and entered the massive flagged hall. ‘No sense in snooping about down here,’ Gerald whispered. ‘Of course the fellow has doubtless stayed put to wait for you,’ retorted Hilary. ‘Maybe not,’ Gerald conceded, ‘but I’m damned if I herald my approach with a lot of unnecessary blundering about in the dark.’ Roding allowed that he had a point, and followed him as he began to mount the stairs. The odd creak was not to be avoided in an old house such as this. But it seemed that their presence was not even suspected. For on reaching the second floor, a swishing sound came to Gerald’s ears, as of someone moving about. He halted and put out a hand to stop Hilary. Finger to his lips, Gerald pointed in the direction of the noise. Listening on the dimlit landing, he saw Roding’s face muscles tighten. He was conscious of a quickening of his heartbeat and the familiar rise of adrenalin that sent his senses soaring in anticipation. This was what he missed. This was the reason he had raised his little independent Company of Light Infantry and joined the West Kent Militia. Selling out of the Army to take up his inheritance had spelled boredom to Gerald Alderley. The militia offered little in the way of relief. This was just what he needed. God send the fellow did turn out to be a spy! Beckoning Roding on, Gerald crept down the corridor towards the source of the swishing he had heard. It had ceased now, but as he closed in on the area, a faint muttering came to his ears. Pottiswick had mentioned muttering. Perhaps the old fool was not as fanciful as they had thought. The door to the room in question was closed. Gerald pressed against the wall, and signalled Roding to go to the other side of the door. His hand went to his pocket and extracted a neat silver-mounted pistol. Like most officers, he’d had it especially made, for a man who loved danger had need of a precision instrument of defence. Hilary Roding was all soldier now, his earlier grievances laid aside. His fingers cherished the hilt of his sword and his eyes were on his friend and superior, ready at his back to do whatever was needed. Very gently indeed, Alderley grasped the handle of the door and stealthily turned it. A minute pressure inwards showed him that it was not locked. He glanced up at Roding and met his eyes. A nod was exchanged. Taking a firm grasp of his pistol, Gerald eased back, let go the handle of the door, and at the same instant, swung his booted foot. The door crashed back against the wall inside and both men hurtled into the room, weapons at the ready—and stopped dead. Standing before a mirror set on a dresser between the windows, two hands frozen in the act of adjusting a wide-brimmed hat on her head, stood a lady in a dark riding habit, her startled features turned towards the door. For a moment or two Gerald stood in the total silence of amazement, his pistol up and pointing, aware that Hilary was likewise stunned, standing with half-drawn sword. And then amusement crept into Alderley’s chest and he let his pistol hand fall. ‘So this is Pottiswick’s French spy.’ ‘Gad, but she’s a beauty,’ gasped Hilary, and slammed his sword back in its scabbard. The lady, who was indeed stunning, Gerald suddenly realised, said never a word. A pair of long-lashed blue eyes studied them both as she slowly brought her hands down to rest by her sides. The pouting cherry lips were slightly parted and the very faintest of panting breaths, together with the quick rise and fall of an alluring bosom, betrayed her fear. Raven locks fell to her shoulders from under the feathered beaver hat, and curled away down her back. It struck the major that she was very young. But although startled and clearly afraid, there was no self-consciousness in her gaze and she was standing her ground. A tinge of admiration rose in his breast. Gerald raised his cockaded hat, and smiled. ‘Forgive this intrusion, ma’am, I beg. We were expecting rather to find a male antagonist.’ Still the girl said nothing. ‘Perhaps she don’t understand English,’ suggested Roding. Gerald switched to French. ‘Étes-vous Francais?’ Her eyes, he noted, followed from himself to Hilary and back again, but she did not speak. Her gaze flickered down to his pistol. Gerald caught the look and slipped the weapon into his pocket. One did not use pistols against a female. ‘We mean you no harm,’ he said reassuringly. ‘You have no need to be afraid of us.’ Still no response. Gerald exchanged a puzzled glance with his friend. Was she so fearful still? Roding shrugged and grimaced. ‘What do we do now?’ Gerald took a pace towards the girl. She moved then, fast, taking refuge behind a Chinese screen that was set beside the four-poster at the back of the room. Gerald swore. ‘She’s terrified.’ Hilary’s gaze was raking the room. ‘She ought to be. Been making herself at home all right.’ Alderley glanced round the bedchamber. Strewn across the bed was a multitude of jumbled garments. A long chest under one of the windows was open, some of its contents dragged out and spilling onto the floor. He drew an awed breath. ‘Was she planning to make away with all this stuff?’ ‘What’s this?’ Hilary pounced on a black item slung on the floor by the dresser. His gaze drawn, Gerald watched him dip to pick up a crushed square of white linen and a starched object that resembled a helmet. Then he lifted the black cloak-like garment from the floor. ‘Gerald, this is a nun’s habit.’ Before the major could verify this, the lady reappeared. To his consternation, she was holding an unwieldy, ugly-looking pistol, all wood and tarnished steel, with both hands about the butt. Coldly she spoke, in a distinctly accented voice. ‘Do not move, messieurs, or I shall be compelled to blow off your head.’ Hilary’s jaw dropped open, and he stood stupidly staring, the nun’s clothing dangling from his hand. Gerald lifted an eyebrow. ‘Odd sort of a nun.’ The lady uttered a scornful sound. ‘Certainly I am not a nun. But one must disguise oneself. To be jeune demoiselle, it is not always convenient.’ Gerald controlled a quivering lip. ‘So it would appear.’ He nodded in the direction of her pistol. The lady grasped it more firmly and turned it upon Hilary. ‘Move, you. Back, that you may be close together.’ ‘I should do as she says if I were you, Hilary,’ observed Gerald, noting the fierce determination in the girl’s lovely face. ‘Never trust a gun in female hands,’ grumbled Hilary, dropping the nun’s habit and backing to join his friend. ‘That’s what comes of disarming yourself.’ ‘A mistake, I agree.’ Gerald’s eyes never left the girl. ‘What are the chances, do you think, of that thing being already cocked?’ ‘Probably not even loaded,’ suggested Hilary hopefully. ‘Parbleu,’ came indignantly from the lady. ‘Am I a fool? Can I blow off a head with a pistol which is not loaded?’ ‘She has a point,’ conceded Alderley, relaxing a little as amusement burgeoned again ‘Ten to one she is a French spy,’ burst from Roding. The pistol was lowered slightly. ‘I find you excessively rude, both of you,’ said the lady crossly. ‘You talk together of me as if I am not there. “She”, you say. But I am here.’ ‘You are perfectly correct,’ agreed Gerald at once. ‘You are there. Why, is the question I would like answered.’ ‘I do not tell you why,’ the lady uttered flatly. ‘But a spy I am not.’ ‘Can you prove it?’ demanded Hilary. ‘Certainly I can prove it. That is easy. I am not French in the least.’ ‘Not French?’ echoed Hilary. ‘That’s a loud one.’ ‘It is true,’ insisted the lady. ‘I am entirely English.’ ‘Entirely English,’ said Gerald as one making a discovery. ‘Of course. Why did I not realise it at once? It just shows how one should not judge by appearances. The little matter of an accent may be misleading, I grant you, but—’ He was interrupted, and with impatience. ‘Alors, you make a game with me, I see that. It is better that you go away now, I think.’ ‘Ah, but there’s the little matter of your presence here,’ said Gerald on a note of apology. ‘This is a private house,’ Hilary said severely, ‘and you are trespassing.’ ‘Also stealing,’ added Gerald, with a gesture at the clothes on the bed. ‘I do not steal,’ declared the lady hotly. ‘Parbleu, but what a person you make me! One who spies. One who steals. One who—who—tres...’ She paused, struggling for the word. ‘Trespasses,’ supplied Gerald. ‘And, if this was not enough,’ went on the lady furiously, ‘you dare to say I am French. Pah!’ She flounced about and, crossing to the bed, plonked down on it, pointedly averting her face and resting the large pistol in her lap. Hilary made a movement as if he would seize the opportunity to disarm the girl, but Gerald stopped him. ‘I think,’ he said pleasantly, ‘that it would be as well if you, Hilary, were to go and fetch the troops. And Pottiswick, of course. He will wish to have his fears laid to rest.’ The lady’s face came round, a puzzled frown on her brow. ‘Troops?’ ‘Go, man,’ urged the major in an undervoice. ‘I’ll handle her better alone.’ ‘You certain? She’s a thought too volatile for my money.’ ‘She once more,’ came in disgust from the girl on the bed. Her heavy pistol came up again, although she did not rise. ‘What do you say of these troops?’ ‘You see, we’re militia. Milice,’ Gerald translated. ‘Civilian peace-keeping forces, you know. That’s why we are here.’ A scowl crossed the lady’s face. ‘You will arrest me? For—for—’ ‘Trespass, theft and spying,’ snapped Hilary. ‘And housebreaking,’ added Gerald calmly. At that, the girl jumped up. ‘Parbleu, the house, is it broken in the least? I do not think so.’ ‘As a matter of fact, it isn’t,’ conceded Gerald. ‘We were wondering about that.’ With an air of real interest, he asked, ‘I suppose you did not dig a tunnel or fly in by balloon?’ The lady gazed at him blankly. ‘That is imbecile.’ ‘Well, she didn’t walk through the walls, that’s certain,’ said Hilary acidly. ‘How did you get in? The house is all locked up.’ The lady looked unexpectedly smug. ‘Assuredly it is locked up. Alors, how did you get in?’ ‘Oh, we broke in,’ Gerald told her cheerfully. She stared. Then her eyes flashed. ‘And it is me you dare accuse? It is yourself you should arrest.’ Gerald could not resist. He looked at Hilary and nodded. ‘She’s perfectly right.’ He threw one arm across his own chest and clapped himself on the shoulder. ‘Major Gerald Alderley, I arrest you in the name of the King.’ A peal of laughter came from the girl. ‘It is imbecile that you are. You cannot arrest yourself.’ ‘Will you have done, Gerald?’ demanded Hilary, exasperated. ‘What in God’s name do you think you’re playing at?’ ‘Let me alone, man,’ Gerald muttered under his breath. ‘I told you I could handle her.’ ‘Well, don’t blame me if you get your head blown off.’ ‘It is you who will get the head blown off,’ threatened the young lady fiercely. ‘It will suit me very well that you go away, because you are a person without sense and I do not wish to talk to you.’ ‘Eh?’ Gerald grinned at Hilary’s blank expression, and was gratified when the girl turned a brilliant smile upon himself. ‘But you,’ she said in the friendliest way imaginable, ‘are a person tout à fait sympathique, I think. I will permit you to rescue me.’ ‘It will give me the greatest of pleasure,’ Gerald said at once, making an elegant leg. ‘Only perhaps I can more readily do so if you will put down that pistol.’ The lady frowned suspiciously. ‘I think it is better if I hold the pistol. Then, if you are bad to me, I can more easily blow off your head.’ ‘You see? Not to be trusted,’ Hilary uttered disgustedly. ‘And what is it you’re to rescue her from, I should like to know.’ ‘From you,’ the lady threw at him furiously. ‘You are stubborn like a mule. Why do you not go away?’ ‘Yes, do go away,’ begged Gerald. ‘You are really not helping matters, my friend.’ Captain Roding looked frowningly from one to the other. The lady reseated herself, watching him expectantly. He shrugged and, to Gerald’s relief, made to leave at last. ‘You’re as mad as she is, Gerald. I’ll be waiting for you outside.’ ‘No, no, go and fetch the men to the house. And tell Pottiswick to mend that lock we broke.’ ‘We!’ said Hilary witheringly, and went off as Gerald laughed and turned back to the lady. She was frowning, but it was evident that her initial fright had left her. The ruffled chemise-front under the wide lapels of her waistcoat and jacket no longer quivered, and her pose, with the full cloth petticoat spreading about her, was relaxed. Only her ungloved fingers, and the arms in their long tight sleeves as she held the heavy gun aloft, bore any sign of stiffness. She addressed him in a tone of puzzlement. ‘Why does this person say you are mad?’ ‘Because I am risking having my head blown off,’ Gerald answered cheerfully. The girl nodded sagely. ‘And me?’ ‘Oh, you’re mad because you wish to blow off my head.’ A radiant smile dawned. ‘Then I am not mad in the least. I do not wish to blow off a head, you understand.’ ‘I am relieved to hear it.’ The smile vanished. ‘But to do only what one wishes, it is not always convenient.’ ‘Consider me warned,’ said Gerald solemnly. He removed his cocked hat and came towards her. ‘You don’t mind if I sit down?’ She considered him a moment, her head a little on one side. ‘You are, I think, a gentleman, no?’ Gerald bowed. ‘I try to be.’ ‘Ah, that is good,’ sighed the lady. ‘You do not say, “I am a gentleman born.” Frenchmen, they are different.’ She released the pistol which lay in her lap and gestured expressively with her hands. ‘They hold their nose up, so. And look down, so. Englishmen also certainly. But only inside, you understand, that one cannot see it.’ Her conversation was wonderful, Gerald decided. And she was as shrewd as they come. ‘You seem to understand the gentry very well.’ ‘You see, I am of them,’ she said seriously, ‘but not with them—yet.’ With pretty imperiousness, she gestured to the bed beside her. ‘Please to sit, monsieur. I am not afraid that you may try to make love to me.’ ‘What?’ uttered Gerald, startled. The thought had not even occurred to him. He was not, in truth, much of a ladies’ man. Which was not to say that ladies were not interested in him. But Gerald took it for the routine interest in an eligible bachelor, although he was aware many females had an eye for scarlet regimentals. He spoke the automatic thought that entered his mind. ‘I should not dream of forcing my attentions on you.’ ‘No, you are a gentleman,’ she agreed. ‘And me, I am a lady. Voilà tout.’ Such simple faith touched Gerald. He refrained from pointing out that the case would be exactly the same if she was not a lady. He sat on the bed, throwing aside his hat. ‘That is settled then. May I know your name?’ The lady eyed him. He waited. She frowned, appearing to think for a moment. Then she shrugged. ‘Eh bien. It is Thérèse. Ah, no, I have it wrong.’ With care, she gave it an English pronunciation. ‘Tee-ree-sa.’ Gerald tutted. ‘You must think me a fool, mademoiselle.’ The eyes flashed momentarily. Then the long lashes sank demurely over them. ‘You do not like it?’ ‘That is hardly the point.’ She looked up again and smiled sweetly. ‘You do not think it is enough English. I will endeavour.’ She bit her lip and thought deeply. Something seemed to dredge up from the recesses of her memory and she brightened. ‘How is this? Proo-den-ss.’ Gerald gazed at her without expression. ‘Very inventive.’ ‘But it is a very good English name,’ she protested. ‘Very. But it is not your name. Nor is Theresa, or even Thérèse.’ The lady opened her eyes very wide indeed. ‘You do not believe me?’ ‘I do not.’ ‘Pah!’ ‘Precisely.’ She let out a peal of laughter. ‘You are not at all stupid. Even if you pretend sometimes to be without sense.’ ‘Well, let us leave your name for the present. From what do you wish to be rescued?’ The girl fluttered her eyelashes, sighed dramatically and spread her hands. ‘I escape from a fate entirely misérable, you understand.’ ‘Indeed?’ Gerald said politely. ‘What is this fate?’ ‘Un mariage of no distinction. My husband, he is cruel and wicked, and—and entirely undistinguished. It is very bad.’ ‘Your husband?’ Gerald tutted. ‘I agree with you. That is very bad indeed. I shall be delighted to rescue you. Where is this undistinguished husband?’ Leaping to his feet he seized his sword hilt and partly withdrew it from its sheath, saying dramatically, ‘I shall kill him immediately!’ Her eyes widened, but she did not move. ‘Kill him? Oh.’ The lady’s gaze dwelled thoughtfully on the half-drawn sword and then came up to meet his, an odd look in her eyes. ‘He is not in England, you understand. I have—run away.’ ‘That I do not doubt,’ Gerald muttered drily, but added in a tone of intense satisfaction, ‘Then this husband is still in France? Excellent.’ The sword was released to slide back into its scabbard. ‘In that case, he is probably already dead, and you have nothing to worry about.’ Her face fell. ‘Oh, you are making a game with me. You do not believe me.’ ‘When you begin to tell the truth,’ Gerald told her severely, ‘I shall be happy to believe you.’ ‘Parbleu,’ exclaimed the girl, jumping up in some dudgeon. ‘You are not sympathique in the very least.’ She raised the pistol. ‘If you shoot me,’ Gerald said quickly, throwing out a hand, ‘I shan’t be able to rescue you.’ ‘I do not need the rescue from such as you. And I think I will indeed blow off your imbecile head.’ ‘In that case, I ought to warn you that my friend, Captain Hilary Roding, who is even less sympathique than myself, you remember, will undoubtedly arrest you for murder.’ The lady stamped her foot. ‘Alors, now I am also a murderer. This is altogether insupportable. Take, if you please, your own pistol. Take it, I tell you. From your pocket there.’ ‘What for?’ asked Gerald, half laughing, as he put his hand in his pocket and brought out his elegant pistol. ‘Now what?’ The girl’s voice was shaking, and there were, he saw now, angry tears in her eyes. ‘At me,’ she uttered, holding her own pistol high and aiming it steadily. ‘Point it at me.’ ‘Like this?’ ‘Parfait.’ She sniffed and swallowed. ‘I am not a murderer. The chance it is the same for both. It is no more a murder, but a duel, you understand.’ She was backing across the room, moving towards the screen. Cocking the gun. He was damned if he knew what to do. Was the girl seriously expecting him to pull the trigger? Lord, but she had courage! ‘Shoot, then,’ urged the lady. ‘And we shall see which of us is more quick.’ ‘There is no need for this,’ he ventured mildly, and lifted his finger to show his own pistol was not cocked. ‘I cannot possibly shoot a lady, you know. I am far too much the gentleman.’ She halted, her pistol still held firm and straight, both hands gripping it, her expressive features at once determined and uncertain. ‘If, in truth, you are a gentleman,’ she said in a trembling tone, ‘you will move to the side that I may leave this room.’ ‘And where do you propose to go?’ enquired Gerald carefully. She lifted her shoulders in an eloquent shrug. ‘Where is there that I can go?’ All at once Alderley felt acutely suspicious. What was the wench at? Yet he could not maintain this stand off forever. He was by no means certain that she would not in fact attempt to blow off his head as she had threatened. ‘Very well,’ he said, lowering his own weapon. After all, Hilary must be near returned by now. Where was the harm in letting her go? She could not get far. He moved to one side, bowing and gesturing to the door. ‘Mademoiselle.’ The lady hesitated a moment, her eyes seeming to measure the distance between where he stood and the door. He stepped back further. Slowly she released the hammer on the pistol, uncocking it, and Gerald became conscious that he had been holding his breath. Giving him a wide berth, and keeping her pistol high, she made her way to the door and warily peered through it. A glance down the passage—to see that Roding was not lurking?—and her face came back to Gerald, triumph in her eyes. ‘Adieu, imbecile,’ she threw at him gleefully. Then she was out of the door and running, fast. The sound of her flying feet brought Gerald leaping for the door. He was into the passage in time to see her slip into another chamber at the end. A door slammed. Racing, he reached it perhaps a moment or two later. He thought he heard a scraping sound as he turned the handle. He flung open the door and cast a quick glance round. The place was gloomy, with its darkly panelled walls, but it was sparsely furnished. A dresser, a washstand, and a clothes press. No window. A dressing-room then. But where in the world was the girl? A door led to another chamber beyond. Gerald tried it. Locked! He sped out to the corridor and went swiftly into the next room. Wasting no time, he crossed straight to the shutters and opened them. Light flooded the place. It was bare of any furnishings. And empty. The young lady—if she had come in here at all—had vanished.


Free ebook Mademoiselle At Arms Set in the late Georgian era, Elizabeth Bailey’s traditional historical romance features an unconventional heroine with a rebellious spirit who runs headlong into adventure. Threatened with a pistol by the young lady discovered in a deserted mansion, Major Gerald Alderley is instantly intrigued. Who is the beautiful intruder? And why does she disguise herself as a nun? What circumstance has thrust her into an enterprise both foolhardy and dangerous? The girl’s French accent places her with the émigrés from across the channel, except that Mademoiselle insists she is English. Set on unravelling the mystery, Gerald begins a relentless pursuit, hunting down every possible clue - much to the indignation of Mademoiselle. When her life proves to be in danger from the villainous émigré Valade, Gerald has his work cut out. For Mademoiselle Melusine, engaged in a desperate battle to prove her true identity, believes she is well able to take care of herself and is determined not to be rescued.

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