|THE EYES OF THE IDOL
by Nene Adams©2004 – all rights reserved
was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,
London, England 1892
The woman's gloved hands were clenched into fists. Her shoulders were stiff. Her entire posture was rigid, yet beneath the controlled surface, a current of strong emotion seemed to threaten to spill over at any moment. "My name is Miss Constance Lytton," she said, blinking. Her lips trembled as she spoke. "I am a nurse, currently engaged by Lord and Lady Drummond for their daughter, Madeline."
"I have heard of the case," said Lady Evangeline St. Claire. She turned to her partner, Rhiannon Moore, who was perched next to her on the arm of the green velvet settee. "We have read about the matter in The Times, although I do not trust journalists to present the unvarnished facts. Do you remember, my dear? The jewelry theft at Mayweather Park in Kensington."
A look of despair crossed over Constance's plain features, then vanished as she reasserted control and presented her formerly bland countenance. A tinge of pink in her sallow cheeks was the only evidence of the struggle that waged within. "Yes, the stolen necklace. What the newspapers do not report is that I am the chief suspect. It is only a matter of time before the accusation becomes public."
Rhiannon got up in a rustle of indigo skirts. Like Lina, she was dressed in the corset-less aesthetic style, clad in a loosely flowing Liberty's silk gown whose color enhanced her turquoise eyes and was the perfect backdrop for her red-gold hair. "Would you care for some tea, or perhaps something stronger? Brandy? Whiskey-and-soda?" she suggested to Constance, crossing to the tray of tea things that stood upon a table.
The nurse nodded. "Tea would suit me very well, thank you." After the little ritual was complete – a single lump of sugar and a translucent slice of lemon in the cup - she turned to Lina once more. "I have heard that you might be able to help me."
Lina accepted the bone china cup that Rhiannon offered her. "That will depend upon you, Miss Lytton." Her emerald gaze narrowed as she studied the nurse's face. "Did you take Lord Hillmont's necklace?"
Constance's cup rattled in its saucer. She closed her eyes; a muscle moved in her jaw, and the tremors ceased. When she opened her eyes again, she had regained her calm. "No, milady, I did not." She returned Lina's stare coolly, as though the lapse had never occurred.
Lina continued her examination of the nurse and finally sat back, satisfied that the woman was not about to burst into a storm of weeping. Such self-control pleased her and made her task of uncovering the truth that much easier. "Please begin at the beginning. Be as thorough as possible. Omit nothing. The smallest detail may prove crucial."
Rhiannon took a little notebook and mechanical pencil from the pocket of her gown, and prepared to take notes.
Constance sighed. "Very well, milady. As I have already stated, I am a nurse, engaged by Lord and Lady Drummond to care for their daughter, Madeline, who is eighteen years of age. Miss Madeline is a sickly girl, much given to headaches and melancholia and the occasional bout of hysteria. She suffers from a general malaise – the result, in my opinion, of overindulgence," she said delicately.
"In other words, Miss Madeline has been dreadfully spoiled, and makes herself ill if she doesn't get her way," Rhiannon said.
Constance was surprised. "I am astounded by your acuity," she said, putting her cup down. Below the frizzled curls of her blonde bangs, her hazel eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Were you once a governess, perhaps?"
"I'm a private tutor's daughter," Rhiannon replied. The two women shared a glance of mingled commiseration and a kind of grim amusement.
Lina did not understand the exchange but decided it was better not to interrupt.
Constance relaxed a trifle, since she had found a sympathetic ear. "At any rate," she continued, "Miss Madeline is an engaging child in her own way, once one has learned to handle her properly. Indeed, she is quite affectionate and I do not find my duties too odious to bear. Her behavior seemed to be improving. However, one week ago we learned that Lord Percival Hillmont would be coming to Mayweather Park to pay a visit to Miss Madeline. The two are engaged to be married and he wished to present her bridal gift himself."
"And how does the girl feel about the matter?" Lina asked.
"The understanding between them is of a peculiar kind, arranged by their parents almost ten years ago. Lord Hillmont is eager as a potential bridegroom should be; Miss Madeline is a very pretty child though, as I’ve stated, much spoiled. For her part, Miss Madeline appears indifferent sometimes; at other times, her feelings range from despair to feverish excitement. She has a broad romantic streak, which I regret to say has been nurtured by an addiction to romantic novels of the most violent sort.”
Lina smiled and raised her brows at Rhiannon; the other woman bared her teeth and settled primly on an hassock, nose in the air. Rhiannon, too, was much addicted to penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers – the more fantastical and gore-splattered, the better. It was a source of constant amusement for Lina, who enjoyed teasing her partner about this less-than-becoming habit of reading what she considered trash.
“At any rate,” Constance said, ignoring the by-play, “Lord Hillmont arrived at Mayweather Park on Saturday last, bearing with him the famous Hillmont opals - his family's traditional gift to the brides of their eldest sons."
"Ah, the Hillmont opals. Are you familiar with them, my dear?" Lina asked. At Rhiannon's head shake, she continued, "Twin milky opals, about the size of baby's fists, set as pendants in a triple strand of matched pearls and blue opal beads. I have heard that the large gemstones were looted from a heathen temple by the Spanish, hence the nickname, 'Eyes of the Idol.' The necklace was first made for Good Queen Bess."
"Queen Elizabeth gave it as a wedding present to a lady-in-waiting, Lettice Everard, who married Lord James Hillmont." Constance smoothed the bodice of her serviceable black bombazine gown. There was a yellow flower pinned near her collar; other than a jet brooch, it was her only ornament. "Ever since, brides marrying into the Hillmont family are expected to wear the opals at their weddings."
"And now the necklace is missing, presumably stolen."
"Precisely. The wedding cannot take place unless Miss Madeline wears the opals. It is a condition of her marriage contract. The whole household is in an uproar." Constance went rigid again, her spine stiffening to ruler straightness. "I fear that the police will soon arrest me. I am an innocent woman, milady. I beg you to help me."
Lina gave the nurse her most reassuring smile. "I will provide every assistance at my command, Miss Lytton. Kindly inform me of the circumstances surrounding the necklace's disappearance, if you please.”
Constance took a deep breath. "Lord Hillmont arrived at eight o'clock on the night of Saturday last, bringing with him a valet named Kennicot. The box containing the opal necklace was placed in the vault in Lord Drummond's library. This vault also contains Lady Drummond's jewels. Only milord and milady have the keys."
Rhiannon scribbled in her little notebook, taking down the pertinent facts.
"After dinner,” Constance continued, tucking a stray blonde curl back into the heavy chignon at the base of her neck, “the necklace was fetched and presented to Miss Madeline in the privacy of her boudoir. She had taken a tray in her room, having begged off joining the rest of the party for dinner because of a headache."
"What was her reaction upon seeing the necklace?"
"She wept. Miss Madeline told me that the necklace was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She expressed a regret that she could not have the opals without also having Lord Hillmont. The thought of marriage seemed to drive her further and further into an hysterical state." The faint lines visible on Constance’s face from nose to mouth deepened when she frowned. "Miss Madeline often behaves in a fanciful way. Her future husband is personable and amiable, not at all an ogre, and she has known him since childhood. I had thought her fond of him.
“Lady Drummond, who was present, grew greatly worried at the extent of Miss Madeline's furor. She asked me to return the necklace to the vault and gave me her own key to do so. I believe that she wished to confer with Miss Madeline without witnesses, in order to discover her daughter's objections to the match. I later learned that she was unable to wring any confidences from Miss Madeline; I believe the girl likes Lord Hillmont well enough and was only causing difficulty for its own sake.
"I did as I was ordered. The library was empty. I went straight to the vault, opened it, and placed the box containing the necklace inside. At no time was the necklace out of my sight or out of my hands. I returned to Miss Madeline's room and gave the key back to Lady Drummond. Miss Madeline had fallen into an exhausted sleep and I did not think it prudent to rouse her. Lady Drummond remained with the girl for a while, and I retired to my own bed.
"The next morning, the box was missing and the necklace was gone. At first, milord and milady refused to believe that I had anything to do with it, but as the police enquiry continued, their suspicions increasingly focused upon me. After all, I was the last person to see the Hillmont opals. I had had possession of the key. They have only my word - the word of an employee, no matter how trusted - that the vault door was locked and the necklace within. The police inspector believes that, if I did not steal the necklace myself, then I must have been an accomplice to the theft. The vault was not forced. The doors and windows were locked. Whoever took the opals must have had the vault key and been let in by someone. Do you see how it is?" Constance spread her gloved hands apart. "Even I am having difficulty believing in my own innocence."
"It does, indeed, look black for you. Are any of the other servants suspected?" Lina asked.
"Everyone was suspected at first. Now it appears that I am the only logical choice."
Lina steepled her fingers together and looked grave. "What is the name of the police inspector who has charge of the case?"
"Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard." Constance's façade began to crack. Her mouth trembled. "He would have arrested me already, save that Lady Drummond intervened on my behalf. Miss Madeline's condition has declined since the disappearance. She is bedridden, listless, yet sometimes possessed of a queer kind of maniacal energy. She laughs and sobs at the slightest provocation. Only my presence calms her. I believe, if it were not for Lady Drummond's concern about her daughter's health, I would now be in Holloway Gaol. Milady’s protection will not last much longer, I fear."
"Has Madeline said anything to you regarding the theft of the necklace?" Lina got up and went to the window, pulling aside the heavy velvet curtains in order to peer outside.
Constance considered the question. "The morning we learned the news from Lady Drummond, Miss Madeline told me that she was glad it was gone. 'Now I won't have to marry him,' she told me, and seemed in good spirits at the prospect. Needless to say, I was very alarmed by her attitude and explained to her that such overt happiness might be construed as an insult to Lord Hillmont. She did not seem to care. Indeed, she fairly glowed. She told me that, since she could not marry, I would have to stay on as her nurse. My plans, I said to her, had not changed. You must understand - I believed the whole thing was a mistake of some kind, and the necklace would soon be found. I did not anticipate becoming a suspect."
"No one does," Rhiannon murmured. "Tell me, Miss Lytton... if the Eyes of the Idol are discovered, will you leave your place of employment?"
"I do not care if the wretched thing is found or not, so long as I am cleared of suspicion," Constance replied. "I will tell you the same thing I told Miss Madeline: I will be leaving the Drummond household as soon as practical. After the demonstration of milord and milady's distrust, it will be impossible for me to remain. Besides, Lord Hillmont is eager to wed Miss Madeline, and I think he will do so irregardless of his family's tradition. Miss Madeline is, despite immaturity, an adult woman of sound mind. There is nothing wrong with her that a firm but kind hand will not solve."
"So you feel no further responsibility for the girl?" Rhiannon pressed. "None at all?"
"Miss Madeline regards me as a friend and confidante, a mother figure if you will," Constance said, her voice trailing off. She cleared her throat and added, "Again, I point out to you that I am a paid companion. My feelings do not enter into the matter. I have done my best to care for Miss Madeline during the time that I have been engaged. Frankly, a clean break may do her good. She has become far too dependent on me - excessively so, in my opinion."
"Excessively dependent?" Rhiannon asked with a knowing gleam in her eyes.
Constance shifted in her seat. "Yes," was all she replied. Her hand strayed to the flower pinned near her collar. It was a yellow blossom, a round golden puffball that glowed like a little sun against the black of her dress.
Rhiannon followed the movement of the nurse's hand. "Acacia smallii. Does she give you one every day?"
Constance nodded. Rhiannon continued, “I understand.” The look she gave the nurse was one of pity and a sad knowledge that Lina did not share.
Lina shook her head. "I do not," she said, letting the curtains fall back. "This boots nothing. Miss Lytton is being followed by the police. There is a pair of constables watching the house from across the street. There may be more nearby."
Rhiannon snapped her notebook closed. "Do you know the language of flowers, Lina?"
"Absolutely not. I pride myself on a distinct lack of feminine accomplishments." Lina returned to the sofa. "Why do you ask, my dear?"
"I'll explain at Mayweather Park." Rhiannon stood up. "I know who took the necklace, and I believe I know why."
Lina's dark brows shot towards her hairline. "Do you?"
"Oh, yes. For once, the tables have turned. If you want the solution, you'll just have to wait until I’m ready to reveal it." Rhiannon folded her arms across her chest and grinned at Lina's discomfiture. "Will you order a cab? That will be quicker than waiting for Henry to fetch the carriage and horses from Smythe’s Stables. I think we ought to conclude our investigation as soon as possible."
Constance looked stricken. She pressed a hand against her bosom and said, "Will you... will you be discreet, Miss Moore?" Unshed tears trembled on her lashes.
“Don’t worry, Miss Lytton. Lord and Lady Drummond need never know.”
Lina was not exactly irked that Rhiannon had solved the case, but... the shoe definitely pinches when it is on the other foot, she thought. If this is how my dear feels when I indulge in the theatrical, I have a new appreciation for her occasional pique.
"Miss Moore is the soul of discretion," she said aloud.
Rhiannon twinkled at her. "Thank you, love."
"This cannot be done any other way?" Constance asked, taking a clean handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbing her wet eyes with it. "I did not want.. at least, my suspicions were at first… but I did not…" she babbled incoherently.
"The truth will set you free," Rhiannon said kindly. “You were put into a terrible position and did the best you could. No one will blame you.”
Constance slumped in relief and blew her nose. "Thank you."
When Lina went outside in search of a cab – both of the footmen having taken a well-deserved half-day off - she went over the facts that had surfaced during the nurse's interview. Rhiannon's cryptic remark regarding the language of flowers was especially intriguing. Lina had an inkling as to the true culprit's identity but she would have waited for evidence to prove her conclusion. Rhiannon wanted to do things differently; that was her prerogative. It was also clear to her that Constance Lytton's focus had shifted from Lina to Rhiannon as her savior.
I do not begrudge my dear her moment in the sun. Lord knows I have confounded her often enough. Lina smiled to herself and, spotting a hansom cab, signaled for the driver to stop. A moment’s search of the street turned up two urchins who, for a few pennies, undertook to distract the watching constables with a noisy squabble and a fight in a nearby mud puddle. While the officers cursed and tried to brush the filth from their uniforms, Lina hastily got Rhiannon and Constance into the cab and directed the driver to Kensington.
At Mayweather Park – a magnificent Georgian mansion built of red brick on Campden Hill, near the famous Holland House – Lina presented her calling card to the butler. Constance Lytton remained in the cab, swaddled in a shawl and out of sight of the constables who guarded the premises. Inspector Valentine must have been with Lord and Lady Drummond; shortly after the butler disappeared with her card on a silver tray, Valentine came bounding down the oak staircase, his shock of blonde hair standing on end.
“What might your business be, milady?” he asked Lina without preamble.
“Good day to you, too, Harry,” Lina said, not at all disturbed by his scowl. “I understand a valuable necklace has gone missing.”
Valentine’s scowl grew more pronounced, until the man looked as though he had bitten into a lemon. “What ‘ave you to do with it?” he growled.
“Not a thing,” Lina replied. She reached behind her and pulled Rhiannon forward in a flurry of indigo silk and a woven oat straw hat that had entirely too many feathers on it. “If you desire answers, Harry, you must apply to Miss Moore.” It was the first time she had ever seen Valentine so completely flummoxed. Lina had to quell the urge to guffaw.
“What’s the trouble, luv?” Valentine asked Rhiannon when he had recovered sufficiently for speech. His manner with her was gentle, almost gentlemanly for such a rough-hewn individual. “Has milady been bitten by the lunatic bug? I knew it was only a matter of time before she became a bedlamite.”
Lina bit her lip very hard to keep from retorting sharply. She reminded herself that Rhiannon was in charge. This was her partner’s case and she would do nothing to detract from the woman’s moment of glory. Not one thing.
Rhiannon smiled at Valentine and laid a hand on his arm. “Inspector…”
“Do call me Harry, luv.”
“Very well, Harry.” Rhiannon sidled closer to the man. “You see, I’ve been talking to Miss Constance Lytton.”
“You have, eh?” Valentine gave Lina a filthy look that ought to have curled her toes. “So, milady, now you’ve got the missus doing your dirty work.”
“Not at all,” Lina drawled. “I am merely an onlooker. Proceed, my dear,” she said to Rhiannon. Patting her lover’s indigo-clad behind would, she thought, be entirely too patronizing, no matter how tempting the rounded swell of the buttocks in question.
“Harry, I do not believe that Miss Lytton is responsible for the theft,” Rhiannon said firmly, slanting her turquoise eyes up at Valentine in a manner calculated to distract his attention away from Lina and her supposed duplicity. “In fact, I’m sure of it.”
“How’s that, then?” Valentine asked, his mouth quirking in amusement. It was clear that he was indulging Rhiannon’s little whim. The man deserved a comeuppance and Lina hoped that her partner would take him down a peg or two.
“The answer is in the flower that Miss Lytton is wearing,” Rhiannon replied. “It’s a yellow acacia.”
Valentine seemed bemused rather than offended. Lina wondered why Rhiannon’s relationship with the Scotland Yard inspector was less adversarial than her own. Valentine was never abrasive with the woman, not even when he had first met Rhiannon and recognized her as a prostitute. Valentine and Lina had fizzed at one another like two cats on a fence from the very beginning of their acquaintanceship, although these days they were somewhat friendlier and less likely to shout.
“I need to see Madeline Drummond alone in her bedchamber, except for Lina,” Rhiannon said, looking so very earnest, Lina had a difficult time controlling the impulse to kiss her until both their mouths were bruised. “When I’m finished, I should have some important information for you,” Rhiannon concluded.
“Is that so?” Valentine stuck out his lower lip, glanced at Lina, and scratched his head. “And you’ve naught to do with this?” he asked Lina.
“Rhiannon is in charge of the proceedings; I am merely her faithful factotum,” Lina replied, beaming. It gave her a thrill to be able to say that.
“The evidence says that Miss Lytton done it,” Valentine said.
Rhiannon replied, “The evidence is incomplete.”
Valentine sighed. “I suppose if I don’t do as you ask, you’ll go all a-flutter and burst into tears.”
“Anything’s possible,” Rhiannon said gravely, although her eyes glittered with good-humored mischief.
“I can’t stand a crying woman.” Valentine stood aside and motioned for the ladies to pass within. “If anyone asks, luv, you beat me down good n’ proper.”
Rhiannon nodded and followed the inspector upstairs, where Madeline Drummond lay on a chaise longue, a cloth on her forehead. Her mother was, thankfully, absent from the room. Madeline was a tragic figure in her dressing gown – willowy and wan and very Ophelia-like, if that unhappy damsel had drowned in a sea of Brussels lace and pink satin instead of a weed-choked river. Her auburn hair was unbound and hung straight as a bone over the arm of the chaise. A table filled with patent medicine bottles was at her elbow, and the air was redolent with lavender and acrid laudanum.
“Miss Madeline, here’s a pair of ladies what wishes to see you,” Valentine said.
Madeline removed the folded cloth from her brow and opened her eyes, which were an unusual shade of sherry-brown. Her features were delicate and elfin, almost pointed at chin and nose. “What do you want?” she asked impolitely, eyeing Lina and Rhiannon the way a housewife might gaze upon a less-than-fresh piece of cod.
Lina bristled, but before she could respond, Rhiannon replied in a brisk, no-nonsense manner, “I want the opal necklace you stole from the vault.”
Madeline gaped at her. Unconsciously, a hand stole beneath the heap of lace-trimmed cushions that was propping her up. Rhiannon reacted without hesitation. She thrust her hand under the cushions and emerged holding the missing Hillmont necklace.
She handed the glittering string of opals and pearls to Valentine. “This can be handled discreetly,” Rhiannon told him. “Miss Drummond has a highly sensitive nature. I’m certain she didn’t mean to cause trouble. Did you, miss?”
Her voice rose to a pitch and volume that Lina had never heard before. Rhiannon reminded her of a rather strict governess she had known in her youth, except her lover was much younger and a hundred times prettier. She could not help imagining, briefly, what might happen if Rhiannon took a disciplinarian tone in the bedchamber. Lina stifled a gasp as a bolt of desire lanced through her body and settled to moist heat between her thighs. Yes, she would have to see what could be contrived for Rhiannon in the way of black sateen, stiff celluloid collar and cuffs, and perhaps a pince-nez…
Lina tore her mind away from fantasy and back to the matter at hand.
Madeline replied sullenly, “I didn’t mean to get anyone in trouble.”
Valentine made as if to say something and Rhiannon stopped him with a gesture. “Let me talk to the girl while you return the necklace to Lady Drummond,” she said. “I’ll explain everything to her ladyship when I’m done here. You’ll also find Miss Lytton in the hansom cab outside; kindly ask her to come in. I’m sure Lady Drummond will be glad to see her.”
“You!” Valentine whirled around and pointed an accusatory finger at Lina. “You’ve corrupted her, you have!”
“Harry!” Rhiannon spoke the inspector’s name in that special tone which nannies and public school teachers reserved for naughty boys.
Lina felt as if her bodice was far too tight.
Valentine cast a final glare at Lina and slunk out of the room, his hand full of milky fire-laced opals and pearls.
Rhiannon turned back to Madeline and stood, arms akimbo, gazing down at the wan young lady, who did not meet her eyes. “Well?” Rhiannon asked, arching her coppery brows.
“You don’t understand,” Madeline murmured.
“Oh, I understand perfectly. Every day, a yellow acacia. How you must have longed for that golden flower to be exchanged for a scarlet rose.”
Lina was aware that red roses were a token of passionate love in the so-called ‘language of perfumed words;’ she remained ignorant of the meaning of yellow acacias. For the first time in her life, she wished that she had paid closer attention to her own governess, who had done her best to civilize the Duchess’ wayward daughter and make a lady of her.
Rhiannon explained, “An acaia blossom symbolizes concealed or secret love.”
Lina glanced at Madeline, who had colored quite alarmingly. She recalled Constance Lytton’s plain face and frizzled blonde bangs, the way the woman had kept herself rigid, as if her skeleton was composed of steel rather than bone. What an awkward situation! Constance had known about Madeline’s schoolgirl crush, of course, and it had left the poor nurse in a dilemma, caught between Scylla and Charibdis. On the one hand, it would not be proper to encourage such an inappropriate attachment; on the other hand, rejecting Madeline too harshly might result in the girl turning against her, leading to swift unemployment.
Rhiannon had settled on the edge of the chaise longue. “Madeline,” she said, “you know that Miss Lytton is your friend. She’s taken care of you when you were ill, seen to your needs, wiped your tears… but now she has to go. Don’t you think she’s earned the right to live her own life? Don’t you want what’s best for her?”
“Yes,” Madeline said. She glanced at Rhiannon sidelong, showing the whites of her eyes. “I like her so very much, you know. She’s not very pretty but she has cool, dry hands. I hate sweaty hands.”
“Does Lord Hillmont have sweaty hands?”
“No,” Madeline replied, biting her bottom lip. “He has dry nice hands, too. And he’s handsome, and he brings me nice things like flowers and chocolates and gloves.”
“Do you mind marrying Lord Hillmont very much?” Lina asked. No matter if the child had been petted and spoiled all her life, to such an extent that she had stolen a valuable necklace and nearly gotten the object of her misplaced affections arrested in the process - if Madeline truly objected to the arranged match, she would do everything in her power to persuade Lord and Lady Drummond to reconsider.
Madeline looked thoughtful. “No, I don’t mind. He’s
rather jolly and he’s got an awful lot of money. I took Hilly’s
horrid old necklace because we can’t get married without it, and
I didn’t want Constance to leave me, and she said she’d
be leaving after the wedding.”
“I’m sorry, mummy,” but Madeline did not seem at all contrite. “Will you tell Hilly that I want Constance to stay with me? I’m sure he’d understand.”
“Miss Lytton has already accepted an offer of employment from Colonel Atherton – you remember his daughter, Lydia? – and will be joining the family at his posting in India.” Lady Drummond’s glance made Rhiannon abandon her position on the chaise longue. The lady sat down beside her daughter; Madeline immediately put her head in her mother’s lap and snaked an arm around the woman’s tightly corseted waist.
Lina observed that the girl’s hand was ideally placed to dip into the large side-pocket in Lady Drummond’s skirt. She supposed that was where the woman kept her household keys. The scenario was now complete in her mind. After Constance had returned the necklace to the vault, Lady Drummond slipped the key back into her pocket. Madeline, the sly baggage, had taken the key and later that evening, opened the vault and took the necklace, hiding it in a place where no one would think to search.
Madeline and Lady Drummond were speaking softly together, the girl’s voice alternating between a thin whine and an aggrieved soprano, while her mother remained steadfast and calm. Lina reached out and squeezed Rhiannon’s shoulder. She leaned down and whispered, “Let us give them some privacy.”
Rhiannon nodded and followed her out of Madeline’s blowzy, lace-bedecked bedchamber. Valentine was waiting for them downstairs; with him was Constance Lytton, sallow and frizzled and ever-so-slightly frazzled by the inspector’s gruff courtesies.
“Miss Lytton, you’re free to join Colonel Atherton,” Rhiannon said. “Miss Madeline has no real objection to wedding Lord Hillmont, nor did she wish to cause you harm. The incident was more an exercise in willfulness and an appalling carelessness. She did not understand the possible consequences of her actions, although I believe Miss Madeline would not have remained silent if you had been arrested.”
“I am not so sure, but I thank you for the reassurance,” Constance said. Lina noticed that the yellow acacia blossom was gone. “Did I… do you believe that I encouraged her?”
“I shouldn’t worry,” Rhiannon said. “Girls that age… their passions come and go. One day, they’re positively in love with a stage actor like Henry Irving; the next, they’ve thrown Mr. Irving over for an unsuitable boy they met on a romp in Kensington Gardens. Miss Madeline seems to genuinely like Lord Hillmont; without having met the man myself, if he is all you say, then it will be a good match for her.”
Constance let out a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”
Lina poked Valentine impolitely with her elbow. “Did I not tell you that Rhiannon was in charge of the investigation? She has done marvelously!”
Valentine shrugged, took a cigar out of his jacket pocket, and thrust it into the corner of his mouth. He did contrive to give Rhiannon a smile of congratulations, which she acknowledged with a graceful curtsey.
Lina gallantly offered their hansom cab to Miss Lytton, but she claimed that Valentine had already volunteered to escort her to her new lodgings in the respectable Miss Marks’ boarding house near Piccadilly. Constance feared that remaining at Mayweather Park would cause difficulty to all parties.
“Awkwardness aside, Lady Drummond’s remuneration has been most generous. I should like to see something of London before I travel to India,” she said, and clasped Rhiannon’s hand, her hazel eyes aglow with gratitude. “Thank you so very much, Miss Moore. I don’t know what I should have done without your kind assistance.”
“You’re quite welcome, Miss Lytton.” Rhiannon was flushed with pleasure.
Her partner looked so sweet, so delectable, so positively edible, that Lina made her farewells with almost improper haste and propelled Rhiannon towards the waiting cab.
“Do you think,” Lina asked once they were safely within, though not entirely out of sight of prying eyes due to the open front of the cab, “that we can obtain a pince-nez at short notice?” She was murmuring against Rhiannon’s ear, making the other woman squirm deliciously. “Possibly a slate and some chalk? A Latin primer?”
Rhiannon shifted so that she could examine Lina’s face. What she saw reflected there made her gasp. A devilish light gleamed in her turquoise eyes. “Feeling a bit of nostalgia for the schoolroom, love?”
“Yes, miss,” Lina said in her best ‘young lady’ tone.
“If you’ve been a naughty girl, we’ll need a birch as well,” Rhiannon said, eyeing her speculatively.
Lina shivered… but in anticipation rather than genuine fear.