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Authors: Joan Smith

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The Great Christmas Ball

BOOK: The Great Christmas Ball
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THE GREAT CHRISTMAS BALL

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

Baron Costain sat at his desk in an austere office of the Horse Guards, gazing with unseeing eyes at the snowflakes that swirled beyond the window. On the scarred oak desk before him rested a booklet outlining procedures for handling such sensitive state secrets as came within his purlieu as assistant to Lord Cosgrave, who was in charge of espionage for His Majesty and the government of England.

Thus far, and he had been there a week, the only document entrusted to him was the outline of procedures. It was obvious Lord Cosgrave resented his appointment, and meant to keep him in the dark. The situation was intolerable! Lord Costain’s bona fides were above reproach. He was the younger son of one of England’s oldest noble houses. His father, the Duke of Halford, had served as an illustrious minister in two cabinets, and his older brother would follow in Papa’s footsteps as soon as the Tories were put to rout. For centuries the Halfords had protected king and country.

Lord Costain’s own career included two years fighting against the French in the Peninsula, before being sent home to recuperate from a ball taken in the left leg. What, exactly, were Lord Cosgrave’s credentials other than his being a staunch Tory and friend of the Duke of York and the Prince Regent?

York and his cronies had badly mismanaged affairs in the Peninsula, sending Wellington out to battle the French with only a handful of foot soldiers and less than four hundred cavalry, forgetting transportation entirely. If Wellington had not gotten around them by picking horses up in Ireland, there would have been no transportation for supplies. The Joint Chiefs of Staff invariably demanded retreat when victory was in view and attack when defeat was inevitable. Well, all that had changed now, but at the Horse Guards, espionage was still in chaos.

Lord Castlereagh had dropped Costain the hint that someone was either being criminally careless or was a traitor. Important documents went missing, and subsequent events suggested they had reached Bonaparte’s hands.

“I need a pair of sharp eyes to discover what is afoot,” Castlereagh had said. “You will have to work under Cosgrave, unfortunately. To put you in over his head is as good as announcing your mission. But you will find a way. I have complete confidence in your abilities and discretion, Costain.”

Lord Costain had exercised both faculties in the execution of his duties, but picking Cosgrave’s lock and rummaging through his papers had thrown up nothing but a batch of billets-doux reeking with impropriety. Strangely, the female addressed her lover as “My dearest Cosgrave,” but signed herself “Your faithful dove.”

And Cosgrave, fool that he was, kept the letters in his desk, where anyone might come across them and use them to pry war secrets from him. They would make juicy reading in one of the more scurrilous journals. What right had such a man to be in charge of espionage, if he could not even manage his amours with discretion?

Costain was interrupted by a knock at the door, and a senior clerk stepped in. “This just came in,” he said, handing a note done up with sealing wax to Lord Costain. “Better get it to Lord Cosgrave as soon as he returns. He’s at one of his meetings—they go on for hours. His secretary is not around, and Burack stepped upstairs for a word with Jenkins. I would not like to leave the note unattended.”

A blaze of interest glowed in Lord Costain’s dark eyes. “Where did it come from?” he asked.

The clerk said in a confidential voice, “A fellow who calls himself Mr. Jones. German accent. His letters are always treated with the greatest respect. He usually sends a messenger. That he risked coming in person suggests it is extremely important.”

“Where is he?”

“When I told him Cosgrave was busy, he gave me the note and left. You’ll handle it?”

The clerk’s office was on the floor below. The mysterious Mr. Jones had had ample time to disappear. “Certainly,” Costain said, looking at the note.

As soon as the clerk left, Lord Costain closed his office door, removed from his pocket a clasp knife, and heated its paper-thin blade over the flame of his lamp. He slid the blade under the sealing wax and removed the seal in one piece, to replace later by reheating. When he opened the sheet of paper, a frown settled on his face. “Damnation!” he muttered. It was written in German. After a career in the diplomatic service, Cosgrave spoke German. Lord Costain did not. Nor could he take it to their staff interpreter, as that would tell Cosgrave he had opened it.

He frowned over the unintelligible words but could make nothing of them. Whom could he trust to translate the thing, and do it in a hurry, before anyone returned? His frown softened to interest, then escalated to a grin of nervous triumph. On his reconnaissance of the neighborhood, he had seen a small sign on a side door of a house on King Charles Street.
MR. REYNOLDS, DISCREET TRANSLATION SERVICES PERFORMED. FRENCH, ITALIAN, SPANISH, GERMAN, RUSSIAN.

Thinking that such a service might come in handy one day, he had made inquiries for this Mr. Reynolds and discovered him to be a gentleman retired from the diplomatic service. He was trustworthy, elderly, and did not mix much in society. By God, he’d do. Cosgrave was at what the Horse Guards chose to call a meeting, which might last for several bottles. Costain stuck the letter in his inner pocket, put the button of ceiling wax in behind it, and peered out the door. He must have the letter back before Cosgrave returned, in case the clerk told him of its arrival.

It would be very interesting if Cosgrave gave Castlereagh some different interpretation of the note than he got from Reynolds. Castlereagh had told him to check up on everyone, and in Costain’s mind, everyone included even the head of security. He did not actually think Cosgrave was a traitor, but it was possible his German was faulty. Improper translations seemed exactly the sort of foolishness to be expected from York’s set.

He put on his coat, curled beaver, and York tan gloves, picked up his malacca cane, and stepped out the door. No one observed his departure as he stepped quickly along the corridor and out into the swirling snow. His leg ached a little in this raw, wet weather, but he was happy to see he had no need of his cane. He would soon be able to return to the Peninsula. He hastened through the storm toward the house on King Charles Street.

* * *

Snowflakes whirled in the darkening air of December beyond the window of the house on King Charles Street. Cathy Lyman glanced up from her novel and gazed idly at the snow. It reminded her that Christmas was fast approaching, and the Great Winter Ball, that was to be
the
social event of the Season. Not that Christmas would be celebrated with any lavish festivities as it had been when Papa was alive, and not that she would be attending the ball. Mama had announced that morning that the tickets were an exorbitant price, twenty-five pounds a couple. Even if it was for charity, Lady Lyman could not see her way clear to laying out fifty pounds for a ball when the roof needed new slate. With Gordon at home, he would want to attend, too, and of course they could not offend Rodney by not inviting him.

Cathy drew a sigh and returned her attention to her book. The weather jarred sadly with the mood of the novel,
An Italian Romance,
by Mrs. Radcliffe. Cathy often read when she had no translations to do for her uncle Rodney. She found that Mrs. Radcliffe’s gothic novels helped inject a little vicarious excitement into the tedium of her life.

Mama had given her brother, Rodney Reynolds, the use of the west wing of the house when Papa died. The space consisted of the library and a study--which Rodney used as his private office. Mama liked to have a man on the premises, and Rodney was no trouble to her at all. He was a sad trial to Cathy, as the library was her favorite room, but really he spent most of his time in his office.

Rodney’s diplomatic career had not been so distinguished as Sir Aubrey Lyman’s, of course. Papa had received a baronetcy for his invaluable service abroad, and the taming hand of time had not dimmed the tarnish of his reputation in this household. Sir Aubrey was spoken of with a devotion bordering on idolatry. Yet his invaluable service had not left them very well off.

They had the house, and Mama’s dowry, and wonderful memories of a youth spent in the gilded capitals of Europe, meeting the great and near-great. Cathy regretted she had been so young at the time, and could not attend the brilliant balls and parties. She had been only fifteen when Papa retired, but she had at least
seen
Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, and Metternich, and that wily Frenchman, Talleyrand.

Such heady stuff had spoiled her for the few modest gentlemen who offered for her during her Season. Her high hopes had deliquesced, over the years, to a sort of dissatisfied resignation to her lot. With a reserved disposition and a modest nature, she could not make the sort of push her small dowry required to nab a good parti, so for the present, she lived vicariously through Mrs. Radcliffe’s beleaguered heroines.

Mama often regretted that their high friends had deserted them when Papa died, but she did not regret it enough to pursue her past acquaintances. She was happy to be settled in a house of her own at last, and did
not much care if she ever left it again. She had her few close friends, and now followed the news of the world desultorily through the journals and such gossip as came her way, living largely in the past.

Although Cathy was nearing five and twenty, she was still too young to live entirely on her memories and Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiction. She looked forward with eagerness to her brother Gordon’s entry into the diplomatic service. He had promised she might be his hostess. They had already decided his first posting would be to Rome.

Gordon had recently been sent down from Oxford for some boyish shenanigans involving a donkey and a don’s chamber. To Oxford’s relief, he did not plan to return. He was studying languages under Rodney’s tutelage instead, in preparation for their sojourn in Italy. Meanwhile, Cathy helped their uncle with his translating chores, hoping some romantical job would come along. Truth to tell, very few jobs of any sort fell to their lot. Her uncle’s main work since retirement was the translation of a German philosopher called Schiller, whose writings sounded exceedingly dull to Cathy.

As the weather was so cold that afternoon, she had not even taken her usual walk, but had remained at home and done a small job for her uncle. A Mr. Steinem had brought a billet-doux in German to be put into proper English. It was a tawdry thing, merely an assignation to meet his beloved at the southwest corner of St. James’s Park at midnight. Was the lady married? He had addressed her as his “Dearest Angelina,” which told her nothing, but surely a maiden would not be so dashing.

Cathy was disturbed by a light tap at the door, and looked into her uncle’s private office. Rodney had left. He often slipped up for a nap at the end of the afternoon. It would probably be Mr. Steinem, come for his letter. When she opened the door, a gust of cold air and even a few snowflakes blew in.

She saw a curled beaver bent against the wind, and a set of broad shoulders in a greatcoat. “You had best come in, Mr. Steinem,” she said.

The hat lifted, and she found herself gazing at a face that bore no resemblance whatever to Mr. Steinem’s sturdy Teutonic visage. The first thing she noticed were the eyes—dark, flashing eyes topped by slender arched eyebrows that lent the man’s face an expression of surprise.

When he stepped into the room, she noticed his complexion was swarthy. He removed his hat, and she saw that his hair was jetty black, barbered in the stylish Brutus do. Italian? Spanish? French? The features were regular, the nose pronounced but refined, the jaw rugged.

“A nasty day,” he said in the accent of an English gentleman. His smile was nervous, his whole body tense.

“Yes. I was expecting someone else,” she explained with an answering smile.

Snow coated the shoulders of his coat in white stars. “Perhaps you would like to remove your coat and shake off the snow,” she suggested.

“I’m afraid I’m wetting your carpet,” he said, sliding out of-his coat to reveal an outfit of the first stare. A jacket that Gordon would immediately recognize as the work of Weston hugged a pair of broad shoulders. The waistcoat was gold, striped in thin lines of mulberry. The cravat was unexceptionable, the Hessians gleaming beneath a few drops of water. He shook the snow off his coat on the stone apron of the grate and set his coat aside with a graceful movement.

This gentleman was far from the usual sort of client. What could Mrs. Radcliffe not make of him! Cathy felt a ripple of interest. “What can I do for you, Mr. —?”

His hand shot out. “That’s Lo—Lovell. Mr. Lovell.” Best to keep his real identity concealed. “I would like to speak to Mr. Reynolds, ma’am.”

Cathy felt her fingers being pressed in a firm grip. If he had thought of her as a young lady, he would have bowed. “Miss Lyman,” she said. “Perhaps I can help you. I do some translating for my uncle. If your translation is Italian or Spanish, I must call my uncle. I do only French and German.”

BOOK: The Great Christmas Ball
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