Michael, Emily and I did not loiter long after the debacle in the cellar. The recriminations over the loss of the clues to Captain Crowley’s treasure promised to be lengthy and we had already been away from Mrs Grant’s party too long. Leaving John Crowley, Turnbull and Jenny to bicker over an appropriate distribution of the blame, with Tom Bailey acting as a kind of vaguely amused referee, we bid the Saracen’s Head a hasty farewell and slipped out into the cool night air.
I glanced anxiously up at the clock on St Michael’s tower as we passed. “Do you think anyone will have noticed our absence?” I asked. “The crowd in Mrs Grant’s drawing room must surely have thinned out a bit by now.”
“Let’s just hope we don’t meet anyone coming out as we’re trying to sneak back in,” said Michael.
“I could always plead another headache and say I stepped out to get some fresh air,” suggested Emily. “And you could say you came out to see that I was well.”
“That might just work,” I agreed.
But the words had barely left my mouth when two figures loomed up on the street in front of us. They came out of the darkness so quickly that there wasn’t the slightest chance of our ducking out of the way before we were seen. As the flickering gas lamp on the corner lit up their faces, I recognised Mrs Somerton and Rev Miller and judging from the fraught expression on Mrs Somerton’s face she had clearly been aware of her daughter’s absence from Mrs Grant’s party for some time.
“Emily! What on earth are you doing out here?” she exclaimed, reaching forward and grasping Emily’s hand as though she were afraid she might vanish once again if she weren’t held onto tightly. “Whatever possessed you to leave Mrs Grant’s house without saying a word?”
“Oh Mama, don’t be anxious,” Emily rather hopelessly pleaded.
“Don’t be anxious, you say!” cried Mrs Somerton, moving her grasp from Emily’s hand to her shoulders and then her face, apparently inspecting her daughter for signs of damage. “You’ve been gone for so long – how could I not be frantic with worry? If Reverend Miller hadn’t so kindly offered to leave the party and help me look for you I don’t know what I should have done!”
Rev Miller, regarding us with an expression in which a hint of genuine concern was largely smothered by a huge dollop of amused curiosity, nodded his head politely at the mention of his name.
“I’m very sorry to have worried you Mama,” said Emily, finally breaking free of her mother’s anxious grasp. “I’m afraid I had a slight headache so I left the party to get a little air.”
“All the way out here?” said Mrs Somerton. “Why go so far?”
As Emily faltered Michael stepped forward and bowed graciously to Mrs Somerton. “I’m terribly sorry but this is really all my fault,” he offered with a regretful smile. “As Miss Somerton just said, she was not feeling well so I suggested a short walk in the fresh air might be of some benefit. And it’s such a lovely night that I’m afraid we got a little carried away and went further than intended.” He lowered his head in an act of contrition. “It’s quite unforgivable of me.”
Even Mrs Somerton couldn’t help but melt a little under the barrage of charm. “Ah well, I’m sure you had the very best of intentions Mr Redgrave,” she conceded, “but really Emily, you must see that it is most improper of you to be roaming the streets unchaperoned with a gentleman at such an hour.”
“But we weren’t unchaperoned Mama,” protested Emily. “Miss Everingham has been with us the whole time.”
I threw Mrs Somerton the kind of innocently respectable smile that might befit a worthy chaperone.
“Well, I really don’t know…” said Mrs Somerton doubtfully.
“Their actions may perhaps have been a little irregular but I think we can all agree that no real harm has been done on this occasion,” put in Rev Miller kindly. “I trust your headache is better now Emily?”
“Oh, much better thank-you Reverend Miller,” Emily readily agreed.
“Then perhaps we should all return to Mrs Grant’s together,” suggested Rev Miller. “If we’re quick we may just be in time to say a proper farewell to our hostess before the party is broken up altogether.”
And that was very nearly that. We really did seem to have gotten away with it. I’m not entirely sure that Mrs Somerton totally bought the explanation offered for Emily’s prolonged absence but for respectability’s sake she seemed to be willing to go along with it and no more need ever have been said of the incident. We had in fact all turned to head back up the street together when a set of rather unsteady footsteps rang out and a fresh figure appeared out of the gloom ahead of us. My heart sank into my knees as I recognised Tom Bailey staggering cheerfully towards us.
Emily, Michael and I all froze. For just a moment there seemed to be the possibility that Tom, ambling merrily along in what appeared to be something of a brandy-soaked haze, would simply pass right on by. But as he came alongside, his eyes gradually and with some effort focused upon us and he staggered to a halt.
“Hey hey!” he cried out cheerily to us. “What an evening that was, eh? Never thought I’d see such things in the Saracen’s Head, did you? Such a shame John Turnbull can’t keep his cellar in better order. We were very nearly all onto something really special there.”
Tom paused in expectation of a reply but none of us had anything more to offer than a horrified grin. Entirely unperturbed, Tom merely touched his cap and said, “Oh well, don’t have nightmares. G’night all.” And with a cheery wave he staggered off on his way.
Tom’s footsteps had long since faded away into the darkness before anyone could think of anything to say. For a moment it seemed Mrs Somerton had been struck entirely dumb by the encounter. When she finally did speak her words came out in a slightly strangled tone. “Emily, what is the meaning of this?” she demanded.
“Nothing Mama… It’s just… Well, you see…” Emily floundered.
“Am I to understand that you sneaked out of Mrs Grant’s party to go to a public house?” said Mrs Somerton.
“No!” exclaimed Emily. “Well, that is, we did but…”
“Really Emily, what on earth can have possessed you?”
“We were trying to discover what had become of Captain Crowley,” Emily hurriedly explained.
“Captain Crowley?” repeated Mrs Somerton in wonder. “Whatever has that to do with you?”
“Well, nothing really,” conceded Emily. “Only Mr Redgrave and Miss Everingham had been doing a little investigating and I thought perhaps I might help. And we have had some success following the clues…”
“To a public house!” declared Mrs Somerton. “Have you no care for the good opinion of society Emily? It may be all very well for Miss Everingham to consort with ruffians in low dives but you have your reputation to consider.”
I instinctively opened my mouth to object to this casual sullying of my character but promptly shut it again when I reflected that Mrs Somerton clearly had a point. It was Emily, flushing a deep red, who seemed rather more offended on my behalf.
“Mama! How can you say such things?” she protested.
“I only speak the truth Emily,” countered Mrs Somerton. She shook her head sadly. “That you should be so careless after all I have said to you regarding your conduct this season. I cannot conceive how you could possibly think this was an appropriate action to involve yourself with. You had no right to get mixed up in such matters.”
“But everyone has been talking of it,” objected Emily. “And I so wanted to keep Lucy up to date with all the news – she’s been feeling so very out of it down in the country.”
“Lucy!” cried Mrs Somerton. “That you should ruin yourself to keep that creature amused! Haven’t I warned you about that young lady? If she is out of the way in the country then that’s all for the better.”
Emily frowned. “Oh Mama, I still can’t understand why you should take against poor Lucy so,” she said unhappily. “If I have made my peace with her marrying Henry then I do not see why you cannot do the same.”
“I have told you many times that you would do well to distance yourself from that young woman and that should be an end of it,” insisted Mrs Somerton stiffly. “Why can’t you just listen to your mother for once?”
“But it’s so unfair!” protested Emily, flushing angrily. “I have so few friends, I don’t see why I should be obliged to throw one over for something that was nothing to do with her. After all, it was hardly Lucy’s fault that Uncle Talbot decided to leave his money elsewhere.”
“Oh, you think not?” challenged Mrs Somerton, flushing just as brightly as her daughter. “And who do you suppose it was who wrote the poisonous letter that persuaded your Uncle Talbot to change his will in the first place?”
All the colour seemed to drain from Emily’s face in an instant. She stared hopelessly at her mother. “What letter?” she said.
“The one that was found amongst Uncle Talbot’s possessions after his death,” declared Mrs Somerton, “spreading such malicious lies that he would think you not worthy of even the small portion he had promised you. It was no mere caprice that made him change his mind about your dowry Emily, it was all the design of that vicious creature.”
There was a long silence. “I don’t believe it,” said Emily quietly.
In an instant the anger faded from Mrs Somerton’s face, to be replaced by an expression of anguish. “Oh Emily, I’m so sorry…”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” demanded Emily.
“Because I didn’t want to upset you,” replied Mrs Somerton, reaching out and grasping her daughter’s hand. “Because you’ve always been such a lovely, sweet natured girl and I couldn’t bear to see you become bitter in the manner of so many young women who have been passed over. I thought perhaps if we could manage just one more season here then you might find yourself another young man…”
“You should have told me,” Emily quietly insisted.
I expected Mrs Somerton to object to this assertion but instead her shoulders suddenly dropped and she shook her head desperately. “Oh, it’s all my fault!” she unexpectedly cried.
“I don’t see how you can think that Mrs Somerton,” Reverend Miller was moved to interject, reaching out a supportive arm.
“Emily’s my daughter, it’s my duty to look out for her,” sighed Mrs Somerton. “I should have seen what that young creature was about and put a stop to it. But I suppose I was too busy enjoying myself – it’s been such a treat for us both to get away from our dull little cottage in the country for a couple of months each year – that I didn’t see what was happening until it was too late. I thought perhaps if I only made the effort to be more vigilant this year…” She struggled for a moment to hold back the tears that were welling up. “But now see where we are…”
“Oh Mama, I am sorry I ran off without telling you,” exclaimed Emily, touched by her mother’s despair.
Mrs Somerton squeezed her daughter’s hand. “I know you are,” she said sadly.
The two women looked sorrowfully at one another for a moment, united in their grief. “I think I should like to go home now,” Emily finally said in a quiet voice.
“So would I,” agreed Mrs Somerton. “Oh, but Mrs Grant’s party! Whatever will people think?”
“Don’t fret yourself Mrs Somerton,” insisted Reverend Miller, taking charge. “I think that on this occasion God will forgive the little white lie of the headache. Perhaps Mr Redgrave and Miss Everingham would be good enough to go back and offer apologies on your behalf.” He looked up at us questioningly.
“Of course,” I readily agreed.
“Certainly,” said Michael quickly.
“In that case I’ll escort Mrs and Miss Somerton back to their lodgings,” suggested Reverend Miller.
I felt there was something else I ought to say to poor Emily and her mother, something supportive and encouraging, but there didn’t seem to be any words I could produce that could possibly ease their pain right now. Instead I could only offer a sympathetic smile as Emily took Reverend Miller’s right arm and Mrs Somerton took his left. Michael and I stood for a moment, watching as they disappeared around the street corner, before we turned back in the direction of Mrs Grant’s drawing room, reflecting that our little diversion this evening appeared to have gained nothing but disappointment and heartache.
To be continued…