Read The Riddle of the Lost Lover Online

Authors: Patricia Veryan

The Riddle of the Lost Lover

 

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Epilogue

Also by Patricia Veryan

Copyright

 

For Florence Feiler,

my agent and my friend

Prologue

St. Jean de Luz, France
Winter 1813

Outside the building that was now Field Marshal Lord Wellington's headquarters the grey afternoon was made greyer by the unrelenting rain. Inside, Colonel the Honourable Hastings Adair waited uneasily in the passageway and jerked to attention as a door opened. A tall officer came out and nodded to him. “Go on in, Hasty. He's alone.”

Adair half-whispered, “How's his temper?”

Colonel John Colborne grinned. “He's melting down his barometer!”

Groaning softly, Adair knocked as he opened the door.

The great soldier sat turned away from a littered table, and was rapping on the top of the tubular barometer that accompanied him on his Peninsular campaigns. He muttered something about not knowing why he bothered with “the stupid thing.” A keen stare was directed over his shoulder and he added, “Well, sit down, Adair. You're wet. Damnable weather. But we're more comfortable here than we were in Lesaca. Food's better, as well. I suppose London's not bright and sunny, eh?”

“Cold and foggy, my lord. I wonder if I might take off my coat?”

His lordship turned the chair back to his table. “Do your best,” he said dryly and, indicating another chair, added, “Throw it over there. I presume you've brought me something?”

“Yes, sir.” Adair scrambled out of his coat, slung it aside and pulled several letters from an oilskin-covered bag. “From the Prime Minister; Sir Henry Wellesley; and Lady Wellington.”

The Field Marshal stared at the letters as though he could see through the sealed paper then pushed them aside. “Very good. Now let me have your report. As fast as possible, if you please. I've left orders we're not to be interrupted but I can't give you much more than ten minutes. What the devil was Sir Kendrick Vespa about in Dorsetshire?”

Adair's brain raced, trying to reduce a twenty-page written report to a brief verbal account. “You knew that his heir, Lieutenant Sherborne Vespa, fell at the Third Siege of Badajoz, sir?”

“Since his brother John is—was on my staff, I'd be a dunce not to know it, wouldn't I?”

Adair reddened, and sidestepped the rhetorical question. “The thing is that an estate called Alabaster Royal, which would have gone to Sherborne from his maternal grandparents, thus passed to John, who was later severely wounded at the Battle of Vitoria, and sent home.” He glimpsed the pit yawning at his feet and added desperately, “As you also know, my lord.”

“I do not want to hear what I
know,
Colonel. Let us commence with what I
do not
know! This Alabaster Royal is a Dorsetshire estate that was of interest to Whitehall?”

“Yes, my lord. Sir Kendrick Vespa had approached several gentlemen in Government with a view to locating the proposed subsidiary arsenal on the property.”

The dark stare pierced him. The voice was a rasp of anger. “One trusts that is not common knowledge! If word leaks out that we're even thinking of a secondary arsenal the newspapers will scream that invasion is imminent and we expect Woolwich Arsenal will be captured!”

“No, no! It has been handled as Very Secret, I assure you.”

“Yet Kendrick Vespa learned of it!”

“He is—was, a diplomatist, sir. At all events, there is an old quarry on the Alabaster Royal estate. No longer in operation, but it is located close to the village and at one time provided employment for—”

“Why and when was it abandoned?”

“It was closed down several decades ago. An underground river flooded some of the lower tunnels from time to time when there were heavy rains.”

“Sounds like a stupid location for an arsenal, but they'd have picked a site away from this quarry, I fancy? Certainly, government surveyors would inspect the ground.”

“Yes, my lord. However, Sir Kendrick Vespa discovered that the tunnels are far more extensive than was generally known, and in places descend to several levels. If this became known, he would lose the sale, and he stood to gain a pretty penny from leases and rights-of-way, and such, so—”

“But I understood you to say that the estate had passed to his surviving son, John Vespa?”

“It had, my lord, and that presented a large problem for Sir Kendrick. From what I've gathered, Sherborne, his heir, was easily influenced. When he was killed and John inherited, Sir Kendrick knew he had a different tiger by the tail.”

A twinkle came into the eyes of the Field Marshal and the harsh lines of his face softened. He said, “Aye. Jack Vespa's a stubborn young rascal. But—good Lord, man! The family is far from purse-pinched. I've visited their Mayfair house, which is very nice, and I believe they've a fine property on the River at Richmond. The loss of one small estate is scarce likely to throw them into debtors' prison! Why all the desperate doings?”

Adair tightened his lips, then said reluctantly, “I'm sure the Field Marshal is aware that Sir Kendrick Vespa was a remarkably handsome man, much admired by the Fair Sex?”

“Aha.” The famous bray of laughter rang out. “Set up another mistress, did he? I wonder he could keep count!” He coughed and said severely, “A fellow has to know where to draw the line, Adair. Remember that! Too much dallying with the ladies has been the ruination of many a fine career!”

Well aware that Wellington had a reputation of his own along those lines, Adair managed to keep his face solemn. “Sir Kendrick had several—er,
affaires de coeur,
my lord. One of the more recent being with the young lady who—er, was to have wed Sherborne.”

“The devil you say! That must have set the gabble-mongers by the ears!”

“Yes. But it appears, sir, that there was yet another—and secret—entanglement. This with a beautiful lady from India. Sir Kendrick was deeply enamoured. He planned to divorce his wife and marry his latest love. As you may guess, such a union would have been condemned both in her country and in Britain, especially in view of the scandal involving his late son's lady. Sir Kendrick was determined, and apparently did not feel bound by moral or legal considerations. He devised a plan to sidestep both. To succeed he had to raise a great deal of money, but his London property is entailed, and to have sold the Richmond house and liquidated his other assets would have taken time, besides causing more scandal and most probably a family uproar. He was not prepared to wait, so he planned to sell the Alabaster Royal estate to the Government at a much inflated price, no doubt. With the proceeds from the sale he meant to build a palace on a small island he had bought and dwell there with his lady.”

For once rendered speechless, Wellington stared at him.

“So,” went on Adair hurriedly, “he had the main quarry tunnel sealed off in such a way that it looked as if no work had ever been done beyond that point. It was then that his younger son, John, was sent home, and to Sir Kendrick's considerable annoyance, decided to live down at his Dorsetshire manor.”

“A deuced good thing, by God! John Vespa was one of the finest fellows I've had on my staff. I'm only sorry he was so badly mangled at Vitoria. He's not the man to stand still for any hanky-panky.” Wellington said shrewdly, “Though I was of the impression he idolized his father—true?”

“Quite true, sir. Sir Kendrick tried very hard to steer John away from Alabaster Royal. Nothing worked. I'm told John's decision may have been prompted by grief. He and his brother had been very close, and the family residences likely held too many memories.”

Curious, Wellington asked, “Do you cry friends with Captain John Vespa?”

“Er—not precisely, my lord.” His colour a little heightened, Adair said, “We both admire the same lady, in fact.”

“Aha. Go on. So John persisted in moving down to this Alabaster Royal, did he?”

“Yes, sir. And just as his father had feared, started to poke around.”

“Of course he did! Bright lad, young Johnny! So his sire had to abandon his plans, eh?” Wellington took up the Prime Minister's letter. “He must have been addled to think he could pull it off. Once the surveyors looked over the place it would have been ruled out, at all events.”

“They did look it over, my lord. And it was judged perfectly sound and eminently well-suited to—”

“What?”
His heavy eyebrows bristling, the Field Marshal slammed the letter down again. “Were they daft, or what?”

“As I understand it, my lord, there was a—er, sizable exchange of funds.…”


Bribery?
” Outraged, as always, by any hint of misbehavior in government, Wellington's roar made Adair jump. “Now
confound
the makebait! Well, he'd never have convinced everyone. John must have known the true state of affairs, and the scheme would surely have been discovered.”

“It was, my lord. It chanced that Preston Jones lived nearby.”

Lord Wellington frowned. “Preston Jones … I know the name, but—I have it! The artist. Very clever chap. Lady Wellington is a great admirer. But—wait— Died, did he not? Fell, or something of the sort?”

“Allegedly—yes. Mr. Jones was fascinated by the manor house at Alabaster Royal. It's a quaint old place. Jones took to wandering about the estate, sketching. Sir Kendrick and a couple of neighbours who were partners in his schemes objected to Mr. Jones' trespassing. Violently.”

“Are you saying Preston Jones did
not
fall accidentally? You surely don't hold Sir Kendrick Vespa responsible?”

“We know Mr. Jones discovered that the ground on the estate is undermined. If he had also discovered there were plans to build a large arsenal on such land and fill it with weapons and high explosive—”

“Which would be to invite disaster,” growled Wellington.

“Just so, my lord. Especially since there is a good-sized village adjacent to the quarry. We believe Mr. Jones hadn't dared voice his suspicions until he was sure. The very day he had his proof he was seen, apparently under the influence of drink, being supported by two strangers. Next morning, he was found at the bottom of the quarry.”

“Was he, by God! So Kendrick Vespa didn't draw the line at murder!”

“At several murders, unfortunately, my lord.”

“It's past belief that a well-bred gentleman as widely admired as he could have sunk so low! Where was young John? Was he as gulled as everyone else? I cannot think he'd have been party to such treachery.”

“He wasn't, sir. There were several attempts on his life, in fact, when he started to investigate. He thought he had identified the conspirators. He didn't discover until it was too late that the man at the top was his own father.”

“Poor fellow.” The Field Marshal shook his head sombrely. “What a devilish fix to be in! Poor fellow. Still, he did what he had to do. No one could fault him.”

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