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Authors: Jessabelle

Maggie MacKeever

 

JESSABELLE

 

Maggie MacKeever

 

Prologue

 

Midnight on a moonlit eve. A solitary job-coach lumbered along the Chelsea road. Within that coach an auburn-haired young lady cursed the laggard horses and listened anxiously for sounds of pursuit. She did not expect to escape so easily.

Nor did she, though nemesis appeared not in the form of a vengeful husband, but as a masked horseman emerging from a clump of trees. Moonlight glinted off his pistols. The coachman promptly reined in his horses. Not for the most generous of fares would he risk rousing the displeasure of a gentleman of the road.

The highwayman came closer, swore when he recognized the insignificant nature of his quarry. Still, the die was cast. “You, in there!” he said. “Show yourself. Stand and deliver. Your money or your life.” His skittish steed nickered and pranced.

Slowly the carriage door opened, and she stepped out. Trembling hands clenched into fists at her side, she defiantly raised her chin. “You will hang for this, sir!” Her voice was not quite steady. “And I have no money with me, moreover.”

No money but an even greater prize, perhaps. The highwayman well knew the sound of a well-brought-up young woman’s voice. Her family was perhaps as plump in the pocket as she vowed she was not.

He urged his horse closer yet. Bravely she stood her ground. He looked down into her face, pale in the moonlight.

“No money!” he repeated softly. “Then I am very much afraid, milady, that it must be your life.” He swiftly bent and grasped her arms, lifted her easily off the ground. She struggled and cried out. The coachman stood stupidly staring as his passenger was thrown over the highwayman’s saddle and borne swiftly away.

 

Chapter One

 

Several years later a carrier’s cart lumbered down that same Chelsea road. Within it rode no anxious auburn-haired damsel, but two elderly ladies clad in rusty black. They were as like as two peas in the same pod, comfortably plump of figure, with endearingly homely features, gray eyes and hair. Piled about them were numerous articles of luggage. Firmly clutched by one was a huge shabby portmanteau.

“Oh!” said the second lady, who differed from her companion only in the lace at her wrists and throat, the mourning brooch pinned to her plump breast, and the lack of an encumbering portmanteau. “How surprised our nephew will be to see us, Em!” Envisioning that reaction, she beamed.

Lady Emmeline also envisioned their nephew’s response to the sudden intrusion into his bachelor existence of two elderly and unfashionable aunts, one with a strong disposition to meddle, and the other prone to be thrown into a pucker by any heedless word. “Yes,” she responded wryly. “I make no doubt Vidal will be surprised.”

But an unhappy thought had struck the second lady, who looked aghast. “Em! What if Vidal doesn’t
want us
here? He has not invited us to his wedding, nor brought his fiancée to meet us—but I had thought it just an oversight. I mean, we are not important, and he could have simply forgot us in all the fuss. Oh, dear! I would not wish to
intrude!”

Lady Emmeline had no such reservations. “Don’t fret, Dimmy!” she soothed, as the carrier’s cart lurched to a stop before an ancient mansion of black and white timbering, with brick facing and high narrow gables. “At any rate, we’re here.”

“Oh!” Lady Dimity stared at the picturesque, and somewhat dreary-looking, house. Truth be told, she had never liked Pennymount Place. “Malignant!” She wrinkled her brow. “Or do I mean malevolent? Papa was always used to say Pennymount Place was a very unhappy house and it flattened his spirits so—but of course he always stayed here when he came to London, because a hotel would have cost the earth.” She sighed. “And it still makes me sad to recall how some people gossiped about Papa’s little trips to London, as if there were something indecent about going to the races and looking in at Tattersall’s! Why, Papa was as admired for his hunting skill as for his way with bishops. I have always thought a parson’s private life should be his own affair, providing he carries out his public duties, which no one can deny Papa
did.
How dreadfully you are scowling, Em! Surely you must agree?”

Lady Emmeline, as she assaulted the front door. “Papa’s been in his grave these past five years.”

Briefly, upon this callous reminder, Lady Dimity’s plump little figure drooped. Dimmy had been devoted to her father, a gentleman and scholar who had attended to his parish duties in a rather erratic fashion, church affairs ranking second in priority to his own amusement. The Reverend Vickers’s interests had been many and varied, ranging from a keen appreciation of bees and butterflies and spiders to the local archaeology. Still, he had had a short and pithy way with a sermon—and with bishops—that had been much admired.

As Lady Dimity pondered the eccentricities of her Reverend papa, Lady Emmeline triumphed over the front door. As that portal swung open, she took firmer grip on her portmanteau. “It took you long enough! Have you grown deaf, man?”

The superior individual thus ignominiously addressed took no visible offense. Quite the contrary. The chilling expression that had sat upon his austere features when he first appeared in the doorway was replaced, if not by anything so unbutlerlike as a smile, by distinct signs of thaw—and this despite the carrier’s cart that squatted in the street, which must offend any butler’s notions of what was nice.

“I am pleased to report that my hearing remains excellent,” the butler replied. “May I be so bold as to say on behalf of all the staff that it is a pleasure to see you once more in Pennymount Place, Lady Emmeline, Lady Dimity? The master will be sorry he was not here to welcome you, as assuredly he would have been, had you sent word of your impending arrival.” As he spoke, the butler took Em’s portmanteau. The contents thereof shifted abruptly, and distinctly growled.

“It
is
a very gloomy house!” Lady Dimity looked woefully upon her surroundings while Lady Emmeline issued terse orders for the unloading of the carrier’s cart. “So sad! One cannot wonder at it, when one recalls—but it is folly to dwell upon the past! Vidal should have known we would wish to make the acquaintance of his fiancée. It is not every day that the Earl of Pennymount takes a bride! And Vidal was once very fond of us, although he cannot be blamed if his interests shifted as he grew up! Young men cannot be expected to dance attendance on a parcel of dowdies—not that an
occasional
sign of regard would be too much to expect. I am not complaining, mind! Even if thought of Vidal always recalls to me what Papa used to say so often about ungrateful children and adder’s teeth. But it is my own fault for being so easily cast into the pathetics. I do hope
this
marriage will not result in further breakage being wrought upon our dear nephew’s heart!”

To this outburst, Lady Emmeline reacted with a quelling glance, and the butler with a glassy stare. Thus reminded that it was a grave breach of propriety to discuss Vidal’s ill-fated first marriage in front of his butler, Lady Dimity lapsed into rosy-cheeked silence. The butler probably knew more about Vidal’s first marriage than either she or Em, Dimmy consoled herself; he had been in service with the family for innumerable years. It was a pity the strict dictates of polite conduct prohibited her from interrogating him, she mourned, as she watched an army of servants unload the carrier’s cart.

The luggage having been unloaded and the army of servants dispatched with it to the appropriate chambers, the butler then escorted the ladies to the drawing room.

“You may scoff,” said Lady Dimity, gazing somberly about her at the great hall through which they passed, “but I still say this house is very melancholy. Pennymount Place has always left me feeling sadly hipped, and you know Papa agreed! Do not bother to tell me it is just so many walls and roofs, albeit more venerable than most, as you were used to tell him, Em! While I would not wish to raise my voice in argument with my own twin, and while I would not go so far as to claim Pennymount Place is
haunted,
that it is excessively sad I must maintain!”

This effusion earned from Lady Emmeline yet another sharp glance, and from the butler a barely suppressed groan. He had just recalled Lady Dimity’s last sojourn in Pennymount Place, when her continual laments about malevolent atmospheres and ancient tragedies had prompted half the domestic staff to turn in their notice. “Dimmy,” said Em bluntly, “sometimes I think you delight in stirring coals.”

“And who would know better?” Lady Dimity looked gently arch. “We
are
twins.  Even though we are very different in temperament, as everyone knows. I am talkative and you are taciturn; you are decisive and down to earth and I am the impractical air-dreamer; I have all the sensibility, and you the common sense. Which is not to say, Em, that you are always right!” To this sally the taciturn Lady Emmeline returned no comment. It was not the first occasion on which she had reason to wish her sister were a great deal less prone to those precisely enumerated traits.

Up a staircase built solidly around an open well, the trio progressed; across polished floors, past paneled rooms and stained-glass windows. At length they arrived in the drawing room, or what served Pennymount Place as such: the Long Gallery. There the butler abandoned both ladies and portmanteau, with the explanation that he personally wanted to supervise the disposition of their luggage, good help these days being most difficult to come by.

Alas, this chamber was no more cheerful than the rest of Pennymount Place, despite the ceiling and deep frieze decorated with plaster panels enriched by heraldic designs, the wall panels inlaid with ivory and colored wood. A long narrow room, it had many windows, and on the inner side two fireplaces ornately carved in the Flemish mannerist pattern. Lady Dimity dropped into an exceedingly uncomfortable panel-back chair, and sighed.

“Try as I may to convince myself this girl will make Vidal happy, I cannot! From what we have heard she is an acknowledged beauty accustomed to gentlemen who administer to her vanity. By no stretch of my imagination—considerable as it may be!—can I see Vidal doing the pretty for anyone. Too, the chit is said to be a harum-scarum young woman whose manners lack polish. I think our nephew might have searched the world over and he would never find anyone less like Jess.”

Lady Emmeline knelt on the floor beside the portmanteau. “Doing it too brown, my dear. Vidal’s marriage to Jessabelle resulted in divorce, you may recall.”

“How could I forget?” Upon demonstration of her sister’s lack of fellow-feeling, Dimmy looked even more distressed. “The shame of it! Not that we care for such things—whatever one might say about poor Papa, one could
not
say he placed too much emphasis on worldly things! Even if he did ride to hounds! But I fear our nephew does not view the situation in a similar spirit of Christian tolerance.”

In a somewhat exasperated manner, Lady Emmeline regarded her twin. “The Pennymounts have never cared to see their dirty linen washed in public, which even you cannot deny Jessabelle did. I do not excuse our nephew for handling the girl so badly; he should not have married a high-spirited child in expectation that she would immediately knuckle down, nor give her terrible trimmings when she rebelled. Considering the disagreeable turn-ups that we witnessed, I for one didn’t marvel when the union ended in divorce.” Having emptied the portmanteau of its contents, she grasped hold of a chest of drawers inlaid with bone and ivory, and wincing, drew herself erect.

“Poor Jess!” murmured Lady Dimity. “It is very sad that her name should be bandied about in so odious a manner, and that she has come down so far in the world that she must forever dwell under a cloud. Papa always said that Vidal should have somehow contrived to wrap the thing in clean linen—and doubtless he
would
have, were he not so furious with dear Jess for making him a laughingstock. Oh, it is such a wretched business! Hello, my darlings! At least
you
will not accuse me of having too tender a heart.”

This last comment was addressed to the occupants of the portmanteau, who after pussyfooting gingerly around the circumference of the Long Gallery, and inspecting every inch of its various contents, had joined Dimmy in her panel-back chair. These worthies were by name Tom, Tab, Puss, Grimalkin, and Marmalade. They were of the feline persuasion. Currently, having all five been bundled willy-nilly into one portmanteau, they were in no sanguine frame of mind.

“I have accused you of nothing,” retorted Lady Emmeline. “You
do
have a heart as tender as a chicken or you wouldn’t be maundering on about Jessabelle. That
débâcle
is many years in the past. It is Vidal’s second marriage that concerns us now, in case you have forgot.”

“I have forgot nothing!” Draped about with mismatched cats, Lady Dimity looked as if she wore a singularly ill-conceived fur jacket. “There isn’t the slightest thing wrong with my memory—or my heart! Really, Em: a
chicken!
You are most unkind! And you know how deeply I feel these things. But never mind! I have begun to wonder if we should have come to London. We know nothing objectionable about Vidal’s approaching nuptials except that the girl’s father is connected with trade.”

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