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Episode 59

The Unvarnished Truth

The sky was turning a blush color in the east as they finished filling the holes. They rolled the pair of poachers in along with all their net traps and weapons. She tossed in the blood-spattered pinafore as well. The only one to escape this night was the thieves’ ferret accomplice who was now free to hunt rabbits for her own purposes.

An examination of the belongings turned out from the pockets of the two poachers revealed, in the light of a bullseye lantern, some coins, a clasp knife and a rather fine silver watch engraved “To Edward Sykes with the gratitude of Pennington Hall.” That was the manor on which the greensman had been found with his gullet slashed. Evidence that the pair killed by her and Rahul tonight were the murderers of that poor soul.

Arabella decided to keep the watch, more as proof against any claims that might be made in the future than as a souvenir of that night’s adventure. It was not the law she feared as, other than a fat, dozy constable down in the town, the crown was represented in this county by her father. And it was her father’s disapproval she feared above all else.

“Will you tell the colonel of this?” she asked as they made their way through the morning mist back to Huntoun Manor.

“Of what?” Rahul said flatly. “I went for an early morning walk and you are yet asleep in your bed.”

“You are quite a lovely man, subedar,” she said and smiled at him as the spires of the great house came into view across the grounds.


***

Arabella was awakened by the tut-tuts of Beatrice, her maid.

The woman was stooped at the foot of the bed picking up the clothes worn the night before. The maid performed the task with a series of meaningful sighs and repeated exclamations. “Oh, dear” and “such a pity” among them. She turned with feigned surprise to see Arabella sitting up in bed regarding her.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Beatrice said as she gathered clothing to her, clots of dried mud dropping from the hem of the skirts. The older woman, married to the estate’s liveryman, made no attempt to hide the disapproval in her eyes as Arabella slipped naked from the covers to reach for a dressing robe left draped over a pile of books on a side table.

“I know my clothes are in a shocking state,” she said, slipping the robe over her head.

“And your boots,” Beatrice tsked. “And the floor. There’s clumps of clay everywhere, ma’am.”

“Are you waiting for an apology?” Arabella said, turning from where she sat before a mirror running a brush through her hair.

“No! Oh no, ma’am!” Beatrice’s face flushed red. Embarrassment or anger or most likely both.

“Well, take the clothes to the washroom and the boots to the batman and send a boy up to mop the floor clean.”

“Yes, ma’am. Will you want breakfast in your room?”

“No, I’ll be dressing and coming down to the dining room. Tell chef to make my usual.” Two poached eggs, toasted bread and a pot of coffee sweetened with honey.

“Yes, ma’am. As you say, ma’am.” Beatrice fled from the room with her arms filled with clothing.

Arabella turned back to the mirror to brush away any burrs or twigs that remained from the adventure the night before. The sheen returned to her tresses as she passed the boars hair through them. Her hair dropped to her shoulders in a straight cut that was shorter than was fashionable for ladies. But she preferred having less of it to fuss with and would have trimmed it even more severely if she thought it wouldn’t start rumors. And it would have. A radical change in her coiffure would already add to the disapproving tales told about her over dinner parties as far away as London by people she would never meet or care to.

She took a moment to examine herself in the mirror in the mid-morning sun streaming through the windows of her room. Her face was a good face, framed by still unruly locks of corn silk hair. Even though two years away from the punishing effects of the sun over the Punjab, her skin was yet darker than was acceptable for a Victorian woman. Eyes of blue, an aristocratic nose with the slightest of tilts at its tip above a generous mouth with the hint of a dimple to one side only made visible by her trademark crooked smile. She supposed she was pretty. Men told her she was, but men were liars. No, she knew she was pretty by the envious glances of other women. Those looks she caught from the members of her fellow sex betrayed the unvarnished truth.

Not unlike the bitterness of the household staff like Beatrice. Though Arabella and her father had lived here at Huntoun Manor for several years, the servants still made their resentment known through silent rebukes and disapproving looks. She understood that the maids, cooks, valets, stablemen and gardeners remained loyal to her late uncle and fully expected to go on serving him and, when he passed, her cousin who was meant to be the sixth earl.

That was not to be, and the servants needed to accustom themselves to that. Arabella understood that speaking brusquely to Beatrice as she did would do little to pour oil on the troubled waters of the household. Her maid was probably, even now, down in the kitchen telling the others of her appalling behavior from the scandalous state of her clothing to her habit of sleeping unclothed.

“To Hell with all that,” Arabella huffed and rose from the bench before her vanity. She had tried being gracious and understanding with the staff since she and father arrived at Huntoun. But she’d grown tired of the mute displeasure of the servants; their unvoiced disdain. Now, years later, her patience was frayed.

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