Of Events Past and Future
"She laughed. 'You're infatuated, sir. But I'm not respectable, give you my word. In boy's clothes I've kept a gaming-house with my father; I've escaped out of windows and up chimneys; I've travelled in the tail of an army not English; I've played a dozen parts, and – well, it has been necessary for me often to carry a pistol in my pocket.'
Sir Anthony's head was turned towards her. 'My dear, will you never realise that I adore you?'"
After the delivery of Robin and Letty's good news, it was a merry party who sat down to dinner. When the repast was ended, the ladies retired to the small with-drawing room, where they spoke idly of this and that until shortly thereafter the gentlemen joined them. A fire had been lit in the early afternoon and being filled with occupants, the room quick became stuffy. When Robin went to open a window however, it was found to be swelled shut and held fast against all persuasion. Robin and Prudence exchanged looks at the discovery.
"At least this time 'tis merely hot air which wants escaping," said Robin dryly.
Prudence gave her slow smile.
"Oh, that sounds like a story!" exclaimed Letty, "Pray tell!"
Fulvio di Pignatelli kept his gaze upon the paperwork as his footmen roughly thrust a figure into the study. When he considered enough time had passed to increase his prisoner's apprehension, he raised his eyes. To his own consternation however, his men had not only delivered the wrong person, but the impudent wretch appeared more interested in scrutinizing the paintings upon the study walls than in reflecting upon his situation.
"Boy!" he snapped.
The boy – one of Matthieu's sons, if he recalled correctly – turned to him calmly and bowed politely,
"Margravio di Pignatelli, how. . . unexpected to meet you like this."
"Where is your father?" he demanded.
"Not here, in sooth," came the dry reply.
Pignatelli's small eyes narrowed. "Keep a civil tongue in your mouth, boy, or it will be the worse for you."
It were best to be conciliatory, Prudence decided, for she was in a sticky situation. Pignatelli's men had come to the house intent upon the capture of 'Monsieur Matthieu'. They had found the domicile empty but for herself, reading in the garden, and therefore unarmed except for a small dagger in her boot. She had seen John walk past in the road as they were bundling her into a carriage and so was confident of rescue, but 'til then she needs must keep a calm head.
"My apologies, Signore. How may I be of service?"
"Your father, God curse his soul, has, amongst other things, disappeared with my mistress. No one steals the property of the Margravio di Pignatelli! Especially not some misbegotten French cur."
"My father, Signore, is a swordsmaster, not a thief," For at least this time he had not taken anything that was not freely given, by all accounts, "And as to the other charge, I am sure the lady would not be best pleased to hear herself labelled as property,"
The Margrave rose, shoving back his chair and leaning upon his fists on his desk.
"Where is he, whelp? Answer me, or the consequences for you will be...unfortunate." Pignatelli had an ugly look upon his face.
The grey eyes fixed on him were cool.
"You had best inquire of the Duca di Olino as to my father's whereabouts. I believe he gives lessons to his son this afternoon."
Pignatelli paled and then flushed. It was, Prudence knew, a shrewd blow. The Duke was his wife's father, and a man of both high morals and temper, sure to be enraged if informed of his son-in-law's unfaithfulness.
"You think to make a fool of me like your father," Pignatelli strode around the desk and stopped before her. He grasped her jaw in his hand, hard enough to bruise, and raised her face to him. Prudence didn't struggle, though she was much inclined to do so. He had both height, weight, and some twenty years experience on her, although she had the element of surprise. She would lief not use her boot knife however.
Pignatelli continued, "But if you think some nobody of a tradesman is getting the better of me, you are sadly mistaken. He took something of mine, and now I have something of his. How dearly does your father hold you, boy? He has another son, after all." Pignatelli smiled. It was not a pleasant expression. "Perhaps if I send him pieces of what I have stolen, he will see fit to return the pieces he has stolen."
He loomed near, so close that Prudence could smell his ill breath. But if the Margrave had expected fear from his captive, he was to be disappointed. Prudence wrenched her jaw sideways and stepped back a pace.
"I fear, Signore, the only object in pieces here is your honour, for suggesting such actions."
The Margrave raised a hand to strike her. Then the study door was flung open,
"Il cane! Porco! Interruttore di promesse! Come ti permetti di vergogna la nostra famiglia così! Quando mio padre sente di questo si che tu fossi morto! Ti farò rimpiangere mai lasciare il nostro letto matrimoniale per il letto di qualche puttana a buon mercato!"
A volley of impassioned Italian accompanied the large whirlwind of bright yellow satin, frothing lace and flashing dark eyes that stormed into the room. With one gesticulating hand the lady brandished a sheath of letters, inscribed, as Prudence knew, with purple ink upon pink-tinted vellum. Not the most tasteful of stationary, and last seen in the grasp of the old gentleman.
The Margrave paled at the sight, standing as if turned into a pillar of salt. The woman – undoubtedly his wife by her remarks – continued to scream vituperations at him. Prudence took advantage of the distraction to slip quietly from the room.
She made her way down the corridor and to the servant's stairs, and had descended one flight when ill luck struck. Two of the footmen who had abducted her were ascending the stairs. There was a shout from one of them, and she turned tail and fled back the way she had come. She ran back into the corridor, slamming the stairs' door behind her. The Margrave had exited from the study, the Magravine chasing him along the corridor, still loud with anger. Pignatelli turned at the sound and seeing Prudence, snarled, fumbling for his sword hilt.
Seeing no alternative, Prudence ran for the open door of the study. She slammed that door shut too, and hurriedly turned the key in the lock. For a few seconds she slumped against the wood, breath quickened and eyes shut. There was noise in the corridor outside, and the handle rattled and turned, to no avail. Someone began beating upon the door, but it was both a sturdy lock and door, and would hold them for a good few minutes. It would be plenty of time for her to exit the room via other means.
Prudence strode over to the window and grasping the handle, turned the catch. The window didn't open. She pushed harder, but all her strength was not enough. She moved to the next window, but to her dismay it also refused to open. Examining them closely, it appeared the wood had swollen and jammed the windows fast inside their frames.
A quick attempt with her boot knife fared no better than brute force. She could break the glass, and indeed the pane was of the new, expensive style, large enough for her to wedge through. But it would be a tight fit, and chances were she could cut herself badly. She then had the problem of descending from the second floor of the townhouse from the outside.
At that moment, there was a dull thump at the door. Someone had found a ram of some sort and was attempting to break down the door. Prudence's lips thinned. She glanced around the room. After a moment, her eyes lit up. She crossed to the large fireplace and picked up the poker, quickly wrapping it in her jacket and crossing back to the window.
When the thick wooden door was finally broken down, the Margravio di Pignatelli and his men found the study empty. The boy had obviously escaped through the smashed window pane, and although they half expected to see a broken and bloody body on the ground two stories below, not a drop of blood or footprint betrayed the fugitive's passage. It was as though he had disappeared into thin air.
And to stoke the fires of Pignatelli's outrage, the little wretch was as much a thief as his father. Two of the Margrave's Renaissance paintings, which he had prized as much for their monetary value as their artistic merit, had been cut from their frames and vanished with the boy.
Pignatelli immediately instigated a town-wide search, demanding that felon of a French swordsmaster and his two iniquitous sons be found and brought to swift justice. But when questioned, the town guards replied most definitely no, Signore Margravio, none such had left the city on their watch. The only foreigners to pass through the gates that day were an Englishmen and his daughters. The guards had taken especial note of the girls - two pretty young things with the fair hair and fresh complexions typical of the Inglese, just blossoming into womanhood. Monsieur Matthieu and his sons had vanished without a trace.
"You made them think you broke the glass and climbed out the window, and then escaped by climbing up the chimney?" Letty's expression was a mixture of disbelief and admiration. "How clever!"
"And devilish uncomfortable," Prudence added ruefully. "I had scrapes all over me for weeks. Chimney climbing is not a pursuit I would recommend to anyone."
"And the Margrave's mistress? What happened to her?" Letty continued, disregarding the respectability of asking such a question.
Robin gave a peal of laughter.
"Alas, she proved as fickle in her gratitude as she was in her affections," Lord Barham replied. "When last we saw her, she was enjoying the beauties of the hot springs in Fiuggi, as well as the attentions of a German baron."
Prudence woke to the slight rattle of glass. Glancing across the room she discovered her husband testing the handles on the bedroom windows.
"Whatever are you doing, Tony?" she enquired sleepily.
"Merely ensuring there's no necessity for you to be scaling chimneys, my dear."
Prudence laughed. "'Twas but the once, and an experience I've small desire to ever repeat."
Sir Anthony crossed back to the bed, lifted the covers and slipped inside. He was soon made a comfortable pillow for his wife.
"So when should we make known our own happy event?" she wondered.
"Next week, mayhap? Let the congratulations to Letty and Robin die down betimes. And 'tis not like there's a hurry," he replied.
Prudence laughed, "No, there is at least another six months to tell. Indeed, I understand I will tell before then anyway."
Sir Anthony chuckled and leant over to kiss his wife.
"You dog! You pig! Breaker of promises! How dare you shame our family so! When my father hears of this you will wish you were dead! I'll make you regret ever leaving our marriage bed for the bed of some cheap whore!