Chapter Ten ~by Elaine Golden
Araminta had made it some considerable distance into the tunnel before she realized that it was already occupied. What should have been a darkened cavern was aglow in rushlight and the sound of unintelligible male voices rumbled from around the bend ahead.
What was this? The tunnel shouldn’t be in use, shouldn’t be known by anyone in the vicinity so far as she knew. Years ago, when her husband had shown her the hidden entryway, it had been filled with nothing more than cobwebs and stagnant, musty air. It had been merely the curious remnant of a bygone era and ancestor, crafted to ensure the owners of Ambleforth Manor (or some hapless Catholic priest) had an escape route should the need arise.
Had that Jim-Bob highwayman set up a smuggler’s den in her secret passageway? Well, that wouldn’t do at all!
With grim determination, she started forward and then abruptly halted as she recalled Lord Torquil’s intimation that there was a French spy operating in the area. Somehow, that seemed ever much more sinister than a mere brandy-runner’s operation. Because everyone knew that brandy was l’eau de vie –the water of life –and there wasn’t a drawing room in England that didn’t continue to serve it, trade embargo against Napoleon notwithstanding. So, really, smugglers were serving the common good, at least to Araminta’s way of thinking.
Should she at least try to determine what nefarious activity was taking place or should she trust that Lord Torquil’s fishmonger tale wasn’t the mad fiction is seemed and seize the chance to slip away and alert the others? Oh, and where had she lost her pretty parasol? Even as filthy and tattered as her dress now was, it would at least have served as some sort of weapon to defend herself should the need arise… again.
As was always the case, curiosity got the better of Araminta, and she tiptoed further until she could peer around the sharp bend. Then nearly gasped aloud and revealed herself.
Nearly a dozen men were sprawled about, some playing cards or chatting, some eating, and some apparently trying to sleep atop the wooden crates that lined the corridor. And, now that she could make out that they spoke to each other in French (and there were no telltale barrels of brandy lying about) it seemed she’d found the spy. Or spies, as the case may be.
“Oh, dear me. Now, what’s to be done about this?”
Araminta spun around, heart racing and eyes wide. How could he move so quietly?
“Mr. Hodges! How did you --? There’s a –“ She vocalized her jumbled thoughts even as the truth dawned. It was inconceivable that the curate could have simply stumbled upon the tunnel. He had to have known it was here, had to have a reason to be here now, which meant…
He snorted as if it were all so very obvious and mopped his brow, the well-used handkerchief now as muddy as his coat from his tumble in the ditch.
“So, you’re the French spy?” Really, it didn’t seem at all possible. Why, Mr. Hodges seemed as British as Yorkshire pudding. Was the ineptitude merely an act?
“Oh, no, indeed.” He moved closer, filling the tunnel with his portentous self, and Araminta began to fear that she would be unable to slip by. She was well and truly trapped. “I’m just along for the coin, shall we say. I’m done with coddling helpless souls and living a threadbare existence.”
Araminta gasped, outrage overtaking the feeling of alarm. What a selfish, hateful man. He didn’t deserve his loving, devoted congregation. She would take up the task to see him dismissed as curate the very moment she arrived home!
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” murmured a deep voice behind her and she turned to find that the occupants of the tunnel had noticed their presence and drawn close. Thankfully, they merely peered at her in curiosity, not as if they’d skewer her for stumbling upon their nest of intrigue.
And, it would seem she was a veritable lech today. For, in truth, they were all very young and virile and… oh, my! She blinked then blinked again. They all looked alike, as if they were brothers, and most considerably like–.“
“Your Grace! There you are!” Hodges said as he stepped aside to reveal the Duke of Dashing in all of his now dusty finery, hair a mess and brow furrowed in annoyance as he looked from Araminta to the cluster of men behind her and back to Araminta. He sighed heavily.
“Well, my dear Lady Ambleforth, it appears you’ve stumbled onto something you oughtn’t. Something that Hodges was tasked with keeping you from. It grieves me to find you here; I had another use planned for you.” He reached past her for something, and then he stepped back, a pistol gleaming dully in his hand. “It would appear you have met my cousins.”
Elaine Golden is the author of The Fortney Follies series. Links and other details can be found on her website (www.elainegolden.com)
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