Penchley descended from the hackney two blocks before Haverford House. He must hurry; the duke would need to hear the news that Penchley brought, for it changed everything.
Those approaching the mobbed ducal residence found it best to mingle with the crowd until just before one of the well-guarded entryways that admitted only those on the guards' list of approved visitors. Leaving was another matter, harder to make anonymous, but the mob was largely cheerful, and Penchley himself had never felt under threat.
Of course, the lower classes—making a holiday of the dreadful scandal that had brought the great house into such disrepute —had no idea how close Penchley was to the Duke of Haverford. Why, Penchley flattered himself that the duke would not have managed these past three weeks, since the tragedy had engulfed His Grace's lovely daughter, had it not been for Penchley. He had continued to prepare for the governorship while the duke tried to quell the rumours and outright lies that besmirched the name of the gentlest, sweetest lady Penchley had ever met.
He passed a group singing what Lady Sarah, with gallant courage, called her favourite of the scurrilous songs springing up at every level of society and sung constantly outside her walls. 'Never Kiss a Toad,' the chorus advised, and the verses explained in lurid detail the adventures of the fallen maiden who disobeyed the injunction.
"Pastries! Get your tarts hot, just the way Toad Abersham likes 'em," shouted a vendor, prompting waves of laughter. The vendors circulated the crowd, selling food and drink, much of it renamed to take advantage of the stories. Baked potatoes, split and well sauced with a sausage laid between, had become 'Toad at Play,' and hot eel soup was suggestively 'Sally's Delight'. They were selling pictures, too, caricatures, some decidedly not for mixed company, purporting to tell Abersham's adventures. And since they had spent the past three years on separate continents, there was remarkably little overlap in the cartoons or the gossip sheets with the speculations about Lady Sarah's supposed escapades.
Lies, those last.
Penchley refused a mug of ale thrust under his nose and waved away a peddler of erotic flash cards that, fanned judiciously, showed a female of lush proportions stripping before an eager group of town bucks, who fell on her in the last few cards.
Penchley knew Abersham was a dissolute reprobate, he had been arrogant even in prison, drunk even hours after he was arrested.
But Lady Sarah was an angel. Perhaps she had—though Penchley doubted it—been led by her innocence to allow that fiend liberties no decent man would attempt with a lady outside of marriage. But that was to his account. She was still a girl in the schoolroom when Abersham was exiled, so there could be no substance to any such rumours.
Penchley had been reading the Wakefield reports. It was part of his duty to understand and be prepared for anything that might affect the governorship, and His Grace left them in an unlocked drawer when he finished reading them. Clearly, he did not intend them to be ignored by his confidential secretary.
Every count against Lady Sarah had been investigated and found to be without substance, and how could it not? A lady of her rank was never alone, and she had been more closely attended than most.
On the other hand, Abersham was guilty of the most horrible excesses. Penchley had been sure of it since he had rescued the brute from jail in Marseilles, then heard the horrifying tales of unimaginable debauchery from his associates in Paris. His French lover had confirmed it—a countess, so how can one question her account? And one Mr. Crowhurst had corroborated everything and stuck to his stories of depravity through intense questioning. And yes, both of them hated Abersham, as the reports were careful to point out. But who would not? He was a monster.
His Grace continued to search for proof one way or the other, misled by his affection for the ruinous dolt. It could be accounted a virtue in him, except that it left his daughter open to abuse. He should marry her to the first decent man who asked, and put this nastiness to rest.
Penchley skirted a group playing cards on the corner of the great stone wall that fronted the house, and slipped into the relatively less crowded space that led down to the side door he intended to use.
As he approached the door, it opened, a knot of struggling men thrust through to split apart in the alley, disgorging a bruised and bleeding body into a festering puddle.
"And stay out," said one of the guards, aiming a kick at the recumbent man.
Another intruder: a curiosity seeker, or worse. Haverford's fear of another rapist — one bold enough to dare the ducal mansion — seemed unlikely, but one had to understand a father's caution. Each trespasser had been ejected with more force than the last, but still they tried.
"Wait," Penchley called, and hurried his steps to reach the door before the guards closed themselves back inside.
But as he was presenting his credentials, the man in the dirt stirred and sat up. "Mr Penchley? Mr Percival Penchley, sir, is that you?"
Penchley turned in time to stop an overenthusiastic guard from kicking the poor fool again.
"Mr Penchley, do you remember me, sir? Blakeley. We met in Marseilles, when you came to rescue my poor master."
Abersham's man? What on earth was he doing here? Penchley eyed the alley, expecting the marquess himself to step out of the shadows. Were they planning to abduct Lady Sarah? What a service to the duke if he could uncover such a plot! Only years of diplomatic training allowed him to keep the excitement from his voice.
"I recognise this man," he said to the chief guard. "I will speak with him privately, and then knock when I am ready to enter."
"I reckon I should stay," the guard offered. "Wakefield would want to know what he was doing here."
But Penchley insisted that they leave, while Blakeley slowly and carefully picked himself up from the ground.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Mariana Gabrielle and Jude Knight.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...