Three days later, Sally set out for the market to buy the roots and herbs Aronui needed for the medicine Mama had discovered in the islands. After running the gauntlet of invasive sympathy at the hotel, she welcomed the anonymity of the market. Here, especially with their bonnets' veils down over their faces, she and Aronui were just two of hundreds of women covered head to two in dark clothing; two of more than a dozen in European blacks.
They found the stall to which they'd been directed by the hotel manager and made their purchases.
They should go straight back to the hotel, where Papa clung to Mama's hand while he read and reread the letters from all their kin, as if the bad news would change on another perusal, and the double blows would prove to be a bad dream. Sally blinked hard as her eyes watered yet again. She had cried rivers these past days, as had Mama, but Papa had barely shed a tear since hearing of the loss of his mother and his dearest friend.
Instead, he had aged ten years in a moment, and he sat white and drawn in their hotel apartment, losing track of conversations and forgetting even what he'd said himself moments after he'd said it. Mama had confided that she'd insisted on the stopover in Alexandria to give him time to absorb the first blow before the close confines of the ship put him on display before others. They disembarked tomorrow and would then be at close quarters until England and whatever awaited them there.
Sally's steps slowed at the thought of returning to the close confines of the hotel, and the dark cloud of grief that permeated their rooms. "I would like to have a last look around before we sail," she told Maddox.
"Whatever you want, Sally," he agreed, and dropped back from her side to have a few words with the commander of her escort.
She'd buy presents, Sally decided, as if she did not already have a trunk full. Tears threatened again when she thought of the lengths of Indian silk she'd bought for Grandmama, the elegant coffee pot for Uncle Wellbridge. She shook them off and began looking along a stall of wooden objects—carved animals, walking sticks, trays inlaid with patterns in different woods, cunningly devised containers for men's and women's dressing tables, and more.
She was selecting a set of animals for each of the babies her friends had produced when she overheard a familiar name.
"... the Duke of Wellbridge, who is as much of a scoundrel as his father was, for all his high position."
In the booth next door, where tables and chairs had been set on the pavement before a counter serving tea and coffee, two Englishwomen sat with their heads together, just visible through the palm fronds that screened one booth from the other.
"The young duke is so handsome, my dear," said the second lady, the one with the yellow roses on her bonnet. "Young, handsome, titled, and wealthy. He could hardly avoid being a scoundrel."
"Hmmmph," replied the first lady, fiddling with the fringe of her paisley shawl. "Wealthy, true, and no wonder! Not only does he inherit the Wellbridge fortune, but he has spent the past several years as a pirate."
Sally grinned. Silly hens.
"Surely not!" Yellow roses sounded thrilled rather than shocked. "A pirate? I understood he was at school in France!"
"That was his parents' plan." Paisley shawl dropped her voice, so that Sally had to lean forward to listen. "After he debauched the daughter of the Duke of Haverford, they sent him off to the continent to university. But—and my dear, I have this on the best of authority—he ran off after six months to work on the wharves in Marseilles, which is where he fell in with a gang of pirates. Truly!"
"I can scarcely believe it," said yellow roses, unable to keep her delight out of her voice.
"Believe it. My friend tells me he and his friends have ships all over the world, stealing cargoes even from his own mother!"
"But he will stop now he is a duke." Yellow roses' voice lifted, making the statement into a question.
"One might think so." Paisley shawl sounded doubtful. "Meanwhile, he is ravishing his way through the ladies of the ton. So much so, that even the Queen has asked him to spare her ladies! One hopes that the Haverford girl will be able to keep him in line when she gets home." Paisley shawl hoped for nothing of the kind, clearly.
"As to that, dearest, he is unlikely to have the woman, if what I heard at the hotel today is true." Yellow roses nodded smugly. "No, indeed. Not after the way she has behaved in India and the islands to which she and her family were exiled."
Exiled, indeed! The silly gossip had ceased to be amusing. Sally turned at a touch on her arm and found Maddox at her elbow, a wrinkle of concern between his brows. She put her finger to her lips to warn him to silence and continued to listen.
"No, really? Do tell," paisley shawl begged.
"Apparently, and this must have come from their own party, Daisy, though I had it from my maid, who had it from Mrs Weston's maid, who had it from a valet with whom... well, that is not to the point."
"Go on. Go on," paisley shawl encouraged.
"You know that she had something of a reputation before she left London?"
Paisley shawl nodded. "But that was explained. Wellbridge's cousin was behind those rumours. And she was received everywhere, Portia, until the Unfortunate Event."
"But these rumours are different, Daisy. Do you not see? The cousin could not have started these stories. I wonder if she and her husband were paid to take the blame, so that Haverford's get could be whitewashed. They were notoriously debt-ridden, and expensive."
Maddox was frowning mightily. Sally put a hand on his arm to stop him from interrupting the pair. Better by far to know what was being said.
"You haven't told me what the rumours are, yet," said paisley shawl, exasperated at her friend.
"Why, that she has been behaving exactly as the London rumours said. She has had an affair with her cousin, Lord Maddox, the famous balloonist. She was seen with a naval captain, and she apparently spent a night with a pirate king and four other women, two of them natives."
Maddox had had enough. He shook Sally off his arm and rounded the screen, looming over the table, studying each woman carefully.
"Sir," said paisley shawl, indignantly, "this is a private conversation."
"This is a slanderous conversation," Maddox said, the glitter in his eyes and the rigidity of his jaw the only sign of the anger he held barely in check. "I will not bother asking your names. I have seen your faces and will easily find out who you are. Be sure that if you repeat any part of the lies I have heard from you, I will find out, and you will pay for repeating slurs on the name of a good and decent young lady."
"Really, sir!" Yellow roses lifted her nose in the air. "I do not know who you think you are, but I am the wife of a very important man, as is my friend."
Maddox smiled, a fierce baring of the teeth. "More important than my uncle, the Duke of Haverford? I wonder what your husbands would say if they knew you had today made an enemy of the Haverford family and all their connections?"
The way both ladies blanched answered that question, but Sally had no confidence that Maddox had stopped the chatter, since it hadn't originated here.
Mrs Weston's maid sent them to Lord Anthony Harthorne's valet, who had been told the farradiddle of lies by Lieutenant Frobisher's batman. The batman had been talking over drinks with a group of men, and swore he didn't know which one had spoken about Lady Sarah, but when Maddox tracked down those he was able to name, all swore they heard the stories for the first time that night.
"It has to be someone on the staff," Maddox insisted.
"Not necessarily," Sally argued. "Anyone with us might have mentioned, quite innocently, that we met you first in India and that you came to the islands, and the rest might have been made up out of whole cloth."
On one point, they were agreed. Mama and Papa had enough to deal with, without being faced with this latest attack on Sally's reputation. Which, she consoled herself, would be restored when she married David. If he still wants you, said a renegade thought, which she did her best to ignore.
In the end, they left Alexandria no wiser about the origin of the rumours. It didn't matter, Sally decided. In less than two months, perhaps just six weeks if the weather was kind, she would be home.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...