47. The Message Lock

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The rest of the ball went by quickly, mostly because now I had something to occupy my mind with. What the loose-lipped gentleman had told me about the meeting against the women's suffrage in Hyde Park kept reverberating inside my head. Ideas were fermenting inside my busy bean. Soon they would develop into plans.

I spent the rest of the ball plotting the downfall of mankind and the rise of womankind. Most of my plotting happened together with Ella and Patsy in Lord Dalgliesh's vicinity. This had multiple advantages:

1.     The group around the Lord was one of the thickest in the ballroom. Thus, whenever Sir Philip came in sight, we could shove Ella behind a fat duchess or broad-shouldered admiral, and she would be saved from another dance.

2.     Whenever my aunt looked my way and saw me, right there, next to Lord Dalgliesh, she beamed as if it were Christmas and Easter put together. At least she wouldn't be able to say I wasn't trying.

3.     For some reason, Mr Ambrose stayed far away from the group. This I found strange, because earlier he had made such a particular point of greeting Lord Dalgliesh, as if they were old friends. But who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth?

By use of this clever method of unpleasant-people-avoidance we were able to keep the nasties out of our hair for quite some time. Everyone else pretty much left us alone, too. I was rather startled when somebody coughed beside me, thinking that it was Wilkins who had seen through our ruse at last – but it was only a servant, who bowed to me politely.

"Forgive me, Miss? Could you step aside? I have to deliver a message to his Lordship."

Promptly, I did as he asked, and so did everyone else in the vicinity. I noticed, though, that they didn't step back too far to hear what this mysterious message might be. It consisted of a letter the servant bore on a silver tray.

Arriving at his Lordship's side, the servant gave another discreet cough.

"I beg your Lordship's pardon? I have a message for you, My Lord."

Lord Dalgliesh turned from the group of friends with whom he was laughing and joking, and, seeing the tray, picked up the letter and eyed it over his aquiline nose.

"Who gave this to you?"

"Another servant who would not divulge the identity of his master or mistress, My Lord. But he said you would know the identity of the sender once you opened it."

Lord Dalgliesh's gaze quickly flicked from right to left. Feeling all eyes upon him, intent with curiosity, he snatched up the silver letter-opener on the tray, and cut open the envelope. He grabbed whatever was inside and pulled.

Out came not a sheet of paper, nor a card, nor anything else with writing on it. No, out came a lock of hair – blonde hair to be precise. For a moment, everything was still around the little group, then discreet chuckles broke out among the gentlemen, and the ladies fanned themselves.

"By Jove!" a Colonel in the Royal Dragoons exclaimed. "I think it's rather more likely this letter came from a lady than from a gentlemen, don't you think so, my friends?" This was greeted by affirmations and laughter from all sides. "Come on, Dalgliesh, tell us who the lucky lady is!"

For a moment. Lord Dalgliesh stood stock-still, not seeming to see or hear the world around him, concentrating only on the lock on his hand. Then, quick as a flash, he stuck it back into the envelope and stuffed it into his pocket. Turning to the others, he smiled brilliantly, and said: "Now, now, my friends, you would not want me to compromise a lady's honour, would you? Besides, I assure you. This is far from being a token of affection. You might rather call it a deceleration of war."

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