Number 67 Clarges Street—a good address in London’s elegant Mayfair with a dubious past and a lovably eccentric staff—is where the Hart sisters are taking up residence for the season. Beautiful and socially ambitious Euphemia and her younger sister, Jane, enter a world of balls, coming-out parties, and courtship with the hope of finding suitable husbands.
But Number 67 has been deemed unlucky due to a long history of tragedy, including the mysterious death of a young and desirable past tenant named Clara. “Little Jane,” constantly overshadowed by her gorgeous sister, soon turns away from the London social scene and concentrates on solving the mystery behind Clara’s death. Her search leads to a discovery of danger, deceit, and romance as she works alongside the eligible and dashing Lord Tregarthan to unravel the baffling case . . .
Originally published under the name Marion Chesney, Plain Jane is a delightful story of romance and suspense by the much-loved author of the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series.
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Society is now one polish'd horde, Form'd of two mighty tribes, the bores and the bored.
— Lord Byron, Don Juan
At the beginning of 1808, fog turned London into a nightmare city. It was not that a London fog was a rarity. What was so odd, so dismal, and so depressing was that it should last so long.
A choking yellow-grey blanket lay over the metropolis, turning day into night. Never had the link boys been so much in demand as they guided their charges through the stifling fog, lighting their way, their blazing torches reduced to mere red eyes of light through the encircling gloom.
Even the elegant streets of the West End had lost their light and airy character as carriages swam like great primeval beasts through the grey swamp, and figures darted to and fro like wraiths.
Passersby shied nervously away from the two great iron dogs chained on the steps outside Number 67 Clarges Street, the sluggishly shifting fog making the animals look real.
Inside Number 67, the servants felt the fog had crept into their very souls, so grey and miserable did their lives seem. It was a new year and already they were on the threshold of another London Season. But the bad luck that had haunted the town house in Clarges Street continued to haunt it, and it looked as if they would lack a tenant, which meant no tips to augment their miserable wages.
The house was owned by the tenth Duke of Pelham, a young man who owned so much property, including a large mansion in Grosvenor Square, that he was barely aware of the house's existence. The management of the house, the letting of it, and the payment of the staff were left to his agent, Jonas Palmer, cheat, bully and liar.
Napoleon's armies held all Europe in an iron grip and threatened the security of Britain. Times were hard. Servants could not hope to find new employment without references. Palmer had said he would never give any of the servants at Number 67 references and, furthermore, he would give any planning to leave a bad character. This allowed him to continue to pay the staff very low wages while charging his master proper wages and putting the difference in his own pocket.
A good tenant was the servants' only hope. A generous tenant might raise their wages for the length of the rental and might even provide them with the necessary references. But their hopes of ever seeing another tenant were very slim.
Number 67 was damned as unlucky.
The ninth duke had hanged himself there. The year after that, the first family to rent the house for a Season had lost all their money through their son's gambling and the second tenants, the life of their beautiful daughter, Clara.
The third tenant, a Scottish gentleman, Mr. Roderick Sinclair and his ward, Fiona, whom he had presented as his daughter, had been generous to the staff and good luck seemed to have come to the house at last. But Fiona Sinclair had married the Earl of Harrington and had gone abroad with him on their honeymoon. They had disappeared without trace and were feared dead.
Once more the house was advertised in the daily newspapers.
A HOUSE FOR THE SEASON Gentleman's residence, 67 Clarges Street, Mayfair. Furnished town house. Trained servants. Rent: £80 sterling. Apply, Mr. Palmer, 25 Holborn.
It was possible to rent a house in a middling part of the town for £80 for a whole year. But in Mayfair, where one could expect to pay at least £1,000 a year rent for unfurnished and unstaffed accommodation, the sum of £80 for the few months of the Season was very modest. Most hopeful mamas arrived in London some time before the Season began, to lay the ground for their daughters' coming-out. Therefore anyone in the ton knew that a house rented for the Season included two months before and at least one after. The Season began at the end of April and lasted until the end of June when most of exhausted society followed the Prince of Wales to Brighton.
Mr. John Rainbird, butler of Number 67, stood out on the step and gloomily surveyed the Stygian scene. Life had looked so promising last Season. Their tenants had been so generous that Rainbird had planned to buy a small pub in Highgate and take his "family" — the rest of the staff — with him. But while they had all been away from the house at Fiona Sinclair's wedding, their money had been stolen. All suspected Jonas Palmer, but they had no proof. So instead of glorious, independent freedom, they were all still chained to the town house — as chained as the iron dogs on the steps at Rainbird's feet.
The long wars with Napoleon raged on, a quartern loaf cost one shilling and ninepence, and the starving poor died daily in the streets. The servants, who were paid only enough to keep body and soul together, foraged for what they could. Only that morning, Angus MacGregor, the Highland cook, had set out to walk to the country beyond Kensington to search for firewood; Mrs. Middleton, the housekeeper, genteel daughter of a curate, had plucked up her courage and gone to Covent Garden to see what vegetables she could find; and little Lizzie, the between stairscum-scullery maid, was at the baker's to see if she could purchase a loaf of stale bread.
The chambermaid, Jenny, and housemaid, Alice, were indoors, dismally cleaning and polishing the empty rooms, for Jonas Palmer delighted in surprise visits and would walk from room to room wearing a pair of white cotton gloves with which to run over every ledge to make sure there was not even one speck of dust.
Rainbird sighed and shivered. Joseph, the tall footman, minced up the area steps and came to stand beside him. The two men looked into the shifting fog in silence. Joseph was tall, fair, and good-looking, his round blue eyes fringed with fair skimpy lashes that were his private despair. Rainbird was much shorter than Joseph with a sinewy acrobat's body and a comedian's face. He had a pair of clever, sparkling grey eyes, which usually shone with good humour but of late had been as dull and sad as the weather.
One large flake of snow spiralled down and landed on Joseph's nose. He brushed it away. "A pox on this weather," he said, his voice high and affected. "It does give a fellow the Blue Devils."
"Perhaps you might not feel so bad if you stirred yourself to do something," said Rainbird sharply. "Have you cleaned the silver?"
"No," said Joseph sulkily. "Eh'm tired of cleaning the demned stuff."
"Then do it now," said Rainbird crossly. "Remember you and I are in a worse position than the others should Palmer take against us."
Both men had been dismissed from tonnish houses for crimes of which they were innocent. But they had been declared guilty, and Palmer always threatened to broadcast their misdemeanours should they not jump to his every bidding, which would mean that neither would have the hope of finding employment ever again.
It was perhaps this shared misfortune that made Rainbird tolerate the effeminate and often waspish footman. Rainbird was also perhaps the only person who saw the shrinking, sensitive creature under the affectations.
"Dave isn't doing nothing," whined Joseph.
"Dave is cleaning out the chimneys."
"So he should," sneered Joseph, "seeing as how it's the only trade he knows."
Dave had been a chimney boy, rescued by Rainbird from a harsh master. Palmer was unaware of his existence. Dave was unofficially the pot boy.
"Go inside. You weary me, Joseph," said Rainbird.
Joseph flounced off, and Rainbird turned his gaze back to the swirling fog.
Lizzie came scurrying out of the gloom, her pattens clack-clacking on the stones. She was carrying something wrapped in a shawl.
To Rainbird's surprise, she ignored his greeting and plunged down the area steps like an animal fleeing to its burrow.
He nimbly ran down after her. Lizzie went through into the servants' hall, whatever it was she held in her shawl cradled against her breast like a baby.
"What have you there?" demanded Rainbird.
Fog lay in bands across the room, which was dimly lit by one evil-smelling tallow candle in the centre of the table. Lizzie silently unwrapped her shawl, took out a large crusty loaf, and put it on the table. Then she sat with her head bowed.
Rainbird walked forward and picked up the loaf. "This is fresh, Lizzie," he said. "You only had a penny for a bit of stale bread. How did you come by this?"
Lizzie's eyes, enormous in her thin face, looked sorrowfully at the butler. Two large tears spilled over and cut two clean tracks through the fog-grime on her cheeks.
A sudden horrible thought struck Rainbird. "You didn't, Lizzie. I mean, you didn't go with some man ...?"
"Worse than that," shivered Lizzie.
Rainbird sat down. Alice and Jenny came into the kitchen demanding to know what the matter was, and Dave made them all jump by appearing down the chimney, covered in soot.
"I think I got abaht free bags full, Mr. Rainbird," he said cheerfully. "I'll sell the soot this afternoon. What's up wiff our Liz?" "Same as all of us," drawled Joseph. "Hunger."
"Go on, Lizzie," urged Rainbird. "Tell us."
The scullery maid brushed the tears away with her fingers. "I went to Partridge's," she said.
Rainbird gave a click of annoyance. "What took you there? That's the most expensive baker in Mayfair."
"Brown's in the market didn't have no stale bread. I thought a grand baker's might have some but folks wouldn't think of asking. So I went in."
"And?" demanded Jenny, the chambermaid.
"And there was this fine lady with her two daughters."
"Garn," said Dave. "Fine ladies don't buy their own bread out o' shops."
"They was doing it for a sort of joke," said Lizzie. "'See, my dears,' said the grand lady, 'you should never leave the shopping to servants all the time. One should occasionally go oneself to check that the prices tally with those in the housekeeper's books.' One of the daughters stares at me and says, 'But mama, one has to meet such common people like that dirty little servant girl.' 'It is not even ladylike to notice that class of person,' says the mother. They all had baskets like Leghorn hats, flat and open and decorated with silk flowers. Partridge was charging two shillings and threepence for a large loaf and they bought six," said Lizzie, her remembered awe drying her tears.
"They swep' past me. 'Get out of my way, little peasant,' says the mother, and, as she went past me, this loaf fell from her silly basket, and quick as a wink I caught it before it fell to the ground. They didn't wait. I ran after them as they were getting in their carridge and I says, 'Please mum, you've dropped your loaf.'
"'Oh, mama,' says one of the girls, 'don't touch it. She's probably got lice.'
"'Then it will do the servants,' says the mother, leaning out of the carridge window to take it from me.
"I found meself shouting, 'Then I'll keep it,' an' I wrapped it in my shawl and ran as hard as I could. They screamed, 'Stop thief!' and hands grabbed at me out of the fog, but I darted into a doorway and hid there until the shouting died away. So here I am," she ended miserably.
Rainbird took a deep breath. "Lizzie, if they had caught you, you would have been hanged, or, at the very least, transported to the colonies."
"I am in mortal sin," whispered Lizzie.
"So you are," crowed Joseph. "That Pope o' yourn will damn you to hell." Then he gasped as Jenny drove her sharp elbow into his solar plexus.
"I think God will forgive you," said Rainbird, "but whether he will forgive that woman and her daughters is another matter. Dry your tears, Lizzie. You must never do anything like that again."
The tall and Junoesque Alice walked slowly round the table — everything Alice did was slow and languid. She put her arms around Lizzie and said, "Don't cry. You be a good girl."
Rainbird sighed. What was their life sinking to when even such as little Lizzie turned thief?
Slow, heavy steps on the stairs heralded the arrival of the housekeeper, Mrs. Middleton, a tired anxious lady of uncertain years with a face like a frightened rabbit. She opened her huge reticule and triumphantly placed a large, moth-eaten-looking cabbage on the table.
"How much?" asked Rainbird.
"Nothing," beamed Mrs. Middleton.
"You bin stealin' as well?" asked Dave.
"Get back up that chimney and mind your manners," said Rainbird severely. "Now, Mrs. Middleton, what happened?"
"It was a porter at Covent Garden," smiled Mrs. Middleton, taking off her enormous bonnet, which looked like a coal scuttle. "He dropped it and I picked it up and went after him. 'Here, my good man,' I said. 'Oo d'ye think yer callin' goodman?' he says. 'You can take that there cabbidge and ...'" Mrs. Middleton turned pink. "I did not understand the rest of what he said, but he looked so violent that I said, 'Thank you,' and put the cabbage in my reticule. What did Dave mean about stealing as well?"
Joseph opened his mouth and then shut it again as Rainbird glared at him.
"Hurry up and finish those chimneys," called Rainbird to Dave. "Angus MacGregor has gone into the country for firewood so mayhap we'll have some heat this evening."
"There's soot everywhere!" screamed Mrs. Middleton. "Alice, why are you hugging that useless maid? Lizzie, start scrubbing out this hall and when you've finished, get to work in the kitchen."
"Here's MacGregor," tittered Joseph, "sounding like the whole of Prince Charles's rabble retreating from Derby."
They all trooped into the kitchen where the Highland cook was just swinging a large sack down from his shoulder.
"Snowing hard," he grunted.
"Blood!" screamed dark-haired Jenny. "There's blood dripping from that sack!"
"What have you got there?" demanded Rainbird.
"A deer," said the cook cheerfully. "A wee bit cratur. Venison tonight."
"You've been poaching on some lord's estate," accused Rainbird.
"No," said the red-haired cook laconically, jerking open the string that held the sack. "It's a young 'un. I got it in the Green Park."
"The King's deer," whispered Rainbird. "You great fool. They'll hang us all."
"It was there for the asking," said the unrepentant cook. "I was that low in spirits for ah hud a great bag of firewood and I put it down to rest on the long road back and some blackguard stole it and ran off into the fog." Rainbird had carried in one tallow candle when he had heard Angus MacGregor's arrival. In its dim circle of golden light, the faces of the servants were as white as paper. "Don't look sae feart," went on the cook crossly. "I was coming through the park and there was this little deer with a broke leg and next to death wi' the cold. I took out ma knife and slit its throat. I had a spare sack wi' me so I hefted it up and ran here."
He cocked his head to one side and they all stiffened as the heavy tread of marching feet sounded up in Clarges Street outside.
"And dripping blood all the way," said Rainbird, panic-stricken. "You've brought the whole militia down on us. The volunteers drill in the parks every day ..."
"Tie it on my back," said Dave. "Quick!"
"Why ...?" began Rainbird.
"Tie it on," screamed Dave. Heavy steps began to descend outside. While Angus MacGregor quickly lashed the deer onto the pot boy's back, while Alice and Jenny frantically scrubbed at the blood stains on the floor, there came a loud, imperative knock at the door.
"Open in the King's name!" called a harsh voice.
Dave scrambled into the empty kitchen grate with the deer on his back. He seized the first of the iron rungs that had been placed inside the chimney for the sweep's climbing boys. "Push me up," he hissed to MacGregor.
Mrs. Middleton had often bemoaned the old-fashioned open range with its wide chimney, but now she thanked God feverishly for Jonas Palmer's parsimony.
Rainbird opened the door. A tall captain with snow glistening on his scarlet regimentals pushed his way into the kitchen. With him came a sergeant, a trooper, and a Bow Street Runner.
"Stay outside, the rest of you, until you are called," shouted the captain over his shoulder.
"What can I do for you?" asked Rainbird.
"Where is your master?" demanded the captain.
"My master," said Rainbird, "is the Duke of Pelham. He is at Oxford University. In the meantime, I am in charge here."
"Mr. John Rainbird."
The captain jerked his head, and his sergeant held up a lanthorn next to the butler's face. The captain studied the butler from head to foot. Rainbird was wearing the livery bought for him by the previous tenant — black tail coat, white waistcoat, black silk knee breeches, white stockings, and buckled shoes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Plain Jane"
Copyright © 1986 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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