The Switch (Page 9)

The Switch(9)
Author: Lynsay Sands

Once she had pulled the wardrobe door closed, Charlie noticed that there was a sliver of space between the two connecting doors, enough to give her a slightly limited view of the room beyond. At an exclamation from Maisey, Charlie put her eye to the gap and peered out. The woman was straightening up, some sort of large feather in one hand and a strip of cloth in the other. These she gave to Lord Seguin, then returned to rifling through the chest. Charlie glanced toward Seguin, but when he began to remove his knee breeches, she turned her attention quickly back to Maisey. The woman had fetched a second feather from the chest.

Setting it aside, the woman promptly removed all of her clothes except for a chemise, then placed the feather in her hair, added a couple of bracelets to her arms, and turned to present herself to Lord Seguin.

Glancing back to the man, Charlie nearly gasped aloud. He had removed every stitch of clothing he had entered in and now stood wearing the strip of material as a loincloth. The feather perched rather precariously in his wig was the only other thing he was wearing at the moment, she saw, her gaze moving with dismay over his blotchy, bulgy little body. The man was no taller than Charlie herself, but must have weighed at least twice as much. And every pound of that weight seemed to have been deposited in the belly which hung ponderously over the makeshift loincloth. Everywhere else the man seemed a scarecrow. His legs were as spindly as a crane’s, his arms not much better. He looked quite ridiculous.

"Lovely," he pronounced with a decidedly lascivious gleam in his eyes as he surveyed Maisey. "Come here,my little Indian princess."

A wicked smile coming to her lips, Maisey shook her head and took a step away.

Seguin, rather than appear distressed at her refusal to obey him, grinned back just as wickedly, then set out after her. What followed was the most absurd game of catch to which Charlie had ever been made witness. Maisey was giggling and rushing about. Lord Seguin, that icon of dignity and diplomacy, was slapping his fingers to his mouth and whooping in what she presumed was supposed to be the Indian fashion, as he chased after her. He could have easily caught her had he wished, Charlie was sure, for truly Maisey was giggling too hard to be able to move very quickly, but that did not appear to be the object of the game. It seemed the chase was the fun.

Charlie was seeing Seguin in an entirely new light, and one she could have done quite well without ever having known about. All she could think was that it was a good thing Beth had decided to flee with her rather than many the man.

She simply could not see her sister being willing to indulge in such foolishness.

The game finally came to an end with the "Indian princess" pausing beside the bed and turning to face her pursuer with arms outstretched as if to hold him off. "Oh, mighty Indian warrior! Mercy!" she cried dramatically.

Seguin staggered to a halt and took a moment to catch his breath before gathering the girl’s slender form into his arms. "Now you will be mine," he panted, pushing her back onto the bed.

Charlie could not help but notice that the woman landed with legs splayed, her chemise sliding up to her h*ps as if this scene had been played repeatedly and she knew what to expect. She caught a glimpse of Seguin tugging his loincloth upward, then drew her eye quickly away from the opening as he stepped between the woman’s legs.

Deciding that now would be a most propitious time to leave, Charlie slid out of the wardrobe and slunk to the door. The couple on the bed were far too busy to notice when she backed out of the roomand eased the door closed.

Turning, Charlie heaved a sigh as she saw that the hallway was as empty, as it had been before the arrival of Seguin and Maisey. Radcliffe was nowhere in sight.

She had not really noticed which direction he had taken when he and the women had left the room. Now she wished she had.

Shrugging inwardly, Charlie started down the hallway to the left, sure she would run into him soon enough. That, or he would find her, she was sure. The first door she passed was closed. Soft moans and giggles came from inside.

Charlie listened until a man spoke. Once assured it was not Radcliffe, she moved on. The next door was closed, too, and there was a key in the lock, but no sounds reached her through the door.

She was about to continue on when the sound of a door opening made her glance anxiously back. Maisey, now wearing a nearly see-through blue robe, appeared in the door and glanced back into the room. For a moment, Charlie was too stunned by the speed of her appearance to do anything. Goodness, it had only been a moment ago that Seguin had been commencing to er commence with the woman.

Surely it could not be over so quickly? she thought with dismay, then stiffened as Seguin’s voice drifted down the hallway toward her.

Afraid that he would step out of the room next, Charlie reached for the knob of the door she stood before. She began to panic when it did not budge under her efforts, then recalled the key in the lock and quickly turned it, opened the door, and slid into the room, taking the key with her. Pushing the door closed, she locked it and pressed her ear against it to listen.

"I shan’t be a moment," she heard the woman say, then there was the click of a door softly closing, followed by silence.

Charlie was just beginning to relax when a sound behind her made her stiffen and whirl to peer blindly about. All she could see were vague shadows. Then a shuffling step sent a small shiver of apprehension down her back. "Who’s there?"

she asked anxiously.

A whimper was the only response and she frowned slightly, some of the tension leaving her. " ‘Tis all right," she assured the darkness. "I am leaving. I am sorry to have disturbed you."

Turning back to the door, she unlocked and drew it cautiously open. Once assured that the hall was empty, she opened the door wide, then glanced curiously back.

Even with the light now streaming into the room, it took her a moment to spot the girl. She was barely more than a child really, perhaps sixteen or so, and wore the plain rough dress of a country lass. She could have been any number of the young girls from the village near her family home, Charlie realized, then noticed that the lass was shivering with fear.

Spying a candle on a table near the door, Charlie stepped over, took it in hand, then moved into the hall to light itfrom one of the oil lamps there.

Returning to the room, she smiled reassuringly at the terrified girl as she set it on the table, then hesitated and peered at her uncertainly. "Are you all right?"

When the girl remained silent, Charlie shifted uncomfortably, then took a sideways step toward the door. "I am sorry to have bothered you. I was simply trying to avoid someone in the hall. I thought the room was empty," she explained as she moved, discomfited by the girl’s accusing eyes.

"Who are ye?" the girl blurted out just as she reached the door.

Pausing, Charlie peered at her curiously. This slip of a girl was nothing at all like the other women here. Her clothes were plain and worn,her hair pulled tightly back from her pale face. And the door had been locked from the outside, her brain reminded her suddenly.

"Who are ye?" the girl repeated, her fearful tone pulling Charlie away from her thoughts.

"Lord Charles Radcliffe," she lied blandly with a small bow. "And you are?"

"Bessie," the girl murmured hesitantly, then in a stronger voice, "Are ye Yer not workin’ fer her are ye? Aggie, I mean."

Charlie gave a start. "Certainly not!" At that, she noticed, some of the tension left the girl. Casting a watchful glance toward the door, she grimaced and turned back to ask, "What are you doing here?"

"She won’t let me leave."

Charlie nodded with resignation. It was what she had begun to suspect, of course, but having her suspicions verified created something of a problem.

She was not the sort who could say, "Dear me, that is a shame," then leave the girl to her fate. "What does she want with you?"

"She’s wantin’ me to work fer ‘er."

The shame that accompanied that admission was almost palpable. It was obvious the girl was not up to the idea. Still, Charlie had to be sure before she made any rash decisions. "Do you wish to?"

"Nay!" The feeling behind the word was most emphatic.

Nodding abruptly, Charlie closed the door, locked it, then turned to the young woman, sighing when she saw that fear once again pinched the lass’s expression.

"It is all right. I have already told you I will not harm you. I simply thought it better if no one saw that you were not alone. The last thing we need is company just now."

The girl did not seem much relieved by that explanation, but Charlie did not know what else to say to calm her, so she did not try. Instead, her gaze slid to the draped windows.

"Where are you from?" she asked to distract the girl as she moved toward the nearer window.

"Woodstock, me lord."

Charlie grunted at that as she tugged the heavy drapes covering the window aside. They had passed by the little Oxfordshire town on their way into the city. "What are you doing in London?"

"I came lookin’ fer workrespectable work," she added hurriedly. "A position as a maid. There was nothin’ available in Woodstock and…"

Charlie glanced over to see her shrug unhappily. "How did you end up here at Aggie’s?" she asked.

"The coach. The driver’s a friend o’ me father’s and let me ride alongside him fer free. When we got to the post That was where I met Lady Roughweather."

Charlie glanced around again at that. "Lady Roughweather?"

"Aggie," the girl explained with a grimace. "She was callin’ hersel’ by the name Roughweather at the time."

Charlie rolled her eyes at that and turned back to peering outthe window.

The room faced an alley. They were on the second floor, of course, and it was quite a drop to the hard cobbled stone below, but " ‘Twill have to do."

"What will have to do?" Bessie asked curiously, taking a cautious step closer.

Glancing at her, Charlie took in her size and thinness. "Finish explaining about Mrs. Roughweather," she instructed, then turned back, placed her hands on the upper portion of the window and pressed upward, relieved when it immediately began to raise. It seemed "Aggie" did not believe the girl could be ingenious enough to try to escape through it. Which she supposed was true, since the girl was still here. satisfied, she eased the window back down, then turned to listen to the end of her story.

"Well she seemed ever so nice then. Pretended great concern for me, she did.

Said it wasn’t safe for a pretty young girl like me to be walkin’ the streets alone." She blushed as she admitted that, then frowned as she added, "She said she ran a home for runaway girls and asked if I had a place to stay and if I wasn’t hungry. When I said no, I hadn’t a place to stay, and that I was ever so hungry, she suggested I come back to her home and eat a meal. Then she would see if she could not find me someplace to stay until I found a position. I came back here with her, but we came in the back door, through the kitchens. It was there she fed me. Afterward I was ever so tired and she suggested I rest and led me up here to this room."

"Did you not wonder what sort of place this was when you saw the other women here?" Charlie asked with exasperation.

"I saw no girls. It was early morning when I arrived and silent as a tomb in here. I imagine they were all still abed." She made a face. "I know I was tired.

By the time I finished the porridge she gave me, I was so tired I didn’t think I would even make it up the stairs. I don’t recall enterin’ the room and gettin’ mesel’ to bed."

"She most likely drugged you," Charlie decided with disgust, then managed a reassuring smile when she saw the dismay on the girl’s face.

"What happened when you awoke?" Turning back to the window, she opened it. This time she slid it all the way up and held it there so that she could lean out and get a better look at the wall itself to see if it might offer any purchase, or if there was another window beneath them they need worry about passing.

There was a window, but its drapes were closed. The wall offered no purchase.

"That was just a little while ago," Bessie murmured in response to her question.

"The door was locked when I tried to leave. I began to knock and yell. Mrs.

Roughweather came. She was still bein’ nice at first. Said as how I should call her Aggie, not Mrs. Roughweather, and askin’ me how I was feelin’ But I was on to the fact that something was wrong. I was by the door when she opened it and there was a couple going past. The woman was dressed rather scanty-like and laughin’ vulgar-like and the man why, he had his hand so far down her top he was like to find her" She paused and blushed slightly, then shrugged.

"That and the sounds coming from the next room told me this was no house for runaways. I thanked Mrs.Aggie, but told her as how I was wantin’ to leave now. She said that was fine, so long as I paid her the coins I was owin’ her."

"What coins?"

"That’s exactly what I said!" Bessie nodded firmly, her mouth twisting with displeasure.

"She says the coins for me meal and sleepin’ in this fine room. Said this ain’t no house of charity and either I’d be payin’ her the money or I’d be workin’ it off. I don’t have no money," she ended forlornly.

"She expectsyou to become a prostitute in exchange for a bit of food and a bed for a night?"

When Bessie nodded solemnly, Charlie shook her head with disgust.

"Criminal," she muttered, glancing about for something to hold the window open with. "Fetch me that candle over there."

Bessie hesitated, then seemed to decide to trust thiswould-be knight-errant and glanced about. Spotting the object in question, she hurried over to tug it out of its holder.

"No, the holder too," Charlie exclaimed and Bessie gave up trying to separate the two objects and brought both over. Holding the window up with one hand, Charlie took the candle in her other, set it on the sill as close to the wall as possible, then gently lowered the window until it was jammed in place.