mademoiselle at arms by Elizabeth bailey
In the quiet of an autumn afternoon, the deserted mansion slept. Or appeared to
do so. Concealed among the trees that edged the estate grounds, the watchers
There were two of them. Men of action by the scarlet coats with their grey
facings—insignia of the county militia. Cocked hats and buckled swords spoke
of rank. Officers were these. Too skilled to advertise their presence by a show of
arms and men. The spy—if there was one hiding out in the late Jarvis
Remenham’s empty house—would be taken unawares.
Wary they might be. Sanguine they were not. In fact, one of them was
‘Seems quiet enough,’ observed the junior officer, his gaze raking the
shuttered windows of the building’s grey stone frontage.
‘Don’t be too sure,’ responded Major Gerald Alderley on a dry note. ‘I am
expecting a huge rat to emerge any second. Waving a white flag, naturally.’
Captain Roding grinned. ‘Why not a French flag?’
‘Because I don’t believe that fool Pottiswick could tell French from Arabic,
even if he heard it as he says he did—which I take leave to doubt.’
The lodgekeeper had been in fine fettle by the time Major Alderley had
produced his investigatory force at the gates.
‘Gabbling and muttering in a foreign tongue, that’s what I heard, sir,’ had
declared the gap-toothed ancient, when he told them of the initial foray he had
made, sneaking around the house in the dark. ‘One of they Frenchies, that’s what
I say—if it ain’t a ghost.’
‘A French ghost?’
‘Well, it ain’t a rat this time, Major, I can promise you that,’ Pottiswick had
rejoined, his tone affronted.
‘It had better not be, by God,’ had barked Captain Hilary Roding.
Gerald sympathised with his friend’s irritation. The last time Pottiswick had
called out the militia on suspicion of intruders in Remenham House, a large
rodent had been all the spoil. It had certainly caused some havoc in the
uninhabited mansion, chewing through Holland covers to get at the furniture
beneath, and knocking down a fire guard and a couple of wooden stands. Truth
to tell, more damage had been done in the enthusiastic chase carried out by the
militiamen detailed to catch it.
‘I never met a rat what wandered about the place with a lantern, I didn’t,’
grumbled the old lodgekeeper aggrievedly.
‘Did you see the man?’ Gerald asked.
No, but I seen the light, sir. Moving room to room it was.’ He added
pointedly, ‘Early this morning that were. I sent a message straight.’
‘We had other matters on hand this morning,’ Roding told him sharply.
Fiercely defensive, as usual. It both pleased and amused Gerald that Hilary
adhered rigidly to protocol before the men, no matter what he might say to his
major on other occasions. Besides, it was not the lodgekeeper’s business to know
that “other matters” included a reluctance on Gerald’s part to allow his little
company to conduct the search without him, and he’d had an engagement this
‘I suppose you think I can’t manage it myself,’ had complained Captain
‘Nothing of the sort,’ argued Gerald. ‘But on the off chance—slim, I grant you
—that there is a spy down there, I don’t want to miss the fun.’
The possibility was indeed remote, for there had been no trouble with France
since the Peace of Versailles had been signed six years ago. But the current
rumblings of internal discontent across the Channel were productive of unease in
certain quarters. Even an unlikely episode such as this could not be ignored.
Besides, Gerald would not for the world have passed up the chance of a little
It seemed at this moment, however, that there was not going to be any “fun”,
and Captain Roding said so.
‘How disappointing,’ mourned Gerald. ‘Ah, well, we’ll check the back and
then go home.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ exploded his second-in-command. ‘I know you, Gerald. We
won’t drag you away until you’ve been through the place from top to bottom.’
Alderley laughed. ‘Just around it, Hilary, that’s all.’ He added on a teasing
note, ‘Though if there’s anything suspicious we can always get the key from
Hilary Roding groaned, but obediently followed Gerald as he began to make
his way through the trees towards the back to a vantage point from where they
might examine the rear of Remenham House. One glance swept across the place
and it was immediately apparent that Pottiswick had not, this time, been
‘Aha,’ grunted Gerald with satisfaction, squinting up at the two open shutters
on the second floor. ‘A French rat with exceedingly long arms, I see.’
‘Gad, there is someone there,’ exclaimed Hilary beside him, shading his eyes
with one hand. The warm September sun fell strongly on this part of the
grounds, uninterrupted by trees, its light bouncing off the glass in the mansion’s
walls. He added succinctly, ‘Windows are open.
Even as they watched, a shadow passed across one of the apertures.
‘I’ll get the key,’said Roding, turning abruptly.
Gerald stayed him. ‘Wait! No time for that. We’re going in.’
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