“Aha!” she said, again in condemnatory tones. “I suppose you got him drunk so that I could not continue with my plans.”
Indignation began to rear up within Hugo. He looked at the small, black-clad…well, termagant was the only word to describe her…and said stiffly, “Madam, since I am unaware of your plans with Fred, how could I impede them, and why should I wish to do so?”
Although Hugo had just told her a barefaced lie, since Fred had confided everything to him a short while ago, his attitude conveyed enough outrage for her to believe him. He gazed at her, trying to see her face behind the veil.
She walked to the fireplace and sat in a small armchair. She held her mittened hands out to the flames, wriggling her fingers in the warmth.
“So Fred is indisposed?”
Hugo reclaimed his original chair.
“That’s what he gave me to understand,” he said with delicacy. “He is suffering from a dreadful toothache.”
She remained immobile, her head turned towards him, as if absorbing his words. Having secured her attention, Hugo pressed on.
“His face was the size of a balloon. It might even be an abscess.”
She made a small angry noise.
“He suggested you return home and wait for him to communicate with you at his earliest convenience.”
The lady sighed. “I cannot return home. I have already put Bruno in the stables with my bandboxes.”
“Who is Bruno?”
Had Miss Lavenham exerted her considerable powers of persuasion and compelled yet another local lad to obey the siren song of her command?
“Bruno is my horse,” she explained. “I had to get here somehow from Lave—”
She broke off, cocking her head to one side, as if unsure of him.
“From home,” she finished.
“Oh, I am glad you did not walk,” said Hugo, assuming a friendly, disarming manner. “It’s bitterly cold, and I’m sure your feet would have frozen by now.”
She extended a pair of diminutive booted feet towards the fire.
“It’s only a short distance, but you’re right, I would have frozen by now.”
Hugo held out his hand.
“Let me introduce myself. My name is Charles St. John,” he said, plucking two from of his list of given names for use.
“How do you do. I am Miss L—” She stopped again and coughed. “I am Miss Clarice Smith.” She, too, extended one hand.
He shook it. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Smith.”
“Are you quite sure you spoke to Fred?” she demanded, her mind returning to her singular purpose in life. “You’re not trying to make a fool of me, are you?”
Hugo put on an aggrieved look.
“My dear Miss Smith, you are mistaken if you think I am playing a prank. I arrived only a little while earlier, having decided to abandon my journey to Cambridge.”
He neatly reversed the direction of his trip as the rambling tale of his aborted journey unfolded.
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