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Excerpt: The Gentleman’s Walking Stick

Two Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries Short Stories

On a rainy morning in 1817, I visited Bond Street to purchase a bauble for my lady.

I gazed at trays of glittering jewels in the shop I entered and dreamed of adorning Lady Breckenridge with the best of them. I knew, however, that my captain’s half-pay would allow me only the simplest of trinkets. The proprietor knew it too and abandoned me for the more prosperous-looking patrons who walked in behind me.

“Is it Captain Lacey?” a male voice rang out. “Jove, it is, as I live and breathe.”

I turned to see a man of thirty-odd, his light brown hair damp with rain, favoring me with a familiar and hearty grin. In spite of the weather, his clothing was impeccable, from his pantaloons and polished Hessians to a fashionably tied cravat. An equally well-dressed older gentleman I didn’t know stood behind him with a matron and a young woman with red-gold hair.

“Summerville,” I said in surprise and pleasure.

I hadn’t seen George Summerville since the Peninsular War. Summerville had been in a heavy cavalry regiment, a big man full of bonhomie, who’d made friends wherever he’d gone. I remembered long nights with him that involved much-flowing port but never how those nights had ended. Memories of the terrible headaches in the mornings, on the other hand, lingered. Summerville had been injured at Salamanca, and I’d lost track of him after that.

I advanced and held out my hand, shaking his warmly. “How are you, Lieutenant?”

“Lieutenant no longer. Sold my commission. You?”

“Half-pay.” I’d gotten into the Army a roundabout way—volunteered, then obtained the rank of cornet with the help of my mentor. That’s how poor gentlemen get to be officers. At Talavera, I’d been promoted from lieutenant to captain. Three years ago, I’d left the Peninsula in a devil’s bargain with my aforementioned mentor, and now eked out a living in London.

“Lacey, allow me to introduce m’ fiancee, Miss Lydia Wright. And her family. This is Captain Gabriel Lacey, a dashing dragoon of the Thirty-Fifth Light.”

I made a bow, and Miss Wright and her parents greeted me politely. Miss Wright’s red-blond hair was dressed in a simple knot, and she wore a high-waisted, modest gown and a dark wool spencer against the weather. She looked well turned out, neat, respectable.

There was nothing to object to in the Wrights, but they seemed rather lackluster for Summerville. Already they’d faded into the background while the boisterous Summerville commanded the light. Ever after I was unable to remember what Miss Wright’s mother even looked like.

“I say, Lacey, a word in your ear?” Summerville put his hand on my shoulder and began to subtly but firmly turn me from the group. “Do you mind, Miss Wright? Won’t be a moment.”

Miss Wright seemed not to mind at all. She smiled, curtseyed to her fiancée, and remained within the safe circle of her parents. They turned collectively to examine jewelry the eager proprietor brought forth.

When we reached an empty corner of the shop, Summerville lowered his booming voice to a murmur. “I’m in a bit of a difficulty, Lacey. You see, I’ve lost something.”

He looked worried. I’d never considered Summerville a good soldier, but he’d been excellent at keeping up the spirits of the rest of us. No night could be so dismal that Summerville could not warm it with his laughter and jests. Summerville worried was an unusual sight.

“Something valuable?” I asked when he hesitated.

“No, not exactly. But . . .” Summerville paused again, as though debating what to tell me. “I’ve heard you’ve become all the crack at ferreting out things. Mr. Grenville himself boasts of your cleverness.”

“Does he?” I felt a bite of irritation. Lucius Grenville, the most famous dandy in England and now my friend, was apt to sing my praises a little too loudly, thus building expectations I could never hope to meet.

“He does, my old friend,” Summerville said. “The thing is, I’ve mislaid my walking stick.”

I leaned on my own walking stick, a gift from my lady. He looked so anxious that I grew curious in spite of myself. “One of great importance to you?” Perhaps Miss Wright had given it to him.

“No, no. The bloody thing isn’t worth much on its own. It does have a bit of gold on the head, but the main thing is, my name is engraved on it.” He darted a glance at his companions, a very proper miss and her very proper parents, absorbed in studying the jewelry. “Look here, Lacey, I must find that walking stick. I might have left it in a dashed awkward place—a place I wouldn’t want it coming to certain ears I’d visited, if you take my meaning.”

I was beginning to understand. “Summerville, the reveler,” I said. “You have not changed in that respect?”

“Those days are behind me, I assure you, except for a bit of an outing last night.”

“Sowing the last of your wild oats?” I suggested.

He patted my shoulder, happy I’d caught on. “Exactly. I’d be ever so grateful if you could lay your hands on it for me. Today, I mean.”

My irritation returned. “Today?”

“I know it much to ask, but the Wrights have my time well spoken for. I will not have a moment to scour London for it myself, and sooner or later one of them will ask what became of it. My peccadilloes are the past, but I had to go and lose that blasted stick. I would hate someone to try to touch me for money because of it. You understand?”

He looked so miserable that I stemmed my annoyance. Summerville’s concern about blackmail was not farfetched. I put Mr. Wright as a well-off gentleman of the middle class, possibly a City man who had banks doing what he told them to do. Miss Wright was a catch, especially for a gentleman like Summerville, who had family connections but not much money.

In these desperate times, a lady of the demimonde might indeed threaten exposure to a gentleman due to come into means. Any whiff of scandal would make Mr. and Mrs. Wright whisk their debutante daughter far out of Summerville’s reach.

“I understand,” I said. “Tell me where you left it, and I’ll fetch it for you.” I’d find the stick and make Summerville promise to stay home from now on.

“That’s dashed good of you,” Summerville said, his good-natured smile returning. “ Only . . . there are any number of places it might be.”

“Any number? What the devil did you get up to last night, Summerville?”

He flushed. “Several things, as I recall.” Quickly he told me the worrisome places he’d visited, and I noted them in my memory.

“The devil’s own luck you found me today,” I said.

“Not really. I called in at your rooms earlier, and your man told me where you’d be.”

My valet had once been Grenville’s footman, as pleased as his former master about my ability to find the un-findable. I scowled. “I will make the inquiries. For old times’ sake.”

“God bless you, Lacey.” Summerville beamed like sudden sunshine.

He returned to his party with considerable cheer. Summerville chose a diamond bracelet for his blushing fiancée, then the foursome said their farewells and left the shop.

The proprietor returned to me less hopefully.

“I’ll have this.” I pointed to a slim gold chain that was a little longer than a bracelet. A tiny bell with a golden clapper dangled from it.

“Ah.” The proprietor smiled at me, his interest awakened. “A most interesting choice, sir. A most interesting choice.”

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