The Talisman Ring
by Georgette Heyer
An authoritative, not to say peremptory voice outside called the landlord by name, and the next moment the door was flung open and a tall gentleman in riding-dress strode in, carrying a somewhat battered bandbox in either hand. He checked at sight of Miss Thane, favouring her with a hard stare, and putting down the bandboxes, took off his hat, and bowed slightly. "I beg your pardon: do you know where I might find the landlord?" he asked.
Miss Thane, one hand on the banisters, one foot on the bottom stair, looked at him keenly. A pair of stern, rather frowning grey eyes met hers with an expression of the most complete indifference. Miss Thane let go of the banisters, and came forward. "Do tell me!" she said invitingly. "Are you `my cousin Tristram?'"
Sir Tristram's worried frown lightened. He stared at Miss Thane with an arrested look in his eyes, and his stern mouth relaxed a little. "Oh!" he said slowly, and seemed for the first time to take stock of Sarah Thane. He saw before him a tall, graceful woman, with a quantity of light, curling brown hair, a generous mouth, and a pair of steady grey eyes which held a distinct twinkle. He noticed that she was dressed fashionably but without furbelows in a caraco jacket over a plain blue gown, a habit as nearly resembling a man's riding-dress as was seemly. She looked to be a sensible woman, and she was obviously gently born. Sir Tristram was thankful to think that his betrothed had (apparently) fallen into such unexceptionable hands, and said with a slight smile: "Yes, I am Tristram Shield, ma'am. I am afraid you have the advantage of me?"
Miss Thane saw her duty clear before her, and answered at once: "Let me beg of you to come into the parlour, Sir Tristram, and I will explain to you who I am."
He looked rather surprised. "Thank you, but as you have no doubt guessed, I am come in search of my cousin, Mademoiselle de Vauban."
"Of course," agreed Miss Thane, "and if you will step into the parlour ---"
"Is my cousin in the house?" interrupted Sir Tristram.
"Well, yes," admitted Miss Thane, "but I am not at all sure that you can see her. Come into the parlour, and I will see what can be done."
Sir Tristram case a glance up the stairs, and said in a voice edged with annoyance: "Very well, ma'am, but why there should be any doubt about my seeing my cousin I am at a loss to understand."
"I can tell you that too," said Miss Thane, leading the way to the private parlour. She shut the door, and said cheerfully: "One cannot after all be surprised. You have behaved with a shocking lack of sensibility, have you not?"
"I was not aware of it, ma'am. Nor do I know why my cousin should leave her home at dead of night and undertake a solitary journey to London."
"She was wishful to become a governess," explained Sarah.
He stared at her in the blankest surprise. "Wishful to become a governess? Nonsense! Why should she wish anything of the kind?"
"Just for the sake of adventure," said Miss Thane.
"I have yet to learn that a governess's life is adventurous!" he said. "I should be grateful to you if you would tell me the truth!"
"Come, come, sir!" said Miss Thane pityingly, "it must surely be within your knowledge that the eldest son of the house always falls in love with the governess, and elopes with her in the teeth of all opposition?"
Sir Tristram drew a breath. "Does he?" he said.
"Yes, but not, of course, until he has rescued her from an oubliette, and a band of masked ruffians set on to her by his mother," said Miss Thane matter-of-factly. "She has to suffer a good deal of persecution before she elopes."
"I am of the opinion," said Sir Tristram with asperity, "that a little persecution would do my cousin a world of good! Her thirst for romance is likely to lead her into trouble. In fact, I was very much afraid that she had already run into trouble when I found her bandboxes upon the road. Perhaps, since she appears to have told you so much, she has also told you how she came to lose them?"
Miss Thane, perceiving that this question would lead her on to dangerous ground, mendaciously denied all knowledge of the bandboxes. She then made the discovery that Sir Tristram Shield's eyes were uncomfortably penetrating. She met their sceptical gaze with all the blandness she could summon to her aid.
"Indeed!" he said, politely incredulous. "But perhaps you can tell me why, if she was bound for London by the night mail, as her maid informed me, she is still in this inn?"
"Certainly!" said Sarah, rising to the occasion. "She arrived too late for the mail, and was forced to put up for the night."
"What did she do for night gear?" inquired Shield.
"Oh, I lent her what she needed!"
"I suppose she did not think the loss of her baggage of sufficient interest to call for explanation?"
"To tell the truth - " began Sarah confidingly.
"Thank you! I should like to hear the truth."
"To tell the truth," repeated Sarah coldly, "she had a fright, and the bandboxes broke loose."
"What frightened her?"
"A Headless Horseman," said Sarah.
He was frowning again. "Headless Horseman? Fiddlesticks!"
"Very well," said Sarah, as one making a concession, "then it was a dragon."
"I think," said Sir Tristram in a very level voice, "that it will be better if I see my cousin and hear her story from her own lips."
"Not if you are going to approach it in this deplorable spirit," replied Miss Thane. "I dare say you would tell her there are no such things as dragons or headless horsemen!"
Miss Thane cast down her eyes to hide the laughter in them, and replied in a saddened tone: "When she told me the whole I thought it impossible that anyone could be so devoid of all sensibility, but now that I have seen you I realize that she spoke no less than the melancholy truth. A man who could remain unaffected by the thought of a young girl, dressed in white, all alone, and in a tumbril --"
His brow cleared; he gave a short laugh. "Does that rankle? But really I am past the age of being impressed by such absurdities."
Miss Thane sighed. "Perhaps that might be forgiven, but your heartlessness in refusing to ride ventre à terre to her deathbed -"
"Good God, surely she cannot have fled the house for such a ridiculous reason?" exclaimed Shield, considerably exasperated. "Why she should be continually harping on the notion of her death passes my comprehension! She seems to me a perfectly healthy young woman."
Miss Thane looked at him in horror. "You did not tell her that, I trust?"
"I don't know what I told her. I might very easily."
"If I were you," said Miss Thane, "I would give up this idea you have of marrying your cousin. You would not suit."