Lady Cartrose slept in even later than usual the morning following the ball, and Sophie was able to leave the house without any questions being asked. She did not even have Bessie with her. The necklace was in its box in her reticule. The inside of the box was inscribed with the name Rundell, Bridge and Rundell in Ludgate Hill, and that was where she was bound. Having no idea how to go about hiring a cab or a chair, she decided to walk. She was dressed in a green-and-yellow-striped gingham gown topped with a light shawl. Her plain straw bonnet, tied under her chin with green ribbon, had a wide brim that half concealed her face. She hoped this unremarkable attire would allow her to pass unnoticed.
It was a longish walk, and she was not certain of her way, but she knew if she asked for help she would be advised not to go and certainly not alone, so she did not ask. Consequently she found herself lost in a part of London she had never been in before. It was dreadfully run-down. Washing hung across the road from the upper windows of the crowded tenements, ragged children played in the malodorous gutters and a dog and cat fought with snarls and hisses and bared teeth. Women stood in the doorways and an old man sat on a stool beside an open window. There were stalls along the street selling second-hand clothing, old shoes and cast-off finery that she guessed had passed through more than one pair of hands. She knew she was attracting stares, but could not retreat. Instead, she picked her way along, wishing fervently she had never ventured so far from Mount Street without an escort. She was not even sure she was going in the right direction.
The road widened at last and she found herself at a crossroads, where several roads met. Here, thankfully, there was wheeled traffic, pedestrians and riders. She turned left and was relieved when, after walking a few yards she recognised the Covent Garden Opera House. If she walked past that she would come out on to the Strand. She had been along that way in the carriage with her aunt and knew if she continued in an easterly direction she would come to Ludgate Hill.
Once there it was not difficult to find the jeweller’s shop, but when she produced the necklace and asked the young man who served her what it was worth, she was left standing while he went into the back of the shop to consult a colleague. She heard the murmur of voices, and then an older gentleman came out to speak to her. He had the necklace draped over his hand.
‘Where did you get this, miss?’
‘My sister gave it to me.’
‘And your sister is...’
They thought she had stolen it! They would check with Jane and Jane would be hurt to think that she could even consider selling it. She snatched it back. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind.’ She stuffed it in the pocket of her skirt and fled.
‘Hey, come back.’ The young man set off after her. She ran back the way she had come as fast as her feet would carry her with the young man in pursuit, shouting, ‘Stop, thief!’ Everyone on the pavement stood watching the chase, but no one thought to hinder her.
Her breath was almost spent and her legs feeling weak, when a carriage drew up beside her, the door opened, someone got out and bundled her into it and they were off again. It happened so quickly she did not have time to protest. She turned towards her rescuer, if that was what he was, and found herself face to face with Lord Gorange.
‘Miss Cavenhurst, what happened? Who was that young man? And what are you doing so far from Mount Street on your own?’
Sophie was still trying to get her breath back. ‘I don’t know who he is. I have been to Rundell, Bridge and Rundell. The clasp of my necklace was loose and I wanted to have it repaired before I lost it.’
‘You think that was what he was after?’
‘I expect so,’ she said, grasping at the explanation he offered.
‘But why did you not ask Lady Cartrose for the use of her carriage and someone to escort you?’
‘I did not want to trouble her.’
‘It is fortunate indeed that I was passing.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘I thank you, my lord.’
‘I should never forgive myself if anything happened to you.’ He paused, apparently taking in her dishevelled appearance. ‘My dear, I know you are not used to London ways, but you know, what is permissible in Hadlea is frowned upon in London. You will earn yourself a certain reputation...’
‘I think I already have.’
‘A good marriage would soon set that to rights.’