This story is a blast! So much humor, endless adventure, and we could barely put it down (even though we both knew exactly what happened). As usual in my Heyer reviews, I find she can speak for herself better than I can on her behalf, and so I will quote the scene in which Eustacie unfolds her situation before Miss Thane, when they first meet, as if not only establishes the plot and the characters' traits, but also beautifully sets the tone of the novel. It is lengthy, but very worth reading, as is the entire novel. I consider it one of Heyer's best.
Ten minutes later Eustacie was ensconced in a chair by the fire in Miss Thane's bedchamber, gratefully sipping a cup of hot milk. Miss Thane sat down beside her, and said with her friendly smile: "I hope you mean to tell me all about it, for I'm dying of curiosity, and I don't even know your name."And on that note, I say goodbye, at least temporarily, to Georgette Heyer. If I didn't consider it blasphemous, I would perhaps admit that a return to Miss Austen sounds almost dull after the antics with which I have recently been regaling myself, but such notions are, of course, inadmissible.
Eustacie considered her for a moment. "Well, I think I will tell you," she decided. "I am Eustacie de Vauban, and my cousin Ludovic is Lord Lavenham of Lavenham Court. He is the tenth Baron."
Miss Thane shook her head. "It just shows how easily one may be mistaken," she said. "I thought he was a smuggler."
"He prefers," said Eustacie, with dignity, "that one should call him a free-trader."
"I'm sorry," apologized Miss Thane. "Of course, it is a much better title. I should have known. What made him take to s- free trading? It seems a trifle unusual."
"I see that I must explain to you the talisman ring," said Eustacie, and drew a deep breath.
Miss Thane, a sympathetic listener, followed the story of the talisman ring with keen interest, only interpolating a question when the tale became too involved to be intelligible. She accepted Ludovic's innocence without the smallest hesitation, and said at the end of the recital that nothing would give her greater pleasure than to assist in unmasking the real culprit.
"Yes," said Eustacie, "and me, I think that it was perhaps my cousin Tristram, for he has a collection of jewellery, and, besides, he is a person who might murder people - except that he is not at all romantic," she added.
"He sounds very disagreeable," said Miss Thane.
"He is - very! And, do you know, I have suddenly thought that perhaps I had better marry him, because then he would have to show me his collection, and if I found the talisman ring it would make everything right for Ludovic."
Miss Thane bent down to poke the fire. She said with a slight tremor in her voice: "But then if you did not find the ring it would be tiresome to have married him all to no purpose. And one has to consider that he might not wish to marry you."
"Oh, but he does!" said Eustacie. "In fact, we are betrothed. That is why I ran away. He has no conversation. Moreover, he said that if I went to London, I should not find myself in any way remarkable."
"He was wrong," said Miss Thane with conviction.
"Yes, I think he was wrong, but you see he is not sympathique, and he does not like w9omen."
Miss Thane blinked at her. "Are you sure?" she said. "I mean, if he wants to marry you -"
"But he does not want to marry me! It is just that he must have an heir, and because Grandpere made for us a mariage de convenance. Only Grandpere is dead now, and I am not going to marry a person who says he would not care if I went to the guillotine in a tumbril!"
"Did he really say that?" inquired Miss Thane. "He must be a positive Monster!"
"Well, no, he did not say exactly that," admitted Eustacie. "But when I asked him if he would not be sorry to see me, a jeune fille, in a tumbril, and dressed all in white, he said he would be sorry for anyone in a tumbril, 'whatever their age or - or apparel'!"
"You need say no more; I can see that he is a person of no sensibility," said Miss Thane. "I am not surprised that you ran away from him to join your cousin Ludovic."
"Oh, I didn't!" replied Eustacie. "I mean, I never knew I was going to meet Ludovic. I ran away to become a governess."
"Forgive me," said Miss Thane, "but have you then just met your cousin Ludovic by chance, and for the first time?"
"But yes, I have told you! And he said I should not do for a governess." She sighed. "I wish I could think of something to be which is exciting! If only I were a man!"
"Yes," agreed Miss Thane. "I feel very strongly that you should have been a man and gone smuggling with your cousin."
Eustacie threw her a glowing look. "This is just what I should have liked! But Ludovic says they never take females with them."
"How wretchedly selfish!" said Miss Thane in accents of disgust.
"Yes, but I think it is not perhaps exactly Ludovic's fault, for he said he liked to have me with him. But the others did not like it at all, in particular Ned, who wanted to hit me on the head."
"Is Ned a s- free-trader too?"
"Yes, and Abel. But they are not precisely free-traders, but only land-smugglers, which is, I think, a thing inferior."
"It sounds quite inferior," said Miss Thane. "Did you meet your cousin Ludovic, and Ned, and Abel on your way here?"
"Yes, and when he seized me of course I thought Ludovic was the Headless Horseman!"
Miss Thane was regarding her as one entranced. "Of course!" she echoed. "I suppose you were expecting to meet a headless horseman?"
"Well," replied Eustacie judicially, "my maid told me that he rides the Forest, and that one finds him up on the crupper behind one, but my cousin Tristram said that it was only a legend."
"The more I hear about your cousin Tristram," said Miss Thane, "the more I am convinced he is not the husband for you."
"No, and what is more he is thirty-one years old, and he does not frequent gaming-hells or cock-pits, and when I asked him if he would ride ventre a terre to come to my death-bed, he said 'Certainly not'!"
"This is more shocking than all the rest!" declared Miss Thane. "He must be quite heartless!"
"Yes," said Eustacie bitterly. "He says I am not in the least likely to die."
"A man like that," pronounced Miss Thane, "would be bound to say the Headless Horseman was only a legend."
"That it what I thought, but my cousin Ludovic was not after all the Headless Horseman, and I must admit that I have not yet seen him - or the Dragon which was once in the Forest."
"Realyy, you have had a very dull ride when one comes to think of it."
"Yes, until I met my cousin Ludovic, and after that it was not dull, because when he discovered who I was Ludovic said I must go with him, and I helped to lead the Exciseman into the Forest. He mounted behind me on Rufus, you see. That was when I lost the other bandbox."
"Oh, you had a bandbox?"
"But yes, I had two, for one must be practical, you understand. But one I dropped just before I met Ludovic, and I forgot about that one. We threw the other away."
Miss Thane bent over the fire again rather hastily. "I expect it was the right thing to do," she said in an unsteady voice."
"Well, it was in the way," explained Eustacie. "But I must say it now becomes awkward a little because all my things were in it."
"Don't let a miserable circumstance like that worry you!" said Miss Thane. "I will lend you a nightdress, and to-morrow we will decide whether to go and look for the bandboxes ( though I feel that it would be a spiritless thing to do) or whether to break into your home at the dead of night and steal some more clothes for you."