Adam made another attempt to break free from his bonds, but it seemed that the gamekeepers who had secured him had been old hands; the ropes did not so much as budge. He leaned back against the tree trunk, looked up at the cloudy sky, and tried to think of some glimmer of comfort. Sadly, he could not; it seemed all too probable that the villainous Sir Wilfred Banks and the doubtless misguided Lady Helen would put their foul plan into effect without interruption from him.
It was a woman's voice, not one that he recognised. He looked around, wondering if it had been directed at him.
"Are you OK?" the voice asked.
"I am uninjured," Adam replied, keeping his voice low. "But bound hand and foot to this tree."
"What's up?" another woman's voice called, a little further away. "Is it one of the keepers?"
There was a certain amount of rustling and nonverbal sounds expressive of struggle, and a dark-skinned girl appeared from a nearby bush. As far as Adam could see through the leaves, her costume was far from ladylike; though he conceded that for crawling around in an overgrown wood, there was something to be said for the practicality of her football shirt and jeans.
"No," she replied. By the sound of things, she was trying to make her voice carry to wherever her friend was, but no further. "It's some bloke tied to a tree." She clambered out of the bush, shook a few leaves out of her hair, and addressed Adam. "What happened?"
"I was attempting to investigate reports that Sir Wilfred and Lady Banks were engaged in certain activities that I would not dare to describe to a young woman of your tender years," Adam began, but was interrupted by the girl's most unladylike snort of laughter.
"Three guesses," she said. "Sex, drugs or rock'n'roll. That's what they say in this time, isn't it?"
Adam reflected that, knowing Georgina, he should have expected no less from this girl. "Your second arrow is nearest to the mark. Lady Helen became aware of my activities, and, no doubt acting under the influence of her husband, ordered me to be tied to this tree. After a suitable interval, I believe the hounds are to be released."
"Right." The woman cautiously advanced on Adam, and began to work on the rope around his arms. "As long as you're not on their side."
"I assure you that I am not, Miss...?"
"Potts. Just call me Bill."
"Adam Adamant, at your service. Might I enquire how you come to be here?"
"Long story." Bill paused, struggling with a recalcitrant knot. "Or do you mean how did we get into the plantation?"
"I would be equally interested to hear the answer to that question. As I recall, the wall is—"
Adam broke off as another person emerged from the foliage, one wearing a black, badge-covered jacket, a short skirt, striped leggings, and what looked to Adam like workmen's boots.
"Who's this?" the newcomer said. Adam recognised her voice as the one that had been calling to Bill earlier.
"He's called Adam," Bill said. "Says he was looking into the Banks and they caught him and tied him up here."
"How d'you let that happen, then?" the girl asked, turning her gaze on Adam.
Adam coughed. "I fear I was sadly deceived in the character of Lady Helen."
"Yeah, easy mistake to make." A wistful expression flitted across the girl's face. "So can you get us into the Hall?"
"I beg your pardon?"
The girl tossed her head impatiently. "Whatever they're doing, they're doing it in the Hall, right? So we need to get in there and find out what it is. Haven't you got those ropes undone yet, Pelican?"
"These knots aren't budging," Bill said.
"Out the way then, I've got a knife." She disappeared from view behind Adam; a few moments later, the ropes slackened and Adam took a grateful step away from the tree trunk.
"Right." Bill and her partner emerged from the bushes, the severed remains of the ropes in their hands. "Next stop the Hall."
Adam shook his head firmly. "On no account should you place yourselves in a position of such danger. If the hounds have not already been released, they could be at any moment."
Bill's friend did not seem to find the prospect threatening. "Hounds are easy," she said. "My mate Ange taught me all the tricks. Just give them a squirt of pepper spray." She dug in her backpack and triumphantly brandished a spraycan.
"Ace," Bill said, with the air of somebody raising a point of order at a rowdy meeting, "are you sure that's pepper spray and not nitro?"
Ace — assuming that was her name — gave the can a closer look. "Suppose it could be."
"You'd better check. If it's nitro we might need it."
"It'd give the hounds something to think about too," Ace said, shoving the can into her backpack. "Anyway, I'm going to the house, and so's Bill, and if you don't like that you can bog off back to 1843."
"To be precise, nineteen hundred and two," Adam said. "But if you are set on storming the citadel, I shall accompany you."
"Look, we don't need protecting," Ace said. "So stop going on about it."
Adam looked at the set of her jaw and decided argument was futile. "That would not be my only reason for returning to the house." It was, after all, a near-certainty that by now Miss Jones would have arrived on the scene, inveigled herself onto the staff of the house, and placed herself in need of urgent rescue. But his new acquaintances, he judged, would not be sympathetic to that line of argument either.
"The blackguards still have my second-best hat," he said out loud. "It would be remiss of me to leave it in their hands."
The pair looked at him as if they weren't sure whether he was joking.
"Suit yourself," Ace eventually said, and plunged into the bushes.
Bill, looking after her, sighed. "I think I'm in love." Something in Adam's expression seemed to have stung her. "I'm into girls," she added defiantly. "Have you got a problem with that?"
"Miss Potts, you may consider me — with some justice — to be a historical throwback, but rest assured that romantic friendships were, if anything, far more common in my day than they appear to be now."
A little way away, Ace's head and arm emerged from the undergrowth, the latter beckoning them on. Adam turned and disappeared into the bushes in pursuit.
"'Romantic friendship,'" Bill repeated. "Never heard it called that before."