In which a dramatic reading commences, and Our Heroine receives an unexpected summons.
I must begin with a frank confession. I became Lady Francesca Wallingham only after I met the man calling himself Tinderflint. This was after my betrothal, but before my uncle threw me into the street and barred the door.
Before these events, I was simply Margaret Preston Fitzroy, known mostly as Peggy, and I began that morning as I did most others—at breakfast with Cousin Olivia, reading the newspapers we had bribed the housemaid to smuggle out of uncle’s book room.
“Is there any agony this morning?” asked my cousin as she spread her napkin over her flowered muslin skirt.
I scanned the tidy columns of type in front of me. Uncle Pierpont favored the Morning Gazetteer for its tables of shipping information, but there were other advertisements there as well. these were the “agony columns,” cries from the heart that some people thought best to print directly in the paper, where the object of their desire, and everybody else, would be sure to get a look at them.
“‘To Miss X from Mr. C,’” I read. “‘The letter is burnt. I beg you may return without delay.’”
“A Jacobite spy for certain,” said Olivia. “What else?” “How’s this? ‘Should any young gentleman, sound of limb, in search of employment present himself at the warehouse of Lewis & Bowery in Sherwood Street, he will meet a situation providing excellent remuneration.’”
“Oh, fie, Peggy. How dull.” My cousin twitched the paper out of my hands and smoothed it over her portion of the table.
As I know readers must be naturally curious about the particulars of the heroine in any adventure, I will here set mine down. I was at this time sixteen years of age, and in what is most quaintly called “an orphaned state.” In my case, this meant my mother was dead and no one knew where my father might be found. I possessed dark hair too coarse for fashion, pale skin too prone to freckle in the sun, and dark eyes too easily regarded as “sly,” all coupled with a manner of speaking that was too loud and too frank. These fine qualities and others like them resulted in my being informed on a daily basis that I was both a nuisance and a disappointment.
Because I was also a girl without a farthing to call my own, I had to endure these bulletins. As a result, I was kept at Uncle Pierpont’s house like a bad-tempered horse is kept in a good stable. That is, grudgingly on my uncle’s part and with a strong urge to kick on mine.
“Perhaps it’s a trap.” I poured coffee into Olivia’s cup and helped myself to another slice of toast from the rack. I will say, the food was a point in favor of my uncle’s house. He was very much of the opinion that a true gentleman kept a good board. That morning we had porridge with cream, toast with rough-cut marmalade, kippered herrings, and enough bacon to feed a regiment. Which was good, because that regiment, in the form of all six of Olivia’s plump and over-groomed dogs, milled about our ankles making sounds as if they were about to drop dead of starvation. “Perhaps the young man who answers the advertisement will be tied in a sack and handed to the press gangs.”
“There’s a thought. They might be slavers and mean to sell him to the Turks. The Turks are said to favor strong young English men.”
It is a tribute to Olivia’s steadfast friendship that my urge to kick never extended to her. My cousin was one of nature’s golden girls, somehow managing to be both slim and curved, even before she put on her stays. She possessed hair of an entirely acceptable shade of gold and translucent skin that flushed pink only at appropriate points. As if these were not blessings enough, she had her father’s fortune to dower her and a pair of large blue eyes designed solely to drive gallant youths out of their wits. Those same gallants, however, might have been surprised to see Olivia leap to her feet and brandish an invisible sword.
“Back, you parcel of Turkish rogues!” she cried, which caused the entire dog flock to yip and run about her hems, looking for something very small they could savage for their mistress’s sake. “I am a stout son of England! You will never take me living!”
“Hurray!” I applauded.
Olivia bowed. “Of course, our Hero kills the nearest ruffian to make his escape, the rest of the gang pursues him, and he is forced to flee London for the countryside—”
“Where he is found dying of fever in a ditch by the fair daughter of Lord . . . Lord . . .”
“Lord Applepuss, Duke of Stemhempfordshire.” Olivia scooped up the stoutest of her dogs and turned him over in her arm so she could smooth his fluff back from his face and gaze adoringly down at him. “Lady Hannah Applepuss falls instantly in love and hides our Hero in a disused hunting lodge to nurse him back to health. But Lord Applepuss is a secret supporter of the Pretender, and he means to marry his daughter off to a vile Spanish noble in return for money for another uprising—”
“and as she is forced onto a ship to sail for Spain, he steals aboard for a daring rescue?”One of the dogs decided to test out its savaging skills on my slipper. I gave it a firm hint that this was a bad idea with the toe of that selfsame slipper. It yipped and retreated. “Can there be pirates?”
“Of course there are pirates.” Olivia nipped some bacon off her plate with her fingers. “What do you take me for?” She turned to the dogs and held the bacon up high so that they all stood neatly on their hind legs, and all whined in an amazing display of puppy harmony.
“You really should write a play, Olivia,” I said, addressing myself once more to my toast, coffee, and kippers. “You’re better at drama than half the actors in Drury Lane.”
“Oh, yes, and wouldn’t my parents love that? Mother already harangues me for overmuch reading. ‘A book won’t teach you how to produce good sons, Olivia.’”
“That just shows she hasn’t read the right books.” Olivia clapped her hand over her laugh. “You outrageous thing! Well, perhaps I shall write a play. Then—”
But I never was to know what she would do then. For at that moment, the door opened, and to our utter shock and surprise, Olivia’s mother entered.
My Aunt Pierpont declared she could not bear the smell of food before one of the clock, so she daily kept to her boudoir until that time. My throat tightened at the sight of her, and my mind hastily ran down a list of all my recent activities, wondering which could have gotten me into trouble this time.
My cousin, naturally, remained unperturbed. “Good morning, Mother. How delightful of you to join us.” Olivia possessed admirably tidy habits when it came to other people’s property and forbidden literature. She folded the paper so its title could not be seen. “Shall I pour you so...