Late December 1817
Marianne Simmons came to me on a cold December day when I was packing away my old life in order to begin my new.
Tomorrow, I would journey through sparkling frosts and possible snow to Oxfordshire. I would travel via warm, private coach, but no amount of luxury could keep away the winter winds that were decidedly blowing now.
“I need your help, Lacey,” Marianne said without preliminary as she entered my front room.
I did not lift my head from my task. “On the moment? I am rushing off to be married, as you can see.”
“I thought you did not leave until the morrow.”
“I do not, but Bartholomew and I must clear everything from these rooms and have my baggage ready for Lady Breckenridge’s coach in the morning. Her coachman is not the most patient of beings.”
“Good. Then you have this evening to help me.”
I straightened up from where I packed the contents of the drawers of my chest-on-frame. When I’d moved into these rooms three and more years ago, I’d had little in the way of possessions. Things tend to accumulate, however, especially in drawers.
I’d thought to discard or sell some of the objects, but each one I lifted out to transfer to an open crate told its own story. Many, like the snuffboxes from Grenville, had been gifts. Others, such as the small stack of letters written to me by Lady Breckenridge, were dearer still. Memories accumulated as thickly as the objects, and I could not remove the one from the other. Hence, they all went into boxes to be moved to my new abode.
“This evening I must pack,” I said to Marianne. “You would not wish me to be late to the happiest day of my life, would you?”
Marianne plunked herself onto my wing chair. “Well, if it will be the happiest day of your life, then all the others can only be less happy, can’t they? Perhaps you ought to miss it altogether.”
Marianne herself had changed over the few years I’d known her. Tonight she was resplendent in a gray frock topped with a black and silver long-sleeved bodice, a silver-gray spencer, gray leather gloves, and a bonnet trimmed with feathers and gray ruched ribbon. A far cry from the tawdrily dressed, rather desperate young woman who’d let the rooms above mine. Rare was the day Marianne had not come down the stairs to filch my candles, my coal, or my snuff, and anything else she could carry off.
She was now the mistress of Lucius Grenville, one of England’s wealthiest and most fashionable gentlemen, and he believed in turning his ladies out well. The muff she slapped to her lap attested to the cost of Marianne’s ensemble, as did the well-made boots that peeked from under the hem of the gown.
“I fear my good lady would not see it in that light,” I said, returning to my task. “Besides, her mother is going to much trouble for this wedding.”
“To which I am not invited.”
I ended up simply dumping the entire contents of the drawer into the box to sort through later. “No one is invited to the wedding but members of Lady Breckenridge’s family. Her family, that is. Pembrokes, all. The only Breckenridge attending is Donata’s son, Peter, and he with his nanny.”
“Grenville will be there.”
And now we came to the heart of her sour mood. “Grenville is standing up with me,” I said. “I assure you, the rest of the party will be elderly matrons along with gentlemen related to Lady Breckenridge’s mother and father. My family will be represented by my daughter.”
And my heart sang.
I had not seen Gabriella since the summer, when she’d come for a too-brief visit to the country house of Lady Aline Carrington. We’d spent two weeks together, but Gabriella had been shy with me, preferring the company of her chaperones—her stepfather’s brother and wife who’d traveled with her from France. Just as Gabriella had begun to grow more confident with me, her visit had come to an end, and she’d returned home. Her mother, my former wife, had not wanted Gabriella away for long.
This time, however, my friends, abetted by Gabriella’s French uncle and aunt, had convinced the former Mrs. Lacey to allow Gabriella to spend the entire Season in England with me. She’d live with us, after my marriage, in Lady Breckenridge’s Mayfair home. Gabriella had arrived at Dover a few days ago with her chaperones, and Earl Pembroke had dispatched his personal carriage to take them from there straight to Oxfordshire.
Marrying Donata Breckenridge was one reason I hurried to leave dank and cold London, but the thought of seeing my daughter again put wings on my feet.
“The matter is a simple one,” Marianne said, breaking my thoughts. “I am certain you can clear it up in a trice. You generally do.”
Not quite. The last problem I’d cleared up had taken two weeks, and I’d ridden miles, had seen gruesome sights, and been battered and beaten for my pains. I’d also done things, and looked the other way at things done by others, that still made me uncomfortable in the night.
But I knew trying to put Marianne off would never work—she could be persistent to the point of madness. “What matter?” I asked.
“A friend has gone missing,” Marianne said. She stroked the fur of her muff, the short, jerky movements telling me she was more worried than she wanted to reveal. “An actress from the company at Drury Lane. I thought you might look into it for me, since you excel at finding the missing.”
I hated that word—missing. I’d looked for missing women in London before, to tragic end.
Unfortunately, people went missing all the time. Young men were impressed onto the large merchant ships that gathered on the London docks and Isle of Dogs, young women were lured by procuresses into houses of ruin. The elderly wandered away from home and were never found again.
Compassion stirred beneath my haste. “How long has she been gone?”
“Going on for a six-month now.”
I set the drawer down with a thump, some of the anxiety leaving me. “A six-month? And you expect me to find her in the afternoon before I leave for my wedding?”
“Of course not. But I hoped you could make a start. One of her pals told me that Abigail went off in early summer, saying she’d return for the theatre’s season, as per usual. But she’s not been back, and her pal is getting worried. Abigail’s not written, though she was never one for writing letters.”
“A moment. Are you speaking of Mrs. Abigail Collins?”
“That’s the one.”
Abigail Collins was one of the most famous tragic actresses of the stage these days, the next Sarah Siddons, everyone called her. I’d watched, enthralled, as Mrs. Collins transformed herself into her characters, from those in great Shakespearean plays to ones from lesser-known modern melodramas. She blossomed as soon as she walked onstage and held the audience in her power until she left it. She and Mr. Kean, a great tragedian in his own right, between them filled every seat in Drury Lane theatre.
“You know Mrs. Collins well?” I asked.
“Abby?” Marianne studied her muff. “Yes, we’re acquainted. You know everyone when you’re in a theatre company. Better than you wish to, sometimes.”
I sensed something more in the reply than Marianne wanted to say. However, I was familiar with Marianne’s stubbornness and decided not to try to pull the information from her at the moment.
“Perhaps she decided to do more traveling,” I said. “Or is engaged in a series of performances elsewhere.”
Marianne shook her head. “Abby would never leave it so late. The new plays open the day after New Year’s.”
“Perhaps she is with someone then. A lover.”
“Abby? Run off to see a man? Not likely. When she has an affair, known or discreet, she never lets it interfere with her performances. She’d never risk missing an opening night for a lover. Abby’s life is the stage. She’s devoted to it and nothing more.” In Marianne’s tone I heard resignation and exasperation at the same time.
Marianne herself had once had the habit of disappearing from London and returning when she pleased, refusing to answer questions as to where she’d been. Grenville at first had assumed she’d gone off to a lover—spending all the money Grenville gave her on him—and I admit, I had thought the same. The solution to the mystery of Marianne’s disappearances had turned out to be something quite different, however. Perhaps Mrs. Collins had similar secrets.
“Can you come round and talk to Abby’s pal at the theatre?” Marianne asked me.
I opened another drawer. “Let me run off to Oxfordshire for my very important appointment. When we return to London, I will begin some inquiries.”
“Oh, do not bestir yourself. My friend might be in danger, but it is quite all right for you to run off to bask in comfort with your friends. Tell M\him I’ll be busy spending his money on clothing and snuff and who knows what else? I will be sure to find my comfort on my own.”
“Marianne,” I said, trying to hold on to my patience. “I am getting married, not puttering about at a garden party. Grenville has been kind enough to agree to be my groomsman. This is not a slight on you. Have I ever mentioned that you are a bit selfish?”
She did not look contrite. “If you’d had to fend for yourself against the world all your life—not easy for a woman, believe me—you would become a bit selfish too, would you not?”
She had a point. When I’d first met Marianne, she’d had nothing and no one, which was why I’d leave my door unlocked so she could eat my leftover food. She’d never told me where she came from or who her family was. In spite of her working-class idioms, she spoke with a timbre that sounded of the genteel, not one originating in the slums of London.
“Please, Lacey,” she said.
I looked past her prickly demeanor and into her eyes, which held true worry. She was trying to make lighter of this than her fears wanted to.
“Very well,” I said. “We will go.”
Marianne jumped up from the chair. “Excellent. Shall you hire a hackney?”
“It isn’t far. We can walk.”
“You’re rich enough now to never let your boots touch London’s cobbles again, you know.”
I put my boxes aside and limped across the room for my greatcoat, hat, and walking stick. “I enjoy a good tramp. Nothing like being told you’ll never walk well again to give you a passion for it. Besides, the theatre is only steps around the corner.”
“You’ll change your tune once you are married, I vow. It isn’t fashionable to walk anywhere. You never catch him doing it.”
“I catch Grenville walking all the time. Don’t exaggerate.”
Marianne made face at me, but at last she stopped her needling, and we went.
We departed down the stairs and out to Grimpen Lane. The bakeshop beneath my rooms, run by Mrs. Beltan, my landlady, was doing a brisk business as usual. The day was bone cold, which rendered the warm, yeasty smell of the shop enticing.
Grimpen Lane, a narrow cul-de-sac off Russel Street near Covent Garden, was lined with houses in which the respectable but meager dwelled. Our cobbles were always swept, indigents encouraged to move along. Few of us had more than two coins to rub together, but the women who lived here made certain the world knew we were not of the working classes. So few trudged down this street that it was a hollow victory, but the spinsters, housewives, and widows of Grimpen Lane were adamant.
The two ladies who lived in the house across the lane, leaders of the army for respectability, were just departing the bakeshop. The pair of them, Mrs. Carfax and her companion, Miss Winston, glanced askance at Marianne in her finery. They had never approved of Mrs. Beltan letting an actress live above her shop. As for me, Mrs. Carfax was still shy with me, though painfully courteous. She was terrified of all men—though I knew there had at one time been a Mr. Carfax.
“Good evening,” I said to them, tipping my hat. They curtseyed politely, tightly arm in arm, gave Marianne a frosty nod, and walked on.
“Cows,” Marianne said as we moved on to Russel Street. “As though it’s a virtue to be cold and hungry. Let us hold our heads high while we quietly starve to death. Ridiculous way to live.”
I did not bother to answer; it was an old argument. We turned left to Russel Street and walked a short distance to Drury Lane. The doors of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane opened onto Russel Street, but Marianne led me down a narrow passage beside the building, dark now as the walls shut out the weak winter light, and around the theatre to its back.
A notice had been pinned on the dark gray brick next to an unmarked door, announcing that Next Saturday after the New Year, Mr. Kean will perform the Tragedy of Othello, with a melodrama, The Innkeeper’s Daughter. Coming later this spring would be The Bride of Abydos, a tragedy in three acts based on Lord Byron’s poem, promising Choruses of Soldiers, Warriors of an Ancient Tribe, Slaves of the Seraglio, and splendid new scenery prepared for this play, which would include, apparently, a pirate galley and gardens of the harem.
Drury Lane had the patent to produce what was known as “true” plays, meaning spoken drama, anything from Shakespeare to Sheridan. No opera or musicales, but plenty of dramatics, lavish stage sets, and effects. I’d once watched a play here in which a rainstorm had been created on the stage with real water. The rain had thoroughly drenched the actors as well as members of the audience in the first few rows. In another play, a lighter-than-air balloon had taken an actor aloft.
Marianne knocked on the door beside the notice. I was surprised she thought anyone would be inside the theatre in this week between Boxing Day and New Year’s, but she did not seem worried. She knocked again—three short raps—and waited.
After a few moments, the door was opened by a giant of a man. I’d never seen such a huge specimen. My footman turned valet, Bartholomew, and his brother were both large young men, but this man beat them on bulk and me on height. His coat and waistcoat stretched over beefy muscles, the sleeves tight on huge arms that ended in thick-fingered hands.
His face was not ugly, but a bit flat, his nose smaller than such a man should have. His eyes, set proportionally in his large face, were a pale hazel, discernable even in this dim light. His clothes were well-made, sewn for him, at a guess—I could not imagine he’d have an easy time of it finding secondhand clothes to fit him. He gave me a look of grave suspicion but softened when he took in Marianne.
“Miss Simmons,” he said, sounding relieved. “We was expecting you.”
He opened the door wider, almost deferentially, to let Marianne inside. When he looked at me again, all his suspicions returned.
“Where is she, Mr. Coleman?” Marianne asked.
Coleman moved his bulk around Marianne and into the darkened hall. “Doing the mending. I’ll take you in, so she knows it’s you.”
Marianne saw nothing odd in his phrasing, but I was curious. Marianne followed Coleman down a narrow hall, and I came behind, my walking stick quietly tapping the floor.
While the entity that was the Drury Lane theatre had stood on this spot for a very long time, the building we walked through was itself not very old. The previous manifestation of the theatre had burned down in 1809 then risen again in 1812. The new building was modern and fairly comfortable—that is, if you were fortunate enough to afford its luxurious boxes. Behind the stage, the actors had to make do with narrow corridors and small dressing rooms. But it was relatively warm back here, with stoves rather than the old hearths that had put out very little heat.
Coleman stopped in front of a door, knocked firmly, and pushed it open. We entered a large room filled with open wardrobes, trunks, shelves, and tables. All the furniture overflowed with pieces of clothing, but everything was folded neatly, stacked into manageable piles. Someone had made order of the chaos.
A woman sat on a low chair among the clothing, needle in her hands. She was middle-aged and looked a bit like my landlady—plump in body, hair going gray under a cap. She pushed the needle into a bodice she was mending in one smooth movement, fingers graceful as she pulled the thread through. She didn’t look at the fabric or even at us but somewhere in the middle distance.
“Mrs. Wolff,” Coleman said in a loud voice. “They’re here. Miss Simmons and her gent . . . er . . .”
“Captain Lacey,” I said, moving forward and holding out my hand.
Mrs. Wolff didn’t look at us. I understood why when I saw the opaque film over her wide pupils. She wasn’t being rude. She was blind.
“Do you trust him, Miss Simmons?” Mrs. Wolff asked, still stitching. Her head cocked, as though she listened for the answer. Her voice was faintly laced with Cockney, but she spoke as one who’d practiced until she’d taken the back streets out of her speech.
“I do,” Marianne said. “Captain Lacey, may I introduce Mrs. Hannah Wolff?”
I gave a startled exclamation, and Mrs. Wolff chuckled. “They all do that. Yes, my dear, I am Hannah Wolff, the celebrated actress. If you’re old enough, you’ll have seen my Lady Macbeth. If you’re truly old enough, you’ll have seen my Juliet.”
“I saw you as Gertrude,” I said, almost reverently. Hannah Wolff had breathed life into the role, as she had every role, but that night as Gertrude she’d been magnificent. Her performance had all but obscured the other actors on the stage. Hamlet hadn’t been Hamlet’s play that night; it had been hers.
“You’re old enough then,” she said. “I didn’t want Marianne fetching some young officer back from the army with nothing to do. He wouldn’t care.”
“Captain Lacey is not young,” Marianne said. Very flattering—I was a little over forty. “But young enough. He’s lame, but he walks around quite easily. He’s also getting married in the next few days and so is a bit impatient.”
“My felicitations,” Mrs. Wolff said. “But if you’re getting married, you won’t be interested in our problem.”
I was growing a bit tired of people telling me what did and did not interest me. I found a chair that was free of clothing, drew it close to Mrs. Wolff, and sat down, planting my hands on my cane. “I am interested. Forgive me for sitting. The cold makes my leg ache.”
“Mine too,” Hannah said. “Well, then Captain, Marianne must have told you a little about it. Abigail Collins is a dear friend of mine. When I got run down by a dray and two heavy horses and lost my sight some years ago, I wasn’t good for walking around the stage no more. Abby made sure I kept my place in the company, coaching other ladies on their parts. If someone hands me the right pieces of clothing, I can sew them together or help the ladies into them. I am very good at fitting clothes now—the hands can see what the eyes don’t. I became Abigail’s dresser. She has a voice like a cathedral bell. She says a word on a stage, and she’s heard in the back row, with all the emotion dripping from it. The punters love her.”
“I’ve seen her perform,” I said. “I agree, she is astonishing. As you were.”
“Too kind, Captain. But this summer, Abigail up and went, and I ain’t heard a word from her since. She’s not written—Coleman or my sister read all my letters out to me. But they say she’s not sent anything for a long while.”
“Did she stop to say good-bye when she left?”
“She did,” Hannah said. “It were nothing unusual. She was off to the seaside—Brighton—where she goes every summer for her health, then on to Bath for more water. A great one for bathing, is Abby. She always comes back before the season starts, though, to have Christmas with me and my sister and husband and practice her parts for the coming plays. My sister used to act as well, though she gave it up for soft living, and never looked back.” Hannah stopped and sighed. “But this year, Abby never arrived.”
“Perhaps she lingered in Brighton or Bath to do a few plays,” I suggested. The great actors and actresses sometimes spent time with provincial companies, to help them pull an audience, or simply for the enjoyment of it.
“I’d have heard, wouldn’t I?” Hannah said. “She’d have written, or Coleman would have seen notices in the newspapers. Abby doesn’t write many letters, but she’s good about imparting news or telling us she’s delayed.”
Coleman broke in from his place by the door. “Tell him about the box.”
Hannah pushed the needle into the fabric and left it there, her fingers remaining on it. “The box puts a different complexion on it, you see. Terrible thing, it was.”
“A box?” I asked when she paused to shake her head. “Something in a box here at the theatre?”
“No, a parcel,” Marianne broke in. “Delivered straight to Abigail.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Hannah said. “We don’t know. They tell me it came from a reputable London delivery firm.”
“Aye,” Coleman said in his gravelly voice. “Fuller and Hamilton’s. Package done up the same as any. The delivery man was nervous, said the gent what dropped it off was laughing and saying the delivery man should be very, very careful not to shake it.”
Hannah reached out her hand and patted the air, as though trying to comfort Coleman.
“Coleman saved us all, he did,” Hannah said. “He takes the parcel and opens it himself. Inside is a wooden box, very pretty, he says, like from a shop. Coleman, he was in the war, and he sniffs it and says he smells gunpowder. He dropped the box into a tub of water and opened it slowly. Well, what do you think, Captain? The sides were done up so that a spark when the box was opened would ignite packed gunpowder. Coleman said there’d been enough powder and bits inside to blow off poor Abigail’s face.”
“Good Lord,” I said, blinking. I looked at Coleman, who gave me a slow nod. “Thank God for Coleman’s quick thinking.”
“Aye,” Hannah said. “I was glad he was on hand. But Abby was shaken, I can tell you.”
“I do not blame her,” I said. Using gunpowder to fight in war was one thing; delivering a package of it to kill an innocent woman was something else altogether. “Did anyone go round to the delivery company and ask who sent the parcel?”
“I did, sir,” Coleman said. “No one there had seen the man before. They described him as medium height, about the same as any gent, a bit spindly. Dressed well enough, they said, and paid the fee.”
A good description, but it could fit many men in London. I turned back to Hannah.
“Do you know of any other threats or attempts to hurt Mrs. Collins?”
Hannah shook her head. “That was the main one. I know Abby got bad letters, but she never showed them to me or talked about them. I knew because of the way she acted, all brisk and bright, when you could tell she was scared senseless.”
Marianne said, “And that’s why I asked you to look into it, Lacey. Because it’s more than an actress taking some time for herself, isn’t it? We want to know if whoever was trying to kill her succeeded. Surely you can spare us ten minutes for that.”
Hannah was correct—the incident did put a different complexion on the situation.
“Why did you not say so at once?” I asked her. “And why did you not mention this six months ago when it happened?”
Marianne shrugged in her maddening way. “I did not think you’d believe me. I only grew worried when Abby didn’t return and didn’t write, and Hannah asked me to help. You were busy running off to Norfolk, planning your wedding . . . I wanted you to hear the story from Hannah and Coleman before you judged. You have the habit of dismissing what comes out of my mouth.”
I started to disagree then fell silent. She was not wrong. I might have brushed off Marianne’s tale as exaggeration or embellished to gain my interest if I had not heard of the incident from Hannah.
Hannah could not tell us much more, however. The extent of what she knew was Abigail Collins had received letters that upset her and then the frightening package.
But everyone in this room believed Abigail to be in real danger. I’d not have been let into this private sanctum otherwise, I realized.
I wished I could reassure them, but I could not. Obviously Mrs. Collins had an enemy, perhaps more than one. No one decided to send a person a box of gunpowder if they did not mean to cause real harm. A rival actress, perhaps? From stories Marianne had told me, I knew actors could be cruel to one another as they competed for roles or places in a company.
Actresses also sometimes took lovers, and those lovers might be married. Perhaps an angry wife had sought revenge. Or perhaps someone from Mrs. Collins’ past was threatening her. I had not much to go on.
Hannah had drooped a bit after she delivered her last speech. Marianne rose and shot me a look, and I got to my feet. I made Hannah a bow, though I knew she couldn’t see me, and I complimented her again on the roles I’d seen her play.
She dismissed me as a base flatterer before she picked up her mending, but I could tell she was pleased. I did not exaggerate—Hannah Wolff had truly had the gift. The accident that had robbed her of her career was tragic indeed.
“Where do you think Mrs. Collins is, Coleman?” I asked as the man led us back through the hallways to the stage door.
“Don’t know. But I don’t like thinking she ain’t safe.” The large man sent me a worried look. “Miss Simmons says you can find anybody. She right, sir?”
Miss Simmons stood next to me looking innocent. I gave Coleman a nod. “I will certainly try. I do not like the story I’ve heard tonight.”
“Thank you, sir.” Coleman sounded relieved as he opened the door and let us out into the cold. “We’re all so very worried.”
I put on my hat as I stepped out into the dark passage. I was worried myself, and not happy that Marianne had chosen to tell me about Abigail’s disappearance so late in the proceedings. Many things could have happened to her between her leaving in the summer and now.
Coleman seemed ready to be rid of us at the moment. He said a truncated good night and closed the door quickly behind us, shutting out the light and warmth.
“Well?” Marianne asked as she put her hand on my arm as we walked back to Russel Street. The short afternoon had drawn to a close as we’d talked to Hannah, and now the lane was nearly black, a fog seeping up from the river to chill us.
“Well?” I asked in return.
“Will you be leaving for Brighton, or maybe Bath?”
“Neither at the moment,” I said. “I will be going to Oxfordshire, to get married.”
“Your wedding’s not for two days. Surely you can stop off at Bath before you run to your nuptials, and see if Abby’s there.”
I was about to snap that Marianne was sanguine about the time it took to journey around England, but I closed my mouth. She was truly frightened.
“I promise I will do what I can,” I said. “Both before I leave and after I return.”
And I would. Abigail Collins was in danger, no doubt of that. She might have decided she was safer hidden in Brighten or Bath—I hoped with friends she could trust. On the other hand, her enemy might have found her and done something irreversible. That I did not like to contemplate, but I’d seen too much evil in my life to dismiss what Mrs. Collins could face.
“I can begin inquiries at least,” I said. “Discreet ones—I give you my word I won’t put Abigail into any danger if she’s being hunted. I’ll talk to the delivery firm. They might remember something about the sender, though I have little hope of turning up new information. And Grenville must know people in Bath and in Brighton who might be able to help. But I really cannot postpone my trip to Oxfordshire.”
Marianne gave me a dark look. She knew I could not, but she would continue to be displeased about it.
Fog grew thicker by the minute as we walked along Russel Street toward Covent Garden and Grimpen Lane. Marianne shrank to me, not only for warmth but also for protection against pickpockets or robbers who might use the fog for concealment.
I believed someone followed us, but they kept to the shadows, stopping when I turned to look. A predator? Or one of Grenville’s servants, assigned to keep an eye on Marianne. More probably, it was a man or men belonging to James Denis, sent to watch me.
We reached the turnoff to Grimpen Lane without incident. Marianne signaled a landau—Grenville’s—waiting in Russel Street in the direction of Covent Garden. The coachman saw her, nudged the horses forward, and made his way toward us.
“Will you let me know what you’ve found before you rush off to your wedding?” Marianne asked as the coach stopped next to her.
“Of course. Though I doubt I will have a chance to discover much before I leave.”
“As you like.” Marianne accepted my hand to help her inside, and I shut the door for her. She put her head out the open window. “Thank you, Lacey,” she said sincerely.
I stepped back from the landau, the coachman started the team, and the carriage rolled off into the fog. I settled my coat and walked into the dark mouth of Grimpen Lane.
Fingers landed on my arm. I grabbed the wrist the hand was attached to, swung around, and brought up my walking stick.
A soft gasp came out of the fog. I stopped, startled, and stepped back, looking down into the face of a young woman I knew. She looked back up at me, alarm in her dark eyes.
“Felicity,” I said in surprise, releasing her. “Where did you—”
My words were cut off by a heavy blow between my shoulders. Not from Felicity, but from someone behind me, ready to rob me while the lovely Felicity distracted me.
I swung around with my stick, but the darkness and fog made me as blind as Hannah. A cudgel from a second attacker smacked me in the side, in my ribs. I struck out again, this time contacting a body with my stick, drawing forth a grunt.
Another blow landed on my back and then on my injured knee. I cursed as lightning pain lashed through me, and I fell.
“Don’t kill him, for God’s sake,” I heard Felicity say.
Kind of her. I swung my stick again, trained to go on fighting no matter how much I hurt. On the battlefield, fighting meant survival.
On the streets of London, it meant my attackers increased their assault. I took another blow to the ribs and then one to the head. White spots danced before my eyes. I managed to get my sword out of the cane, and I stabbed upward. I heard someone yell, and then another blow to my head made everything darker than the surrounding fog.
I awoke cold, wet, hungry, and very, very angry.
The light in the room was weak, but it stabbed through my eyes when I opened them, increasing the fierce pain in my head. I let out a groan between dry, cracked lips.
A glass landed against my mouth, and fiery liquid trickled inside. Gin. Foul stuff. But at the moment, the only thing that wet my tongue. I swallowed, feeling the gin burn all the way down to my stomach.
“Thank the Lord,” a woman’s voice said. “I thought they’d gone and hit you too hard.”
“Felicity.” At least, I tried to say the word. My tongue blocked my mouth, and very little came out.
“They made me.” She sounded angry. “I didn’t want to do it, Captain, but he said they’d kill you, and me too, if I didn’t bring you along.”
She didn’t enlighten me, or perhaps my words came out an incoherent jumble. The light in the room was feeble, a rush light that did little to illuminate.
I concentrated on staying awake, though the gin engulfed me with waves of sleepiness. I’d seen enough head wounds on the battlefield to know that going to sleep could be deadly dangerous. I reached out, surprised when my hand worked, and managed to touch Felicity.
“Why?” I asked.
Felicity bent over me, her hair hanging down in a straight black swath. “I didn’t ask him.”
She might be lying, and she might not. Felicity was a game girl, but she had intelligence and was a little more observant than the other girls of the streets. She hadn’t picked up the Cockney or other London dialects of her colleagues, speaking with more care and less slang.
From what I understood, Felicity’s mother had been a slave brought here from Jamaica; Felicity’s father English or European. Her mother, freed in England, had become a housemaid, raising Felicity to be the same.
Felicity hadn’t fared well in service. She’d told me the man of the house at her last place had taken plenty of liberties with her, threatening her with dismissal and ruin if she denied him. She’d decided that, if men wanted such things, she might as well make some profit from it, instead of spending her days hiding from her employer. Her dark skin, smooth black hair, and large brown eyes made her sought after on the streets, though of late, she’d taken up with my old sergeant, Pomeroy, now a Bow Street Runner. I did not think Pomeroy would approve of her helping to snatch his former captain away in the fog, however.
“I’m getting married, damn it.”
Felicity leaned closer. “Don’t try to talk. You’re hurting, but it will soon be over.”
With what? My death?
I’d spent the last two years angering dangerous people—easy for me with my hot temper, my stringent views of right and wrong, and my tendency to poke into things that were none of my business. I’d annoyed Bow Street and its magistrates as well as high-placed gentlemen in army regiments, lordships, underworld criminals, the headmaster of a prestigious school, a powerful woman who ran brothels, and various other men about town.
I also now knew many secrets of one very dangerous man, James Denis. Perhaps he’d decided I knew too much about what he’d done in Norfolk.
“Denis,” I said.
Felicity understood the word. “I told them. I told them what would happen if Mr. Denis got word. But they wouldn’t listen.”
Hmm, perhaps not Denis then. Upon reflection, the abduction was all wrong for him. Denis had captured me once before but known I’d get away. I’d come to understand that if Denis wanted me dead, he’d kill me before I realized it had happened.
I found if I took my time and had patience, I could form words that were somewhat discernable. “Who has brought me here?”
The trouble was, time had lost meaning for me. I paused so long between words that minutes went by before I could form the complete sentence.
Felicity didn’t answer. The rush light burned out, the straw of it crumpling into nothing, and I was in darkness.
Much later, after more hunger and thirst, another light made me open my eyes again. This light was made by a tallow candle—I smelled it—and its glare illuminated the eyes, nose, and mouth of a man. Only his eyes, nose, and mouth, a disembodied face in the darkness.
The sight was so terrifying I began to laugh. I could hear Lady Breckenridge’s cool voice, admonishing me for being late to my own wedding—You were waylaid by a bulbous nose, bleary eyes, and slash of mouth? Really, Gabriel, why did you not simply lay him out and climb out the window?
I had no idea who the face belonged to. I did not recognize him from my wanderings about London, or as a friend of my many acquaintances. He was, as far as I knew, a complete stranger.
“Why were you at the theatre?” he asked me.
The question brought the buried laughter to my lips. Two eyebrows joined the rest of the face as they came down over his nose, which made me laugh harder.
A kick to my ribs made me cough, but I couldn’t stop laughing. “Why were you at the theatre?” he repeated.
“Seeing a play,” I managed to gasp out. Why else did one go to the theatre?
“I meant today. Drury Lane. Through the back. No performances tonight.”
With effort I drew a breath and forced my laughter to quiet. I raised a weak hand and beckoned him closer, coughing a little, which wasn’t feigned. My mouth was dry, and the kick to my ribs had radiated pain.
The man bent down. Now I could see wiry side-whiskers growing on his cheeks, shaved off before they reached his upper lip.
I opened my mouth and shouted as hard as I could, “None of your business.”
The answer got me a blow across the face. The man swung on Felicity. “Get it out of him. Any way you can.”
He walked away. The glow of the candle illuminated a compact figure, the man not tall. Strong, though. My face and side ached.
He disappeared, taking the candle with him. While I lay still, trying to quiet the waves of pain, I assessed what I’d learned of the man in the short moments. His speech and accent put him as middle-class or even a gentleman, not a ruffian from the gutter. I hadn’t seen his clothes, but he’d smelled of soap and clean wool. His side-whiskers had been carefully trimmed, as had been his thinning hair.
I still had no idea who he was or why he was interested in me or Drury Lane theatre. Had I just met the man who’d put together the incendiary device meant to kill Abigail Collins?
Felicity rummaged in the darkness, struck a spark, and lit another rush light.
I hated rush lights. The smell of them reminded me of my miser of a father who’d refused to pay the tax on either wax or tallow candles. Not that he wouldn’t turn about and spend a fortune on his mistresses or gaming, but the rest of the family lived under the sputtering gloom of rush lights. Good lighting and his family had not been as important to my father as women or cards.
Felicity sat down on the cot with me and smoothed her hand over my chest. The gesture, as light as it was, hurt. I’d likely broken a rib.
“Tell me,” I said to her.
“Well, I don’t really know, do I?” Felicity settled in beside me as though she were a lady come to take tea. “He thought you fancied me and would come when I beckoned. I told him he was wrong about that, but he doesn’t like to listen.”
“Why is he interested in the theatre?”
Felicity opened her brown eyes wide. She was a striking woman, the bone structure in her face and the color of her skin displaying both her African and European ancestry. “I told you, I don’t know. He snatched me too.”
“You were walking about freely on the street,” I said, anger allowing my words to flow past the pain. “I struggle to believe you’d be obedient to a man you didn’t know.”
“I obey him because I’m trying to avoid chains,” Felicity said. “If I don’t help him, he said he’ll sell me onto the first ship to Jamaica. Not why would I want to go there? After all the trouble my mum took to get away from there in the first place?”
She spoke lightly, but I read fear in her eyes. Laws now prevented the slave trade in England, but the unscrupulous still sold human beings onto ships that would take them to the Indies or Americas, where slavery was still legal, and slaves were in abundance. Felicity would be bought and sold like chattel, and I did not need to be very imaginative to understand what she’d be bought for. She sold her own body on the London streets, true, but that was her choice, and she collected and kept the money. She was owned by no one.
If Felicity disappeared into slavery, her life would be impossibly harsh, and likely short. She was intelligent and wily, so perhaps she could convince an owner to treat her better, but the odds were not good. In the end, she would have no rights, no redress, nothing to prevent her captors using her as they wished and disposing of her when they were finished.
My voice was still weak, but my convictions were strong. “I won’t let that happen, Felicity. Never.”
Instead of falling into a swoon and declaring me her savior, Felicity laughed in true mirth. “Fine words from a man tied to a pallet. You couldn’t run a step.”
“Fetch me my swordstick, and we’ll see.”
“Can’t. Left it in the street.”
“In the street?” I half rose, anguished. The walking stick with the sword inside it had been a gift from my lady, bought to replace another stick I’d lost in dire circumstances. The new walking stick had a gold head, engraved. Captain G. Lacey. 1817.
I treasured it. The stick would be long gone by now, stolen by the denizens of Covent Garden.
“I left it there,” Felicity repeated, winking at me. “Where it might be found by a friend.”
“Where it might be picked up and sold at the nearest pawnbrokers.”
Felicity shrugged. “That’s a risk.”
“You’re sounding better. Want more gin?”
“No.” I did not feel better—my head pounded, my ribs ached, and my leg hurt like fire. “If you help me, Felicity, I’ll make sure you’re all right.”
She cocked her head and regarded me with intelligent eyes. “Gentlemen have made me such promises before. Men richer and stronger than you. They always lie. Or at least, they forget all about it when the time comes that I need their help.”
“Because those gentlemen aren’t me.” I reached for her again and gripped her hand. “I will keep you safe. I would whether you helped me now or not. I give you my word.”
Felicity paused, but I knew her hesitation did not mean she debated whether to trust me. Trust had been burned out of her long ago. She would decide, but not because of any pretty promises from me.
I drifted away on pain and the dregs of the gin for a moment, and when the moment passed, I found Felicity’s soft body on top of mine, she busily kissing my lips.
I couldn’t struggle as she swept her tongue inside my mouth. I could not have tasted very good, and I didn’t respond, both from choice and because I could barely move. Felicity kissed me thoroughly, and she was quite good at it. If I were not anxious to wed another or lying in a wash of pain, I might take her offer. As it was, I rested my hand by my side and waited until she finished and sat up.
I did not ask for help again; I lay quietly and let her decide. Felicity studied me as she traced my lips with her fingertips.
“You’ll take me somewhere this Perry bloke won’t find me?”
“Is that his name? Perry?”
Felicity lifted her fingers away. “What’s your answer?”
“You’re marrying a rich lady. You can give me plenty of money, can’t you?”
I could not answer to what Lady Breckenridge might agree to pay for my safe return, so I had to shrug—a movement that hurt. “I will do what I can.”
Felicity didn’t think much of my answer. “When you marry, her money goes to you. That’s English law. Then you can do with it what you want.”
“Not if the money is in trust. The estate and its wealth go to her son. My wife has only a jointure and whatever her parents put into trust for her. Money under English law can be complicated.”
“Then why are you marrying her?”
I tried a smile. “I like her.”
Felicity gave me a pitying look. “That’s no reason to marry a woman. You marry for money. If you like a woman, you take her as your lover.”
I knew I was a bit unfashionable in my desire to marry Donata simply because I esteemed her. I’d married for passion the first time as well. This time, I hoped I was a little older and wiser in my choice, but I admit, it was still passion that drove me.
“If you can’t give me money, what else can you offer?” Felicity asked. “A night with you?”
“Not that either. I am about to troth myself to another.”
“So, you can give me neither money nor your attentions. You ask me to help you, and in return, I receive only your promise that Perry won’t sell me off. That’s it? That’s your bargain?”
“I am afraid so.”
Felicity leaned down and kissed me again, her lips warm and soft. She must have dazzled her clientele, and she must dazzle poor Pomeroy.
“All right then,” she said.Return to A Disappearance in Drury Lane