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The April sun streaming through the window into the little second-floor sitting room of the house on Arlington Street cast copper glints into the demurely dressed hair of Miss Louisa Penhope. An acute observer would have noted that Miss Penhope's muslin gown was not quite of the latest fashion and designed for a long life of moderate use.
Miss Penhope, already twenty-four, considered herself beyond the marriage age and therefore did not hold with the fripperies that many younger maidens affected. She was, however, by no means a bluestocking.
Though at the present moment the sunshine had escaped her notice and her clear gray eyes were screwed up in a perplexed frown, those same eyes could, and did, dance merrily with laughter.
Perhaps this was fortunate, for Louisa Penhope was the sole support of two lovable but eccentric aunts and a younger brother and sister, to say nothing of the servants whose presence in the house on Arlington Street was absolutely necessary to the peace of mind of everyone but Louisa herself.
It was this circumstance that wrinkled Louisa's forehead and caused her to chew reflectively on one knuckle. "It is not going well," she said to herself, surveying the pages of neat writing that lay strewn on the desk before her. "Something is missing."
Biting her lower lip, Louisa reread the last sheet.
Reginald Haversham cast a worried look around him. Where in these lowering ruins that breathed their diabolic miasma into the night air, where was his beautiful Bernice held captive?
In exasperation Louisa threw down her pen and rose to pace the floor. It just would not do. Mr. Grimstead, sitting behind his cluttered desk at MinervaPress, would shake his graying head and say, "You got to get more terror in it, miss. We got to give the readers what they want. They want terror. And they expect it from you--from Lady Incognita."
With another sigh, Louisa stuffed the offending pages back in the drawer of her writing desk and turned the key. She simply could not work anymore at the moment.
Impatiently she moved to the window that looked down into the court behind the house. Ginger, the mother cat, lay purring in the sunshine while beside her six kittens frisked and gamboled. Momentarily diverted, Louisa chuckled. Aunt Caroline's cats were amusing. But then the chuckle faded. Those adorable kittens, as Betsy would call them, required food, just like Betsy and Harry, Aunts Julia and Caroline, Miss Winkstead the governess, Culver the cook, Naomi the maid, and Drimble the butler. All these required food and clothing and so many little things that ate away constantly at her small reserves.
Rubbing tiredly at her temple, Louisa forced herself to look on the bright side. At least they had her writing income. Where would they be--all of them--if she hadn't stumbled on the satire that fateful day in Papa's library?
Louisa's memory took her back to that day five years ago when as a frightened orphan of nineteen she had been left with a ten-year-old sister and a five-year-old brother, left with not enough to live on and no knowledge of how to increase it.
Surely the hand of providence had been working when she had stumbled upon "The Age: A Poem: Moral, Political, and Metaphysical." In her dazed condition the satirical implications scarcely seemed to register. What she appeared to have, given into her hand by an act of the Almighty, was a way out of her difficulty. For there, right on the page, were written the words--
From any romance to make a novel--
The rules so facetiously set down by the unknown writer, Louisa had stringently followed. Fortunately her acquaintance with the lending library which her Mama had used to patronize had made her rather familiar with the romance of terror. And, the subscription being still in force, Louisa had borrowed more to study.
When finally, with screwed up courage and trembling knees, she made her way to the offices of Mr. Lane, Minerva Press, at 33 Leadenhall Street, she could barely manage to speak. But Mr. Grimstead, a rotund, little, everyday kind of man, entirely out of place in a world of ghosts, rattling chains, and ruined castles, had smiled at her kindly and listened to her patiently.
"Well, young lady," he said, reaching for the parcel under her arm, as though young women regularly appeared in his office laden with manuscripts, "the best thing to do is to read the book. You leave me your direction and I'll let you know."
"Th--thank you, sir," she stammered. "Oh, sir. Please, sir, my family mustn't know. It would be too ... too embarrassing."
Mr. Grimstead continued to smile. 'I quite understand, Miss Penhope. And if it proves that you can write, why we'll just put another name to them. Now you get along home. And don't you be upsetting yourself. I'll have an answer for you soon."
"Thank you, sir."
Three terrible days had Louisa spent, in suspended agony, she thought, a wry smile twisting her mouth at her involuntary use of such an inflated phrase. The wait had been agonizing, though, for their whole future hung in the balance.
And then a note had appeared from Mr. Grimstead. Reading it in the privacy of her room, Louisa had fallen weakly into a chair. Mr. Grimstead liked the book, and so did Mr. Newman, the new owner of Minerva Press. They were going to offer seventy-five pounds for The Dark Stranger and they would pay as much for subsequent romances.
And so had begun Louisa's career as an author. Romance after romance flowed from her pen. And somehow, though at times it was difficult, she managed to keep the family going, including Aunt Caroline, who had joined them just a month after Louisa began writing. Aunt Caroline's husband, Colonel Pickering, had just departed this world. And with Aunt Caroline had come thirteen cats. Louisa did not care to consider how many cats now called the house at Arlington Street their home.
Just a few months later Aunt Julia, Aunt Caroline's sister, had come to them. Aunt Julia, whose suspicion of the male half of creation extended to Aunt Caroline's toms, was a bluestocking whose raison d'etre was the new science of phrenology.
Obsessed as she was with the bumps on a person's head and the knowledge those same bumps were capable of imparting, she would even sometimes consent to feel a male skull.
Louisa smiled. With such aunts it was fortunate that Betsy, now fifteen, and Harry, now ten, were healthy, reasonable children. A little spoiled, perhaps, because she herself had been too busy writing to see to them properly.
Winky, as Miss Winkstead was familiarly called by her charges, was a devoted governess, though perhaps a little lenient. But then again, thought Louisa, no harm had been done to the children.
In a few years Betsy would be ready to come out. Louisa twisted her handkerchief somewhat nervously between her fingers. She must finish this romance--get Reginald and his Bernice through all the torments and wickedness and once more in each other's arms. If she did not, the future she was thinking of would not materialize.
It was fortunate that the public had taken so well to Lady Incognita's romances. The ton, so she had heard from several of Aunt Caroline's friends, was all agog to learn who the lady really was. This, however, Louisa hoped devoutly, would never come to pass.
Straightening her shoulders determinedly, she returned to the writing desk and unlocked the drawer. It was difficult keeping everything locked up this way but it was for the best. Aunt Caroline, perhaps, would not care that her niece was that terrible Lady Incognita; Aunt Caroline had a loving heart. Betsy and Harry might be excessively pleased to claim Lady Incognita as a sister. But Aunt Julia would be deeply shocked at the portrayal of the males who made their dashing way through Lady Incognita's romances.
Of course, Louisa had not wanted to put her own name to the books. That would mean the end of respectability among the ton. In spite of the efforts of several of Aunt Caroline's old friends to persuade her, she had little to do with the most fashionable elite. Not yet. But she did not want to lose her respectability. For when Betsy came out, a respectable background would be a necessity.
Betsy would make the proper marriage that had been denied her, Louisa thought, taking up a fresh pen with a sigh. She had been so busy providing for them all--and the years had passed so quickly.
Now she was beyond the marriageable age and, though she appreciated the freedom of movement that her advanced years gave her, sometimes she was afflicted with a terrible yearning, for exactly what, she wasn't sure.
This yearning, she had finally come to realize, attacked her most heartily when she was busy bringing together her harassed hero and heroine. It was then that something indefinable within her insisted that she, too, should be provided with a hero. And this she told herself, in the face of what she firmly believed, that no heroes actually existed!
It was just such an attack, Louisa felt, that was keeping her from accomplishing the customary number of daily pages. Heroes, she told herself, with a shake of her chestnut head, were only creatures of one's imagination. Nowhere did such dark, dashing, courageous, incomparable men exist. She knew that quite well. And yet, irrationally, her foolish heart kept insisting that she wanted such an unattainable figure. A figment of her own imagination!
With another sigh Louisa returned to the present problem of Reginald. How in the deserted ruins of this eerie abbey was he to recover his beloved Bernice, held prisoner by the wicked monk?
Part of her problem, Louisa realized some time later, was with the abbey. She had down Reginald, the tall, dark courageous hero who would follow his Bernice anywhere in the face of the most horrendous evil. And Bernice, whose chestnut hair and gray eyes were very like Louisa's own, certainly was a living character complete with tear-filled eyes, heartfelt sighs, and palpitating pulses. Even the villainous monk, Columbo, with his squat, dwarfish figure and his beady black eyes that gleamed evilly as he locked the tormented Bernice in the damp old cellar under the deserted abbey, even he seemed a living evil.
But the abbey would not take life. How, she asked herself with a rueful smile, could she describe a gloomy and sinister ruin, exuding the very breath of evil, if she had never seen one? The ruined abbeys that she had seen had seemed quiet peaceful spots, their time-worn stones covered with moss and it was difficult enough to conjure up nights as black as the inside of a cloak and a villain whose heart held absolutely no compassion when the sun was shining cheerfully through the window and the happy voices of the children at play with the kittens drifted up to her through the open window.
With a determined frown she searched under the stack of papers and pulled out the copy she had made so long ago.
From any romance to make a novel. Where you find:
A castle put A house.
A cavern put A bower.
A groan put A sigh.
A giant put A father.
A blood-stained dagger put A fan.
Howling blasts Zephers.
A knight A gentleman without whiskers.
A lady who is the heroine Need not be changed, being versatile.
Assassins Killing glances.
A monk An old steward.
Skeletons, skulls, &c. Compliments and sentiments, &c.
A magic book sprinkled with blood. A letter bedewed with tears.
Mysterious voices Abtruse words.
A secret oath A tender hint accompanied with naiveté.
A gliding ghost A usurer or an attorney
A witch An old housekeeper.
A wound A kiss.
A midnight murder A marriage.
The same table of course answers for transmuting a novel into a romance.
Louisa's eyes glided over the familiar page. She had the monk and the ghost. Perhaps it was time to think of assassins or a wound or skeletons and skulls. She picked up the pen.
Reginald, though a brave man, found his courage wavering. The darkness of the night lay like a funereal pall over his quivering senses. The very air seemed threatening, heavy and difficult to breathe, as though it too imbibed the evilness of this satanic ruin and wished to poison him. Tangled vines and bushes grabbed at his clothing as he moved slowly along, feeling his way by the damp ivy-covered stones of a low wall. The creepers that entangled his feet and legs were surely only creepers, not the minions of that satanic monk who lusted after the innocent Bernice. Or so at least Reginald told himself firmly. But the sweat stood out on his brow and the hands that touched the rough stones were also wet.
An eerie silence prevailed, as though no living creature dared venture into this diabolical region. The spirits of the damned seemed to hover in the air as Reginald moved toward, inch by careful inch. Somewhere in this hellish darkness lay the entrance to the prison in which his beloved Bernice languished. He must find it.
Louisa heaved another heavy sigh. Sometimes this writing was very difficult work. She herself no longer enjoyed such works of terror. She would, she thought with a frown, much prefer an ordinary life like that of most well-bred ladies, the kind of life that Mama had envisioned for her so long ago. But enough of that--that life was not to be for her. Betsy would have a husband and family--a good life. And she--she would continue to write. She put the pen to paper again.
Meanwhile in the gloomy cell lit only by the flickering gleam of a single sputtering candle the beautiful Bernice sat despondent upon a heap of damp straw. Long gone were the violent terrors raised in her tender breast at the sight of spiders dangling from their webs. Even the rustle in the darkened corners that indicated the scurrying feet of rats could no longer bring terror into her heart. No, her anguished thought was only for Reginald. For on his last visit to the lonely cell the monk, Columbo, had chortled gleefully, "Your Reginald isn't long for this world, my dear. I've let drop hints so that he will come here to rescue you. And when he does..."
The monk's grimy hand made the motion of a knife being drawn across a throat. Bernice shrank back in terror at the sight. Reginald could not die. He was the very light of her life. Without him existence would be futile.
Bernice drew the cloak that was her only source of warmth in this dismal dungeon closer around her. She must not lose faith. Evil was powerful in this world--that was true. But the fiendish Columbo had not reckoned with the force of Goodness. Surely God would not allow...
"Lou-is-a!" An outraged cry from below brought Louisa hurriedly back to the present. She moved to the window. "Yes, Betsy. What is it?"
Betsy's pert face, liberally sprinkled with freckles, was turned up to her beseechingly. "Harry says we must give away the kitten I want. Must we, Louisa?"
"Betsy dear, if Aunt Caroline can find homes for Ginger's kittens we must let them go. We already have a great many cats."
"Yes, Louisa. But it's so cute."
"It will grow," Louisa replied. "And then it will not be so cute. And besides, there will soon be more kittens." That, at least, was a certainty!
"Oh! Well, if you say so. But I do think Apricot is the cutest thing."
"Apricot," scoffed Harry. "What a name for a cat!"
"I think it's a perfectly acceptable name," replied Betsy haughtily. "Better than any name you could pick out."
"Oh, I don't..."
"Children!" Louisa was aware of an unusual sharpness in her voice and the children seemed to hear it too, for they stopped their squabbling immediately and looked up at her in surprise. "Go find Winky and ask her to take you for a walk. I have my accounts to do and I am getting a headache with all this noise."
"Yes, Louisa," the two young voices chorused dutifully and they left the court immediately.
Louisa turned back to the desk with a frown. She was upset with herself for having spoken so sharply to the children, who, after all, had no notion of how hard she worked to provide for them. They believed that Papa had left them adequately provided for. And Louisa did nothing to disabuse them of this notion.
Aunt Caroline had brought with her a small jointure which, since the Colonel like Papa had been a gaming man, barely sufficed to pay for the food that her little darlings so ravenously devoured. Aunt Julia, like so many spinsters, had had nothing when she had been sent away from her last home with a distant relative because she had insisted on deriving her judgment of the characters of the young people in her charge by feeling the bumps on their head.
Louisa leaned on her elbow. Fortunately, Aunt Julia's exploration of the heads of those in this household had not disclosed any dangerous traits. Nevertheless she was a difficult person to get along with.
Aunt Caroline and her numerous cats were a minor nuisance compared to Aunt Julia's scientific bent. Aunt Caroline, a round, soft little woman, after all provided the children with a motherly figure. But Aunt Julia's acerbic tongue and violent dislike of the male part of humanity was sometimes a heavy burden on those around her. Young Harry, for instance, did not take kindly to her disparaging remarks. She would, thought Louisa, have to sit down with Aunt Julia and put her desires firmly on the line. Harry must not be made to feel an outcast in a house full of women.
Louisa frowned. What Harry needed was a man--a good man upon whom to model himself. A mischievous smile curved her lips at the image her imagination had offered her--the image of a tall dark fascinating man, a man who could be depended on in times of dire peril. No, said Louisa firmly to herself. What Harry needed was a sober, decent, down-to-earth man to take for his mentor.
The sun was moving down the afternoon sky, Louisa noticed, heaving another sigh. These days, she thought ruefully, she was sighing quite as much as any heroine of her romances. How ridiculous.
With a firm set to her chin, she again picked up the pen. Before it was time for dinner she simply must get a few more pages down on paper.
The dim light of the moon breaking out from the lowering clouds cast a lurid light on the crumbling stones of the wall and there, right at his feet, Reginald saw a gleaming white skull. The moon's pale light seemed to make the skull grin avidly at him and a cold sweat of terror beaded his brow, but still he persisted. Somewhere in this graveyard of hopes Bernice was a prisoner, prisoner of that devil's spawn, Columbo. And he, Reginald, must find her and save her. To that he had dedicated his life.
An hour or so later Reginald had found his way through the darkened corridors to the door of the cell in which Bernice was held captive and Louisa, her day's quota of pages at last accomplished, locked up everything and went downstairs to a well-deserved dinner.