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The English countryside was basking in an unseasonably warm October sun. The hedgerows flourished still in verdant green, and in the shady copses that lined the Dover-London road a few wild flowers peeked shyly from their hiding places. But the beauties of the land were lost on the varied passengers in the mail coach. The outside held several oversize gentlemen whose round red faces testified to the intensity of the sun's rays. The coachman, of course, had long since shed his greatcoat, and though he kept it handy in case of a sudden fall cloudburst, he preferred the comfort of shirt sleeves. The shirt itself was a nondescript dirty gray that would have wrinkled the fastidious nostrils of any passing gentleman. Fortunately the several large passengers who shared the outside of the coach were only nominally gentlemen, being what a real gentleman of the ton would have called, with a deprecatory sniff, common mushrooms, examples of that inferior species which insisted on springing up out of the darker environs of the city.
Because of the somewhat sweltering nature of the sun the inside of the mail coach held only ladies or--perhaps more accurately--members of the female sex. They made an assorted variety. One old coquette, obviously unaware of the passing of years, wore the paint and patches of the previous century. A tottering old woman was enveloped in a shabby gray cloak and a bonnet of ancient vintage. Another older woman, stern-faced and prim, wore the drab but clean apparel of a maidservant. But it was the fourth inside passenger to whom the discerning eye would have turned. Her clothes were not of the newest mode and her hair had never known any style but therather severe French knot that confined it, but an old gown could not hide the slender womanly figure, nor the French knot conceal the rich chestnut hue of her hair. And there was something about her clear gray eyes and the slant of her nose that marked her. Yes, it was apparent to anyone of good understanding that Miss Samantha Everett was well-born.
Samantha raised a hand to her temple. The heat was almost intolerable, especially since it was so unseasonable, but she simply could not have delayed a day longer. The old house was just too difficult to live in now. She stifled a sigh, causing the maidservant to glance at her apprehensively, but Samantha did not notice. She was lost in her memories. She had waited out the period of mourning, but only at Hester's insistence. Samantha knew that her father, now thankfully gone to his rest nine years after the carriage accident that had killed her mother and made him a helpless invalid, would not have cared if she had left the old house immediately. But Hester had steadfastly refused to accompany her mistress to the city until the traditional amenities had been observed. "It ain't decent," she had repeated whenever the subject was broached, and so Samantha had conceded the point.
After all, she had the rest of her life to spend in the pursuit of her dream. She could certainly spare a little time to soothe Hester's feelings. The old maidservant was her only friend now. And it was only because Samantha had stubbornly declared that she would go to London alone if Hester wouldn't go with her that the old servant had consented to go near the wicked city and that abomination which was Samantha's dream.
Samantha glanced affectionately at the well-wrapped parcel that lay in her lap. She had refused to let Hester pack it in her box, this friend of her long lonely days in the country--Shakespeare's plays. Samantha's hands clutched the parcel almost convulsively. How many lonely hours she had spent at Papa's bedside, beguiled out of her boredom and misery by the characters she had come to know almost as friends.
Somewhere in those long years of reading aloud to Papa she had conceived her dream. She had not voiced it while Papa lived, but she had known deep in her heart what she would do when she was left alone.
The time of her coming out had passed during the bad days after the accident, passed so quickly that before they had noticed, the days of her marrying age were over. It was not that there was not sufficient substance for young gentlemen to find her an acceptable match. That had never been a problem. But she could not have left her father. She knew that. So she had never come out, and she had turned away the gentlemen who had come calling. And before too long she had been left alone. So there was no husband in Samantha's future--not even the dream of one.
The thing that curved Samantha's lips in a sweet smile and put the sparkle in her eyes was not the prospect of matrimony. No, Samantha Everett was on her way to the wicked city of London because she was in love--not with a man, but with an institution. The theatre was Samantha's love. To see brought to life those characters who had moved so often through her imagination, that was her dream. And now she was on her way to realizing it.
Her fingers played absently with the strings of her bonnet. London! First she would see Papa's--and now her own--solicitor, Mr. Pomroy. He would help her find rooms. And then--Samantha slipped into a doze to dream.
She was wakened some time later as the mail coach pulled into the inn yard for a change of horses. It would be good to get a bite to eat and to stretch her legs. She smiled at Hester.
"Your bonnet, Miss Samantha," said that trusty servant.
Obediently Samantha donned the bonnet. It was very old and no doubt quite out of style, but it satisfied Hester's sense of propriety. And Samantha had decided that in all small matters, those having nothing to do with the pursuit of her dream, she would placate Hester. After all, it was no little thing to ask her old servant and friend to leave the countryside she had always known for the rigors of life in the wicked city.
The bonnet hid the rich hue of Samantha's hair, but nothing could hide the grace with which she descended from the carriage or the air of complete possession with which she entered the inn. For some years Samantha Everett had been for all intents and purposes in charge of a rather large estate. She was used to being in command.
Therefore it was only a very short time later that she and Hester were comfortably settled in the common room and dining on roast beef. The maidservant said very little, occupying herself with the food; her face seemed set in lines of permanent disgust. Samantha, however, knew her friend better. Hester, despite her rather grim exterior, could be, and was, her mistress's dearest friend.
The heat, in combination with her excitement, had rather destroyed Samantha's appetite, but she forced herself to eat. She would need all her strength in the wonderful days to come. In an effort to beguile herself and make the eating easier--this particular roast beef being none too tender--she looked around her. The other female passengers had also alighted and were being served, though perhaps not in quite the same fashion. The elderly lady was still hidden in an immense gray mantle, but the old coquette was employing her time by casting her eyes at the table which the several immense gentlemen from outside the coach shared. They, however, were far more interested in the brimming mugs of ale that the innkeeper's wife set before them.
Samantha smiled to herself. It was fun to observe other people--almost like watching a play. The world must be full of strange and varied characters. For, as the great master had said, "All the world's a stage."
She was about to turn her attention back to her plate when the door swung open to admit two aristocrats. Samantha gazed at them with some interest. They wore coats that clung to their shoulders like second skins and inexpressibles that fit even tighter. Their boots bore a bright shine, their cravats rose stiffly to their ears, and they walked as though the world were their exclusive plaything. As one engaged with the landlord for a meal, the second turned to survey the room. Samantha found herself suddenly gazing into a pair of smoky black eyes. They were extraordinarily alive, those eyes, and in that brief instant he seemed to be reading all her secrets. Samantha wrenched her eyes away, dropping them back to her plate. But not before she saw the languid smile of amusement that curved his sensuous lips.
Samantha was not in the habit of coloring up, and she found the fact that she was doing so now strangely disconcerting.
"Come, Roxbury, let us put something into our stomachs." The man who had been talking to the landlord turned.
"Very well, Woolford. But from the looks of this place I am none too sure of the quality of the food."
Samantha knew instantly that it was the second voice, the one with the deep, very masculine timbre, that belonged to the man who had surprised her with his glance.
"Now, Roxbury," said the other, the one he had called Woolford. "Just because you're used to French cuisine doesn't mean you can't enjoy good old English fare. Come, man, even an earl, if he's English, must enjoy roast beef."
"Very well. But I must admit I have other things on my mind just now than food."
A hearty laugh rang out over the room. "Take it easy, man. Your dasher will be waiting for you with open arms."
There was a decided gasp from the direction of the old lady, and Samantha knew without looking that Hester's stern features registered disapproval. So this was what they were like, the young men on the town. They talked as though no one else existed. That one, though, Roxbury, had not looked so young. He was past his thirtieth year; Samantha felt sure of it.
She did not raise her head again, and yet she could see this Roxbury's face quite clearly. It seemed to have been imprinted on her mind in that one shocking instant when his eyes had met and held hers. It was a strangely compelling face, not really handsome; it was too dark and brooding for that, but singularly attractive nevertheless. Under black unruly hair his forehead was broad and marked by heavy dark eyebrows. His nose was high and arched, and his lips, especially the bottom one, were rather full. His chin had a stubborn jut to it that his side whiskers did not hide. All his features were striking, but Samantha had to admit to herself that it was his eyes which were most compelling. They seemed to hold some deep and brooding secret. A little shiver passed over her. There was something strangely electrifying about gazing into those eyes. It was not only that they seemed to hold his secrets; it was that they also seemed to be searching for hers.
Samantha smiled at such romantic musings. One would think she had spent the last nine years indulging herself with foolish romances instead of immersed in the works of the master.
Well, it was good to see something of the world. Such men did play their part in it, but not in the life of Samantha Everett, she told herself. Her life was to be devoted to the theatre. Very soon now they would be in London.
As she sipped at her mug of tea, she noted that Hester's stern features were even more reflective of distaste than usual. "What is it, Hester? Is your roast beef that tough?"
Hester sniffed. "The food is passable, though not like we're used to at home. It's the company I'm not caring for."
Samantha smiled. "Come now, Hester," she said softly. "That is the way of such men. They presume the world exists for their pleasure."
"It ain't the world as I'm worrying about," said Hester sourly. "An' it ain't the world as that dark one keeps a looking at."
Samantha felt the blood rush to her cheeks again. "Oh, Hester, don't be silly. Such men have no use for the likes of me."
"Humph!" said Hester. "I ain't one to contradict, but I has to say it. Miss Samantha. There's some things you don't know nothing about. And the wicked ways of men is one of 'em."
"Hester, please." For some reason that she could not understand, Samantha found herself rather gratified by the thought that the dark lord might be eyeing her. "I assure you, I have no interest in men. I only want to get to London."
The old servant shook her head. "Shouldn't never go to that den of sin. All the evil in the world's a-gathered right there."
The old woman continued. "I ain't about to let you go into that terrible place alone. No more to that greater abomination--the theatre. Decent folks shouldn't go near such a place. I said I'd come, and I have, but I think you're wrong. You should be getting yourself some pretty gowns and looking out for a husband."
"But you don't like these--"
Hester snorted. "Them bucks ain't husband material. Look at 'em. No! Don't! They're just out to have a good time and don't give no never mind who gets hurt along the way. I mean get yourself a good house in a good neighborhood. You got the money for it. Be seen around and let it be known you're looking. Won't be long afore suitors come calling."
Samantha wished Hester would lower her voice a little. "But would they be after me or my inheritance?" she whispered.
"Don't matter." Samantha was grateful Hester spoke more softly. "Either way you get a husband. That's what a woman needs."
"I'm already five and twenty," Samantha replied. "I'm too old to marry."
"Poppycock! You've kept your looks admirable." Hester's mouth twisted in a wry smile. "Don't look a day over twenty. Ain't no need to advertise your age."
Samantha shook her head. "No, Hester. I refuse to lead such a life. I shall never marry. I intend to spend my days in the theatre."
Hester shook her gray head. "It ain't natural, that's all. A young thing like you."
"Come, Hester. We must pay the reckoning and get back to our places in the coach. Natural or not, I have made my plans for the future. And they do not include a husband."
A warning look silenced any further protests on Hester's part, and she rose to follow her mistress out. Unfortunately the way to the door led past the table where the dark lord sat.
Samantha steadfastly kept her eyes straight ahead, but she could not control the rest of her body so well, and to her dismay, just as she drew abreast of the dark earl, she felt the color flooding her cheeks yet again. She was being absolutely ridiculous; she told herself so severely. This Roxbury surely had better things to do than to watch someone like herself. Yet, as she passed, she was clearly aware that the other man had turned to follow her with his eyes. "A pretty piece," he said in a voice that was meant to be quite audible to her ears.
"Yes, but a trifle on the plain side," replied Roxbury, a hint of laughter in his deep voice.
Samantha stiffened slightly at these words but continued to march on, out the door and toward the coach. Her face was still flushed as she climbed into her seat, and her fingers trembled slightly as she undid the ribbons that held her bonnet in place and laid it in her lap. Insolent lord! Plain, indeed! What did he know about such things? And then, quite suddenly, the ludicrous aspect of the whole incident struck her. How addlepated she was becoming, to let herself be flustered because some arrogant, toplofty lord thought she was plain. Far more sensible to be outraged because that other one had called her a pretty piece--a fine way to talk about a decent young woman.
She squared her shoulders; she had best learn how to deal with such men. From what she had heard from certain housemaids who had spent time in the city, such lords abounded there. And they were always on the lookout for pretty young women. Pretty and stupid. Well, she was not going to be taken for a woman of that kind. Not Samantha Everett. Let the arrogant lords set their traps and practice their wiles. She was far wiser than that. She knew exactly what she meant to do with her life.
The rest of the trip passed rather tediously. The heat was oppressive and the company dull, but Samantha did not particularly notice. Again she had lost herself in contemplation of the future. When the coach pulled up in front of the Inn of the Two Swans, she was almost surprised that they had already arrived. Clutching at the parcel that held her beloved Shakespeare, she climbed down from the coach and looked around her curiously. The inn was alive with passengers coming and going, with post boys scurrying to and fro. The hustle and bustle seemed very loud to Samantha, accustomed as she was to the quiet of the Dover countryside. The landlord, a rather corpulent man, stood in the doorway, his broad belly banded by an apron that had once been white. Everyone seemed quite busy and purposeful, and it was with some trepidation that Samantha approached one friendly-looking maid and inquired how far it was to Leadenhall Street.
The maid smiled. "Down that way, miss, is a hack stand. Hire you a carriage there. It ain't real far, but with your boxes an' all--" She cast a glance down to where Hester stood guard over the boxes.
"Yes, that seems sensible."
"I could send a boy, miss, if you was to give him a little something. He can tell the hack driver to bring up a coach."
"Yes," said Samantha. "I'll do that."
And so some moments later they were moving through London's streets. Samantha looked out the window of the hack with great interest. Papa had often told her tales of London, of its teeming streets and pulsing thoroughfares. But most of all she had loved to hear his descriptions of the theatres--Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Over and over she had begged him to repeat those descriptions of great stages and dazzling chandeliers, of gilt boxes and velvet sofas, of wealthy gentlemen and beautiful women. But most often she had begged to hear about the greenrooms and the dressing rooms, the greasepaint and the costumes, the portrayals by the great artists that Papa had been privileged to see act. The great Garrick, for instance. Papa said he was the greatest actor ever to walk the English stage. And John Philip Kemble, one of the greatest actors of all time. Samantha smiled in pure pleasure at the thought that soon she herself would be watching some greats.
"Lavender, lavender," came the cry through the carriage window. Samantha looked out to see a pretty child of eleven or twelve crying her wares. "Mackerel, mackerel," came another cry. "Chairs to mend, chairs to mend." "Old clothes, old clothes." "Knives to grind, bring your knives to grind." "Flowers, flowers to put in your house."
Cries came from every direction, and Samantha wondered how anyone could tell what was going on with so much noise on all sides. But the people around her did not seem to mind the noise or the crowds. They moved with ease among the throngs, purposeful looks on their faces.
Samantha sighed wistfully. Soon she too would be able to move about London's streets just as though she'd always lived here. "Look, Hester. Just look at the people. So many."
"Humph!" Hester's opinion of the city needed no more words. It was obvious that she had no use for such an iniquitous place.
"Now, Hester. You're here and here to stay." Samantha smiled at the old maidservant. "You might as well make the best of it."
Hester snorted again. "I said as I'd come an' I did. Can't let you come to such a place alone. But I don't got to like it. And I won't." And with this ultimatum Hester resumed her position of eyes straight ahead, back ramrod straight.
"I really do appreciate your coming with me," soothed Samantha. "I can't tell you how much."
To this Hester made no reply, and Samantha said no more, once again giving her attention to the streets around her. And then the carriage drew to a halt.
Samantha climbed out and supervised the unloading of their boxes to the pavement. She gave the coachman his fee and then stood looking around. She was directly in front of number 36, Leadenhall Street, where her father's solicitor, Mr. Pomroy, kept his office. But it was not to that building that Samantha's eyes were drawn, but to number 33. In the niche above the door stood a helmeted statue of Minerva leaning on a tall spear, shield in her other hand. Through the door came several well-dressed ladies who paused to nod at a pair of gentlemen on the pavement. Here was another of the London landmarks that her father had mentioned. "Look, Hester. It's the building of the Minerva Press. Their lending library is there too."
Hester looked, and what appeared to be a smile curved her thin lips. She had no use for the theatre, but the printed word was quite another thing. Hester's only vice, if such it could be called, was the reading of romances. Samantha had at first found this appetite of Hester's rather incongruous, but then, considering her own obsession, she had wisely decided to let Hester enjoy her kind of literature in peace.
A shop boy came running out of Mr. Pomroy's office and tugged the boxes in. Samantha and Hester followed, and before long they were seated in the solicitor's private office.
Mr. Pomroy nodded at Samantha. She had not seen him for several years, but he had not changed. He was still the short, stout, bald man who had been her father's solicitor and her friend.
"Your letter did not give me any indication of the time of your arrival," said Mr. Pomroy with a worried frown. "I would have sent someone to meet you."
"That wasn't necessary," said Samantha with a warm smile. "I could not know for sure when we would arrive."
Mr. Pomroy shook his head. "You do not understand the city, Miss Samantha. It is not a place for a young woman to go about alone."
"I am not alone," Samantha replied. "Hester has come with me."
Mr. Pomroy shook his head, a worried frown creasing his forehead. "You are two women. No insult intended to Miss Hester, but two women alone in the city--"
"I ain't insulted," said Hester firmly. "I been telling her the same thing myself." Hester's thin lips pressed together primly. "But she's a stubborn one, won't listen to nobody."
Mr. Pomroy's round face creased momentarily into a smile. "I'm afraid you're right, Miss Hester. She is a stubborn one, but between the two of us perhaps we can protect her."
"Humph!" Hester snorted indelicately. "I got my doubts 'bout that. Wait'll you hear what she's planning to do."
Mr. Pomroy looked slightly uncomfortable and wiped at his wet forehead with a large white handkerchief. "What exactly are you planning to do?" he asked Samantha.
"It's really quite simple." She smiled at him reassuringly. "I plan to devote my life to the theatre."
Mr. Pomroy's round face reflected dismay. "An actress! Miss Samantha, such a course of action is impossible."
"No, no, Mr. Pomroy. I don't wish to be an actress. I know that that takes an early start. I simply mean to get a job behind the scenes. Perhaps as a seamstress or a dresser. That way I can be backstage. I can know the actors and actresses. I can see the plays come to life." As she spoke, Samantha's eyes began to glow and her face to grow animated.
"Miss Samantha." Mr. Pomroy seemed almost unable to speak. "You--you cannot take such a job. Why, why it would expose you to the worst elements of London."
"Actors are now respected people," said Samantha with a spark in her eye.
"I don't speak of actors," said Mr. Pomroy. "I speak of the bucks that congregate in the greenrooms."
"I have no use for lords," said Samantha. "I shall not be bothered by them." This was not quite the truth, for the solicitor's words had evoked in her mind a very vivid picture of the darkly handsome features of the Earl of Roxbury. It was not a picture designed to put a young woman at her ease, since her imagination insisted on presenting her with a picture of the earl when he had been regarding her with that strangely piercing look. Still, she meant what she said. She had no use for lords, Roxbury least of all!
Mr. Pomroy swallowed several times uncomfortably. "Please! Miss Samantha. You do not understand. You are a young woman--if I may say so--an attractive young woman. And these lords--they would not be aware of your rightful station in life." He swallowed again. "One does not expect to find a young woman of breeding employed as a menial in such a place. You--you will be insulted."
"Nonsense! I am quite capable of taking care of myself." Samantha was not as convinced of this as she sounded, but she was not about to cry craven when she was this close to her goal. If any toplofty lord approached her, she would give him such a cool setdown that it would be months before he badgered a poor female again. She turned all her charm on the little solicitor "Really, Mr. Pomroy. I have quite made up my mind. You cannot dissuade me from my purpose. I am quite firmly set on it. Now! Will you help me find rooms, or must I do that myself?"
"My dear Miss Samantha." Now Mr. Pomroy was plainly distraught. "Of course I will help you. You know whatever I say is for your own good."
Samantha nodded. "Yes, my dear friend, I know that. Now"--she made her voice firm--"I want rooms as close to the theatres as possible. Someplace near Drury Lane--or Covent Garden."
Mr. Pomroy looked about to protest but thought better of it. "Very well, Miss Samantha." His forehead wrinkled again. "It would be much more sensible to take some rooms around Piccadilly or St. James's Square. But perhaps we can find something suitable on Bow Street. I know of a respectable landlady there. Yes, yes. Bow Street it shall be. But Miss Samantha, please, you really must have a male servant on the premises. A lady in London simply cannot exist without a male servant."
"All right, Mr. Pomroy, you may find me a male servant. But please, no young footmen who aspire to be more of a lord than their master. I want no such in my establishment."
"No, no, Miss Samantha. I'll send you one of my own men. Jake has been with me for a long time. He will serve you well. He'll be company for Miss Hester, and he knows his way around the city."
"Fine, Mr. Pomroy. You're a true friend. I greatly appreciate your help in this matter."
Mr. Pomroy almost beamed. "It's nothing, nothing. I'm glad to do anything I can to be of assistance."
He moved toward the door. "I will just inform my clerk that I am going out for a while. Then we'll take my carriage to Bow Street. Let me see, her name is Mrs. Gordon, a fine woman, a widow. Her husband was a friend of mine. A good man, but a trifle impecunious. I helped her set up in this house, and she rents lodgings. A good woman."
"That sounds fine," Samantha replied.
Mrs. Gordon turned out to be a buxom, bustling little woman with a cheerful smile and a wonderful welcoming way about her. "Why, of course I've rooms for a friend of Mr. Pomroy's," she said, clasping her soft white hands over her plump stomach. "You just come right in, my dear. Right in. It's just a lucky thing, my former tenant left a week past, and I hadn't found anyone to replace her. It's hard these days. I run a respectable house, you see. And so many young ladies these days--" Mrs. Gordon sighed deeply. "It's just not like the old days. Young women wanting to receive gentlemen in their rooms!" She raised an indignant eyebrow. "It's indecent, that's what it is."
"There is no need to worry about gentlemen as far as I'm concerned," said Samantha strongly. "I know no gentlemen in London, nor do I intend to make the acquaintance of any."
Mrs. Gordon seemed slightly taken aback by this statement. "Well now, I don't mean to be overstrict. That is to say, if you want to receive a young gentleman, and your maid was to stand by--Why, I guess there wouldn't be no harm in that."
"Thank you, Mrs. Gordon, but really I don't believe there will be any callers. I have not come to London to become a social butterfly. I am here to do some very serious work."
"Ah, yes, I see." Mrs. Gordon strove valiantly to set her features in a serious mold, but the cheerful roundness of her cheeks and the friendliness of her eyes made such an attempt ineffective. She was, however, silenced, and with the help of Mr. Pomroy's coachman they got their boxes up to the rooms.
Samantha accompanied Mr. Pomroy to the door. "I have one more favor to ask of you," she said.
Mr. Pomroy looked slightly apprehensive, but he replied immediately. "Of course, Miss Samantha. What is it?"
"I want to go to the theatre as soon as possible. Can you get seats for tomorrow evening, and will you accompany me?"
The little solicitor's relief was obvious. "Yes, yes. I shall take you to see Kean. He's doing Richard III. The man is superb. Such fire. Such power."
"Why, Mr. Pomroy." Samantha gave him a teasing smile. "I had no idea that you were a devotee of the theatre."
The solicitor looked somewhat sheepish. "Of course I keep up with the stage. How could I do otherwise, living in the city as I do? But I do not carry my devotion so far as you, my dear. Really--"
Samantha raised a detaining hand. "Please, Mr. Pomroy, I have made up my mind. I intend to work in the theatre in whatever capacity they will have me."
"Very well. Very well. I shall be by for you with the carriage shortly after six."
"Good. And thank you."
Samantha closed the door and turned back to Hester. "Well, we had best get to work. I want to get settled in today."
Hester barely refrained from answering this with one of her snorts, but she removed her bonnet and set to work unpacking boxes.
So it was that some time later, when a brisk knock on the door announced the arrival of Mr. Pomroy's man, Jake, all the contents of the boxes had been sorted and put away. Samantha went to the door herself, since Hester was occupied in the bedchamber. The man who stood there was certainly not young. His gnarled hands and lined face spoke of years of labor. There was something about him that Samantha immediately liked.
"My name is Jake," he said with a grin. "Mr. Pomroy sent me."
"Come in, Jake." Samantha found herself grinning in return. "We'll be glad to have your help in getting around the city."
"And I'll be glad to give it, miss. I been in the city many years, and I knows my way around."
A slight sound behind her caused Samantha to turn. There stood Hester, her face set in a strange expression that Samantha finally recognized as a smile. "This is Hester," she said. "You and she are my entire establishment here in the city."
"When you got the two of us," Jake said with another grin, "you don't need nobody else."
"Good," replied Samantha. And so it was that Jake became a member of the household.