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The dainty ivory and ormolu clock on the mantel ticked softly, the only sound in the spacious bedchamber with its white canopy bed and lace-draped windows. It was the very room Alysson had occupied as a child before she was abruptly uprooted and transplanted to the wilds of the Cornish coast, and during the month that she had been back in London, she had slept there again, painfully reliving the happy days before her grandfather had died.
Now, as she stood motionless beside her chamber door, she had but one purpose in mind. Turning the polished brass handle ever so slowly, she peeked out into the marble-tiled hallway. The footman who had been instructed to guard her room sat in his place, his straight-backed velvet chair propped against the wall beside the door. He idly flipped a penny off his thumb and tried to catch it atop his other wrist as Alysson silently closed the door and slid the bolt into place.
The time had come to make her escape. After days of pretending to have resigned herself to the forthcoming marriage, she would flee her father's house forever. She moved quickly across the mauve and royal blue oriental carpet to where a tall lancet window opened out over the rear lawns. Twin pale blue satin settees flanked the window, and she stepped up on the cushions of one to reach the high window latch. The window swung easily outward, a warm May breeze fanning the loose tendrils around Alysson's face as she leaned out over the sheer three-story drop to the ground.
Dusk was settling silently over the gardens and walkways of the Tyler ancestral mansion, but the cobbled drives were deserted since the servant staff were supping intheir dining hall in the south wing. Daniel Tyler was busy in his study off the entry foyer with his solicitor, no doubt seeing to the final embellishments on the wedding between her and the unknown Donovan MacBride. This very night she had been scheduled to meet the bridegroom at his home, so it was imperative for her to be off the estate and lost in the crowded streets of London before anyone found out her escape plans.
Alysson's soft lips curved into a bitter smile as she envisioned the look on her father's face when he found her gone. The imagined visage also brought a shudder undulating down her back, and eager to be away, she picked up the small bag she had packed. She looked around again, then dropped it, watching as it fell into a box hedge growing against the first-floor windows. She let fall her heavy black cape next, then, without hesitation, she pulled the back of her dark blue silk skirt up between her legs and tucked it into the front of her bodice. That done, she climbed with the utmost self-confidence out upon the high window ledge.
She was not afraid of the drop yawning menacingly beneath her. She and Freddie had climbed down cliffs higher than that to reach the ocean caves, where the sea had thundered with magnificent echoes. She allowed herself a pang of regret at the thought of Freddie and Mathilde, wondering if they had made it safely to the village of Standington, where Mathilde's kin lived, after Alysson's father had callously cast them out of the farmhouse. She hoped they fared well, but now she couldn't let herself worry about anything but her escape.
Leaning around, she grasped the sturdy vines covering the outside wall, pulling down to test them with her weight. The glossy green leaves of the ivy held firm, inexorably tangled after a hundred years of steady growth on the facade of the red-brick house. She held on tightly, finding a foothold, then carefully began her descent, avoiding the windows. Three feet from the ground she let go, landing in a squatting position behind a fragrant oleander bush. She waited an instant, listening. There was no sound other than the trilling of songbirds in search of a night roost, and she struggled to part the hedge in order to retrieve her bag. Once she had it, the first wave of elation shot through her.
She was out of the house! She pulled on the cape and her heart sped wildly as she tiptoed along the side of the house behind the bushes. Like a dark wraith, she crossed a pebbled path and melted into another hedgerow that led to the rear wall of the estate where the rose gardens were laid out.
Long ago, when she had been five years old, she had discovered a crumbling portion of the high outer wall while playing hide-and-seek with her mother. It was well hidden by trees and a trellis of climbing roses, and she headed there now, knowing full well she could not escape down the carriage road or even through the rear servant's gate without being seen.
The scent of roses perfumed the air as she moved past beds filled with huge red roses from China, then others with delicate blossoms of white and pink, all blooming profusely. Behind a rare apricot-tinted bush, she found her road to freedom. The bricks were in disrepair just as she remembered, and she agilely climbed the low-hanging branches of a huge oak tree, bag in hand, then carefully pulled her skirts and cape over the black spikes mortared into the top of the wall before she climbed down the other side.
Outside the confines of the Tyler demesne, carriages rolled by with a loud clattering of metal wheels and clopping hooves, and Alysson's heart lifted as she stood in the shadows looking at them go by. She wasted no more time, however, hurrying across the narrow street, avoiding the black-clad lamplighter who was affixing flame to the corner lamppost. As she put distance between herself and her prison, few of the other pedestrians paid heed to the slender, heavily cloaked figure, most of them intent on reaching their own homes and hearth fires before it grew late.
Nearly four blocks away, she drew to a stop near a corner intersection. Across the way, a long line of hansom cabs sat along the curbing, the drivers congregated in the yellow circle of a street lamp. She hesitated there, trying to make up her mind. If she hired one of them, and her father found out, he could force her destination out of the driver. The thought shook her. She couldn't risk that.
Her next consideration was finding her way on foot to the Crownover Theater, but she was not ignorant of the dangers for a woman alone in the streets and alleyways of London. Her gaze alighted on a wagon being unloaded on the opposite corner, and she deliberated a moment longer as she watched several young servants lift down a metal-rimmed barrel of wine then roll it up an angled platform to the door of a tavern. She made her decision quickly as she was wont to do, then walked unhurriedly across the street toward the working men, dodging a smart landau rattling its way down the dark street.
The driver of the wagon slouched indolently against the tall front wheel of his wagon, hands resting upon his fat paunch, and he eyed Alysson with interest as she stopped before him.
"Do you know the way to the Crownover Theater in Southwark?" she asked him, and he shifted his booted feet, standing upright. He scratched at his groin as he peered askance at the young girl with coppery braids swinging over her ears.
"I reckon I do, missy, but wut do a purty little gull like ye want to go there fer?"
"That, my good sir, is none of your affair," Alysson answered coldly, and the man's eyes widened in surprise before he let out a harsh guffaw.
"Ye be a saucy bit o' a wench, ain't ye?"
"I have a piece of gold to pay for your trouble, but can hire yonder hack if my money does not interest you.
She gestured at the high-seated carriages across the street, but the man's small dark eyes riveted greedily on the shiny coin, one of the ten gold pieces that Alysson had taken from her father's desk drawer. He reached for it, intending to test its authenticity between his teeth, but Alysson pulled back her hand before he could touch it.
"After we arrive at the Crownover, if you please," she said, one finely arched brow lifted, and the driver muttered a few unintelligible remarks before he agreed.
"Then be gittin' in the back wid ye afore me change me mind," he said with a grunt. Alysson smiled as she swung up into the bed of the dusty wagon. She had dealt with peddlers and tinkers in Cornwall and learned to haggle with the best of them. She leaned back into the corner behind the driver's seat and raised her hood as the man called out gruffly to the huge horse. The wagon lurched, then began its rumbling journey through the dark, twisting streets of London.
It was hard for her to believe that she had really managed to escape. For the first time in her life she was completely on her own. It was a little frightening, not having her mother or Mathilde or Freddie with her, but the important thing was to get away from Daniel Tyler and the man he intended her to marry. She reached down into the deep pocket of her skirt and retrieved a piece of parchment. The paper was old and yellowed, with well-worn creases where it had been opened and refolded for years by Alysson's mother. She carefully spread the playbill on her lap and strained to see the printed words in the dim light from the driver's lamp, though she knew them by heart.
It was an advertisement for the Crownover Theater dated the fifth day of March, 1790. Twenty-one years ago it had heralded the accomplishments of a London Shakespearean troupe performing The Taming of the Shrew, but it was the list of bit players at the bottom that Alysson sought. Adam Sinclair. Her mother's true and only love. Her mother had told Alysson how she had met the young American actor. It was by pure chance, when the wind had blown Judith's bonnet from her carriage and he had retrieved it for her. He had begged her to meet him in a coffeehouse, and although Judith had been engaged to Alysson's father, she had gone with him. Afterward, she had attended every matinee in which Adam Sinclair performed his small part.
Alysson folded the parchment and leaned her head back against the rough planks of the wagon. They had eloped, but Alysson's grandfather had found his daughter and forcibly brought her back. She had never seen Adam Sinclair again. It was so sad, Alysson thought. But now that she was alone in the world, she meant to find Adam Sinclair. He was an actor, and that alone was a kindred link between them.
All her life, Alysson had dreamed of performing on the stage, ever since an early age when she realized she had a talent for memorization and mimicry. And now she would try to obtain work at the Crownover Theater. Any kind of work, either as a maid or as one who cared for the wardrobe, until she was given a chance to prove herself. When she had enough money saved, she would buy passage to America, where she would look for Adam Sinclair, if he were still alive.
She slid the advertisement back into her pocket as the horse slowed. She stood and handed the gold coin to the driver, then looked at the white pillared building looming beside them, as she climbed from the back of the wagon. It was dark now but apparently too early for theater patrons to arrive for the evening's performance, and Alysson moved through a large archway supported by Corinthian columns to a long covered portico with four sets of arched doors. Huge lamps had been lit at intervals along the front, each with a sketch beneath it advertising the current play.
Alysson stopped before one of them, staring at the likeness of an elegant woman in the dress of Desdemona. "The acclaimed American actress, Madame Rosalie Handel, on her Grand European Tour," she read. How many times had Alysson imagined her own name on such a playbill? Not as Alysson Tyler, but as Silver Sinclair. She liked the sound of the name she had chosen to use for her stage life. It was a name people would remember. She never wanted to use the name Tyler again.
She stared at the woman in the picture. The fact that Madame Handel was an American was a stroke of good luck. Perhaps she would even know of Adam Sinclair. Alysson deemed that highly unlikely, but nevertheless she scanned the names of the players beneath the picture. Adam Sinclair's name was not there, as she had known it would not be.
Alysson turned as a hansom cab came to a stop just behind her, and she watched as a tall, slender man who looked to be in his early thirties stepped out, an ivory cane in his hand. Giggling came from within the carriage, and Alysson continued to watch as he handed out a pretty young woman with bouncing auburn curls. She was tall and slim and giggled again as she fell against her escort. Alysson realized then that the girl had had too much to drink. The man frowned at the girl, holding her elbow as he paid the driver. He led her beneath the portico, and they stopped near Alysson when the girl lost one of her slippers. The man spoke then, clearly impatient with the tipsy condition of his companion.
"I can't think what possessed you to go to a party on the night of a performance! Look at you, you're foxed, and Rosalie's going to be furious! She'll probably change her mind about taking you with us!"
"Oh, pooh, Edgar," she returned, stopping as a hiccup interrupted her words. "I cannot help, zis, chéri. Champagne is my weakness, and Milty kept filling my glass to the very top."
Her speech had a slight French accent, and Alysson took note of it, silently mimicking the pronunciation of her words. The girl dissolved into new giggles, and the man rapped his cane angrily on the tiled floor.
"Don't mention Milton to me! My brother is a disgrace, and Rosalie's going to be as angry with him as she is with you! You know good and well that you were supposed to do a private party tonight, and there's been no one to replace you since Jenny eloped with that Spaniard in Madrid. And it's for a good friend of Rosalie's at that!"
"But, chéri, I am quite capable of performing," she insisted, weaving precariously on her feet until Edgar had to get a firm grip on her arm.
"You're going to find yourself back in Paris, or left here without a friend to your name, if you don't sober up in time to play that part, and that's less than an hour from now!" His voice grew exasperated. "Are you even listening to me, Odette?"
Odette smiled up at him in a slow and sensuous way, then ran the palm of her hand up beneath the lapel of his coat. Her voice was low, her eyes sultry, as she worked her feminine wiles on the angry man.
"But you will help me, oui, chéri?"
With that, Alysson realized that a very unexpected opportunity was suddenly within her grasp, and she took a step toward the couple.
"Please pardon my intrusion, but I couldn't help overhearing part of your conversation."
She smiled, as both Edgar and Odette turned to look at her. Edgar was still frowning in annoyance, but Odette smiled widely at Alysson, her small lace-trimmed bonnet tipped askew over one ear.
"My name is Silver Sinclair," Alysson told them, "and I think perhaps I could be some help to you. I am an actress in search of employment. That is why I am here tonight, to see Madame Handel."
Edgar's eyes sharpened, looking her up and down quite openly, and Odette clapped her hands in delight.
"Ah, my guardian angel! How sweet of you, ma petite. You can take my place this night, and Rosalie will not be so angry with me, oui?"
Edgar ignored Odette's prattle. His eyes moved over a very beautiful, but exceedingly youthful face. "Have you acted before, Miss Sinclair?"
"Oh, yes," Alysson answered without hesitation. "I have played roles in nearly every one of Shakespeare's tragedies."
It was true, she rationalized to herself. She and Freddie had done them for her mother and Mathilde.
"Here in London?"
"No, sir, but I have performed often for a select audience in the countryside. I am most eager to join a theatrical company here in the city to improve my skills."
Alysson held her breath as Edgar looked at Odette's flushed face and vacuous smile, and when she giggled again and pressed a kiss to his cheek, he frowned, looking back to Alysson.
"Well, Miss Sinclair, it appears you are in luck tonight. Come along, and we'll see if Rosalie will consider you for the part."
Alysson eagerly followed them through the nearest double doors, then across a high-ceilinged lobby resplendent in red velvet wall coverings and gold-edged carved moldings. A small hallway led down one side of the theater to the stage dressing rooms. Edgar stopped before one of them and knocked. A low-pitched female voice answered from within, and Edgar took a deep breath, then ushered the two young women through the portal.
Madame Rosalie Handel sat before a large, gilt-framed mirror, and Alysson stared in awe as the accomplished actress half turned on her stool to look at them. She was very beautiful, and although older, perhaps nearing fifty, her face was relatively unlined. Her dark red hair was streaked with gray and woven into intricately coiled curls and ringlets. Her face was heavily made up for the night's performance, and there was a distinctive black beauty mark on her right cheek. Alysson had never seen a real stage actress, and she thought Rosalie Handel looked magnificent in the flowing yellow silk robes of Desdemona. She watched the older woman turn large brown eyes lined with black kohl on Odette.
"Odette? Why aren't you ready to leave? You're to be there by seven o'clock."
Odette sobered somewhat on hearing the smooth, soft voice, the tone of which, however, demanded an immediate explanation.
"Ah, madame, I am afraid I drank the champagne too long..."
Realization dawned in Rosalie Handel's face as Odette's voice slurred, and she rose with an imperious rustle of yellow silk.
"How could you do this to me, Odette! You know he asked specifically for you! I can't send you there like this!"
Edgar broke in, his tone conciliatory. "Now, Rosalie, love, it's not as bad as you think. It's all Milton's fault, anyway, and Odette's as contrite as she can be, and have already found a stand-in for her."
Alysson stood watching everyone with great interest, and a glance told her that Odette's expression was anything but contrite. Alysson smiled as Edgar gestured toward her.
"Here she is, Rosalie, Miss Silver Sinclair." Rosalie's eyes swept over Alysson dispassionately, as if ready to dismiss her, but Alysson did not give her the chance.
"How do you do, Madame Handel? It is a great privilege to meet an actress as famous as you."
Surprise flashed across the older woman's face, then she smiled graciously, acknowledging Alysson's compliment.
"That is very kind of you, my dear. You must forgive me my distress, but Odette's benefactor this night is a special friend of mine and the performance is of great importance to him."
"I am most willing to take Miss Odette's place," Alysson offered hurriedly, "and if it is a French woman he requires, I am fortunate to have a gift for mimicry, and I can speak as Odette does, as I am doing now. It is most convincing, oui?"
It was indeed most convincing, and the three others stared at her, amazed at how she had changed in the course of a sentence from flawless English to a faintly French-tinged accent. Alysson ended with a dazzling smile, and Rosalie Handel studied the young girl standing before her with renewed interest. She was astonishingly beautiful, more so than Odette, and Odette's beauty was the main reason she had been selected to play the part.
"Very impressive, Miss Sinclair, but I am not sure that such an accent will be necessary, or, for that matter, much acting at all. It is a private party of sorts where you will be masquerading as someone else, and for reasons of his own, my friend wishes to remain anonymous. He has sent a coach to take you to his residence." While she spoke, she had been scrutinizing the large green eyes and heavy red-blond braids, and suddenly she was quite eager for Silver Sinclair to take Odette's place. "I can assure you that my friend is a perfect gentleman, and you will be quite safe there with him."
"I only wish an opportunity to prove my acting ability to you, Madame Handel, in the hope that I might find a place in your company."
Rosalie smiled. "I can assure you, dear, that if my friend is satisfied with your work tonight, I will be more than happy to hold an audition for you."
"I promise that you won't be sorry for giving me this chance, Madame Handel," Alysson said with shining eyes, but Rosalie had already turned back to Odette.
"All right, Odette. Sit down there before you fall down." As Odette gigglingly obeyed, Rosalie gave Edgar crisp instructions. "Order coffee for Odette, then take Miss Sinclair down to the back stage door. The having seen a black man before, Othello, she thought to herself, the valiant Moor.
"Miss Sinclair, this is Jethro. He will drive you to the man's house, then wait there for you. Good luck, my dear."
Edgar was gone then, leaving them standing there together, and Alysson stared up at Jethro, who towered over her, at least six feet tall. He grinned shyly under her open scrutiny, his teeth enormous and white against his ebony skin.
"I have never seen anyone with black skin," she told him honestly, and he nodded slightly.
Alysson listened with interest to his slow drawl. "You would make a magnificent Othello, Jethro. Are you a Moor as he was?"
Jethro grinned uncertainly. "I don' know no Otheldo, ma'am. I is from Charleston town in de Carolinas. Masta brought me here to drive dis carriage fo' him."
Alysson found him fascinating, his looks, his speech. "Your hair is very different from mine, isn't it? Would you mind if I touched it?"
A shocked look appeared on the wide-featured black face above her, and he looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"No, ma'am, I reckon not, if you wants ta."
To his acute embarrassment, the lovely young lady did just that, then smiled up at him. "Thank you, Jethro."
"Is yo ready ta go now, ma'am?"
Alysson nodded, still thinking about his accent as he helped her inside the carriage.
She settled back in the soft red velvet squabs and smiled.
"Yassum," she tried out slowly. "I is from Charleston town in de Carolinas."
Her rendition of Jethro's Southern drawl was nearly perfect, and a great excitement assailed her. Already she had seen things and met people she had never seen before. Her years in Cornwall had been lonely and solitary, with few opportunities to study other people and how they spoke and acted. There was a whole world waiting for her to discover, she thought, smiling again, as she stared out the window at the houses they were passing, their candlelit windows bright in the darkness.
This was her chance to truly become an actress, to learn and listen and live! It was a chance brought by a twist of fate, one she would surely never get again, not in a hundred years. She had to do well tonight, had to convince Rosalie of her talent. It was strange and a little frightening to have no idea of her destination or of the role she was to play, but she supposed that was the way of an actor's life and she would grow used to such things. But how much better it would have been if Odette had been scheduled to play a real part on the stage of the Crownover Theater -- one of the parts that Alysson had dreamed about, Ophelia or Portia or Cordelia or Juliet. She already knew most of them by heart, and she could have worn one of the splendid costumes she had seen at the theater. But that would come later, she reminded herself. Now she must concentrate on the job at hand, and do it so well that Rosalie's friend would recommend her to Rosalie in glowing terms. Then she might even be chosen to accompany her to America. Even if she wasn't, she could work hard until she earned enough to pay her own passage to the United States. Everything was working out admirably well, better than she could ever have imagined.
Alysson leaned forward and peered out at the passing buildings as the coach rocked along the busy streets, then sat back after a moment, realizing it was unlikely she would see anything familiar. She hardly remembered anything about London, except for the fairs along the Thames where she had gone with her grandfather. Just the two of them had gone, eating spicy cakes together and watching the Punch and Judy shows. She smiled at the memory, but her thoughts fled moments later as the coach slowed.
Outside her window, a large town house appeared, its windows ablaze, and Alysson watched as a servant ran down the steep flight of front steps and opened a tall, wrought-iron carriage gate. Jethro drove his horses through and down a narrow drive to a bricked rear courtyard. The landau drew to a stop, and the carriage swayed as Jethro stepped to the pavement to open the door for her.
Alysson climbed out, looking up at the back of the house where a man stood at the top of the steps, holding a candle.
"I be awaitin' fo' yo, ma'am," Jethro said, removing his hat. "Mr. Stephens dere, he gonna show yo de way now."
Alysson thanked him, lifting her skirts to climb the wide stair to where the other servant awaited her.
"This way, miss," Mr. Stephens said brusquely, but it was not until they were inside a narrow corridor beside the kitchen that she got a good look at him.
He was short, not much above Alysson's own height, and she immediately assumed he was the butler of the house from his immaculate attire of black frock-coat and trousers and a stiff white collar. He was quite fat around the middle but his features were pleasant, his hazel eyes calm and intelligent. He wore a short, manicured mustache, and his mien and mannerisms were very formal and precise.
"You are tardy, Miss Larousse. Please follow me, as time is of the essence."
Alysson started to correct him as to her identity, then changed her mind, trailing after him as he entered the kitchen and crossed alongside spotless white counters upon a shiny wooden floor to a back servant's stairway. Upstairs, the corridor was wide and lavishly decorated, with handsome chairs and tables lining the walls below oil-darkened pastoral landscapes that Alysson longed to stop and admire. The fastidious butler did not show any inclination to let her, however, and Alysson had to hurry to catch up to him, thinking that whoever Rosalie's friend was, he was very rich. Stephens finally stopped before a door at the far end of the corridor.
"You will find your costume inside. The master will join you shortly."
He opened the door, standing back politely as she walked past him. He pulled the door shut behind her, and Alysson stopped and looked around the spacious bedchamber. It was done in obviously masculine tastes of midnight blues and deep wine reds. Her gaze halted on a huge mahogany bed with a massive carved headboard.
A wave of apprehension swept her as her eyes examined the rest of the room, the tall armoire of dark wood, a matching pair of wing chairs in wine velvet that graced either side of a black marble fireplace. A fire burned a cheerful welcome, the snapping and crackling of the flames loud in the silent chamber. She saw no costume at first, but a Chinese silk screen with black lacquered frame was positioned in one corner near the bed. She walked across to it, running her fingertips admiringly over the scarlet silk embroidered with silver pagodas stitched at the base of blue cloud-ringed mountains.
Stepping around it, she found a flowing black satin nightgown hanging on a hook. She lifted the smooth fabric, never having felt anything quite so soft. She had never worn anything remotely resembling the expensive garment, and she smiled to think of her plain, high-necked linen nightdresses. They seemed very childish indeed next to such wicked-looking apparel. She found herself torn, a trifle frightened to think of wearing it in the presence of a man, despite Rosalie's assurances of his honor, but on the other hand eager to slip into it and luxuriate in the feel of the lustrous satin against her bare skin.
She lifted down the hanger. Rosalie had assured her that her friend was a gentleman, so why should she worry? Rosalie would certainly not have sent Odette into a potentially dangerous situation. With that thought firmly in mind, she unfastened the buttons down the front of her dress. She slipped out of it, and pulled the black gown over her head, frowning as it settled into place. The black silk was cut to drape in a low v both in front and back, and the white chemise Alysson wore showed quite clearly over her breasts. She obviously could not wear it that way.
She bit her lip, reluctant to take off any more of her clothes. Why, she would be practically naked without her chemise! She tried to tuck the undergarment where it wouldn't show, then frowned and gave up on it. She would have to take it off. She did and was completely scandalized at her appearance in the mirror on the wall behind her. She stared at the white flesh of her breasts barely covered by the clinging gown, then up at her face to find a blush rising into her cheeks at the mere thought of some strange man, and perhaps even others, seeing her in such a way.
Copyright © 1987 by Linda Ladd