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Night had fallen upon London. A hackney coach clattered over the damp cobblestones, its lights dim in the thick, wet fog. The hard-faced coachman flogged his emaciated horse. There was an eerie stillness in the streets, an absence of the raucous noises that usually issued from gambling hells and dilapidated tenements that housed thieves, whores and murderers. The emaciated beast stumbled, almost fell. Cursing, the coachman leaped down from his high seat.
He heard, then, countless angry shouts, a scant distance away. Bow Street, he thought, and scowled. Grasping the bridle of his unhappy horse, he led it over the slippery cobblestones. If there was to be violent protest against the law, the coachman meant to have his say.
They stepped into a wider street. Shops, a tavern and substantial houses sat back a neat distance from the road. Outside Bow Street Public Office a milling mob had massed, their voices raised now to a deafening pitch. Here were Covent Garden's denizens, prostitutes and pickpockets, dollymops and cracksmen, every example of London's seething underworld. Lit by linksmen's torches, it was a gathering as festive as any hanging. Through the crowd shuffled hawkers of hot chestnuts and oranges, beer and gin.
"What's about?" asked the coachman of a dull-eyed slattern. She held a baby sucking a gin-soaked rag.
"They've nicked Leda Langtry again." The woman spat on the cobblestones. Even the coachman knew of Leda. He swore again.
Inside the stuffy courtroom, the oaths of Bow Street's Chief Magistrate went unvoiced. Sir John gazed around the chamber, which was filled to overflowing with rowdy spectators, and thought with a flash of humor that it lookedas if sixteen hundred persons had been invited to a house incapable of holding more than sixteen. But it was not a matter to amuse him for long. Already the Chief Magistrate had read the Riot Act to disperse the angry mob, and he wondered if next he would be forced to call in the dragoons.
"Leda Langtry," he said, his eyes tired beneath his powdered wig. Before him stood a plump and gentle-faced elderly woman with snow-white hair. She was dressed in black. Her wrists were bound at her waist. "You will cease to enliven my court with further burlesque incidents, or suffer the penalty."
"Will I?" she murmured, so quietly that none but he could hear. "Don't lay odds on it, Sir John. Tomorrow you may read all the details of my suffering in the Apocalypse."
Though Sir John's expression did not change, his annoyance grew. Leda Langtry might look like everyone's notion of a gentle grandmother, but he knew from past experience that she could be vicious indeed.
He picked up his gavel. He had known, of course, that a bench warrant had been issued for Leda's arrest, but he could not have foreseen that she would be brought to Bow Street. Sir John would have much preferred to have before him, for example, culprits taken into custody on charges of theft. London had been plagued by an outbreak of daring robberies during the past few weeks. The most rigid and searching inquiries had brought forth not a single clue.
"Now you keep me standing here while you air-dream?" demanded Leda. "Be warned that I mean to tell the world every detail of this infamous proceeding, Sir John."
"Quiet!" He brought down the gavel with such force that it briefly silenced the noisy spectators. "Leda Langtry, you have been brought before me on very grave charges. What say you in your defense?"
"Tsk, Sir John! You have not yet warned me that any statement I make may be used in evidence." She dared reprove him as if he were an errant schoolboy. The audience tittered, delighted as always to see a facer delivered to the law.
The Chief Magistrate repressed a sigh. Had he the freedom to follow his own inclination, he would dismiss Leda with nothing more than a severe admonition and a caution to reform her conduct. But Sir John dared not defy his Regent.
"Be damned to your impudence!" he said softly, then raised his voice. "Leda Langtry, it is my duty to tell you that on the evidence presented before me, I must remand you for trial."
"No!" gasped Leda, and fell back a step. Angry jeers filled the room.
Sir John rose, his features impassive. "In the interim you will be lodged at Newgate Prison. I leave you, madam, to reflect on your coming fate."
"Well-a-day!" said Lady Bligh, as she perused the morning newspaper. "Yet another robbery has been committed and I'm sure--considering the paltry efforts of Bow Street to apprehend the culprits!--that it isn't to be wondered at."
Mignon looked curiously at her aunt. Her prior acquaintance with this one of her relatives was slight, though the Baron and Baroness Bligh were a matter of no small discussion, most of it censorious, within the family circle. Dulcie was as notorious for her eccentricity and flamboyance as her husband was for his adventurousness--and for other things as well, which unfortunately, were never discussed in Mignon's hearing. "Oh?" said she.
Lady Bligh screwed up her patrician features and sneezed. The Baroness had, as a result of attending a Vauxhall masquerade, taken a lingering cold. The Baron had embarked shortly thereafter upon an excursion to the Continent, there to witness for himself the ravages left in the wake of Napoleon. All the world was traveling that fall, now that the Emperor had been overthrown: elegant ladies and gentlemen sallied forth, watering at the mouth in anticipation of fashionable new wardrobes; gourmets and libertines threaded a path to Paris, gorging themselves in transit on French food and wine and feasting their eyes on a panorama of feminine beauty unequalled anywhere.
Mignon stared at the portrait of her uncle that hung above the fireplace. Maximilian Bonaventure Bligh, rover and rogue, was one of the most spectacular figures of his day. A swarthy man with gray-streaked raven hair, heavy-lidded dark eyes and an aquiline nose, he was both dashing and unpredictable, a great traveler, a collector of rare and curious objects. He was also an impenitent and incurable rake and credited with more conquests than Don Juan.
"People hoped," said Lady Bligh with the uncanny accuracy of thought that was one of her less lovable traits, "that Bat would stop sowing his wild oats when he came of age." Her smile was more than a little wicked. "They were disappointed, of course."
Mignon did not wish to discuss her absent uncle, who rendered her acutely uncomfortable by the knowing quality of merely his painted gaze. "You were saying?" she murmured politely. "Something about another robbery?"
"Indeed I was." Dulcie returned to her newspaper. "Lady Coates has been relieved of a faro bank of five hundred guineas, and two of her footmen have been discharged on suspicion of the theft. Imbeciles! This is only the latest in a rash of robberies, all of which I'll wager have been perpetrated by the same clever gang of criminals."
Mignon did not know how best to respond. Lady Bligh's involvement in the recent Arbuthnot scandals had been highly deprecated by her family, but the Baroness was far from being prostrated by the resultant notoriety. She said, cautiously, "Lady Coates?"
"Yes, and I'm sure it's no more than she deserves, having herself fleeced countless ensigns and French émigrés." Lady Bligh paused to refill her teacup. "Some women of fashion keep faro tables as a source of income. The holder of the bank is bound to win." She fell silent, absently stroking the huge orange-striped cat, Casanova by name, which sprawled across her lap. Perched on the back of her massive carved chair was a huge hyacinth macaw. "Hang him from the yardarm!" suggested Bluebeard.
Mignon wondered for perhaps the hundredth time why Dulcie had commanded her presence. Had Lady Bligh but known it, her timing was admirable. Mignon's family had been only too happy to send her off to London and out of temptation's way, for Mignon had blotted her copybook in a manner that not only sent her long-suffering mother very nearly into convulsions but that made her chances of forming an eligible connection remote indeed. An eligible connection! Mignon thought resentfully. She would wed the man of her choice, no matter how grave a mésalliance it might be considered, or she would wed no one. Mignon might be in London, she might rub shoulders with the haut ton, but she was determined to derive no pleasure from the experience.
"Foolish child!" said Lady Bligh, apropos of nothing at all, and then lapsed once more into reverie.
Dulcie Bligh was a stunning creature, tall and voluptuous, with elegantly sculpted cheekbones, an arrogantly aristocratic nose, a generous mouth and a determined chin; and her age was one of the best-kept secrets of the century. That morning the Baroness wore a purple velvet gown with lace yoke and sleeves, an exquisitely embroidered shawl, satin slippers with ribbon lacings, and a fortune in amethysts. She could have posed for a painting, thought Mignon, and wondered what the artist would have made of Lady Bligh's orchid hair.
Dulcie frowned at her newspaper. "These impudent robberies have affected everyone, from the Secretary of State to the beadle of St. Brides, with a severe case of nerves. Thus far assaults have been made on the Guildhall and the Royal College of Physicians, the Post Office and the Royal Exchange, as well as on various private establishments in Mayfair and Marylebone." She picked up a biscuit and idly crumbled it in one hand. "It is obvious that the authorities need assistance. How fortunate for them, my dear Mignon, that we have elected to remain in Town."
Mignon was more than a little in awe of her aunt. Dulcie had an uncanny knack of knowing things that she should not. "We?"
Lady Bligh divided the biscuit equally between her pets. "The investigation of crime will prove an excellent antidote to your unhappy romance." Mignon stared speechless at her aunt, for there was no way Dulcie could have known of her débâcle. She was saved a reply by Lady Bligh's butler, who popped up like an apparition in the doorway.
Gibbon was a cadaverous individual with a shock of white hair and an emaciated face, and his voice had all the joyfulness of a funeral bell. On this occasion, however, he was given no opportunity to speak. "Show him in!" said Lady Bligh.
The butler withdrew. Dulcie sneezed, and turned to Mignon. "Pay attention, my dear. Your opinion may be of no small importance by-and-by. Although he appears merely a young man occupied entirely by his own pleasures, as so many young men are."
Surely her aunt wasn't speaking of Gibbon? Mignon was perplexed. A gentleman stepped across the threshold, then, and drove all other considerations from her head.
He was handsome as an Adonis in his brown jacket and cream unmentionables, over them a topcoat of tan broadcloth. His shirt collar was high and crisp, his cravat faultless, and his waistcoat boasted a smartly shaped, smoothly rolling, collar and lapels. The hair that curled slightly over his collar was a burnished reddish-gold. His features were emotionless and aloof, lending him a haughty air. Mignon reminded herself firmly that she was the unhappy victim of love gone wrong.
The gentleman in turn scrutinized the room and its occupants. The Bligh town mansion was the repository of the Baron's more concrete flights of fancy, and this particular chamber, octagonal in design and furnished in shades of black and white and gray, boasted not only a domed ceiling with fan design but walls enlivened with dancing nymphs, gryphons and other fantastic beasts. Full-bosomed caryatids supported the fireplace's mantelpiece.
"Overwhelming, is it not?" Lady Bligh edged the cat off her lap and rose to her feet. "But you haven't come here to inspect the furnishings. Get on with it, young man."
It was generally conceded that the Baron Bligh's greatest, and perhaps most fanciful, treasure was his wife. The caller's eyes lingered on the Baroness's lilac curls. Despite himself, his lips twitched, and a hint of warmth appeared in his brown eyes.
He made a polite little bow. "Forgive my intrusion. I would not have disturbed your privacy had it not been a matter of some importance. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Ivor Jessop, Lady Bligh." Mignon, watching with amusement the stranger's reaction to her aunt, thought his husky voice one of the most pleasant she had ever heard, one to charm canaries from their perches, perhaps, or ladybirds from their boughs.
Lady Bligh waved her visitor toward an ornately carved chair upholstered in silver-gray Italian velvet that matched the window hangings. She then scooped up the orange tomcat and resumed her own seat. "Ivor Jessop, Viscount Jeffries, thirty years of age. Your parents are both presumed dead. From the time of their divorce you were raised by your uncle, Lord Calvert--quite worthy, I'm sure, but a dreadful bore--whose heir you are. You are a trifle wild, possess only a rudimentary sense of humor, and have the entrée everywhere; you also have all you could wish for, or so you think, including wealth, breeding, and an avaricious little opera dancer named Zoe." Having nicely astonished her guest, Dulcie smiled. "You also have a look of your mother, young man."
Mignon, who had been idly imagining their guest's petite amie, a damsel doubtless frail and tiny and exquisitely fashioned, was intrigued by his obvious lack of ease. It did not appear a sensation with which he was familiar, or one for which he cared. "I am here on a matter of some delicacy," he said coolly. "I would prefer that we speak privately."
"Privately?" repeated Lady Bligh. "Ah, you refer to my niece! You may find that Miss Montague will prove of no small service to you."
Mignon had no desire whatsoever to be of service to a man who so strongly resembled the carved satyr masks of the chair in which he sat. Seeking to mask the resentment that the Viscount's attitude had aroused, she rose from her chair. "I'm sure I can find something to occupy me elsewhere."
"Poppycock!" said Dulcie. "Sit down, my dear, and overlook our guest's boorish manner. The gentleman has a great deal on his mind." Her eyes flicked from Mignon's startled face to Ivor's darkening countenance. "Proceed, if you will. We are wasting time."
Already regretting the impulse that had brought him there, the Viscount regarded his hands. "I have come in behalf of a friend of yours, Lady Bligh, one whom you have not seen in a number of years, and who is now in serious difficulties." He paused, wondering how he might best proceed. The Baroness offered him no assistance, but contemplated the portrait of her spouse. "In short, Lady Bligh," Ivor went on, "your friend is presently lodged in the Newgate Prison prior to her appearance at the bar of the Old Bailey."
"Ah," murmured Dulcie. "The freedom of the written word. One who dares come out in support of the Luddite rioters and their machine smashing, and then compounds her offense by traducing Prinny, is not likely to long escape meditation in a prison cell."
The Viscount's brow was furrowed. "May I ask how you knew of that?"
"You may not," retorted Dulcie. Mignon stifled an impulse to applaud.
The Baroness picked up a newspaper from the stack beside her chair. "The London Apocalypse, most radical of the city's news sheets, and Leda's tour de force. How I knew of her arrest is not important; it is a matter of far more curiosity that a gentleman of your vast superiority would consort with a female whose pen works untiringly for the laboring classes, especially those small farmers who are being displaced by the Enclosure Acts."
"Consort?" repeated the Viscount. "Leda is more than two decades older than I. Almost, I believe, your own age." Dulcie's fine eyes narrowed and he smiled. "I made her acquaintance recently and quite by accident; and while I do not agree with Leda's political extremism, I am fascinated by her eccentricity. She spoke to me of you during the Arbuthnot matter. Hence my awareness of your friendship."
Lady Bligh rose and paced the floor with considerable grace. The orange cat, left in sole possession of the chair, looked warily at the blue parrot before settling himself more comfortably.
"You wish me to use my influence on Leda's behalf," said Dulcie. "Why? Leda is merely following in the footsteps of her fellow journalists. Leigh Hunt went the same route a couple of years past, receiving a 500 pound fine and a sentence of two years' imprisonment in Surrey Gaol. He called Prinny 'a corpulent Adonis,' as I recall."
"This is a somewhat different case." The Viscount followed Dulcie's movements with his eyes. "I would apply to my uncle in Leda's behalf, but he is a very sick man."
"Nor," said the Baroness dryly, as she moved toward the marble mantelpiece, "would he approve of your concern. This is hardly Leda's first sojourn within Newgate's bleak walls. She indulged in a piece of satire against the House of Lords some years back and was subjected to a three-month imprisonment."
The Viscount also rose, treating Mignon to a rare view of a superb masculine physique. She hastily averted her gaze to the volume of verse she'd been reading earlier. "Leda is an elderly lady," Ivor said, his voice hard, "and hardly of a constitution to happily suffer prison life. I had hoped your friendship might prompt you to act in her behalf, but I see I misjudged you. Forgive me for disturbing your no doubt important pursuits."
"You sound like your uncle." The Baroness paused to sneeze again. Lady Bligh and the unfortunate Leda might have been much of an age, but Dulcie looked so far from elderly that she could have been Lord Jeffries' peer.
"And," added Lady Bligh, when she had caught her breath, "a more pompous windbag than Lord Calvert I have yet to meet." She appeared not to notice that the Viscount drew himself up indignantly in his uncle's defense. "I haven't said I wouldn't help you, young man, although your concern is misplaced. You would do much better to leave Leda where she is."
Ivor looked as if he strongly wished himself elsewhere, as indeed he did, having come to consider Bligh House as little better than a house of curiosities with the Baroness the prize exhibit. "I cannot imagine what you're thinking."
"Naturally you cannot, and fortunate it is." Lady Bligh contemplated a chess set carved in jasper. "So I am to go to Prinny and ask his forgiveness on Leda's behalf? A pity that our Regent is as ridiculous as he is thin-skinned, or it wouldn't matter a whit Leda has informed the world that he enjoys his vices and leaves politics to his ministers; that he entertains shapely tightrope dancers in his private rooms at Carlton House while leaving Lord Castlereagh to represent England at the Congress of Vienna." Mignon, no peruser of newspaper accounts, gasped. Jeffries glanced in her direction, and she once more buried her nose in her book.
Dulcie ran her fingers through her orchid-colored curls, rather to their detriment. "Or do you prefer that I apply to Lord Warwick, who acts as Prinny's emissary in such matters, and who is a thoroughly detestable man? He cherishes a violent antipathy to my husband, considering Bat a despoiler of innocent English womanhood."
"And is he?" queried the Viscount, intrigued despite himself.
Lady Bligh laughed huskily, but her amusement quickly fled. "I ask you once more to reconsider," she said, as she moved from the fireplace to stand beside Mignon's chair. "And leave Leda where she is. I shall secure her release if you are set on it, but only because if I do not you will simply find someone else."
"Precisely," said Ivor.
"Very well. The consequences are on your head. You will remember that I warned you."
"I assure you, I will forget not the smallest detail of this encounter, Lady Bligh." The Viscount studied the young woman bent so assiduously over her book. "I trust your niece is as discreet as you say. I do not care to have my association with Leda made public knowledge."
Mignon raised her eyes and in them was an annoyed expression that caused him to arch one sandy brow. Dulcie's hand dropped to her niece's shoulder, and squeezed. "You may trust Mignon," she said calmly. "That is something else you may have reason to recall."
Ivor suspected if he remained much longer in the presence of this exasperating woman he would forget his upbringing and say something unforgivably rude. "I will take my leave of you, then." He made an exit as graceful as it was abrupt.
Mignon rubbed her bruised shoulder. What had Dulcie been afraid she'd say? "The toad didn't even thank you."
"Young Jessop will have ample opportunity to express his gratitude." Again Dulcie wore that odd little frown. "We will be seeing a great deal more of him."
"We will?" Mignon was studiously nonchalant. Lady Bligh regarded her niece, and her mouth twisted into a little smile.
"Rhymed tales of corsairs and exotic slave girls and lovesick Eastern princes," murmured the Baroness. "I think you will find, my dear, that Wordsworth reads much better when not held upside down."
Mignon tossed aside the book. For no good reason that she could think of, she rose to inspect herself in the silvered looking glass that was topped by an eagle motif. Staring back at her was a very ordinary damsel, taller than average, with bright red hair and freckles, whose only claim to beauty was a pair of large sea-green eyes. In the mirror, she watched as the parrot leaned forward and applied his sharp beak to a particularly tempting patch of orange fur. The cat shrieked and leaped straight into the air.
The Baroness rapped her knuckles sharply against Bluebeard's beak, and then cradled the tomcat, which looked as though he'd like to make a meal of his tormentor. "Poor Casanova. As for that, poor Leda, too. The dashing Viscount would save us a great deal of trouble if he'd only listened to me."
Mignon made no reply. She was guilt-stricken by the realization that she hadn't spared a single thought to her lost love for over an hour.
Dulcie deposited herself and her bristling burden once more in the carved chair. "You do not mean to cooperate either, I see."
Mignon abandoned the looking glass, her spirits further oppressed by its familiar message that she would never be other than plain. "Cooperate in what manner?" she asked bluntly. "It is good of you to have me here, and I am grateful, but I think I should be informed if you mean to involve me in some scheme."
Lady Bligh was as devious as she was lovely, and not given to explanations. Imitating his mistress perfectly, Bluebeard sneezed.