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By Which a Hostess's Intentions Are Made Plain
Alice Payne's dinner party fractures in the dessert course. She can almost see a fissure split the gleaming walnut of her new table, running between the plate of lemon cakes and the bowl of macaroons and veering catercorner to the custards. The footman (a glorious sensation, to have a footman at Fleance Hall!) pours for each guest, and Alice sees that they have chosen their factions.
Some drink port and talk politics: Alice herself, and Prudence Zuniga, the newest resident of Fleance Hall. Catherine Jenner, the youngest member of the party at twenty-eight years old, who has just come out of her first confinement. And at the far end of the table, next to Jane, Ambrose Duncan, the painter.
Some drink tea and talk science: her beloved Jane, of course. Gertrude Lytton, seventy years old if she's a day, who has recently won a thirty-four-year inheritance lawsuit and can finally claim to own the house in which she lives with Agnes Bell. And Miss Bell, ostensibly Miss Lytton's companion, in much the same way that Jane is ostensibly Alice's companion. And the final tea-drinker is Edward Jenner, country doctor and polymath, married to Catherine.
"But how can we be sure that the king has recovered?" Catherine Jenner asks.
Mr. Duncan seems to assume that the question was directed at him, or at least that his opinion is the most germane.
"We never can be sure, but so long as His Majesty remains able to perform at least some of the functions of his office, all our Whig hopes for democratic reform must be tempered," Mr. Duncan says, and sighs, swirling the port in his glass.
"But what must that mean for the anti-slavery movement?" Mrs. Jenner continues, and all of the white-skinned people at the table very studiously do not look at Prudence Zuniga in that moment. It's a curious development; Alice, whose own mother was enslaved, is used to being the subject of averted gazes. But Prudence, being darker complected than Alice, being a stranger to Hampshire, has spun some invisible social orrery, changing all the angles of the glances.
"Nothing good, I'm afraid," says Prudence, with a little twitch at the corner of her mouth.
Alice's quizzical glance draws nothing more from Prudence, as usual. Prudence will seldom be drawn on the subject of the future. She protests that "the future" does not exist, that there are many possible futures, and that the future whence she came very likely no longer exists. Still, she sometimes gets a knowing look in her eyes that is irritating in the extreme, in combination with her reticence.
* * *
At the same moment as Catherine Jenner asks about the king, her husband Edward Jenner leans toward Jane, and asks, "But how can you be sure that the light itself was the cause of the needle's action?"
"The experiment must be repeated, of course," Jane says, with a slight flush to her cheek that Alice recognizes well. "But I have thought at great length about the affinity that underlies light, and magnetism, and electricity."
"You see some sort of occult connexion?" Miss Lytton asks, eagerly.
"Well, I wouldn't put it quite that way," says Jane. "But I do think —"
"My mentor always says a man of science should never think, but only do," says Dr. Jenner. "It is only through repeated examinations of the interior workings of the cuckoo, you see, that I was able to gain entrance to the Royal Society, and that only just this year. It takes many years of hard work to get anywhere in science, Miss Hodgson."
Jane sips her tea. "The Royal Society has made it quite clear that I shall not gain entry, Dr. Jenner, no matter how many birds I cut open."
"Of course," he says, slightly flustered. "Well, never mind about them, my dear. I only mean to say that reason must always be handmaiden to observation. I have learned a great deal by observing the simple country people, but if I am to convince the esteemed gentlemen in London of the truth of anything, I must gather evidence. They have yet to be convinced, for example, that a bout of cowpox in childhood can confer immunity to smallpox, but I have seen ..."
"Captain Auden will be heartbroken to have missed this," Prudence whispers, leaning toward Alice so only she will hear, under the din of the two larger simultaneous conversations.
"Ha," Alice whispers back with a smile. "I think all his so-called investigating is a neat excuse. After all, we know he could be here at any time he likes. What is he off investigating today? The Princes in the Tower again?"
"Arthur of Brittany," Prudence says.
"Dr. Jenner, are you on about the cowpox again?" Mr. Duncan says, too loudly, and the table goes silent. Mr. Duncan is florid now, on his fourth glass.
"Forgive me," says Dr. Jenner, inclining his head. "My wife says that once I get in a rut, it would take a Clydesdale team to pull me out."
He says my wife in a way that makes it clear the phrase has all the luster of newness still to him, and he takes her hand.
"It occurs to me that I have not congratulated you on the birth of your son, Jenner," Mr. Duncan continues. "A new subject for your experiments."
"Not if I can help it," Catherine says, with a bright smile.
"A wife is a wonderful thing," Mr. Duncan goes on, as if no one had spoken. "A wonderful thing. The saviour of a man, I always say. Otherwise the passions of men miscarry in the most destructive ways."
"You make the passions of men sound rather horrible, Mr. Duncan," says Alice. She takes a few comfits, like tiny white pearls of rice, from her plate with a silver spoon. The sugared seeds brighten her tongue, benumb it just a little, as the earthy warmth of the caraway spreads through her mouth. She gently works the seeds between two molars, which helps her to say nothing more for the moment. She glances at the two old ladies, who seem likely to destroy Mr. Duncan simply by staring beatifically at him.
"Oh of course, I should not speak of such things to maiden ladies," the painter says, redder and louder now. "Women cannot understand it, of course."
"You think we are not capable of love, then, Mr. Duncan?" Miss Lytton asks, with a smile of glorious indifference.
"Oh, you mistake me. Why, Miss Lytton, you and Miss Bell are examples of the kind of love that comes naturally to women. A chaste love."
Alice and Jane catch each other keeping their mouths from twisting into giggles. But the two old ladies, who have shared the same household since George II was on the throne, simply stare at Mr. Duncan, their faces inscrutable.
"I have heard it said," Alice says, examining the port in her glass as if scrying, "that not all love between ladies is entirely chaste."
She doesn't need to look to the end of the table to know that Jane's fair face has gone pink. Alice delights in showing Jane how little she cares about the opinion of the world. And why should she care, now? Now that she has paid off Father's creditors, and Fleance Hall is a proper home, with a roof that does not leak, and a footman? Now that they can live as they like, and do as they like? For the most part.
Mr. Duncan makes a sound like a kettle about to boil. "I hope you pay little attention to the scurrilous libels in the London newspapers, Miss Payne. Certainly there are women who amuse themselves with Sapphic romances, but there is no true carnality in ... playacting. It's a physiological impossibility, you see. Isn't it, Dr. Jenner?"
Dr. Jenner taps his teacup with his fingernail. "I am afraid most of my study of reproduction has to do with hedgehogs, sir."
"Ha," says Duncan. "Well, I'll leave it there. I see Mrs. Jenner is blushing. I forget I am not among my artistic friends."
Alice smiles at Catherine Jenner, who is in fact visibly amused, and opens her mouth to change the subject.
But Mr. Duncan has apparently not entirely tired of the sound of his own voice. He leans closer to Jane, so close that the razor-bumps on his chin very nearly brush her perfect cheek, and he whispers something that makes the muscles just under Jane's eyes contract. Jane stands, so abruptly that Duncan is thrown back, and Alice can tell from that exactly where his left hand was, the one that is not holding his glass.
Alice sits back, interlaces her fingers, save for the two index fingers, which she holds to her lips. She gazes upon her beloved, thoughtfully, fiercely.
Jane raises her teacup, and says, "To the health of our hostess, Alice Payne."
Alice's lips smile, and her eyes send Jane an eternal message, a cipher for which Jane will always hold the key.
"Yes. To the mistress of Fleance Hall," says Miss Bell.
They turn, glasses foolishly in hand, to see Colonel John Payne standing in the doorway in his red silk banyan and brown cap. His eyes are red-rimmed but he is not drunk; his gaze is clearer than she's seen it in years. But he's shrunken from pain and illness, and the suspicion that was once a mere chancre on his character has now taken over his entire expression.
Alice walks to him, puts a tentative hand on his arm. "Father."
"You didn't want me at your party, Alice?"
"Your nurse said you were indisposed, sir."
"On the contrary. I feel very well indeed."
"That's the laudanum," she murmurs, but she turns to the company, puts her arm through her father's. He smells sour. "My father, Colonel Payne."
The company bids him good evening. "Will you take a brandy with us, sir?" Duncan calls out.
The Colonel steps eagerly, obstinately, out of Alice's arm and toward the table, but his legs are unsteady. He turns back, looks at Alice's face. She does not try to forbid him or chide him. What difference would it make? There was a time when the Colonel was more cruel when in his cups, to please himself, but now he is cruel always, despite himself.
Still, he nods slightly, as though she's said something. He glances down.
"I am tired," he says.
"Let me take you to your rooms, Father," she says, softly, privately, but he shakes his head, and turns again and walks out of the dining room, back the way he came. Satterthwaite, his loyal manservant, appears in the door like a spectre.
The party breaks up quickly, after the old ladies take snuff and Dr. Jenner engages Jane in some headlong discourse about yolk sacs. As they watch Ambrose Duncan don his greatcoat and walk through the hall, Alice says to Prudence and particularly to Jane, "You see? I told you he was a pig. I had an intuition, but I didn't expect him to show it that way. Are you all right, Jane?"
"Teach him a lesson, Alice," Prudence says. "Auden has my shimmer belt, but you can use the timewheel."
"Good," says Alice. "If only I had known, when I first became a knight of the road, that it was possible to be in two places at once." She checks the watch on the chain at her belt. "It's just a few minutes past nine o'clock now. I'll arrive at ten past on the hill. It'll be sure to catch him, and there would be no way I could have reached there first. I mean, in the absence of a time-wheel."
Jane nods. "As you like."
"You don't seem eager, beloved. And you had to sit next to the ass and his wandering hands all evening. I'm sorry about that, dear. If I'd known just how —"
"I only wonder what the point of it is. Yes, he'll have a fright, and lose some money. No one will know that we're the ones who did it, or why he deserved it."
"We'll know," Alice protests. She waves her hand at the far end of the hall, where the doors open from Fleance Hall out onto the world. "There is no justice out there. But here in this house" — she points her finger at the polished floor — "in this house, there will be justice."
Jane nods, but she says softly, "It seems a very small measure of justice, for such a large house."
One Woman Too Many
Alice has so little faith in Ambrose Duncan's character that she is wearing her breeches under her petticoats. Once the gown comes off, the coat goes on, and the cocked hat and black mask. Around her mouth, her green kerchief, torn and speckled with the stains of her own blood. Her pistols at her waist, she goes out to saddle Havoc.
And with that, Alice Payne becomes the Holy Ghost, the most feared highwayman in Hampshire.
The first time Alice used Prudence's time-travel device out on the road, she considered going alone, without her horse. After all, she needed no conveyance to bring her from Fleance Hall to any part of the road — or the world — at any moment she wished. But Havoc is as much a part of her costume as the kerchief or the pistols. She needs her gulls to know that she can chase them.
The trouble was that Havoc did not much like walking from one part of time and space to another, and would snort and quiver, and very nearly gave her away a few times. So Alice has had him go back and forth, through the shimmer, speaking softly to him and giving him plenty of breaks to canter on familiar ground.
Now, he faces the shimmer like a veteran, as Jane adjusts the time-wheel and a circle of strangeness appears at the stable door.
Alice never feels quite well herself when passing through a shimmer to another time and place — there's a moment of shock something like entering a cold stream, only without the cold or the wet — but she recovers, and Havoc stands brave and firm. They are on Gibbet Hill, overlooking Dray Road. Her road.
She can see, down below, the shapes of the old church, the dry-stone wall where Laverna, her automaton, once stood in wait. But Laverna has been dismantled now, her constituent parts added to the jumble in Jane's study.
She shivers in memory of the chill of that winter night, three months ago, when one of her gulls set a trap for her. Just as she was preparing to shout, "Stand and deliver," a man leaped from the old stone wall right onto Havoc's back. He had a knife, and he managed to cut her arm and slice the green handkerchief off her face before she knocked him to the ground and galloped away. He left her with the tiniest scar beside her ear — no one but Jane would notice it — but without her kerchief, and she was angry about that. How dare some nameless lout walk in the world with her kerchief?
Then she learned that the nameless lout had in fact turned it over to the parish constable, as evidence. And as the parish constable is her friend and neighbour Captain Wray Auden, Alice saw it again in his hands. He carried it on him, as a kind of token or reminder of the mystery he has yet to solve: the mystery of the Holy Ghost.
It rankled, that bit of stained green peeking out from Captain Auden's pocket as he bent over Alice's billiard table. It was hers, and she wanted it back. She used the time-wheel to enter his study while he was sleeping, plucked it from his desk, and now it is hers again. Torn and bloodied though it be, she refuses to wear any other, out on the road.
And Captain Auden's determination to lay his hands on the highwayman has only grown since said highwayman brazenly robbed his very home.
A small shape on the road from the direction of Fleance Hall; she puts a hand to Havoc's withers to calm him, though he shows no sign of moving or making a sound. But it is not her mark, not yet. It's Miss Lytton and Miss Bell in their phaeton. They pass her by, and she waits, unseen. The women left the party well before Mr. Duncan did, and though Mr. Duncan might go a little faster on horseback, he won't have overtaken them yet.
It's a fine night, crisp, but with very little moon. She hears Mr. Duncan before she sees him, riding his roan mare.
She smiles and presses one of the buttons on Jane's latest marvellous device.
As Duncan approaches a particular patch of the road, his horse rears. A plume of vapour rises from the ground, lit in such a fashion that it looks almost as though it has a shape, and that the shape might almost be human. Those two points of light, within, almost like eyes.
The second button, and a horrible wail sounds over the land. Just the wind in an open mouth of metal that rises from the earth a little way away, but the design makes it sound nearly human. Nearly.
"Christ!" Duncan screams. "What in God's name —"
The third button, and a circle of flames shoots up all around him. A dozen jets of fire, from hidden pipes in the earth. Jane nearly blew herself up in the making of this trap, but then she nearly blows herself up three times a week, and wears her scars with pride.
The mare screams.
Alice moves her leg against Havoc and they ride forward, into the light cast by the circle of flame. Another button, and all but two of the flames subside, so he can see her. Let him get a good look, she thinks, and is nearly tempted to pull down her kerchief. But she does not.
"Out of the road, rogue," says Duncan. "I won't be cowed by your sham."
"Sham?" she asks, her voice as low as she can make it. "The fire is real, sir. Ride through it if you like."
And she lets the flames rise again. His shoulder quivers, he turns in his seat as if seeking egress, but he makes no move.
She lets them die down again, and then he moves, kicking his horse, and she lets them rise up just as they're about to reach them. The mare rears and Duncan slips a little in the saddle.
Excerpted from "Alice Payne Rides"
Copyright © 2019 Kate Heartfield.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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