The Blackstone Key: A Novel

The Blackstone Key: A Novel

by Rose Melikan


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It is 1795, and Mary Finch sets off to meet her wealthy uncle, hoping to heal a bitter family estrangement and perhaps to avoid a dismal career teaching at Mrs. Bunbury's school for young ladies. Eager for an adventure, she is soon embroiled in one of frightening proportions, for war is raging across Europe, England faces the threat of invasion, and some secrets are more valuable than gold.

As she uncovers a complex and deadly plot involving ruthless smugglers, secret codes, and a dangerous network of spies and traitors, Mary must learn quickly whom she can trust. The apparently stalwart Captain Holland? The dangerous yet attractive Mr. Déprez? Perhaps the mysterious Hicks or even Mrs. Tipton, who knows what is best for everyone, especially Mary? The price of failure may be her life and the safety of all England.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416560807
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Edition description: Original
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rose Melikan was born in Detroit, Michigan. Since 1993, she has been a Fellow of St.
Catharine's College, Cambridge. Her academic research centers on 18th and early 19th
British political and constitutional history. She lives in Cambridge, England with her husband.

Read an Excerpt


The clock at Great St. Mary's Church in Cambridge tolled the half hour on a grey, gloomy, October morning in the year 1795. The rain had stopped, but heavy clouds made further showers likely, while the wind streaming down from the north had a wintry bite. In short, it was the sort of morning that could easily have defeated scholarly enthusiasm and kept the shops on King's Parade dark for at least another hour. And yet traffic was brisk and included more than one gentleman's carriage, while at the Eagle, a prominent coaching inn, such was the noise from the crush of patrons that the bells of the University Church went unheard.

The door of the Eagle opened, unsuccessfully at first, for there was someone standing against it, and a young woman slipped inside. She was dressed in a traveling cloak and a black tricorne. In a less crowded establishment the tricorne might have excited interest. Everything else about its wearer suggested the economy of a woman in genteel poverty. Her cloak was worn and frayed along the bottom, and her boots had been resoled, while her scarf had been knitted by inexpert fingers, one of which peeked out of a hole in her glove. Against all of this the tricorne was a rebellion, for such a hat could not have been purchased for less than ten shillings. Moreover, when perched jauntily upon auburn curls, it conveyed an independence of spirit that had not yet been overwhelmed by circumstances. Amid the hubbub of the Eagle's parlor, however, none of this attracted much attention.

Only one man was aware of the newcomer's presence, and that was because he knew her. Dr. Smithson Nichols was a Fellow of Trinity College, and usually he took notice of few facts apart from that one. The young woman in the doorway, however, looked remarkably like one of the teachers at the school in nearby St. Ives where his sister, Miss Nichols, was also employed. Therefore he waved imperturbably in her direction and, as the man sitting beside him was smoking a particularly foul-smelling cigar, even made the effort to cross the room to speak to her.

"Ah, it is Miss Finch, is it not?" he intoned upon reaching her side. "Greetings and felicitations from the alma mater. I see that my dear sister does not accompany you, but I trust that all is well? Mrs. Bunbury's academy remains unchallenged in the land as a temple to female learning?"

Mary Finch disliked Dr. Nichols and his dear sister, but she was feeling sufficiently ill at ease to regard him with more friendliness than she would otherwise have done. She had little experience of a noisy public house, and Dr. Nichols at least had the advantage of familiarity — even if he was a pompous windbag. "Yes," she replied, endeavoring to smile in appreciation of his witticism, "We are all well, only...I am...making a journey."

"A journey?" repeated Dr. Nichols. He rolled the word around in his mouth, as if he did not quite like the taste of it. "I see."

There was no reason why Mary need offer an explanation to Dr. Nichols, but there was something in his tone of voice that made her feel as if she ought to do so. Or perhaps she was anxious about the entire scheme and wished to justify herself. At any rate, she answered his unspoken question. "Yes, to visit my uncle, Mr. Edward Finch. He has an estate in Suffolk, and he has invited me to visit him. You may read all about it in Cary's Atlas — about his estate, I mean."

Mary felt foolish as soon as the words were spoken, and the implication that he might be in the habit of perusing such a common publication made Dr. Nichols frown. "Indeed," he replied, loftily. "Most gratifying, I am sure, to know that the particulars of one's drainage are perused by readers of Cary's Atlas. Whomever they may be," he added, after a slight pause.

"Yes, well..." Mary looked about her, thinking that Dr. Nichols was even more unpleasant than his sister. He might be the...the duke of Cambridge, the way he talked, whereas in fact he lived in his college rooms and very likely knew nothing whatsoever about drainage. And he would probably go straight back to Trinity and read all about her uncle's estate in Cary, for all his airs and graces.

Fortunately none of this indignation was perceptible in her next remark; at least it was not perceptible to Dr. Nichols. "How very crowded it is," she observed. "Do you know, is this usual?"

Perhaps surprisingly, this question caused Dr. Nichols to unbend slightly. He liked being asked his opinion — he gave it freely, whether or not it had been requested, but he preferred to be asked. "No, indeed," he explained, "today's unpleasant crush is the result of a horse race."

"A horse race?" Mary cried. "Here? I mean, in Cambridge?"

"No, no, at Newmarket. The contest has long been anticipated, so I am told, in consequence of which anyone with either an equine interest or a desire to rid himself of a large sum of money — which includes a very large proportion of the populace — is hurrying to that locality by any means possible."

"Oh, dear," said Mary, "then I suppose that it may be difficult to book a place on the coach."

"Nearly impossible, I should say. But you can have no interest in witnessing such a gross spectacle, surely. I would certainly not recommend it."

"Well, I might be interested," countered Mary, if only because she did not want to accept any recommendation from him, "but I must go to Newmarket regardless. It is on the way to Suffolk, you see."

"Ah, yes, to be sure." Dr. Nichols had forgotten about Suffolk, or, rather, he had not listened very carefully in the first place. "Well, this is not the day to travel to Newmarket," he decreed. "I would advise putting off the journey until tomorrow, or next week."

Mary recalled her employer's less than enthusiastic response to the proposed leave of absence. If Mary were to return now it would be ever so much more difficult to get away a second time, and it would look so...weak to acknowledge oneself defeated by the first obstacle. "It would not be quite convenient to put off my departure," she replied, with as much coolness as she could muster.

Dr. Nichols seemed to recall that Miss Finch was a somewhat headstrong young woman — she would undoubtedly please herself whatever prudence (in the person of Dr. Nichols) might suggest. He merely shrugged his shoulders, therefore, to acknowledge his helplessness in the face of her shortcomings, and observed that she had better try to book her place.

"Yes, I had better," she agreed, and, drawing herself up, she edged forward into a gap in the crowd without waiting for a reply. Dr. Nichols considered this highly ill mannered, especially as it prevented him from offering a final admonition against young women traveling alone in public coaches. Instead, he pursed his lips and said, "Good morning," to the place she had just vacated and took his leave.

Mary threaded her way into the taproom and finally reached the bar, where the landlord confirmed Dr. Nichols's prediction: all the places on the Ipswich coach were already booked, at least as far as Newmarket. Then a group of men in long riding coats pressed forward, competing with Mary for the landlord's attention, and her further conversation with him was conducted in a series of shouts.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, as a large man pushed past her.

"Should've booked earlier," bawled the innkeeper. He served up three foaming tankards and mopped the bar where one had overflowed. "All right, I heard you — two pints of the Old Reliable."

"Yes, but what shall I do now? When is the next coach?"

"Day after tomorrow!"

"What? I beg your pardon!" This time she pushed back. "Is there nothing else?"

The landlord wiped his hands and consulted his booking register, running down the page with his finger. "Sorry, miss, I can't see — no, I tell a lie. I've the one seat left on the Norwich diligence."

"But I wish to go to Ipswich!" Mary reminded him as a man leaned over her shoulder to collect his drink. She steadied herself against the bar, and her hands came away sticky from spilled beer. Why was everyone in such a state, jostling and calling out? Some of the men behind her seemed almost angry, and the race was still some hours away.

"The diligence'll beat the coach to Newmarket. Wait a minute now, sir; I'm dealing with the young lady. You can change there, miss, and carry on to Ipswich!"

"Well, I suppose I must do that. I trust there will be places after Newmarket?"

"Bound to be," agreed the landlord. "It's only this race has brought the crowds. Hi, Bill! Here's the last for the True Blue! Tell Jeb that all's secure! Better make your way to the yard as soon as you can, miss. Jeb Miller's that particular about setting off to time."

Mary dug her purse out of her cloak pocket and managed to open it, half expecting that someone would seize it before she could extract the fare, and flung her money down on the bar. Then she struggled back through the crowd to the courtyard, where she encountered an even greater tumult. Conveyances of all kinds were being readied for departure. Saddle horses, whose owners had stepped inside for refreshment before continuing to Newmarket, were being walked up and down to keep them warm. The blast of a horn announced the arrival of the London mail coach. Its four steaming horses stood trembling and tossing their heads, while the coachman demanded instant service in recognition of his valuable cargo. "The Mail! Make way, the Mail! Horses off!"

"Where's your luggage, miss?" asked Bill, a husky, fair-haired boy.

"I have no idea," Mary admitted, and she looked about her anxiously. "When I arrived one of the other boys — with a leather apron — said I could leave my bag with him."

"Don't you worry, miss," said Bill, cheerily, "you did quite right. What sort of bag is it? A leather grip?"

"Yes, with two handles. One is loose — well, broken."

"I'll see you aboard and then I'll fetch it for you."

"Thank you very much."

"That's all right, miss," smiled Bill. He did not often get the chance to serve such a pretty young lady, and that green feather in her hat just matched her eyes. "My word, what a day, eh, miss? How'd you like to be the cause of all this?"

"I do not think it a very likely possibility," Mary laughed. She still felt as if she had been caught up in a rather alarming melee, but she was beginning to see the funny side of it. The Eagle was like an anthill that had been disturbed — it appeared chaotic, but everyone seemed to know his business. She must simply trust that they would send her on her way, and in the right direction.

"Well, all this is Lord Seymour's doing," Bill continued. "They say the colonel's been trying to match Swiftsure against the Arabian Prince for months, but Lord Seymour weren't having none. They only came to terms on Monday, and look at the punters! Mind yer step, miss; the yard's in a right old state today."

Bill steered her toward a neat blue carriage, whose side panel proclaimed itself: The True Blue. Cambridge. Newmarket. Thetford. Norwich. A team of glossy black horses stood between the shafts. "Here you are, miss. This young lady's yer fourth, Jeb," he announced, nodding to the great-coated figure striding up and down beside the vehicle.

The coachman touched his hat to Mary. "Will you step aboard, miss? We're ready to start."

Mary climbed inside, glanced at her three male companions, and slid into the remaining vacant place. Her bag was secured, and then the coach swayed as Jeb Miller ascended to his perch. Almost immediately the servant holding the horses' heads called, "Horses on!" to which Jeb answered, "Let 'em go!" The servant stood aside, and the coachman urged his team forward.

Then they were turning into the King's Parade, and she was on her way. On her way — what a thrilling expression! On her way and not back to school. And yet, as she settled into her seat Mary's thoughts turned inexorably to the life she was leaving behind — perhaps forever — and that possibility caused her a pang of distress. She had been three years at Mrs. Bunbury's school, and three years was a long time when one was only twenty years of age. The routine of the school, such as it was, she knew by heart: morning and evening prayers led by Mrs. Bunbury; lessons — some interesting, some tedious, most indifferent; meals, with the inevitable jam roly-poly for dessert and never enough milk for tea; church on Sunday mornings, and the long Sunday afternoons spent in some "useful" occupation such as darning one's stockings.

Mary mentally checked off the several components of a typical week at Mrs. Bunbury's and smiled ruefully to herself. How could she possibly feel homesick for such a place? There was nothing the least bit exciting about it, and no one interesting ever came to visit. The most that could be expected was some news about Dr. Nichols, triumphantly relayed by his dear sister. It was not all bad, of course, and Mary would miss her colleagues — well, some of them — very much.

She glanced out of the window and watched the autumn countryside roll past her. It was rather dull, if she was honest with herself. The ground was flat, and the rain had beaten the leaves from the trees so that they stood stark and bare. If only the sun would shine it might still have been a cheerful morning, but instead the world seemed an unrelieved palate of grey and muddy brown. If viewed from her bedroom window, the scene would have excited little interest — but, of course, she could have seen nothing of this from any window in Mrs. Bunbury's academy. This view, the diligence, her fellow passengers, even the hurly-burly of the Eagle were all new, and that made all the difference. No pupil, escaping the toils of the schoolroom at the end of term, could have felt a keener sense of freedom.

Copyright © 2008 by Rose Melikan

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. What are your final impressions of the world Melikan created? What elements of the story or its construction aid or hamper your immersion into the world of 1790s England? Would you revisit this world again? Why or why not?
2. Describe the circumstances of Mary Finch's life prior to undertaking the journey to Suffolk. To what degree does she conform to or contradict her upbringing? Provide examples of each.
3. What specifically transpires between Mary and William Tracey as she attempts to nurse his wound on the side of the road? What is the significance of this meeting for Mary? How does her retelling of this event become a means of assessing each new person she encounters?
4. What role does social status play in the novel? How does Melikan reveal the social status of the significant characters? What are we to understand about the value of social status and its relationship to an individual's character and future prospects?
5. What is the significance of St. Lucia and India in the story? Which characters have a particular association with those places? 6. Describe Mary's relationship with Captain Holland and Mr. Déprez. How do her conceptions of each evolve over the course of the novel? Whom did you find most attractive or compelling? Why?
7. What is the importance of legal rules in the story? How do legal rules serve as the cause of Mary's familial conflict and the means for her eventual restoration of life circumstances?
8. What is the Blackstone key? What does it unlock? Explain Mary's role in finding the key and its relevance to the mystery at the core of the novel.
9. What was Hicks and Déprez's plan — or was there more than one? What went awry? What role did they foresee Mary playing?
10. What is the significance of the verse Déprez quotes: "My bonds in thee are all determinate"? What does its utterance allow Mary to conclude about Holland and Déprez? Would you describe either man as Mary's suitor?
11. What is the value of the entire experience for Mary? How is she changed by her adventure, if at all? If not, why not?

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