Severin’s mission is to keep the pleasure-loving general focused on the war effort…and away from pretty young actresses. But the tables are turned when Severin himself can’t resist Jennifer Leighton…
Months later, Jenny has abandoned her dreams of stage glory and begun writing seditious plays for the Rebels under the pen name “Cornelia,” ridiculing “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his army—and undermining the crown’s campaign to take Albany. By the time Severin meets up with Jenny once again, she is on a British hanging list, and Severin is ordered to find her—and deliver her to certain death. Soon, the two are launched on a desperate journey through the wilderness, toward a future shaped by the revolution—and their passion for each other…
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John Burgoyne was in New York.
Jenny overheard the wine merchant telling the tavern keeper in hushed tones. She knew better than to look up when she felt their eyes on her. Two years in a city buffeted by mob violence and political intrigue had honed her instinct for self-preservation. She kept her head down and studied her mother’s letter from home.
Seated beside one of the tall windows in the elegant taproom at the Fraunces Tavern, with its lofty ceilings and fine painted paneling, she nursed her single cup of chocolate and tried to concentrate on the words on the page, but her mind kept returning to Burgoyne. For the wine seller and the publican, Burgoyne’s presence meant a business opportunity, and one that must be kept secret from the Liberty Boys, who had abducted a loyalist judge, an Anglican clergyman, and a British physician from their homes only the week before. Politics, the two merchants agreed, were terrible for trade.
They were also murder on the Muses. Isaac Sears and his rabble had stormed the theater, broken all the benches in the pit, and would have beaten the players as well if the company had been performing. Congress had closed all the other theaters in the colonies. Only New York’s John Street remained open, performing without a license, and at the mercy of the Rebel mob, which saw it as a British institution and an instrument of tyranny.
There was no future for a playwright in North America.
Jenny’s mother tried to tell her as much in her weekly reports from New Brunswick. The newsy letters arrived every Tuesday like clockwork, carried by the dishearteningly efficient Rebel post, threaded with the subtle message that, in such trying times, Jenny would be wise to come home.
But even her mother could not claim that New Brunswick was untouched by the current troubles. It had taken eight men a whole day, she wrote, to raise the new church bell, which had been cast in Holland from six hundred pounds of silver donated by the first families of the parish, into the steeple. It had been rung only once before word reached the town that the British were abroad—hunting for caches of weapons and confiscating church bells along the way so that the Rebels could not raise the countryside with their alarms.
Whatever their individual political leanings, the faithful of New Brunswick had denuded their tables and donated their plate for the glory of God, not King George. The church consistory voted unanimously, her mother wrote with obvious satisfaction, to take the bell down and bury it in the orchard across the lane.
If Jenny did not do something about it, she would end up like the bell, buried in New Brunswick until the Rebels were routed. Teased and tormented by four loving brothers who had followed her father into the brick-making trade and could not understand why a pretty girl bothered herself with scribbling for players.
There was no future for a playwright . . . in North America. That was why Jenny wanted, needed, to meet Burgoyne.
The general was said to be a personal friend of David Garrick. Burgoyne’s plays had been performed at Drury Lane in London.
“The Boyne will be a week at least refitting,” murmured Andries Van Dam, who was arranging to send a crate of his best Madeira aboard the ship. “The general also asks for six quarts of Spanish olives, twelve pounds of Jordan almonds”—the tavern keeper began writing it all down, eyes alight—“two dozen doilies, one box of citron, six jars of pickles, and one Parmesan cheese.”
Jenny waited until they disappeared into the storeroom—all furtive glances and quiet whispers—before dashing out of the tavern. Samuel Fraunces, publican—Black Sam, to his friends—was a notorious Rebel, but evidently not a man to let that get in the way of trade. Jenny had never cared for politics. She liked them even less now that the royal governor and the garrison had retreated to their gun ships in the harbor and left ordinary New Yorkers like herself to the pity of the rabble, who had none.
She wanted nothing better than to dash directly home to John Street and Aunt Frances with her news, but she still had errands to run for the theater’s manager: costumes to pick up from the mantua maker, canvas to fetch for repairing the scenery, playbills waiting at the printer. This, though, gave her the opportunity to make discreet inquiries about the Boyne with the sailmakers and victuallers. By the time Jenny reached the little blue house next door to the theater, wrapped in her plain wool cloak and laden with packages, she had acquired a box of oranges and knew that the Boyne was anchored off the Battery, undergoing repairs.
Aunt Frances was upstairs, at her desk in the little parlor, working on a manuscript. She looked effortlessly stylish—as always—in a simple blue silk gown with her hair teased and tinted to match. Her arrival in New Brunswick, after fleeing her London creditors, had changed Jenny’s life. Aunt Frances was old enough—just—to be her mother, but unlike the matrons of Jenny’s acquaintance she had not rushed headlong into the trappings of domesticity or middle age. She wore no frumpy caps or homely aprons. She neither baked nor sewed. She wrote a little, acted a great deal, and charmed the patrons in the greenroom, always.
Without raising her head, she said, “How is your mother and everyone in New Bumpkin?”
“New Brunswick,” Jenny corrected. “They are fine. And Burgoyne is in New York.”
Aunt Frances stopped writing and looked up. “On what business?”
Jenny had not thought to find out. “Does it matter?”
She put her pen down. “Yes, actually. Very much so. He was in Boston a week ago, staging amateur theatricals and lamenting his lack of seniority over Clinton and Howe. If he is being recalled to England, it might signal a change in the government’s policy toward America.”
Jenny did not care about seniority or policies. “If he saw one of my plays, if he thought it was any good, would he be able to introduce me to David Garrick?” she asked.
Her aunt considered. “Yes. He knows Garrick. More importantly, his plays have made money for Garrick. But you have no experience handling a man like John Burgoyne.”
The playwright general known for his heroic cavalry charges was said to be the bastard of a lord and had eloped with the daughter of an earl. Jenny knew she was out of her depth. “That is why I hoped you would help me get aboard the Boyne.”
Her aunt shook her head. “No. Go to Caesar like Cleopatra, rolled in a rug? That is what you absolutely must not do.”
“What, then?” asked Jenny, feeling keenly her lack of sophistication.
“You do not want this man entranced by your person,” said Frances Leighton. “All that will get you at Drury Lane is a place as an opera dancer. You want Burgoyne enthralled by your writing, enough to sponsor a London production of your work—or convince Garrick to do so. Nothing less will serve.” She swept her manuscript aside, pulled a clean letter sheet out of the drawer, dipped her pen, and offered it to Jenny. “To that end, we must lure the general here, to John Street.”
* * *
Severin Devere was standing on deck when the case of Madeira was hoisted aboard the Boyne. He considered sending the crate back to shore, but that would only attract more notice, and drawing further attention to the crippled man-of-war in New York Harbor was the last thing he wanted to do.
He had been sent to America for the purpose—among other things—of fetching John Burgoyne home quietly and discreetly. The King and Lord Germain, the secretary of state for America, had read Burgoyne’s letters from Boston describing the fiasco of Bunker Hill—for which he had been present but not in command—and his proposals for pacifying the colonies. They had found these observations full of good sense. Now they wished to hear more, preferably without alerting the Rebels to their intentions.
Unfortunately, John Burgoyne did nothing quietly or discreetly.
Severin’s faint hope that the general had exercised a modicum of good judgment in his transaction with the wine merchant was dashed when he broke the seal on the receipt that accompanied the crate.
Burgoyne had bought the Madeira under his own name, which meant his departure from Boston was no longer secret.
The other letter that had come aboard with the wine was also addressed to Burgoyne. It was sealed with cheap wax, written in a round, girlish hand, and scented with a whiff of scandal. Marvelous. Severin pocketed the missive and descended belowdecks to the general’s cabin.
Four lieutenants had been displaced to create Burgoyne’s apartment, and part of the wardroom had been cannibalized. Captain Hartwell had balked at removing any of the guns, though, so Burgoyne had draped the thirty-two-pounders with thick furs and Indian-tanned hides and brightly beaded garments he had bought as souvenirs.
The general sat at his breakfast table wearing a striped silk banyan and an embroidered turban. His slippered feet rested upon a Turkey carpet. On the table alongside the serving dishes was spread a map with a carefully penciled line running from Quebec to Albany.
This was the contradiction in Burgoyne’s character that fascinated Severin. The man had an appetite for luxury, and a tendency toward egotism and bombast, but he wasn’t lazy. A few years past fifty, he had the vigor and ambition of a man half his age, evident in his still-black hair and avid, heavy-lidded eyes.
“Your wine has come aboard,” said Severin. He dropped the two letters on the table beside Burgoyne’s notes and gestured for the servant to leave. The man scurried from the room.
“Excellent,” said Burgoyne, slicing into a chop.
“Lord Germain had hoped that your departure from Boston might go unnoticed by the Rebels. You gave the wine merchant your name and direction.”
Burgoyne shook his head. “Secrecy is impossible. Everyone will know I have gone when I am not present at The Blockade of Boston. If you had wanted my departure to go unnoticed, we should have delayed it until after the performance.”
He meant his farce, being rehearsed for a benefit night at Faneuil Hall, though Severin had never known the proceeds of such events to reach any of the advertised widows and orphans.
“Give me leave to doubt the noteworthiness of a general missing the odd theatrical event when his country is at war,” said Severin.
“War is theater,” said Burgoyne. “I should have thought that a man with your . . . expertise . . . regarding the savages of North America would know that. Do the Mohawk not paint their faces before going into battle?”
Severin’s Mohawk ancestry was one of the reasons he had been chosen to fetch Burgoyne, so he might advise the general, who desired to employ native allies in his proposed campaign next year. The difficulty was that Burgoyne had proved disposed to respect the opinion of an Englishman—any Englishman—on native questions more than that of a man who had lived among the Mohawk, especially one the general believed was tainted by Indian blood, like Severin.
“Think of our visit to New York as a mummer’s play, then,” advised Severin, “and perform the role accordingly. Lord Germain does not wish the Rebels informed of your movements, sir. There must be no more transactions with Van Dam, or anyone else in New York.”
Burgoyne sighed. “I do not need your advice on dealing with shopkeepers, Devere. If I had not used my name, Van Dam would have sent me an inferior vintage at double the price.”
“And now he will make up his loss on the wine by peddling the news that you are in New York. For those alert to affairs of consequence, your recall to London will tell them all they need to know about the character of the next campaign.” Generals Gage and Howe had always treated the colonials like brothers, because they were decent men and they had ties to America. They were doing everything within their power to avoid bloodshed and bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne would not.
The general made a little show of setting down his fork and leaned back in his chair. “Have you considered that such news might serve to scare sense into these people?”
It was a widely held opinion that the Americans were spoiled children, that a show of force was all that was needed to bring them into line.
“Lexington Green and Bunker Hill,” said Severin, “argue otherwise.”
Burgoyne waved away the two biggest British military disasters in recent memory. Evidently he not only preferred an Englishman’s understanding of Indians, but gave little weight to an Indian’s views on the English. “Poor planning and poorer leadership.”
Severin drew the other letter from his pocket. In the close quarters of the cabin he discovered that it was scented with more than scandal. It had a hint of orange about it. Not the sophisticated tincture of neroli, but the bright perfume of freshly peeled fruit.
It made Devere long for uncomplicated pleasures, for warm summer afternoons far from war and intrigue. For a moment, Severin did not want to part with the smooth, scented envelope.
But he had a point to make. “We have already been the target of sabotage.” The spoiled beef in the Boyne’s stores had almost undoubtedly been poisoned, and the ship’s spar had been intentionally damaged. “Now that the Americans know you are here, they will try again.”
“Let them,” said Burgoyne, breaking the seal and scanning the letter. For a moment the bouquet of orange intensified, then faded. Then Burgoyne barked with laughter and tossed the letter, along with a slender booklet, to Severin.
“An actress,” he crowed. “One enterprising harlot knows I am in New York. So much for your ‘consequences.’ One rather provincial invitation to sin.”
Severin picked the letter up off the table. He noted the round feminine hand once more. It was the product of a thorough education in penmanship, every character neat and well formed. There were no showy flourishes, which indicated restraint and taste. Scarcely the hallmarks of a harlot. But the contents, calculated to elicit Burgoyne’s interest, roused Severin’s suspicions.
The missive opened with effusive praise for Burgoyne’s skills as a playwright and closed with an invitation to occupy the royal box at the John Street Theater. This was accompanied by a printed pamphlet-bound play, The American Prodigal, by Miss Jennifer Leighton.
Burgoyne shed his banyan and reached for his coat.
“You are not going to accept her invitation,” said Severin.
“Of course I am. It’s the last opportunity I’ll have for a gallop until we reach Portsmouth.”
“Possibly at the cost of your life.”
“Not unless the little rustic is well and truly poxed.”
That was the far more common contradiction of their age. That an English gentleman could be as devoted to his wife as Burgoyne was to Lady Charlotte, but cavalierly betray her when opportunity presented. Fidelity, for men like Burgoyne, meant not keeping a mistress. It did not mean forgoing convenient “gallops.”
That still didn’t make it safe. “New York is not London, General, and the John Street Theater is not Drury Lane. In ’sixty-six, after the business with the stamps, a mob of Liberty Boys tore down the theater on Chapel Street and whipped the players from the Battery to the palisade. This could be an innocent”—if somewhat gauche, he thought to himself—“invitation, or it might be a plot to lure you into the city and capture or kill you under the cover of a riot. I cannot allow you to go.”
Burgoyne tied his neck cloth and rummaged through a jewel case. “I genuinely don’t see how you can prevent me.”
“I can take measures.”
Burgoyne stiffened. For a moment all was stillness in the cabin and the cries of the sailors at work above could clearly be heard. Then Burgoyne set the diamond pin he had just selected on the table with a click and looked Severin over. “That,” he said coldly, “is why your kind make such good informers and spies. Honor offers you no impediment.”
“So I have been given to understand,” said Severin smoothly. That, he knew, was how the government saw him: as a ruthless savage who made a useful tool. It was not how he saw himself. Until recently he had not cared much what others thought of him. Lately, since Boston, that had begun to change.
He pocketed Jennifer Leighton’s orange-scented letter.
“Very well,” said Burgoyne. “We are both men of the world. You desire that I should stay aboard the Boyne, and I desire to bed a pretty actress before we sail.”
“You don’t even know that she’s pretty. Or that she exists at all.” The oranges, though, were real enough.
“Then find out for me,” said Burgoyne, retaking his seat. “And if she’s pretty, bundle her back to the Boyne.”
“I am not a procurer.”
“Of course not.”
Burgoyne left the words unspoken. What you are is scarcely more honorable.
And he was right, because men like Severin gave him the luxury of being right, of being honorable. Severin did what was necessary, and carried it on his conscience, so that others did not have to.
“Give me your word, as a gentleman,” said Severin, “that you will remain aboard the Boyne and write no more letters to shore, and I will go fetch you your actress.”
Jenny stood in the wings waiting for her cue. She could feel the tidelike pull of the stage, the lure of the flickering footlights. She played only the small roles, the maids and messengers and next-door neighbors with few lines. Acting was not her talent, but that did not diminish the thrill of being part of the performance.
Aunt Frances, of course, was the real star. The sweetheart of Drury Lane. A name that sold tickets, even if sometimes she was not entirely herself.
Like tonight. The Divine Fanny was wandering. Jenny knew the signs, could read volumes in the dreamy look on her aunt’s lovely, distracted face. Frances might be standing at the center of the raked stage, framed by pastoral scenery meant to evoke Arcadia, but her usually sharp mind was somewhere else.
The audience had not yet noticed, but Bobby Hallam, John Street’s manager and leading man, had. He put himself right in her line of sight to deliver his speech, demanding her attention.
“My greatest fear, madam,” he declaimed in a rich tenor that carried to the back of the house, “is not that I should lose this duel, but that I should acquit myself in such a manner as to disgrace my ancestors.”
Jenny mouthed the words along with him. She knew every line, because she had written them. She waited for Aunt Frances’ response, but the silence lengthened, and the audience grew restless.
Far, far too late, she replied: “I cannot speak to disgrace, sir, but I fancy they might find your intemperate haste to join them a little . . . disappointing.”
Her delivery saved the joke. Almost. The audience, catching the conceit like a bouquet, tittered. Not the gale of laughter that usually swept the gallery, but it was something.
That made twice this week. Frances’ spells were getting more frequent, harder to hide from Bobby Hallam and the ticket-buying public.
Jenny couldn’t help but look up at the royal box where she hoped Burgoyne sat. Her heart sank when she heard it. The beginnings of the speech that had made Aunt Frances’ career. The lines that had brought her to the attention of David Garrick, the role that had caught the eye of her first titled lover.
She had gone off book entirely.
“How hard is the condition of our sex?” asked Frances Leighton, turning to the audience. “Through every stage of life the slave of man?”
“How now?” asked Bobby Hallam, who didn’t know Nicholas Rowe’s play at all, because it wasn’t in the company’s repertoire. “It’s to be pistols at dawn,” Bobby asserted, trying to draw Aunt Frances back into the scene. “Will you pray for me?”
Apparently she would not. Aunt Frances ignored Bobby completely. She was no longer playing Mistress Spartan in Jenny’s American Prodigal, but was reciting Calista’s speech from The Fair Penitent.
“In all the dear delightful days of youth, a rigid father dictates to our wills—”
“Surely not so rigid,” Bobby coaxed, taking her arm.
Frances shook him off and walked downstage to the footlights, her leonine grace and bold striped polonaise drawing every eye in the house. “And deals out pleasure with a scanty hand.”
The stage manager, Mr. Dearborn, touched Jenny’s shoulder and spoke in her ear. “It’s a fine speech. But it’s not in the play. Shall I lower the curtain?”
It was how Bobby had dealt with Frances’ little spells in the past. If the Divine Fanny couldn’t be coaxed back to book, Bobby ordered the curtain lowered and rushed Miss Richards, who sang prettily, out onto the apron.
It would save the show and safeguard their box office, but the humiliation would crush Aunt Frances. Jenny had seen it happen, and she could not do that to Fanny again.
She had to get her aunt off the apron, gently, so she could come back to herself in private. Jenny doubted any of this would impress John Burgoyne, but she couldn’t worry about that right now.
Upstage, Bobby Hallam nodded his powdered head, an unmistakable signal for the curtain to close—unless Jenny could stop it.
* * *
Devere made his way on foot north from the Battery. New York was a tiny city, barely a mile from Fort George to the palisade. The town resembled less an English port and more a Garden of Eden. Every lane was shaded by towering elms and beeches: a verdant roof in summer, now an autumn canopy of fiery gold.
Severin followed Broad Street, lined with the painted-brick mansions of the rich, to the intersection of Nassau and Wall streets, where a subtle change took place. The paint on the houses was not as bright here, the pigments cheaper, the coats thinner. The dwellings grew smaller, then began to jostle with shops and taverns. One thing remained constant, though: the presence of slaves. New York was the Sparta of the new world, a quarter of her population in chains, all of them obliged to carry a lantern after dark, a legacy of the slave plot to burn New York in ’41.
Slavery gave the lie to all the Liberty Boys’ cries for freedom, but that didn’t make the rabble any less dangerous, so Severin wore a more than ornamental sword at his hip and kept a close eye on the alleys that opened between houses.
He turned left onto John Street and found the theater on his right. It looked like most provincial British playhouses—long, narrow, and featureless—but at home it would have been constructed of brick or local stone. Here it was clapboard painted a deep, dark red that appeared almost black in the failing light, save where lanterns brought the color to life.
Severin would not have paused in the bare, cold lobby save for the playbill pinned to the chipped white paneling. It was the name, printed in bold capitals above the list of comedies, that caught his eye: Frances Leighton.
The sweetheart of Drury Lane, who had spurned a titled lover for a merely rich and talented one. An accomplished woman, to be sure. Severin recalled she had a volume of well-received poems and a novel to her name, but scandal, in the form of a dead lover and the man’s vengeful wife, dogged her.
“I didn’t know you were in New York, Devere.”
The voice was familiar to Severin. Though it had been many years since he had heard it, the effect was like listening to an orchestra strike up a favorite air. It filled him with sudden nostalgia and threw his isolation and loneliness into high relief.
“And I thought the garrison had withdrawn to the safety of the Asia after the Liberty Boys stormed the Battery,” Severin replied, turning to face Courtney Fairchild. His old classmate was not wearing his usual red army regimentals but a suit of fine worsted like Severin.
“Just so,” agreed Courtney, “but the officers are tolerated in the town so long as we dress in mufti.”
Severin was glad to hear it. After two weeks of Burgoyne’s company, seeing Fairchild, who had been more brotherly to him than his own brother when they were at school, was a balm for the soul. “I have tickets for the royal box,” said Severin. “Would you care to join me? Unless you have other plans.”
“I’d like that very much.” Courtney beamed and projected the same manly bonhomie that had seemed oversized for his scrawny frame at school but suited the bluff soldier he had become. “The Divine Fanny is performing tonight and everything but the gallery is sold out.”
Inside, the actual theater was warm and surprisingly pretty in a provincial way. The galleries were painted in a classical scheme of swags and garlands, all pale green and rosy pink, with the names of the great English dramatists—Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dryden, Rowe—inscribed in cartouches above the stage. Including the pit and the gallery, the theater probably seated seven or eight hundred, though barely half that number were in attendance. The “royal” box was just a small enclosure overhanging the apron above the proscenium doors.
The play was surprisingly enjoyable. Severin forgot entirely about spotting Burgoyne’s harlot and became caught up in the drama. The characters might have been stock, but they were well drawn and had been cleverly tweaked for an American setting. The country bumpkin in homespun was fresh from a Massachusetts farm, the charming rake in silk was a Dutch patroon, and the Divine Fanny played an aristocratic Philadelphia lady of fashion and prodigious carnal appetite. It was a knowing slant on Frances Leighton’s offstage persona, an inside joke for the sophisticated theatergoer.
“They say she has no protector in New York, though Van Dam has offered a fortune and Stanwyck is known to be paying her bills in hopes of future gratitude,” whispered Courtney.
“Are you in the running?” Severin asked with amusement. Frances Leighton was slender, graceful, and impossible to look away from. Only her leading man was able to hold his own onstage with her. The other players came and went leaving little impression—save for the somewhat mousy girl acting the part of the maid, the younger brother, and the gossipy neighbor, in a series of equally unattractive costume changes. Severin noticed her only because of the distinctive way she darted on and offstage.
Yet for all of the Divine Fanny’s obvious appeal, Severin did not find her greatly attractive. She was a little too like a certain lady he had met in Boston, a very dangerous lady. His ribs still ached from that encounter.
“I don’t have the depth of pocket,” said Courtney Fairchild, with a sigh, “to support the Divine Fanny. She is a damnably expensive trollop. But I attend her salon, and I plan on visiting the greenroom after the play to see if anything else tempts my eye. Will you be joining me?”
Severin hadn’t spotted Burgoyne’s harlot yet, so he would be obliged to attend. He was about to say so when Frances Leighton cocked her head and began to declaim a speech utterly at odds with the action of the scene. Severin could not place it, though he was certain he had heard it before.
“In all the dear delightful days of youth,” spoke Frances Leighton, as though from heart and not from memory, “a rigid father dictates to our wills, and deals out pleasure with a scanty hand.”
Whatever Frances Leighton was doing, it was not part of the planned entertainment. A frisson of real tension, not playacted, electrified the stage and Severin found himself sitting forward in his chair, knees pressed to the kicking board.
“To his, the tyrant husband’s reign succeeds, proud with opinion of superior reason. He holds domestic business and devotion all we are capable to know, and shuts us, like cloistered idiots, from the world’s acquaintance, and all the joys of freedom. Wherefore are we born with high souls, but to assert our selves, shake off this vile obedience they exact, and claim an equal empire over the world?”
She froze there in front of the footlights, her lithe body outlined by the bold lavender stripes of her polonaise, and waited for someone—the audience, her leading man, the voice of God perhaps—to answer.
Wherefore indeed, Severin thought, his mind teasing potential meanings and messages out of the appeal.
There came a groan and then a catcall from the gallery. Severin reached for the sword at his hip and glanced quickly over at Courtney Fairchild, who was also readying his weapon. If this was the prelude to a plot, a planned incitement intended to start a riot, then Severin was lucky to have encountered this stalwart friend of his youth. Say what you like about Courtney—he’d always had a cool head.
An apple core landed on the stage at Frances Leighton’s feet, and beside him Fairchild made a noise that sounded awfully like a snarl. An empty bottle struck one of the flats beside the Divine Fanny’s head and clattered to the ground. Nothing broke in upon her perfect composure.
The mood of the crowd was balanced on a knife’s edge. Their attention was focused on Frances Leighton, but it would be easy—all too easy—to turn it elsewhere, to focus it on the royal box and the representatives of the Crown within. Severin readied for an attack.
It didn’t come.
Instead, a girl entered stage right. She was barefoot and her slender curves were outlined in buff breeches and silk stays. Her copper hair tumbled free over her back. Severin judged her to be in her middle twenties. Her body was so graceful that she appeared to glide to Frances Leighton.
With a start Severin realized that she was the same actress who had played the mousy maid and the younger son and the trilling neighbor, transformed—or, more accurately, revealed.
“Forgive me, fair Calista,” she said, dropping to one knee, “if I presume, on privilege of friendship, to join my grief to yours, and mourn the evils that hurt your peace, and quench those eyes in tears.”
She went on in her low, mellow voice, entreating Frances Leighton to share her burdens. The rabble in the gallery quieted, and listened, rapt, to this girl.
Severin watched her coax the Divine Fanny off the stage. A lump rose in his throat. His world had been sharp edges and hard corners for too long. He wished he had been in Frances Leighton’s place, wished that the girl had been addressing him. Stripped bare by catharsis, Severin could not deny what he felt. He craved that kind of understanding and solicitude.
Especially since Boston.
The play resumed, without the Divine Fanny. Another actress of similar height appeared in her striped gown, or one very like it, and assumed the role.
As for the fascinating girl: she returned to the stage three more times. Before, she had been unremarkable, almost invisible. Now Severin couldn’t help but notice her.
And want to meet her.
He was not the sort of man to court actresses. He knew fantasy from reality. It didn’t matter. He was tired of sparring verbally with Burgoyne and his ribs still ached from sparring physically with the Widow in Boston and he wanted, just once, something for himself, even if it was an illusion.
The players lined up for their curtain call, and the object of his desire stepped forward, hand in hand with the leading man, to curtsy, her long copper hair almost kissing the boards. He wanted to feel it against his bare skin. Severin had come on an errand for Burgoyne, of course, but there was no reason he shouldn’t find some entertainment for himself.
“Who is she?” asked Severin.
“Jenny? She’s the Divine Fanny’s niece and dresser. Bit of a scribbler. Writes the comedies. Never made much of an impression before. I’d no idea she was so pretty.”
The Divine Fanny’s niece. Jenny. Bit of a scribbler.
Jennifer Leighton, Burgoyne’s harlot.
Severin felt an intense flare of resentment, of the kind he had not experienced in years, not since his parents had brought him to England as a boy and he had discovered that the circumstances of his childhood had created an invisible but nearly tangible barrier between himself and the other youths at school—except for the rare Fairchilds of the world, who embraced both the letter and the spirit of their status as gentlemen.
“Van Dam was willing to take her in lieu of her aunt, although on more modest terms, but she turned him down,” added Courtney. “I could make an introduction, if you would like.”
“Yes,” said Devere, though the word tasted bitter on his lips, because he had made a gentleman’s agreement, ungentlemanly though it was, and Miss Jennifer Leighton was not for him.
Jenny slipped inside her aunt’s tiny dressing room. The Divine Fanny was seated at a little table, surrounded by heaps of costumes, writing furiously, her pen scratching briskly over the paper.
Frances Leighton put her quill down and looked up from her pages. “I wandered off book again tonight, didn’t I?” she said.
“Yes, you did.”
“I am sorry. And on tonight of all nights. Was Burgoyne in the box?”
“I don’t know. Aunt Frances, you must see a doctor.” She wished her words didn’t sound so curt in her own ears.
“Nonsense. Ancients like myself are known to wander now and then.”
“You’re barely forty.”
“That is venerable for an actress. We age in dog years.”
Jenny knew that some New Yorkers speculated that Aunt Frances drank. Jenny was fairly sure she did not. She never found bottles in their dressing room or hidden about the theater, nor did Aunt Frances smell of spirits. She dabbled occasionally in drafts from her personal medicine chest to combat megrims, but never before a performance.
Jenny did not want to put into words the other explanation she had heard whispered in the wings: madness. She had never known a madwoman, so had no example by which to judge her aunt, save poor Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play, and Frances Leighton had long since weathered more loss than the affections of a melancholy Dane.
“Perhaps a holiday in the country, some rest,” Jenny suggested. They had no shortage of invitations, though Frances never accepted them.
“Holidays are for the rich, and we players must labor for our bread,” Fanny replied brightly, dropping her closely written manuscript—her memoirs—into the iron-bound chest that held her fine London-made paints and glamorous tinted wigs, as though nothing unusual had happened. “Let us go next door and find out if Burgoyne accepted your invitation. If he was in attendance tonight, he’ll surely be there. Johnny never could resist the pleasures of the greenroom. Major general or not, he has changed little over the years, I’ll warrant.”
She closed the lid on her chest and with it further talk of doctors and holidays.
“I should put on a better gown,” said Jenny, swallowing the lump in her throat that rose every time she failed to get Aunt Frances to see a doctor.
“Best not,” said Frances Leighton. “You want Burgoyne’s patronage, not his protection. If you dress the part of the actress, you’ll be cast firmly in the role.”
The John Street’s greenroom was on the ground floor of the little house next door, where Jenny and Aunt Frances had their apartments, and, quite unusually, the double parlor where the city’s elite gathered after the performance to eat, drink, and speak with the players was actually green—verdigris, to be exact, with that slight coppery iridescence that shimmered in candlelight and lent a special glamour to powdered skin and silk damask.
The greenroom was thronged, the theater’s patrons spilling out onto the granite steps in front, fortified against the chill December air by strong punch and Madeira wine. The scents of beeswax tapers, expensive perfume, rum punch, and ginger cakes mingled in the humid air.
From her vantage point beside the hearth, Jenny surveyed the crowd. All the usual patrons were present tonight, along with a contingent from the Asia, the officers in civilian dress so they could move about the town unmolested, including the irrepressible Major Fairchild—who had taken Aunt Fanny’s rebuff last March with such good grace, and continued to visit and make regular appearances in her salon.
Beside him stood a tall stranger in fine dove gray wool. The color was subdued, but the cut was remarkably stylish. London made, most likely, or by an American tailor with access to the latest English designs. The sleeves were so tightly fitted and ended in such narrow cuffs that Jenny would not have been surprised to learn that the wearer had been sewn into them. The body of the coat was trim, the breeches equally neat. The gentleman himself was lean but compactly muscular, well-formed calves on display in white silk stockings, biceps outlined by meticulously sculpted sleeves.
His face was long and lean, with high, wide-set cheekbones that would have shaded toward the pretty if the man’s jawline had not been so masculine. His complexion was unfashionably dark, and he wore no powder. His eyes were so deep a brown as to appear almost black, and his hair was like unrelieved jet braided neatly at the back of his neck. She did not think him handsome exactly, but he was quite the most striking man she had ever seen. Extraordinary.
And he moved like an actor. Not like the elder generation of Hallams. He took care to move in such a way that did not attract notice.
He was very good at it. Despite the fine figure he cut, absolutely no one was looking at him except Jenny.
But he was looking straight at her.
And she was staring.
She blushed, which was ludicrous, because for the past two years she had been privy to the secrets of one of the most notorious women of the age, and though she was personally inexperienced with men, she had received a thorough practical education on the subject of congress between the sexes.
It made no difference. When she looked at the man in dove gray wool, she flushed like a naive virgin fresh off the hay wain from the country. Upon consideration, she realized he was indeed handsome.
“Is that him?” she asked Aunt Frances, trying to regain her composure and willing herself to look away.
Aunt Frances’ smile faded, and she lowered the glass of Madeira that had only just touched her lips.
“No, dear. That is not Burgoyne. The playwright is a fair bit older. That is a man with a very different calling. And one best avoided, if possible.”
Aunt Fanny placed a slender hand, sleeves dripping with lace engageants, upon Jenny’s arm and started to rise, but Major Fairchild and the man in gray were already crossing the room. Jenny found herself transfixed by his eyes, which looked nearly black in the candlelight. Glistening, almost like pools of molten pitch.
“Madam Leighton.” Fairchild bowed and reached for Aunt Fanny’s hand.
They were caught. There was no escaping without insulting a well-liked British officer in full sight of all of New York society, and without the support of loyalists, the John Street would not survive.
Aunt Frances regained her aplomb and acknowledged the major with a regal nod of her head.
“It is lovely to see you and your niece again,” Fairchild said.
The man in gray had still not spoken. He was studying Jenny, his face a mask of polite interest, but his eyes more intent than good manners allowed.
“We are honored to have the garrison’s patronage,” said Aunt Frances smoothly.
“May I present my old friend Severin Devere?”
The man in gray bowed.
This elicited another regal nod from Aunt Fanny, a touch colder and more formal.
Devere bowed to Aunt Fanny, but it was Jenny this striking creature in gray addressed when he rose. “I have come to apologize on a certain officer’s behalf. He was immensely flattered by your invitation, but pressing matters prevented him from attending. He has hopes you will consent to dine with him tonight aboard his ship so that he might express his admiration for your work in person.”
He meant Burgoyne. Jenny was so surprised that all she fixed on was “dine” and “admiration.”
“Really?” asked Aunt Frances, in her best Lady Highstep voice. It was one of the reasons actors could mingle so freely with their “betters,” because they could mimic their accents and ape their manners, and when it came to pure nerve, they often surpassed them.
“I fail to see how ‘the officer’ can so admire Jenny’s play when he has not even seen it,” said Bobby Hallam, who appeared at her side with two frosted glasses of sangaree.
Her employer had changed from the showy blue silk and silver lace of his stage costume to understated coffee velvet that set off his chestnut hair. He’d brushed the powder out and tied his shiny locks loosely back with a ribbon. He handed a glass to Jenny with a studied casualness. It was meant to suggest an intimacy, a long and close acquaintance, and he was trying to protect her.
Devere noted Hallam’s gesture with his night dark eyes, and she decided that this was a man who missed very little. A dangerous man, Aunt Frances had intimated, and Jenny did not want Bobby Hallam putting himself in harm’s way for her.
“Mr. Hallam has a point,” said Jenny, reining in her excitement. She did not need a dinner invitation from a rake. She needed Burgoyne to come here. “The officer”—and here she bowed to Devere’s obvious preference not to name Burgoyne—“has not seen the play. Bobby’s voice has been known to echo off the Battery on occasion, but I doubt it could carry all the way to the Boyne.”
* * *
Severin was supposed to bring her back to Burgoyne, but he did not know how to do that. He did not even know what to make of Jennifer Leighton. She was staring up at him now, a study in contradictions and a woman entirely outside his experience.
Burgoyne had charged him with fetching a harlot. But Jennifer Leighton was no light skirt. He’d watched her progress just now through the greenroom. She didn’t flirt with the theater’s patrons, and despite what Robert Hallam was trying to intimate with his body language, she was not his mistress.
She was a decided wit. But she was no wellborn bluestocking.
And then there was the gown. To wear it onstage was one thing. Some roles required frumpery. To wear it outside the theater, to a center of fashion like a greenroom, was a statement. It said, I advertise nothing. I am not for sale.
Jennifer Leighton was making no effort to seduce anyone.
Except that there was the letter. An intelligent woman could not write such a letter to a known rake like Burgoyne without realizing the implications. Beautiful, ambitious women traded their bodies for wealth, fame, and position all the time. There was nothing wrong with such a transaction as long as the woman was willing and under no coercion. Severin’s conscience in acting in such a matter should, by the standards of English society, be entirely clear.
And yet something about it rubbed him the wrong way. It was more than the undeniable fact that he desired her himself. It was the matter of coercion, or rather, of genuinechoice that—quite unexpectedly—struck him as problematic. Jennifer Leighton was an original. She possessed genuine talent as a playwright, but she just as obviously lived in a country without scope for it.
If the girl had been born into wealth and had no need to sell her work to support herself, she might have been able to write—assuming she had indulgent parents or husband—from a position of relative safety, but men habitually assumed that a woman who sold the products of her mind sold other parts of her person as well. And there were always those waiting to take advantage of that market.
For a woman without fortune, Miss Leighton’s options were extraordinarily limited, and no route to production for her plays was more direct than through the public patronage of a wealthy man. There were few such who would expect nothing in return.
And suddenly the prospect of delivering this creature up to John Burgoyne, even if she was willing, did not seem so harmless.
“You are right,” Devere conceded. “The officer of whom we speak has not seen the play acted, and while its wit was plain on the printed page, paper has only two dimensions, and cannot fully engage the senses.”
Severin observed Robert Hallam smile in triumph. Of course he would. Any savvy theater manager would want to keep Jenny to himself. If nothing else, her limited prospects meant he could have her excellent original plays on the cheap. And if Severin read the man right, he wanted her body into the bargain. That she was not already taking advantage of Hallam’s obvious fixation—the man was handsome, charming, and influential—to improve her lot made Jennifer Leighton a very unusual woman indeed.
“But did it engage his mind?” asked Miss Leighton, the tentative hope in her voice genuine and affecting.
Severin hesitated. His business was lies, but he did not want to lie to her. And he did not want to act as a procurer. Yet if he failed to bring Miss Jennifer Leighton to John Burgoyne, the general would likely blunder ashore in search of entertainment, and that, with the Liberty Boys roaming the streets, Severin could not risk. It was the sort of calculus he was required to make all the time, and in his calling the virtue of one provincial actress did not weigh as much as the safety of Britain’s best hope for holding on to her colonies.
That did not mean he liked it. Not one bit.
“I can reassure you that the officer in question read your words and that they moved him to immediate action. Only the demands of duty prevented his attendance tonight.”
That was not exactly a lie. After all, Burgoyne had read Jennifer Leighton’s letter and on the instant decided to seek the young woman out for a gallop. And Severin, the government’s representative on the spot, had prevented him from coming to collect his prize in person.
“Which passages, specifically, moved him?” she asked. Jennifer Leighton wanted to believe him. That much was plain on her face. But she wasn’t stupid, or gullible.
“Yes, do tell us,” Robert Hallam said, hardly bothering now to cloak his challenge in politeness. “We provincials are always flattered to hear that our rustic entertainments have the power to charm our English masters, at least with their simplicity.”
Hallam, Severin decided, was shrewd but hot-tempered, and probably in love with Jennifer Leighton. “For that,” Severin replied, addressing Jenny and not her enamored manager, “you would have to come to the Boyne.”
“Out of the question,” said Robert Hallam coldly. “We play again on Wednesday. If General Burgoyne wishes to speak with Jenny, he can come to John Street.”
That, thought Severin, nodding to be polite, was not going to happen.
Hallam bowed, stiffly, and offered his arm to Jennifer Leighton, but she did not accept it. He was an actor, and a good one. Only his eyes betrayed his displeasure. He turned smoothly to Frances Leighton, who was a veteran player and, fortunately for Hallam, inclined to save the scene. They disappeared together into the crowd, leaving Severin alone with Jennifer Leighton.
She watched them go, then turned to Devere. “And what did you think of Aunt Frances’ monologue?”
Another surprise. A more artful woman would not have brought the topic up at all, would have blithely pretended that the whole incident had not happened. Severin should not have felt so pleased that Jennifer Leighton cared to know his thoughts. Or so unhappy that he could not say, Your rescue of your aunt was the most moving thing I have ever seen upon the stage.
But he could say none of that.
“The Fair Penitent,” he said, “is perhaps not the most politic choice in New York at the moment. Talk of tyrants tends to be divisive. Americans are ready to see one in any man who disagrees with them.”
“I might just have to use that line in one of my plays. Are you a regular theatergoer, Mr. Devere?”
It had been a world of wonders, the first time his mother had taken him, a boy plucked from the forests of New York and thrust into confining clothes and pinching shoes and sick for a month on an ocean voyage he could barely remember. Nothing in London had impressed him, but that cathedral to emotion, the shared trance of the audience, the way his eyes had watered at the end for the hero’s fate . . . Catharsis, he later learned the Greeks called it. He had shed all of his months of grief in the darkness that night. And gone back every chance he got.
“Yes,” he said. “It is one of the consolations of urban life. A beguiling contradiction: that a narrow wooden box can open on a myriad of wide vistas, tonight Arcadia, tomorrow Rome.”
“Denmark on Wednesdays, when Bobby is in the mood to soliloquize,” she replied. “Rome, alas, is contested territory. The Whigs cry ‘Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius,’ and the Sons of Liberty sign their letters to the Gazette ‘Brutus’ while the Tories ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.’”
“And whose part do you take?”
“If the Rebels have their way, I will be forced to play Cleopatra, and turn to Rome to keep my throne. Congress has banned the theater here. There is no future for a playwright in America. I need a patron with influence in London.”
Something Severin did not have, but Burgoyne did. He should not feel so bitter about it. He had only just met her. He scarcely knew her. He should not even be in New York. The Widow had warned him to leave America and not come back. But for the sabotage of the Boyne, which kept them in the harbor refitting, he would be en route to London now.
If he pressed her, she would come with him tonight, but he found he did not have the stomach for it and he told himself there was always tomorrow. “If you wish to meet Burgoyne aboard his ship, you can send word to me through the London Coffee House.” He handed her his card.
She turned it over in her small, neat hands. Jennifer Leighton wore no rings or bracelets. Her nails were smooth, clean ovals but the pads of her fingers on her right hand were smudged with ink, and he found that more charming than sapphires.
“Se-ve-rin,” she sounded out.
“Pronounced Sev-ren,” he replied. It should not give him so much pleasure to hear his name trip off her tongue.
“No doubt Congress would tell you that the extra written syllable was a British extravagance, like the theater,” she said.
“And Englishmen tell me it is a French extravagance, even at two syllables. ‘Severin’ smacks a deal too much of the Gaul. ‘Severus’—Latin and learned—might be better received by the English and your Congress alike.”
“Congress,” replied Jenny, “forgets that the ancient republics they admire so much venerated the theater.”
“They might admit the virtue of tragedy,” suggested Severin.
“But not of Plautus or Terence.”
“The servus callidus makes them nervous,” he said, and was gratified at the way her face lit up at the allusion. “To be fair, I am given to understand that the Virginian who leads the army besieging Boston is quite fond of the theater.” This was hardly an item of closely held military intelligence, but it was one of the pieces of minutiae he collected, and he found he wanted to gift it to her.
“With a taste for the dour and edifying, no doubt,” said Jenny.
“Cato the Censor,” conceded Severin, “is his favorite play.”
She shuddered in mock horror; then her clear brow furrowed and mischief lit her eyes. “How do you happen to know such a thing?”
“Gossip,” he said, lightly. But Frances Leighton’s cold, appraising eye earlier had indicated that she understood exactly how he knew the sort of things he knew. And so would the lovely Miss Leighton, as soon as the Divine Fanny told her. And then she wouldn’t curtsy prettily, as she was doing now, and banter about the theater and Whigs and Tories as she had done tonight.
She would fear him.
Jenny watched Severin Devere leave and felt a surprising pang of disappointment. She wished he had been Burgoyne. She had enjoyed their conversation and had never once, she realized with surprise, felt out of her depth with him, though their talk had ranged from the comfortable and familiar confines of the theater to the thorny and dangerous arena of politics. He had addressed her throughout as an equal.
She was still examining his card when Bobby Hallam plucked it from her hands and tossed it onto the fire.
For a second the fine paper rested atop the coals, the firelight glowing orange through the linen weave. Then the edges browned and curled and flames licked across the printed surface until it was wholly consumed.
“A fine performance,” Jenny said, turning to her employer, “but I memorize hundreds of lines a week. I’m not likely to forget Devere’s name or the direction he left.”
“No, unfortunately not,” replied Bobby. “A paltry act, satisfying nonetheless. You don’t need him or Burgoyne, Jenny. You don’t need London. I’ll produce anything you care to write, and I won’t expect anything in return for the privilege.”
For as long as the John Street remained open, which would not be long at all if the Rebels brought their army to New York.
“There is no harm in dining with the general,” she said.
“Generals do not dine with actresses to hear their opinions on Aristophanes.”
“Neither do theater managers,” she said.
“Do not compare me to a known rake like Burgoyne.”
“Now, children,” said Frances Leighton, approaching warily.
“Tell me there is a better way,” Jenny said, turning to her aunt. “Tell me that the patronage of men like Burgoyne did not open doors for you.”
“If I could tell my younger self anything,” Frances Leighton said carefully, “it would be not to rush headlong through such doors.”
Excerpted from "Mistress Firebrand"
Copyright © 2015 Donna Thorland.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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