The Mourning Rose – First Chapter
The wind was not really that cold as it blew out along the beach, but the men clustered about the two small boats there were shivering, all the same.
“Just when,” their leader drawled, “Just when were you planning to advise me of these interestin’ facts? Eh, Peterkin? Speak up, man.”
Peterkin swallowed, hard. “Well, Jack, I just thought –“. He broke off midsentence. It wasn’t that Jack looked angry. Indeed, quite the reverse. The dark eyes gazed at him with a kind of sweet benevolence that was more terrifying than any rage might have been.
“You thought? Well done, m’lad. I don’t believe I ever asked you to think, of course, although, my memory could well be at fault. I ask you,” and here, Jack stopped and looked around, as though appealing for help, “did I ask anyone to think?”
Collectively, they shuffled their feet, mumbling in a negative tone. Of course he hadn’t.
In general, when they were alone, they wondered just how it had come to this. How had they come to have Mad Jack as their leader?
It had happened so quickly. They’d heard of him, of course: a wild man, up for any risk, a smuggler other smugglers spoke of with awe, bringing in untold arcane treasures in the darkest of dark nights, laughing in the face of any danger, from armed troops of Excise men to the most horrific of storms – he was a legend in the smuggling world, Mad Jack of the North Beaches was.
And then, suddenly, he was there, in the flesh. Just come to help out old Joe for a few months, and wait for the heat to die down – the Customs Office was onto him, apparently, gotten a wee bit too close for comfort, and why should he not ally himself with them for a time? Brothers in arms, he’d said, comfortably, and Old Joe had fallen in with it, flattered, a bit, that such a famous fellow-traveller would throw in his lot with them.
At first, it had all gone well enough. Mad Jack was respectful, even deferential to Joe, and asked a lot of questions, as if eager to learn from them. And not a bit stingy – he’d stood them to many a mug in the taverns, and once, even, to a slap-up dinner brought in from someplace rather grander than they were used to.
But then, little by little, it had begun to change. There were quiet discussions, where he convinced Old Joe to do things just that little bit differently. There were moments when he’d simply barked out a command, and they had all, unthinkingly, obeyed.
And then that one night, when everything had gone so wrong, when it looked as if every single one of them would have been rounded up and headed for the noose, and only Mad Jack’s brazen nerve and quick thinking had saved them. They’d gotten away by the skin of their teeth, because Jack really was mad – mad with no care to his own skin or theirs, and he counted no costs.
They’d had to lie low for a couple of weeks, and when they’d met again, well, those soft words, those words that seemed so kind and reasonable, had convinced them that they had no choice.
It was time that old men took their ease, to live out their days in comfort, Jack said. Time for younger men to take the lead.
Sweet words, all of them, but there was something underneath them that struck terror into even the most stalwart heart. Because there were those other tales – those other stories, the ones about his temper, and about the kind of retribution that seemed to overtake those who crossed him. They had not quite forgotten them, not entirely, and suddenly, they remembered them much too clearly.
So much so that even Joe had looked at his feet and muttered, “Just as you say, Jack,” and now sat the watch for them, up at the headlands, and took his share like any of them, and made no sound of discontent.
Because you just never knew what Jack was capable of, did you?
“Well, Peterkin,” Jack said, still so sweetly that Peterkin began to tremble, “out with it! A new captain for the Excise men – he has a name, perhaps?”
“Austin, Jack. Captain Austin, was what I think they said. A real fire-eater, they said. Determined to ferret all the smugglers out, root and branch. Coming down from the City in the next seven-day. There’s a room bespoke at t’ Sun.”
Jack closed his eyes.
“Ah,” he said. His eyes opened. “Well, let’s be moving on, then. Cargo will be waitin’, don’t you know.”
The smaller withdrawing room at Number 4, Shalliton Place, had been given over for the use of the young ladies, and it could not be said that Lady Mayland had spared any expense in furnishing it to provide a most flattering backdrop for her daughter’s undeniable beauty. Miss Mayland’s fair locks and pale skin were set off admirably by the blue silk wall coverings and the rose velvet settee, so that she looked the very picture of an Imbrian rose. Indeed, several of her most ardent admirers had remarked upon it, and two had actually written poems, likening her to just that flower in its natural garden.
Miss Polyantha Mayland came off rather less well. Her hair, named “auburn” by the more charitable, clashed awkwardly against the pink of the cushions, glinting as it did with strong hints of copper, and her complexion was more vivid and certainly less fashionable than her cousin’s. The very walls seemed to rebel against her, as if they would have quelled her brightness if they could.
It was early afternoon, and the pair had only just come in. Their mornings were spent with a Master of the Arts engaged specially to instruct them in the delicate practices of creating suitable Artifices for their future.
No young woman of Fashion could be said to be ready for marriage without such skills. They had formerly been taught by an extremely competent governess, learning the art of turning napkins into snow-white doves that could flutter elegantly down onto a dinner guest’s lap. They had mastered the difficult trick of the self-pouring teapots, and both had shown themselves adept at making glowing globes of coloured light float about a midnight garden with apparent ease.
The Master had more exciting spells to impart. His lessons on creating fireworks of dazzling glamour were considerably more taxing than keeping a half-dozen orbs waltzing decorously around the trees, and then there were the “silent footmen” he was teaching them to materialize, in order that no guest would ever lack for even the tiniest courtesy – well, it was all too exhausting to be imagined. Neither young lady had the least assurance that these were skills they could ever command, practice they never so hard.
Still, as Eglantine pointed out, at least they knew how it was done. With luck, they’d marry well enough to hire the Master to do it for them.
“You certainly will,” her cousin remarked. “I have no such hopes. If I cannot bring myself to latching onto some poor Scholar at the Academy, I am resolved to remain here in my single state, and be a Prop to my Aunt.”
Eglantine gave a whoop of extremely unladylike laughter. “As if she would countenance such a thing! You would quite cut her up if you did, Polly – you know she would dislike it of all things!”
Polyantha managed to retain her expression of martyred innocence. “Indeed, she would not! How many times have we heard her sigh over our come-out, and murmur about the passage of time, and how she misses our school-days?”
“Well, but that is only because we are so expensive,” said Eglantine, cheerfully. “Once we are safely and eligibly betrothed, she will not care a button for that.”
This was undeniably a fact. That very morning, the bill from the mantua-maker’s had been in the pile of letters delivered to Lady Mayland at the breakfast table, occasioning some heartfelt sighs and a long discourse on the sacrifices a Mamma must make to ensure her girls would show to advantage in their first Season.
“Not,” said Lady Mayland,” that I begrudge one copper to outfitting you both, for I do feel as a mother to you, Polly, and would not wish to stint in the least particular. But I must own, it is shocking what these people charge one, considering it is only a square of lace and a scrap of velvet, after all.”
Polly had murmured that her Aunt was all kindness, which was quite perfectly true, although it was equally true that the lace and velvet confection had, in fact, been for Lady Mayland herself. Still, considering that Polly was heir to only the merest competence and not likely, given the preference for quiet, well-mannered blondes with large fortunes, to make a particularly brilliant match, her Aunt had always been scrupulously fair in the matter of how she apportioned even the most trivial luxuries between “her girls”.
“For you must know,” she had often said to her long-suffering husband, “I counted your brother as dear as if he’d been my own, and assured him always that I would treat his daughter as one of the family, which she is, Robert! It is a great pity she is so – so high-spirited, for I am persuaded that she is the dearest creature otherwise, you know.”
“Gracious, look at the time,” said Eglantine, suddenly growing less amused. “I declare, those lessons go on and on. Is my hair mussed? You had better ring for tea, Polly. Mrs. Anwing promised faithfully to call today, and bring that new catalogue from Goderets with her. I would not be caught looking less than perfect – you know how she gossips.”
“You look adorable,” said her cousin, promptly. “Although I don’t know why you should care what the Anwing thinks. No one would believe her anyway – not even Lord Valremer.”
Eglantine blushed, looking more like an Imbrian rose than ever.
“Eglantine? You are not seriously, that is, you are not thinking –“
Eglantine’s cheeks grew even pinker.
“My dearest,” Polly began, but broke off as the door opened, and Mrs. Anwing herself appeared, pushing past the footman in a gushing excess of enthusiasm.
Polly, having been enfolded, the next moment, in a brief embrace reeking of some amazingly powerful cologne, retreated to the window seat. Mrs. Anwing’s attention was all on Eglantine now. Having clasped her to her bosom as if they had not seen each other for months, she had maneuvered her impeccably-attired and entirely entrancing self onto the settee, and patted the small space remaining beside her invitingly. Dutifully, Eglantine sat down beside her.
In due course, the promised catalogue appeared, and the pair of them began to exclaim over the latest fashions.
It was not, Polly thought, that she was in any way jealous, or even mildly envious of Eglantine’s undeniable charms. Lord Valremer might be the most eligible bachelor of this or any other Season, but Polly, having searched her heart, could find nothing that recommended him to her beyond the superficial.
Rich, he most certainly was. Attractive – even handsome – was an undeniable attribute of his. He was not young, of course. He must be all of thirty or more, although Lady Mayland had waved that away with the worldly-wise stricture that it was not uncommon and perhaps even preferable that one’s husband be an experienced man of the world.
But there was something about his lordship that unsettled her. He was known as having been, at one time, a singular and admired Practitioner of the Arcane – noted, apparently, when still at school, as being marked for Great Things.
That future had never seemed to materialize. Upon inheriting early (the Valremers were not noted for their longevity) he had embarked on a career of dissipation and debauchery. Not, of course, that Polly was privy to any details, of course – one simply did not discuss such topics with sweetly unmarried and delicately nurtured Females – but the vague rumours still swirled around his lordship. They had been warned: he had occasionally set up some innocent as his Flirt, and engendered hopes that, alas, would not ever be fulfilled. Those games of his often led to heartache, and, more darkly, it was whispered, occasional ruin.
At first, it seemed that Eglantine had been marked out in much the same way, but she was much too sensible to have taken his overtures as anything but her due as this Season’s Non Pareille. Lord Valremer was known to always be at the forefront of fashion – he paid his court to Eglantine along with a hundred other men, as a mere matter of course.
And then something had changed.
The entire City was agog. Had Valremer been caught at last? His behavior had moved from the merely flirtatious to the assiduous. Flowers were sent – not the gaudy bouquets of the ironic lover, but the well-chosen and meaningful posies of a man in earnest. A book of poetry was said to have been sent as well, and that had set tongues wagging in earnest.
And then there were Mrs. Anwing’s attentions.
Mrs. Anwing was a widow who had managed, for no adequately explainable reason, to remain at the forefront of Society. She was undeniably lovely, and much admired, at least from a distance. She knew everyone and had gained entrée everywhere, although what, precisely, her social attractions were remained unspoken. Her circumstances were a mystery, too, for while the late Mr. Anwing had certainly not been possessed of enormous wealth, his widow was always dressed in the latest of fashions and kept her own carriage.
She was also possessed of a scathing wit, and perhaps that was how she had maintained such a pre-eminent position. No guest list ever left her name off, and never once had anyone of note failed to acknowledge her when she drove in the Park.
There were some who sought her out over and above the merely courteous, reveling in the latest news that always seemed to come to her ear before anyone else heard a whiff of it.
There were many more, perhaps, who feared her. She was not above making cruel jests about those who displeased her, and she was quite capable of casting someone into social oblivion, shunned by all, should they happen to incur her wrath: hostesses did not lightly stay friends with the Anwing’s victims. Up until now, though, insipid little misses fresh out of the schoolroom had been very much beneath her touch.
Never before had Lord Valremer’s third-cousin-by-marriage taken even the slightest notice of any of Valremer’s flirtations, save to spread idle gossip about the girl if she lacked for other news. But quite suddenly, she had called at Shalliton Place, graciously leaving her card and an invitation to take tea with her the following week, and after this, to greet all three Mayland ladies with every sign of intimacy and pleasure whenever their paths crossed.
“And I own,” Lady Mayland said, when this began, “I do not understand it. She never paid me the slightest heed before, and I wish she would not now. My dear ones, pray, do nothing to upset her!”
As the weeks passed, however, and Lord Valremer’s attentions did not withdraw, Mrs. Anwing merely stepped up her efforts. She dropped so many hints that even Lady Mayland began to have some hopes.
Eglantine’s mother might continue to caution them both, reminding Eglantine to never be in anything even approaching a compromising situation with Valremer, or anyone else, and to treat his lordship as she would any other undeclared suitor: politely, and with good humour. She might warn them both not to permit any man even the tiniest intimacy, but these strictures were almost afterthoughts, sandwiched between speculations on how much the Valremer fortune actually was, and whether or not Eglantine would prefer to spend her days at Valremer Court down in Summersett, or preside over the staff at Orpington Circle.
Polly kept her own counsel, for once. She, too, was dumbfounded by Valremer’s continued interest: it seemed absurd. Eglantine was certainly the most lovely girl to have made her curtsey this Season, and she was as good-tempered and generous of spirit as she was pretty. She managed her would-be admirers with sweetness and tact, never allowing any of them to feel slighted, and she had, moreover, the Mayland pedigree. Not a single family in the City could have found the slightest fault with Miss Mayland as their son’s chosen bride.
But Valremer had seemed to be a confirmed non-starter in the marriage stakes. No less than twenty such girls must have swept through their Season with just as much to recommend them, and he had not fallen. Polly adored her cousin, but even so, in her heart of hearts, she could not see that there was anything so much different about Eglantine than those unknown others Valremer had passed by.
It made no sense at all.
The Mourning Rose — Coming in 2018
Manners meet magic in this tale where curses mix with curtseys, and Charm takes on a whole new dimension . Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen fans will love this romantic fantasy, set in a Regency that never was.
Eglantine Mayland is this Season’s Reigning Toast, and seems destined to make a good marriage. When the wealthy Lord Valremer, a confirmed bachelor, begins to court her seriously, Eglantine’s cousin Polyantha senses that not all is well. Too many of his actions seem to be part of a web of evil that twines itself around the Mayland family.
And why is a well-known rogue and smuggler so interested in their plight?