The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
by Brenda Clough
The most dangerous woman in Europe meets the greatest danger of all: love.
Miss Marian Halcombe thrilled the world In Wilkie Collins’ Victorian best-seller THE WOMAN IN WHITE.
In this sensational sequel, Marian uses all the wits and wiles she learned then to save her husband Theo Camlet from charges of bigamy and then murder. Women are supposed to be rescued in her world, but Marian fights to rescue everything she loves: her husband and her happiness.
Just last night finished reading Marian Halcombe: The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe, by Brenda W. Clough, and I had such a good time! The steadfast alliance between Marian, the dangerous woman of the title, and her more decorous sister, Laura, is a delight, as is the growing consternation of the men – hero and villain alike – as they come to realize just exactly what – who! – it is they’re dealing with. The book’s voice is pitch perfect, which adds to the fun. I’m in for the next one. – Sharon Lee, co-author of the Liaden Universe® novels
It’s a sequel to The Woman In White – but it’s so much more than that. This is a bodice-ripping yarn, a Victorian melodrama with a modern sensibility, a delightful romp, a thriller and a romance and a comedy of manners all at once. I adored it. – Chaz Brenchley
Brenda Clough’s invincible and endearing Marian Halcombe Camlet easily enters the company of Jane Marple, Miss Maud Silver, Pamela North, and Prudence Ford as a British female sleuth in the mid-1800s. The Marian novels are an absolute joy to read. – Paul S. Piper
A ripping yarn! Thrilling, lushly Victorian, with a dashing heroine who is not even handsome, yet she bags a delightful husband – not without considerable heroic effort and derring-do – and upholds the finest traditions of pure womanhood! (Well… kinda.) – Jennifer Stevenson
Marian Halcombe’s journal
Yule Day, 1856
I start this new volume of my diary rather early! All orderly minds would agree it would be more proper to begin next week, on the first of January. But what is to be done? My dearest sister Laura’s gift to me was this most wonderfully handsome blank journal. It is far more grand and expensive than my usual run of black cloth-bound Letts volumes. This book’s luscious blue Morocco leather cover smells divine, simply begging to be opened, and the sleek cream-coloured paper implores the pen’s ministrations. So, I must begin.
Let me start this new volume as is proper for the New Year, with a report on all our household.
Baby Walter – Wally – is now quite the young man! Almost five years old, my darling nephew is teethed, breeched and walking and climbing like a young monkey. His mother has been teaching him to pick out simple tunes upon the piano while I undertake the sterner task of introducing him to his letters. Alas, too often our alphabet blocks are requisitioned to become fortresses for his toy soldiers. But he grows in intelligence every day, the light of the household.
His sire, my brother-in-law Walter Hartright the elder, has devoted his energies to mending fences with all our neighbours. During the residence of Laura’s uncle the late Mr. Frederick Fairlie social martyrdom reigned. Relations with all the county were at best suffered to fall away to nothing. When Mr. Fairlie had the energy, or folk were so foolish as to actually call, he did not hesitate to offer direct insult. But now under Walter’s head we have rejoined the community. We occupy the family pew in Limmeridge church; call and are called upon, dine and are dined with. Though he is an incomer to the district, and not born to the gentry, he has been so well received that there is talk of Walter standing for Parliament when the current incumbent Sir Cedric Gratham retires year after next. But when this is suggested he brushes it aside with a laugh, saying that his old friend Professor Pesca foresaw it, and therefore it cannot be.
But my happiest news is of my darling Laura. My sister could not thrive, all the years we lived in humble circumstances in London. Transplanted back to her native northern soil, surrounded by love and kindliness, Walter and I hoped she would gradually bloom again. How foolish we were, and how little we knew of her greatness of soul!
For what dear Laura needed was to serve others. Poor and ill, she could come to no one’s aid. How well I remember her desire, even though she was barely restored to health, to assist in earning our daily crust!
Now, chatelaine of Limmeridge, she is come at last into her own. She is the fond patroness of the village school, as our mother was before her. Mr. Frederick Fairlie had an abiding horror of children, but now he is gone we have revived the parish fête, giving over the garden and shrubberies once a year to the great benefit of the church.
And, thus nourished, Laura’s energies and spirits have grown wonderfully. She is indefatigable in visiting the poor. If there is a lying-in or a sick child within twenty miles, young Mrs. Hartright is there on the instant with calf’s-foot jelly, or some arrowroot, or a basket of baby linens. Already she is the acknowledged mercy angel of the district; I doubt not that before she dies she will be elevated to the rank of saint.
To see my dearest sister, the person I love most in all the world, flourishing like this fills me with joy. And, with another one on the way she, and I, look to be happy and busy for years to come. So when she gave me this volume – oh, I must write it plainly and in order! Let me go back a little.
We were a merry party for Christmas. Walter’s elderly mother and his sister Sarah had come up from town, escorted by his old friend Professor Pesca, the Italian tutor. Little Wally had received a stick horse for Christmas and was galloping and shouting up and down the halls.
Little Professor Pesca wore a silver basin on his head, a veritable Quixote, and waved a napkin for a banner. He pelted along behind on his short legs, singing some Italian patriotic anthem at the top of his lungs. Walter himself, between paroxysms of laughter, bestrode a dustmop liberated from a startled housemaid, bringing up the rear. Was it the battle of Waterloo, or the charge of the Light Brigade? In any case the noise was immense.
“At least your floors are becoming cleaner,” Sarah noted. We were observing from the safety of the stair. Old Mrs. Hartright sat on the landing and wiped tears of laughter away and Luna, Laura’s pet miniature greyhound, trembled and cowered against her skirts at the tumult.
Laura smiled fondly down at husband and son. “I assure you, Sarah, that is the last thought in any of their minds. But, dear Marian, I almost forgot. I have a gift for you.”
“What, in addition to Mrs. Yonge? We will begin reading The Daisy Chain aloud in the new year.”
“Yes, yes. But come through into my sitting room. Wally’s voice is so carrying.”
We went into her little room, the same chamber that has been the scene of so many important conversations in our lives. We sat on the sofa by the window, which looked out over the wintry garden. In the watery sunshine Laura looked more happy and healthy than I have ever seen her. All the grace and affection of her character from girlhood were blended now with the mature and intelligent gentleness of a woman. She has fulfilled and grown into all her promise; the beauteous rosebud, darling of the garden, is in full fragrant blow. “Love and happiness is good for you,” I burst out. “I have not seen such bloom in your cheeks since we were girls.”
“And that is what I wanted to say to you, my dear Marian. You will remember, always and forever, that I love you, won’t you? And that your happiness is essential to my own?”
I was startled. How could there be any doubt of it, after all we have been through? It is family policy to never speak of the past. “Laura, is something wrong?”
“No indeed, Marian. It is because all is so right, that I give you this.” She put the Morocco volume, this very journal, into my hands. When I had finished exclaiming over it and thanking her she went on, “Marian, you are so wonderful and capable. Your life should be more than that of a spinster aunt. You could be so much more.”
“Oh Laura, you know that is not a possibility.” I did not need to glance at the square mirror propped on the mantel. From the moment of birth the two of us have been the most amusingly ill-assorted sisters: she fair and blessed as springtime, and I the impoverished harsh winter, with my dark hair and unharmonious features. All my life I have been compared to Laura, and am content to be forever second. “If your blessings of face and fortune are no guarantee of happiness, how can a person with neither hope for it?”
“But that is precisely my point, Marian. I am happy, after much storm and peril.” She smiled, a smile of such bliss! “Once, in a moment of great distress – do you remember? I made a foolish and unkind demand of you. I asked you to never marry and never to leave me.”
“I’m sure you noted it in your journal. When you have leisure, go back and look. And today, now that we can both see how much Walter’s love has done for me… Marian, I know that I was wrong. I had no right to make such a selfish demand even of the meanest servant. Love does not lay such requests upon the beloved. You are no slave in chains, but the dearest person in my heart. Surely only the overwhelming press of circumstance kept you from scolding me roundly on the spot for my childish unreasonableness. You pronounced no promise at that time. But if you made it silently, in the corridors of your heart, it was a noble sacrifice to my need. My dearest, dearest sister, now and for always: I absolve you of it. You are no prisoner. You are free. And this journal is the token of that. Let it be the next chapter in your life, Marian. Let it record a wider heart, a life fully lived.”
“Laura! Walter spoke of this once. Are you –” I could not go on, my eyes filling with weak tears.
Quickly she put her own slender white hands over mine, which numbly clutched her gift. “Never, not for an instant. Your home shall always be with us if you wish it, and our lives shall always be entwined. Why, little Wally would never tolerate less! But … consider seeking more, Marian. Yes, it is a risk to change. To reach out, to grow. But you are not nervous, like me. You are a mighty oak. You do not have to linger always in a little clay flower-pot like Limmeridge. You are an eagle. If you spread your wings and fly, that is right and proper. And we, Walter and I, will watch you soar with shouts of joy.”
From the open door, below in the hall, came those exact shouts of joy. “Oh, Laura,” I choked. “How have I ever deserved a love so pure, so noble as yours?”
“Marian! When you have done so much for me? How can you say that? You deserve all good things, every joy in the world. And because I love you, I want them all for you.”
Overwhelmed, I retired to my own room, and when I was more composed I sat at my writing desk and wrote all this down so that I may read it over again, and reflect upon Laura’s words. She has not spoken words of rejection. She does not close a door on me. These are words of opening, of liberation. She wants the best for me, as I want it for her. What shall I do, my darling girl, if you become wise as well as good and happy?
It is all very well to recognise a need for change. Now that dear Laura articulated it, I too feel it. The young tree she spoke of perhaps felt this, a need for a larger space, for new earth and water. A new year is coming, and as she advised I will meet it boldly.
But how? I remembered there was a novel, a popular fiction from several years ago about a young woman in this exact same quandary. Mrs. Ramer, the rector’s wife, has spoken disparagingly of the heroine’s unladylike example and rebellious, unregenerate spirit. If anything this is a recommendation! Down in the library I found it: Jane Eyre. Alas, Miss Charlotte Brontë is notably unhelpful. Advertise for a position, indeed – it does not quite sound respectable. Certainly impossible for Miss Marian Halcombe of Limmeridge House. So I tabled the matter and went down to play with Wally.
The plan was for our guests to stay to see in the New Year. However, this very day – the day after Boxing Day – there was a nut-cake for tea. An innocuous and even cheery occurrence, one might say. But, biting down on a forkful, old Mrs. Hartright cried out in pain. “Oh, oh! My tooth!”
“Mama, was it a bit of shell?” Sarah cried.
Mrs. Hartright spat her mouthful out into a napkin. A white shard of tooth gleamed in the detritus. “You have shattered it,” Walter declared. “Mother, will you let me have a peep?”
But this she refused to do. The poor old woman moaned in pain, clutching the side of her jaw. Tears poured down her face. “The nerve must be laid bare,” I said.
Laura was already gone in a whisk of long skirts to fetch the medicine box. By the time she returned we had Mrs. Hartright laid out on the sofa. Pesca helpfully fetched a chunk of ice from outdoors, broken off an icicle. Wrapped in a napkin and held to her cheek, this did not calm the pain as we hoped. The unlucky woman was writhing in agony.
Laura unlocked the box and took out the laudanum. “Will she permit me to drop it on the tooth?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Perhaps in water, instead. If she can sleep through the night, day may bring relief. And if not, we have time to send for a dentist.”
Laura prepared the dose while Walter and Sarah propped their mother up and then persuaded her to sip it. The powerful opiate soon had its effect, and she fell into the mercy of slumber. She weighs no more than a bird, poor thing. Walter carefully hoisted her in his arms and carried her up to her bed. We three ladies committed little Wally to Pesca’s care and followed. When the old lady was comfortably tucked up Sarah undertook to sit with her, while we discussed the next steps.
“We must send to London and have Mr. Stalke come,” Laura said. “He is her preferred dentist.”
“And in the time it takes to send, and for him to come, we could more quickly just take Mother to him,” Walter said. “Her pain is so great that the utmost speed is called for.”
“But you cannot go, Laura,” I put in.
She had to assent. “Not in the depths of winter, and in my condition.”
“And little Wally needs you here,” Walter said. “But I do not like leaving you for any length of time. And Sarah is …” He stopped, and we did not pick up his discourse for him. His sister is not precisely simple, certainly not mentally afflicted as a doctor would define the term. But she is not a female who deals with abstractions. One might trust her to select a pair of slippers, but not to manage the transportation of a fragile and elderly patient.
“Why, we make too much difficulty of it,” I said. “Are there not three of us? I shall go. You may trust me to take the tenderest care of your mother, Walter, and to see that she is attended by her preferred practitioner in London and nursed carefully back to full health however long it takes.”
“That would be marvelously kind of you, Marian,” Walter exclaimed. “Both Pesca and I shall escort you on the express, so that the journey may be swift and easy as possible, and I will then immediately return to Limmeridge. My dear, you can manage for a day or so without me?”
“The new one is not due to appear until April,” Laura said, smiling. “And your arm will be needed to help your mother in and out of the rail carriage. Pesca is the soul of kindness, but he is a very small man. I’ll be safe here at Limmeridge.”
Our plans made, we immediately set about our preparations. I have packed my trunk for a stay of possibly a fortnight or more. It is impossible to predict how long Mrs. Hartright at her age may need to recover from an extraction. I must conclude this entry and go to bed. We depart at first light tomorrow.
Hampstead Cottage, 3 January 1857
A brief entry to note that everything proceeded as we had laid out. Walter and Pesca whisked us to town on the fastest train. Mrs. Hartright slept on my shoulder for the entire trip. I am installed now in the tiny guest bedroom of the comfortable cottage that is the longtime home of Mrs. Hartright and Sarah. It is on a lane bordering Hampstead Heath, a quiet and respectable district north of London. Mr. Stalke, a most excellent dental surgeon, waited upon Mrs. Hartright the very next morning. She bore up under the extraction well. She felt an immediate relief, the pain of a tooth-pulling being far less that the agony of the broken tooth. Walter departed for the north again that very day, leaving myself and Sarah to supervise Mrs. Hartright’s recovery. This has been slow, not a surprise in view of her advanced years, and we take it in turns to nurse her. Tedious, but I have my journal and my knitting. I propose to knit a lace gown for the coming nephew or niece.
A disturbing occurrence took place this evening, which I hasten to note down before I should forget the particulars.
Sarah having a long-standing engagement with the Ladies’ Working Society at St. John-at-Hampstead, I sat with Mrs. Hartright all this evening. This is no great trial. She is now able to sit up in bed and take soft food and tea, although she has not yet come downstairs. Her jaw is still mightily swollen on that side, and she is not confident on her feet. At her age a fall could be calamitous. I spent an hour reading aloud to her from the newspapers. Whatever her bodily ailments her mind is active and sharp, and she keeps up with all the latest intelligence both at home – especially the doings of the Royal Family – and abroad. “Is there news of the female anarchist, Daisy Darnell?” she demanded. “Early in the week they had captured her, but yesterday the story was all of her escape.”
I turned the pages. “Yes, a short report. Let me read it to you: ‘An international hunt continues for the infamous villainess Daisy Darnell. She was last seen in Croatia, where her anarchist lover was at last brought to book and hanged from the snow-white ramparts of the medieval citadel at Dubrovnik. Ludovic Bradamante, once a count of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, was convicted of murder, arson, and bomb-throwing after a heinous attempt upon the life of King Aleksandar Kara?or?evi? of Serbia. His common-law wife Darnell was deeply implicated herself in the plot. But she eluded capture on Tuesday by a ruse at the train station, cloaking her extraordinary beauty under the veil and wimple of a nun of the Little Sisters of St. Anselm…’” It was good full-blooded stuff, very typical of the Balkan nations. I struggled with the difficult foreign cognomens and was grateful that we live where everyone has a pronounceable name. Mrs. Hartright evidently thrilled to the same contrast, paying close attention to every twist in the female anarchist’s daring escape.
Then, having settled her down cozily for the night, I went downstairs. Sarah was not yet returned, and the parlour was close and oppressive. I had been indoors all day. Also I had miscounted my pattern and now faced the unraveling of a good inch of complicated knitted lace, a task it was a pleasure to postpone.
I opened the front door and stepped out. Though it was January we were in the midst of a welcome warm spell. There was no snow nor even frost, and a mild moisture hung in the air, the harbinger of spring. The cottage is divided from the lane by a hornbeam hedge. The bright moonlight lured me down the path to the gate.
I leaned on it and took a deep breath. The pasture and woodland of the Heath were black against a glowing golden haze: the gaslights of London. Warm white mist gathered in the low spots of the landscape, and above in a clement sky the moon was nearly full, modestly veiled in pale ravelings. All was still, not a rustle of leaf or twitter of any bird. It was a calm silent night of the full moon just like this, when Walter encountered Anne Catherick on his walk home, not so far from this very spot. What a fateful encounter that had been for all of us! How many lives and deaths had turned upon that one chance meeting! Surely the finger of God was upon Walter that day –
My rather melodramatic reminiscences were abruptly broken off. There was something stirring, moving purposefully in the mist cupped down the slope. For a moment I wanted to retreat into the cottage and bolt the door. But then I schooled myself to wait and watch. What boggart or villain could there be, here in this quiet suburb? It might only be Sarah, returning from the sewing meeting. How silly I should feel, if she had to knock on her own door to be let in.
So I watched as the mist thickened and then thinned again, and suddenly I could clearly discern two small figures, hand in hand. Could they be children, out alone at this late hour? They wandered nearer, up the lane. I could see they were a fair boy and a quite little girl, perhaps seven and five years old, clad in coats over their nightshirts. Innocent of socks or stockings, their little feet were crammed into untidily laced boots. Were not the night so mild they would have caught cold instantly. But no woman, no decent human being, could watch such tiny creatures wandering alone in the night without intervening. As they approached the gate I leaned over it. “Dear children, where are you parents?”
“We’re looking for a mother,” the little girl replied readily.
“Hush, Lottie,” the boy said crossly. “You mustn’t blab our affairs all over.”
“It’s very dark,” I observed. “You must have walked a long way. I am Miss Halcombe, and I live in this cottage. Would you care to come in and have some refreshment? I can offer you some warm milk. It’s a favorite of mine. And perhaps some seed cake.”
“My name is Micah Camlet,” the boy said with dignity. “No, thank you.”
“Oh, but Mickey, I love seed cake,” Lottie cried. “And there’s a blister coming on my heel. I wish I had put on stockings, but you were in such a hurry.”
“Your legs must be cold. I must make up the fire to boil the kettle anyway. You are very welcome to come and sit by it. And I could look at your blister.” I unlatched the gate and held it invitingly ajar. “What is your name, little one?”
Trustingly she stepped in. “I’m Lottie. Pleased to meet you.”
Her brother, wiser as males must be even at his age, said, “We must not impose upon you, Miss.”
“How is it that your mother let you slip away without her, my dear?” The child put a thumb into her mouth but then, clearly remembering a nurse’s injunction, pulled it out again. Very gently I took the child’s free hand.
“We haven’t a mother,” Micah interposed.
“And we want one,” the little girl added. “Father Christmas was supposed to bring her, but he must have forgot.”
I drew them both onto the garden path, and was just making to latch the gate when there was a commotion farther down the road. There was a clatter of hooves, and suddenly a tall black horse loomed up out of the mist. Its rider was hatless, his long coat unfastened and billowing behind with the speed of his progress. Quite an heroical picture, spoilt only by the glint of steel-rimmed glasses on his face. “Madam, have you seen – great God. Micah! Lottie!”
“Is that your father?”
“Yes, and he shall be so cross,” Lottie said, with composure.
“He read to us about Father Christmas,” Micah objected, “so I don’t see his complaint.”
By this time the rider had pulled up at the gate and flung himself off his steed. “Children, are you hurt? How dare you give the slip to Nurse like that! It’s very naughty of you!”
He was, quite naturally, entirely beside himself with anxiety. In the role of peacemaker I said, “Mr. Camlet, I presume. And this is your son and your daughter? They do not seem to have suffered much from their adventure. A blister, I am informed, is all the souvenir –”
“How dare you meddle with my family affairs, woman? It cannot be quite respectable that you lurk in a dark garden like this.”
If he had been a big dangerous-looking fellow I might have spoken more softly, but all of this man’s height had been lent by his horse. Afoot he was not intimidating, certainly not with spectacles. “It is my own garden, sir, or rather the property of my hostess. If anything I am the aggrieved party. I did not invite you or your family to call. But I see that you cannot be reasoned with, and it is too late for conversation. Good night, Miss Lottie and Master Micah.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Micah said politely.
Lottie clung to my hand. “But we were going to have seed cake!”
Gently I extracted my fingers from hers and retreated into the house, firmly shutting the door. Peeping through the parlour curtain I saw the Camlet family in silhouette having it out with itself in the intermittent moonlight. My fear was that the father might be so intemperate and choleric as to beat his children. As their parent he had full right to chastise them as he would, but the sight would be lacerating.
But against that there was the children’s placid demeanor when they spoke of him. They had not been afraid in the least. Finally the taller figure lifted the smallest to the saddle and climbed up himself before giving the boy a hand up to the saddlebow. Thus burdened the horse turned slowly, walking back the way it had come. The thick hedge prevented me from seeing more. Sarah came through the gate half an hour later, full of chatter about hemming infant linens. I said nothing to her of my evening, and we went straight up to bed, I pausing only to scribble down this account. Of all the pointless encounters!
This day for the first time Mrs. Hartright expressed a desire to dress and come down. Sarah and I hastened to wrap her warmly for breakfast. “How well you have kept house, my dears,” she said. “Although Milly has neglected the hallway sadly – the slates are gritty. And what is this? Is not porridge reserved for Sundays?”
“It’s for you, Mama,” Sarah said. “You cannot wish for toast? Would you prefer a lightly boiled egg?”
“Not I,” she returned. “This is well enough. You’re quite right, I must chew delicately for yet some days.”
After breakfast the old lady was delighted to take her favorite chair by the fire in the parlour, declaring herself entirely recovered for any activity not involving mastication. I read aloud to them both, and in the afternoon she settled down to holding my skein of wool while Sarah wound it up into a ball. I meanwhile availed myself of the bright afternoon light to unravel my lace knitting errors of the previous day, anxious and fussy work that took up my full attention.
When the doorbell gave a great clang we all jumped. “Who could it be?” Mrs. Hartright exclaimed. “Is my cap straight, Sarah?”
“Milly is still washing up.” I set down my work. The parlour was at the front of the house, and I quickly opened the door. If something was wrong at Limmeridge, and Laura had sent a wire –
To my astonishment an enormous bunch of greenhouse blossoms seemed to fill the doorway, lilies, arum and narcissi, all the pale and scentless flowers nursed under glass into bloom in the winter months. “Miss Halcombe?”
It was a servant. But over the shoulder of the menial was a head of light-brown hair brushed straight back, and anxious hazel eyes behind familiar steel spectacles. From behind me Sarah cried, “Mr. Camlet, how kind of you to call! I recognised your brougham at the gate. Please come through. Mother is just come downstairs this day.”
“I – Ahem. That is, I –” Clearly the intemperate horseman of last night had not actually intended an afternoon call. But there was no help for him. Sociable Mrs. Hartright added her voice to her daughter’s and I stood back to let him pass. Mr. Camlet was haled into the parlour and installed on the other side of the fire, and his coachman set the armload of flowers on the table.
“How very kind of you,” Mrs. Hartright exclaimed. “You must have stripped your greenhouse, Mr. Camlet. Flowers are a treasure in January, the rarest of the rare. You are too considerate of an old woman and her ailments.” She sniffed a lily deeply, untroubled by its lack of perfume.
“Perhaps I could fetch a vase and put them in water for you,” I suggested.
“Will you present me?” Mr. Camlet said, faintly. Clearly our encounter of the last evening was to be passed over.
“Forgive me, sir,” Mrs. Hartright said. “Miss Halcombe, this is Theophilus Camlet, our neighbour. He lives in Sandett House, half a mile up the lane – you will have seen it, the big pink-brick house, as our hansom came in. Mr. Camlet, Miss Halcombe is the sister of my dear son Walter’s wife Laura. A most excellent family in Cumberland, and Laura’s home Limmeridge House has been in the family for seventy years…”
Leaving the ladies to entertain their caller, I fetched the large Wedgwood vase from the sideboard. When I peeped through the curtain I could see the brougham waiting in the lane, gleaming black with wheels picked out in yellow. Two sleek bay horses stood in the shafts. Our visitor must be prosperous, to maintain not only his own carriage but three horses in town.
Thanks to Laura’s lush rose gardens I am quite skilled at arranging flowers, but even the Wedgwood vase was insufficient to contain this floral bounty. A pair of smaller vases had to be pressed into service as well. Set on either windowsill in the parlour away from the heat of the fire they looked very fine, and the large Wedgwood vase took pride of place in the centre of the table. Sarah agreed with her mother that fresh flowers gave quite an air to the entire cottage. Between admiration of their beauty, praise of his generosity and exclamations of his kindness in calling, Mr. Camlet scarcely got a word in edgewise. But many men are awkward at calls, from leaving their wives to pay the social arrears.
Within the canonical fifteen minutes he took his leave. All this time I had busied myself counting and recounting my lace stitches, making mere commonplace assents to Mrs. Hartright’s remarks. I had dropped a yarn loop somewhere and thrown the whole pattern off, very provoking. Only when I ushered him into the hall did Mr. Camlet say, “Miss Halcombe, in fact I came to call upon you.”
For the first time I actually looked at him. He must have been a year or two older than myself. Not a tall man – a little more than my height, though I am reckoned tall for a woman. He was not fat, but merely well-fleshed. His light-brown hair, over a high pale forehead, foretold what his fair children would grow up to be. Side whiskers swooped down and then up to join on his upper lip in a moustache, lending squareness to an otherwise ordinarily pleasant countenance. His features were regular, and the hazel eyes behind the round lenses were gentle. How foolish I had been, dreading he would strike children or horse. If anything this man would be too kind.
And he affirmed my judgment immediately. “To apologise for my hasty words of last night. My terror for the children’s safety was so great that I spoke my fears, and not with observation. Of your great goodness, please forgive me, and allow me to thank you for your kindness to them.”
“Why, think nothing of it, Mr. Camlet. Only a heart of stone could have turned the little creatures away in the cold and dark.”
“And your heart is plainly a golden one. I hope you will think of these flowers as your own, a small token of my contrition.”
“They will give so much pleasure to my hostess, I shall never tell her of your intent.” But he looked so crushed at my sally that I impulsively held my hand out to him. He took it for only an instant and then with a bow was out the door and down the path to where his carriage waited at the gate.
“Was it not thoughtful of him,” Mrs. Hartright marveled. “Such beautiful blooms!”
“He must be a good neighbour and a close friend,” I suggested.
“Well of course we are acquainted any time these past ten years, living so near to each other,” Sarah said. “But he has never paid an afternoon call before.”
“Nor with flowers,” Mrs. Hartright said. “Perhaps he is clearing out his greenhouse. And since there is no lady at Sandett House we do not call.”
“There is no Mrs. Camlet?” I said, startled. “How is that? There are children, are there not?”
“Oh my dear, that’s the tragedy of it,” Mrs. Hartright cried. “A boy and a girl, running wild now all the day long. It was the most dreadful thing, quite the nine days’ wonder, and the poor man was nearly prostrate with shame.” With very little encouragement the ladies poured the story into my receptive ear, for of course it was common knowledge in the neighbourhood and Mrs. Hartright is something of a gossip.
It was the old tale: Mrs. Margaret Camlet became enamored of another. After the birth of her youngest she fled with this person to the Continent, abandoning children and husband. She died in Salerno, and the widower had been struggling to raise his family ever since.
“It was months before he dared to go out even a little into society,” Mrs. Hartright said. “Though of course he was not to blame, he felt the ignominy as much as any man could. Only with the report of the wife’s death could he hold his head up again, although he did wear black gloves for the full mourning period. The neighbourhood has expected for years that he will remarry, lest the children grow up to be savages.”
“They must need a mother sadly,” I said. When Lottie and Micah spoke of seeking their mother, had they been looking for Margaret Camlet? Perhaps all the sordid details had been kept from them, and they did not know she was dead.
“He’s well able to afford it,” Sarah said. “As the proprietor of Covenant Pamphlets and Printed Materials. You will have seen them, at missions and in pew racks.”
“The tracts and leaflets, of course.”
“And instructional advice. Should you feel the need for a pamphlet instructing you on how to evangelise a slave in Alabama, or take tea with a Hindoo, Covenant will have such a thing. A most upright and godly man,” Mrs. Hartright concluded, with a nod of approval. “And visiting the sick is explicitly recommended in Scripture.”
“You are scarcely to be numbered among the sick any more. Shall we have a little brown soup for supper, do you think?” This evening I must write to Laura. Mrs. Hartright progresses so well, I should be able to return home next week.
The kindness of our visitor did not slacken. A note arrived early today, offering Mrs. Hartright, and us of course, a lift to St. John-at-Hampstead. The old lady had been too much pulled down to attend services, and accepted the offer with joy. She enjoys the sermons of the Reverend Angier, and I confess to a desire to hear his preaching as well. He administers the Female Preventative and Reformatory League, a group dedicated to the reclamation of wayward females who are weary of sin. The offer was the more welcome since the weather had turned, with a cold sleety rain that made going outdoors a punishment.
This morning therefore Sarah and I wrapped her mother and ourselves up well in coats, muffs, shawls, scarves, gloves and bonnets, and we all wore our stoutest boots. The coachman came to our door with a large umbrella, and the carriage was made welcoming with hot bricks.
“Six of us, but the children do not take up much space,” our benefactor greeted us. “If you ladies are too crowded on that side, we may exchange Miss Sarah for Micah.”
“Our wraps are so bulky, perhaps it would be as well,” I said. “Micah, shall you sit between Mrs. Hartright and myself?”
The exchange was quickly made and we were off. The children had evidently been abjured with sternness not to pester their elders with demands for seed cake. But Lottie, looking like a cherub in a swansdown tippet, put her thumb in her mouth and stared across hopefully at me. I had had the foresight to load my muff with peppermints, and their father reluctantly agreed to one each.
“Not in the pews, mind,” he added. “It’s holy service, not a box at the theatre.”
“Be quiet and good, and we shall have another on the way home,” I promised.
He smiled faintly at his offspring’s enthusiasm for comfits. “Is bribery, Miss Halcombe, the way to inculcate good behavior in the young?”
“Since they are not yet at the age of reason, the only tools to hand are bribery or duress,” I said. “Between pleasure and pain, the first choice is obvious.”
“I am very reasonable.” Micah licked his fingers. In the daylight I saw that the boy’s eyes were a bright deep blue, almost sapphire. His sister had her father’s hazel eyes and curls the colour of a golden guinea. What a pretty pair!
“Yes, I see you are.” I passed him a handkerchief. “You’re quite old enough to understand why it’s important to listen to the sermon with reverence.”
“Why?” Lottie asked.
“Because the congregation has gathered to listen to it,” Mr. Camlet said. “And it would be impolite to disturb them.”
“The appeal to social custom,” I said. “Would not a higher and better reason be the reverence owed to the Deity?”
“Blessed are they that do not see and yet believe,” Mr. Camlet quoted. “In my business we have learnt that Christian understanding must grow, as from a seed. It does not spring fully formed from the young mind.”
“Any more that the multiplication tables would, I agree,” I said. “Let them be polite now, and they may grow to be reverent later.”
Sarah, several conversational steps behind, said, “I should have thought to bring some pastilles myself.”
“I would give you a peppermint, but I fear to break my promise to the children.” Though Sarah herself did not realise I was teasing her, Mr. Camlet took off his glasses and polished them, to hide his smile.
Due to the rain the church was not overly crowded. It’s an affluent congregation and the arches of the high ceiling are most impressive. The Rev. Angier, a portly and dignified figure with a red face above bushy grey side whiskers, preached on Colossians with fluency and learning for a full two hours without referring to a note, taking more than a sip of water, or faltering – a most notable feat.
I sat with the Hartright ladies towards the middle of the nave. Mr. Camlet’s family pew was further toward the front and on the other side. The high wooden pew backs made it impossible for us to see them, but I heard no childish disturbances and after the service was prompt to distribute more peppermints. “You have been so very good,” Mrs. Hartright said to them in the brougham on our way back. “Are you grown up enough to come to tea?”
“Seed cake,” Lottie said with hope, before her father could hush her.
“I’m departing for the north on Wednesday,” I said, “so let it be on Tuesday. I’ll bake a cake tomorrow.”
“Departing, indeed!” Mr. Camlet said.
“I am sadly missing my own darling nephew, little Wally. My task is to teach him his letters. I’ve been away so long I fear he will start to forget.”
Mrs. Hartright averred that her only grandson would never be so bird-witted, and so the date was fixed. Immediately we returned to the cottage I sat down to write this, and to draw up a shopping list for Monday’s marketing.
This afternoon was our tea party. Mr. Camlet arrived at four on the dot. The children were beautifully dressed, Micah in a sailor suit and Lottie in dark blue velvet, her pinafore trimmed with eyelet lace. Their hair had been dampened into place, and all in all they were as uncomfortable as cats in a puddle. Mrs. Hartright poured and Sarah handed seed cake. I sat between the two young ones. “We are to be on our very best behavior,” Lottie confided. “So that you ladies will not be disgusted with children.”
“I live in the same house as my nephew, so I know children,” I said. “He is just your age, and we have had some fine romps.”
Micah set his cup carefully down in its saucer. “What games do you play?”
I assessed young Micah, who was too old for blocks or a stick horse. “I know how to make a kite out of lath and newspapers.”
“Can you? Would you show me?”
“Indeed I shall. Do you have a pen-knife? Never mind, it is of no consequence. I have one, and when you come to make your own kite perhaps your papa shall lend you his.”
The cake devoured, I fetched some lath from the woodshed and a few sheets of newspaper from the tinder box, and with the help of a paste pot soon assembled a simple kite on the hall floor. Some crochet cotton did for the string and harness.
“What a gift you have with the little ones, Marian,” Mrs. Hartright said, when we proudly displayed our work.
It is a man’s world we live in, and thus the wise woman always allots some credit to any male handy. “Dear Walter taught me the way of it. He’s made many a kite for little Wally. Now mind, lad, get a reel of stout kite string for this. Sewing thread will snap instantly.”
All this while Lottie had been exceptionally ladylike and demure, sitting on a footstool and sipping her tea as her brother and I cut paper and tied string. Now she tugged her father’s sleeve. “This is the one, Papa.”
Mr. Camlet hastily flicked a crumb from the front of her pinafore. “Hush, Lottie, you are too bold.”
“I want to fly it now!” Micah exclaimed. Unfortunately it was still raining, fatal for toys of a paper construction, but his father promised to help him when weather conditions permitted.
“Miss Halcombe, I’m sorry to hear you shall be leaving Hampstead. Is it a long journey, to your home?” Having neglected our adult guest all this time, I took a seat on the sofa. His manner, intelligent and yet mild, was attractive, although I could see that in age he would be stoop-shouldered as many bookish men tend to be. We chatted of trains and connections for some little time.
Then Mr. Camlet suddenly turned the subject. “Miss Halcombe, your kindness to Micah and Lottie is so great, might I make some small return? My firm is undertaking an English edition of the works of John Calvin. If you will entrust me with your direction in Cumberland I would be pleased to send you a spiritual book or two, suitable for feminine perusal. You will not wish to lade your baggage with heavy tomes.”
If anything this sounded quite lowering. “I am not much for Protestant theology, sir,” I said tactfully. “My woman’s intellect is easily sated with novels and such feeble secular entertainments.”
His glance at me through the spectacles seemed to weigh me to the ounce. “This is false modesty, Miss Halcombe. You are visibly more intelligent than three quarters of the men in London.” At this I had to laugh, and he smiled too. “I have a happier thought. You spoke of your nephew, Mrs. Hartright’s grandson. Perhaps the boy would enjoy one of our most popular works, Noah and His Animals. It is profusely illustrated and intended to be read aloud to the very young.”
“That indeed I would be charmed to see,” I said. “You have little ones, so you know that the nurturance of their growth of mind is an ongoing duty. All contributions to that end are welcome.” I gave him my direction, and he noted it carefully in his pocket memorandum book.
An experienced father, Mr. Camlet clearly knew not to try the deportment of little ones for too long. When a second slice of cake had been devoured he rose to take his leave. The children thanked each of us in formal and well-rehearsed terms. Mrs. Hartright and Sarah helped with small coats and mittens.
I was about to give Mr. Camlet my usual brisk and mannish handshake – I am too plain for feminine airs. But he startled me by taking my hand and clasping it in both his own. “Will you write back to me, and tell me how little Wally enjoys the book?”
“Ah, I understand at last. You are a wicked publisher. My poor nephew is an experimental animal, and you hope to try different mental diets upon him and see the results.”
Below the moustache his mouth actually dropped open in alarm. “My dear lady – oh, you’re funning me.”
“I’m a dreadful, whimsical creature,” I assured him.
His smile was almost a grin. “You delight me, and I hope for a regular correspondence.” Micah broke in with a demand for the umbrella to be opened lest his kite become damp, and they were off to their carriage.
I went up to pack for my journey thoughtfully. A correspondence? He could not seriously want reports on how little Wally responded to Christian literature for the very young. By the time my linens were folded I had the right of it. The man was scouring his acquaintance for some pliable female to mother his two children. “I have little Wally, and Laura is expecting another,” I told my trunk firmly. “I already have two children to care for.”