The Earl in the Shadows
The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
by Brenda Clough
Marian Halcombe Camlet comes to awareness in the Dower House of a grand English country house, but she can’t remember how she got there.
Marian Halcombe Camlet wakes up in a strange bedroom, in a house she does not recognize. She has a new name, and a job, as the companion to the Dowager Countess of Brecon and Stowe, on the vast estate of Cranmorden in Gloucestershire. How did Marian get here, and why? The Earl of Brecon and Stowe has a secret, but Marian has forgotten it. She has to discover the lost memory, and then resolve the secret, before she can return home.
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, author of Three Twins at the Crater School
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, author of The Wolves of Mirr
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 pure.) – Jennifer Stevenson, author of Coed Demon Sluts
by Walter Hartright
Gaze up, at the moon. Full and fair, a brooch upon the breast of night, she is a sphere of pure light. Then look down. What do you see? I see myself as a man working for others, as husband and father, and for the commonweal. But there is another man I have seen only once or twice peeping out from behind my eyes: a shadow full of fear, drawn to evil as the sparks fly upward. And as in small, so in great. Every man, every household, every nation even, has an Other. The brightest moon has a dark side, rarely glimpsed. I have worked all my life to extirpate mine. I know I never shall.
No. 3 Oct52
I wish I could see the new boiler anyway. It sounds a grand innovation, and cannot but lighten your labours. What do Susie and Dinah make of it? If they are as dull as you describe, the workings will be utterly beyond their understanding!
Marian Halcombe Camlet’s journal
4 January 1865
The unfamiliar snow-light in my eyes woke me. It reflected, bright and cold, from the whitewashed ceiling above my head. I was not lying beside my husband Theo in his big four-poster bed at home, nor in the half-tester in my own bedroom next to his, nor the simple bed of my girlhood at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. Instead a counterpane rough with strange embroidery was under my fingertips. I stared for a long time at the walls. They were papered in an old-fashioned rosebud pattern, faded pinks and tans that I had never seen before.
My treacherous knees shook under me as I climbed out of the bed. My feet in their bedsocks stumbled over the edge of a worn hooked carpet, cut down from a grander proportion to fit this ordinary space. I tottered over to the double window and leaned weakly on the mullion in the centre. With difficulty I forced my eyes to take in the whiteness outside. A snow-covered garden, entirely unfamiliar. The trees were laden and bowed with white, and the sky was hard and colourless as diamond. Shrubs laid out in patterns and beds were mere mounds, and the paths were almost invisible.
At the edge of one bed was a tray raised on a pole, for feeding birds. A slender woman in a long grey cloak and hood was carrying a bowl of birdseed and waiting for the servants to finish sweeping the way for her. She saw me and waved. Instinctively I raised a hand in response. But who was she? I didn’t recognise her.
Then it came to me. The wall. The attendants. The simple, sparsely furnished room. I was in an Asylum. I had been put aside by my husband and shut up in a madhouse, as my sister Laura had been by her own wicked first husband. The thought was so terrifying that my heart seemed to jump and squeeze in my chest. My head reeled, and before I could fall to the floor I groped back to the narrow bed and collapsed into it, weeping.
P x P. Do you realise this is the Queen’s Gambit, the Exchange Variation? Are we not clever?
Slowly, dreamily, I came to awareness again in the little strange bed. Again I lay quietly, gathering my thoughts. They seemed strangely scattered, dusty and disarranged like toys not played with for a long while. How did I come here? What was this place? And, more slowly, the larger question rose up in my mind: who am I?
At least this I knew. I am Marian Halcombe Camlet, I told myself. Laura Fairlie is my beloved sister, and she married Walter Hartright. I am the wife of Theophilus Camlet, the publisher, and … and immediately my unsteady little canoe struck a hidden spear of rock. Theo, my dearest man, my beloved, my husband. Had he shut me up here? Was he a Percival Glyde after all? No, I cannot believe this. We have been wed for more than seven years, and I know him to be a good man, my dearest friend and companion, endlessly kind.
But… there is a gap in the armor of my self, the legacy or scar of years of being the ugly one, the unchosen sister, the unlovable female. Had he rejected me? Perhaps I really was mad, and he had put me away for my own good and that of the children –
The children. I had children! Little precocious Lester, short for Celeste, with her black pigtails, my darling lamb William, and … There was a third, but I could not remember. A girl, I think it was a girl …
My uncertainty on such a vital point brought another horrid explanation of my plight to mind, like some devilish kaleidoscope shaking my few facts into a fearsome new pattern. Perhaps I had dreamed my entire life. Perhaps I had never been anything all my life but plain Miss Marian Halcombe, and had conjured out of my own ardent spirit and empty heart a marriage: a perfect husband and passionate lover, a joyous domestic life, and adorable children.
In that case I was in simple truth mad. And it was Laura and Walter who had rightly consigned me to the Asylum.
But this was impossible. Laura above all would never have me shut up, under any persuasion. She knows too well the horrors of the madhouse, that living tomb in which the sane become mad and the mad are imprisoned until death’s merciful release. And another simple proof rose to the surface of my clogged and cloudy mind. One does not bear three children without some visible evidence.
I threw off the bedclothes and climbed out of bed. I pulled the limp ties at my neck loose and dragged the long flannel nightgown over my head. Naked, I stood in nothing but my woollen bedsocks in the pale snow-light, the chill of the room prickling at my shrinking skin. There was a small looking glass hanging over the washstand in the corner, and in it I beheld my body, pallid against the shadow behind the light.
My black hair hung in a long snarled braid down one side of my neck almost to my waist. Below, my belly was lumpy. The lines low on the flaccid surface were clear to see, pale and silvery against skin too swarthy for the canons of beauty. My bosom showed them too, striations starring the lush flesh that had been Theo’s delight. This was no virginal body. Visibly I had borne and given suck.
There was a sudden footstep, and the door bumped open. “Oh! Beg pardon miss. Would you like to dress?” It was a servant. My wardress?
“Yes, thank you.” I needed to dress before I froze. And I needed to know more. Before I could escape! What is this prison? Who has immured me here? The desire for liberty beat in my heart, hot as my own blood. They cannot hold me, not once I know myself, know my powers. My captors rule me only if I am kept ignorant and blind. But now I begin to see and know. I shall be free! “Tell me your name,” I said to my attendant, as a first step.
“Hetty, miss.” She bobbed a half-curtsy – a painfully thin and small creature with work-reddened hands and the large fearful eyes of a wild creature.
With Hetty’s help I put on my linens, which were familiar. A woman always knows her stays, and I had made these winter drawers myself out of a daring green tartan plaid flannel that never failed to make Theo laugh when he glimpsed them. My gown hung on the hook behind the door, a simple dark blue frock of plain woollen. I did not recognise it, nor the plain stockings and shoes, cheap but serviceable, suitable for a woman of humble position. I sat down at the dressing table but Hetty showed no signs of being able to dress hair, and I rebraided and pinned up my locks with my own hands.
Then she conducted me down a stair to a large hall, and down a second grander circular stair to the dining room on the ground floor. A simple collation was laid out, porridge, bacon and rolls, and in a footed dish some winter pears. And my fellow patient, the only other, sat across from my place.
Who was she? She knew me. She was elderly, surely over seventy. But the lines of her face still showed a bone-deep loveliness through the white-crepe skin. The long straight nose, the sensuous mouth, as wide as mine but mysteriously more beautiful, the sculpted line of jaw – here was a great beauty, her glory not quite faded away. Her gown was fine russet wool trimmed with red braid and tatted lace, and she had a warm Paisley shawl around her shoulders. She gave me a regal nod. “Good morning, Marian. You look much more the thing today.”
“I am better, thank you.”
“These winter colds, they linger so.” She took some more coffee. Her hands were slender and white, and her eyes were forget-me-not blue. Her ermine hair was piled in an old-fashioned mode on top of her head.
I took a pear and peeled it slowly. The fruit was excellent, sweet and fragrant. Did I dare to ask her name and style? This was no common female. Every word and gesture spoke of high blood. And there was a foreign flavor to her speech, as if she were not born English.
Her own attendant stayed her hand as she poured the cream into her cup, saying, “My lady, you know too much will give you indigestion.”
A peeress, I knew it. Her ladyship responded with only a slight sigh. “You see, how Sylvie rules me? Marian, you are blessed with a good digestion. Enjoy it while you may!”
“I shall, your ladyship.”
She smiled at me, gracious but imperious. No one defied this woman’s will. “You forget, you are to call me Madame Cresside. We must become friends.”
“Thank you, Madame Cresside. Yes, I had forgotten.” It was difficult to address an elder so casually, but she bowed her head fractionally in approval. And the name told me more. A French aristocrat. She must have been one of the great beauties of the Regency, her parents possibly taking refuge from Bonaparte here in Britain.
Food and coffee seemed to clear my mind yet more. I noted now the fine mahogany of the polished table, the delicately carved chair I sat in with its down-stuffed cushion. The draperies at the broad windows were heavy silk and the carpet beneath my feet an Aubusson, gold and green. If this was an Asylum it was expensive indeed, one of the opulent private ones that cost hundreds of pounds a year, a gilded cage for a very few exalted birds. Another point, because such shattering expenditures can be shouldered only by the most wealthy in the realm. Of the middle class, neither Theo nor Laura and Walter could possibly afford it.
But it was only after breakfast when we went outdoors that I was able to see more. Hetty and Sylvie brought boots and cloaks, the heavy grey woollen I had seen yesterday for her ladyship and a less-fine frieze one for me. Again the gardeners swept the path before, her lest Madame Cresside’s little foot become sullied. I followed meekly behind with the birdseed. “What a fine garden,” I remarked.
“Ah, but wait! When this sad English winter passes, the spring here, it is of a glory so lovely it lifts the heart on wings.”
“I long to see it.” It was hard to believe in a spring to come, surrounded as we were by wild white winter. Shivering in the keen wind, I drew the cloak more closely around myself and systematically surveyed my surroundings. We were cupped in a valley that was overlooked on all sides by rolling hills, darkly wooded up near the peaks but clothed lower down with snowy orchard and pasture. It was not flat coastal Cumberland, nor the residential outskirts of London. This was a country district that was entirely unfamiliar to me.
When Madame Cresside took the bird food from me to pour into the tray I looked back at the house. This could be no Asylum. It was an elegant Georgian bulding in mellow grey stone, a central block adorned with columns and a pediment, and two wings on either side topped by short towers with fanciful domes. But all was in miniature: a gem, not a grand mansion. I could even identify my own little pair of windows, in one of the short towers above tall gracious windows of the main level.
With this jewel of a house to declare the theme, the gardens could now be discerned under the deep blanket of snow: terraces, walkways, and graceful wide stairs flowing down to the lawn the way the train of a lady’s elegant evening gown might drape down to the floor. The garden wall I had glimpsed was cloaked with tattered ivy and the naked canes of climbing roses, prefiguring the vernal glory that Madame Cresside had spoken of. Shrubs the size of small cottages were snow-capped mounds of whipped cream beside the house and beyond the balusters. Grey skeletal oak trees of a goodly size delineated a drive curving out of sight.
By the time we returned to the house my slender strength was flagging. My mistress – I was evidently under her authority – dismissed me with strict instructions to rest, and I was happy to obey. I could feel deep in the core of myself a familiar weariness, the stretched sinews and exhausted muscles of labour.
In the evening however I felt yet better. There was time before dinner to sit down at the little deal writing table in my room. Slowly but systematically I went through its three drawers. The writing implements were ordinary, but not my own. An unfamiliar ormolu inkwell full of fresh ink, a blotter, and yes! Here in the last drawer: my journal!
I clutched the plain black Letts volume tightly. I have kept a journal since my girlhood, and writing down my daily perceptions is now a part of my inner life. Surely here I had written all that I had forgotten? But when I opened the volume I saw that it was a new one, for the year 1865. The pages were fair and blank, except for my name and the year inscribed in my own hand as usual on the first page.
I ran my thumb across the paper edges, but the pages were virgin. But here at the back, almost illegible words were scrawled on the inside back cover: ‘Marian, I rely upon your promise.’ The hand was not my own, and there was no signature. What promise? Putting the problem aside, I turned to the front again, oppressed by a sudden terror. Hastily I wrote, entering in all that is here up to this point. What if I forget again? I asked Hetty, who tells me that this day is the fifth of January 1865, and have added this information to the previous pages. With everything safely written down, I have material to work with. I have begun to take hold of myself and my existence once more!