The True Prince of Vaurantania
The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
by Brenda Clough
Can it be that the fearsome master criminal Count Fosco yet lives? Marian Halcombe Camlet learns that Fosco escaped vengeance and has sold her husband Theo into captivity, winding his plots around everyone she loves once more! Her journey to rescue him and defeat Fosco, and incidentally to save Vaurantania from bloody revolution, takes her to the capitals of Europe and at last a grim castle high in the Alps.
PRAISE FOR VOLUME 1, MARIAN HALCOMBE
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
Read a sample:
Walter Hartright’s narrative
I invited Theophilus Camlet to the Slavery Redemptionist Club’s annual oyster outing because he had a brown scar like mine around his left ankle: the mark of fetters. The shocking assassination of the American president earlier in 1865 had galvanised the Negro resettlement initiative, and a representative from the American Colonization Society was to address the meeting about a colony of freed slaves on the western coast of Africa.
My brother-in-law’s tendency to seasickness had entirely slipped my mind, but Camlet was game as a pebble. He assured me that the motion of a chartered paddle steamship in a flat calm would not discomfit him too greatly. On the trip from London downriver Camlet sat in a corner with his eyes closed, neither moving nor speaking. But he immediately revived when we arrived in Greenwich, where we were regaled with punch, oysters, and lobster.
To men of a liberal mind the cause was of great interest now that the Civil War in the United States was over. The speaker’s American twang was somewhat challenging to the English ear, but he was energetic and informative. “As with the children of Israel in the Old Testament,” he said, “we have found that the Negro in America, having passed through the fiery trial of slavery, knows well how to survive adversity.”
A more skeptical voice in the back piped up. “Are they not childish and incapable, ruled by white masters for so many generations?”
But rising to reply was the Inimitable himself, Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of our age and incidentally a friend. “The former slave,” the great man replied, “is clever, industrious and of a cooperative bent, because all those who were not fell by the wayside. With such a citizenry there is every hope that the new settlement shall flourish.” And there was a patter of applause.
When we came back again the long mild September evening was just drawing in. The Thames teemed with river traffic, trippers enjoying the fine weather going up or down, and the sky shimmered with a golden haze that reflected from the water and made London a glowing, magical place. We docked again near Waterloo Bridge and climbed the rickety wooden steps up from the water’s edge to the lane that ran uphill to the Strand.
“What a lovely night! Let us walk a while, Camlet. You look as if you could use it. Does not the evening call to you?”
He smiled for the first time since leaving Greenwich, pulling down his hat brim. “I admit I’m happier on land. How much punch did you take, brother?”
“Enough to make it worth walking off. We’re no longer boys, you know. If you don’t take care, you’ll become portly in middle life. Come, this way.”
The crowd of our fellow passengers clogged the narrow lane that led uphill, and I led us down a cramped byway that connected to the next street over. As is often the case in London, a mere half-dozen steps sufficed to carry us from a respectable thoroughfare into a far less salubrious neighbourhood. Here by the banks of the Thames the ferry wharfs and the pleasure-boat docks were cheek by jowl with twisting unimproved streets of appalling poverty. We found ourselves in a rookery, a narrow lane with a stinking gutter running down the middle of it, teeming with the scum of the city – barefoot children in rags, boys eyeing our fine clothing, ill-clad ruffians who scowled at our passage.
But the sky was still bright with the last of the daylight. The two of us, sturdy men of the professional class walking briskly together, should have had no difficulty.
Then some ragged urchins spied us and, more dangerously, Camlet’s face. Until just that year he was of the most unremarkable appearance, with steel-rimmed spectacles, light brown hair and side whiskers barbered to swoop down and then up into a moustache that made his face pleasantly square. But an accident with a carriage earlier that spring marred him with a prominent diagonal red scar that took in eyebrow and cheek. The low rays of the sun slanted under his hat brim and made it shockingly visible.
A boy whistled shrilly, and his companion hissed, “Oi! ’tis Old Nick!”
“Ooh, handsome-bodied in the face, is what we’s got here.”
A group quickly coalesced around us. “Look at that chalk!”
“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “We’ll soon be out of this –”
“Too moose-faced for the likes of us!” A clod of horse manure went whizzing past my top hat, nearly knocking it off. I clutched the brim, ducking. My first impulse was to take to my heels.
But Camlet turned in one swift motion. “Keep your distance, gutter-slush!” He had a gold-topped walking stick in hand, a recent affectation. As he hefted it I realised the knob was weighted, possibly with lead. But it was his scowl that made them fall back. Magnified by his eyeglasses, the ugly scar lent him an inexpressibly evil air. Even I felt a chill, though I had known Camlet for years as the kindest of men. For an instant the street arabs actually shrank back in horror. We retreated warily and hurried around the corner up the steep lane to the Strand.
“Perhaps we should take a cab after all,” Camlet said quietly.
Shaken, I hailed a hansom and we climbed up, directing the driver to the northern suburb of Hampstead. When we were well away I said, “Does this happen often?”
In the dimness I could just make out his rueful smile. “Not in the districts where I’m known. But I find I must take care now in some streets.”
“This is intolerable.”
“I take a cab, or my carriage, nearly everywhere,” he assured me. “As long as I’m aware, and keep my guard up, I have no difficulty.”
“Camlet …” But I could offer no useful advice. We are acknowledged the world over as the pinnacle of human civilisation. But the Englishman still has a cruel streak. I am not yet forty-five, and I can remember the bear-baiting when I was a lad. The singular or the crippled are often street targets. Even the cats of London know not to sit on doorsteps or windowsills facing the public street, and any stray dog may find itself with a pan tied to its tail. How long had Camlet felt obliged to carry a heavy stick? At last I said, “Does Marian know?”
“Good heavens. You must not tell her. Give me your word on it, Hartright.”
“Of course.” His wife, Marian Halcombe Camlet, is my wife’s half-sister. And she is the most frightening female of my acquaintance. I could not imagine what she would do or say, if she learned that her beloved husband was a target of street harassment. But it would probably involve firearms of a heavy caliber. “Perhaps you should no longer go about alone. Your coachman could follow you everywhere, for instance.”
“I’m postponing that day, but may be forced to it in time.”
The streets were noisy and thronged, not conducive to conversation, and the ugly incident cast a pall over my happy spirits. By the time we arrived at Camlet’s home near Hampstead Heath it was quite dark. Sandett House glowed in the summery night, light pouring from every open window. Camlet had refurbished his garden yet again this season, and as we passed the shadowy flower beds we moved in and out of baths of perfume, roses, lilies, all the bounty of the season. As he doffed his hat in the portico I noticed that it was not a tall hat like mine, but a less fashionable low-crowned derby, with the wider brim that could be angled to shadow his deformity.
We pushed open the front door with difficulty. Baskets, bundles, fallen leghorn hats, flasks of lemonade, and discarded toys filled the hall. Our wives had taken all the children out for a picnic on the heath, and had plainly just returned. Camlet forced his way in, stepping over the clutter.
Just beyond, in the passage that led to the back premises, little Lester Camlet was reflectively skipping a rope. “Lottie gave it me and showed me how, Papa,” she said. “Shall I recite ‘I Had a Little Brother’ for you?”
Camlet caught his younger daughter up in his arms. I was glad to see that the child showed no fear or disgust at the sight of her father’s visage so close. “In due time, my girl,” he said, fondly kissing her. “Where’s your mama?”
“A telegram came for Aunt Laura, and they went upstairs.” With her customary intelligence and self-possession she added, “Will you step up, Uncle Walter?”
I did so, following Camlet up the stairs. Marian used her handsome blue-hung bedroom mainly for dressing. Now the half-tester bed was heaped with hats and bonnets, a riot of ribbons, plumes, flowers, and frills. Hat boxes were stacked on the floor. Delicately beautiful, my dearest wife Laura stood in front of the cheval glass, setting a black bonnet adorned with artificial violets onto her fair head.
“Oh, thank goodness you are come, Walter,” she said. “Marian, should you object if we took the floral band off? And I would have to replace the ties as well.”
From the main bedroom Marian came through bearing yet another hat box. “Do you feel that brim flatters your face? I select my hats to suit my own height and physiognomy, which I’m the first to admit does not meet the canon of beauty.” Black of hair and with brilliant large dark eyes, my sister-in-law had an ugly face, but was attractive in spite of it. She was tall and vigorous, with an admirable figure, but it was her warm spirit and energetic passion that drew the eye.
Surveying the room, Camlet spoke in the dour tones of the strictest Presbyterian. “So, wife. I see before me now the plainest proof of your vanity and extravagance. You have hats enough here for half a dozen females, and these appear to be merely the black ones. You shall never buy another until these are thriftily used up – turned, turned again, and trimmed afresh.”
This was severe but in fact not unreasonable. There must have been a dozen hats here. But all the response he got from Marian was laughter, in which he happily joined. Camlet was so completely under the sway of the many women in his life that any pretence of domestic tyranny was risible.
His elder daughter Lottie came in with yet more boxes. Tall, blonde, and strong, she was able to hold three in her long arms at once. “Papa, may I go to Paris too? I’ve always wanted to see it, and Miss Marian says she’ll lend me a mourning bonnet.”
“Do you not have school on Monday, my dear?” Camlet saluted the cheek his daughter leaned down to him. Only just turned fourteen, she already handily overtopped her sire. Her late mother, the first Mrs. Camlet, had been six feet tall. “And this is the first I’ve heard of any bereavement.”
I eyed the reflection of my beloved wife in the glass. “Yes, who has passed away, Laura, that you must travel so far?”
For answer Marian passed me the wire:
10 September 1865
à: Laura Fairlie Hartright, Limmeridge House, near Allonby, Cumberland (redirected Sandett House, Hampstead, near London)
à partir de: Honoré Peaudecerf, Paris
Mme Fosco passed Thursday. Bequest. Cornet et Peaudecerf, avocats, r. Mar. Matignon.
The exclamation that rose to my lips was the natural one. “Goodbye and good riddance. I see no reason at all, my dear, why you must trouble yourself in the slightest.” I handed the message to Camlet.
“I am the last surviving Fairlie,” Laura said quietly. “I am afraid it’s my duty to make this final gesture of respect.”
“Respect?” Reading, Camlet sat down on the end of the chaise and set Lester onto her little feet. “Do I recall your family history correctly, Marian? I would have thought that the very last person in all of humanity you would wish to honour is a Fosco.”
Laura said. “Before she was –” Even now, after all this time, she could not say the name. “It would be exaggeration to say that we were ever intimate. But before she married, Aunt Eleanor was my dear father’s only sister.”
“And a vindictive conniving old cat,” Marian said. “I shall never forgive her. But at least she’s safely dead. No, Walter, I agree with Laura. This is the last gesture we need make for all time. To pay our final respects shall not call for taking her hand, or sitting at table with her. And…” Such is Marian’s fiery spirit that her feelings burst out the way the flames of a coal fire rise up through a layer of ash. “It’s in the nature of a triumph, is it not? This, at long last, shall be the end of it, our final victory. Let them look up, from their uncomfortably warm griddle in one of the lower circles of the Inferno, and behold Laura, happy and well in spite of the worst they could do.”
The glow in her large dark eyes and the glint of her smile were entirely terrifying. “What a tigress you are, my love.” Camlet’s affectionate tone was mild as milk, but he looked like a pirate. Between the two of them it was a wonder Britain needed an army.
Standing at the grave of her oppressors might well afford my Laura some relief. Still I had to say, “I cannot like it. The French solicitors could manage all this business perfectly well. Today is Saturday. The funeral surely will have already taken place by the time you cross the Channel and make your way to Paris. All you shall be able to do is to hang a wreath upon the Fosco monument at Père Lachaise. For that minor courtesy there can be no particular hurry, you must agree. Suppose you put off the journey several weeks, until after Parliament rises? Then I may accompany you.” I am a junior member of that august body, and strive to be conscientious in my duties.
“I don’t want to spend any great time there,” Laura said, “nor have the duty hanging over me.”
Camlet passed the wire back to me. “And there’s a bequest. The lady died childless, you say. If you are the last of the Fairlies, Laura, then you’re the heir.”
Marian scowled. “Whatever the legacy is, we shall drop it in the gutter and spit on it.”
“Oh no, Marian,” my gentle Laura protested. “If it’s money, I shall give it to the poor. And if it is a relic, a painting or some such, I’ll give it to a church or charity in Paris, and so cleanse it of its sin.”
“And save the shipping charges,” Camlet added more practically.
“I wish to own nothing that has ever been within a mile of any Fosco,” I agreed. Nearly every member of the Fairlie family had been contemptible. Laura’s uncle Frederick Fairlie had been a selfish fool and her aunt Eleanor Fosco a criminal accomplice. The only worthwhile thing Laura’s dissolute father Philip ever did was to wed Celeste Halcombe, Marian’s widowed mother. Mrs. Fairlie, whom Marian resembles greatly, took the careless rake firmly in hand to his great benefit, arguably his salvation. In later life Philip Fairlie became a loving father and a decent man. But too late – the damage had been done. The sins of the previous generation have nearly been Laura’s destruction. The breach between aunt and niece held for more than fifteen years, and it was conceivable that this bequest was a final deathbed olive branch. Although it was also worth remembering that as a widow without surviving family, Madame Fosco had no other legatee.
“A week should do it,” Marian said. “We shall go swiftly and return before you know we are gone. Will you bring your lavender gown, Laura? It would be hypocritical, to wear deep mourning. My grey and black plaid ensemble would be very suitable for travel. Walter, when does your Parliament session end?”
“Not until October, I’m afraid.” I eyed my brother-in-law. “If you must go now – Camlet, may I beg you to escort the ladies?”
“Oh, if they go then may I?” Lottie cried.
Camlet smiled across at his wife. “I must concede that Paris is one of my favourite cities.”
They giggled together in their most irritating fashion. Camlet had taken Marian to Paris for their honeymoon. Laura said, “If Theo knows the city, then I need fear nothing.”
“He shall make all the arrangements,” Marian said. “And, Lottie, if you undertake to keep up with your school work I do not suppose Miss Garriby will object to a short absence on a family matter.”
Although they constantly defer to him, Camlet gets no say in the matter. At the prospect of a treat, Lottie whooped. “I have no black dress! Will my grey flannel do?”
And this seemed to signal the younger ones upstairs. My two boys Fairlie and Wally, and their younger cousin William Camlet, poured in yelling like invading savages, followed by the baby Merry who has just learned to walk and toddled with desperate speed into her father’s open arms.
The plan for my family after Wally departed to school was to return north to Cumberland and Limmeridge House, but this evidently would have to be postponed. “If you will consent to house these wild animals,” I said to Camlet, “I’ll stay in your guest room and shepherd them while you’re away with the ladies. The cousins will like to play together, and I dare not install them in my rooms in the City.”
“That would be wonderfully kind of you, Walter,” Marian said, lifting her little William in her arms. “I do not like to leave my darlings alone.”
With all their nurses in attendance, my role would be little more than arbitrating childish disputes and forcing everyone to eat in a civilised manner once a day. Very similar in fact to my duties in Parliament! “You may rely upon me,” I said. “And in return I count upon you, Marian.”
I caught her eye and glanced significantly at Laura. More than fifteen years had passed since my dearest wife was stripped of her very name by Count Fosco and his accomplices. She never entirely recovered from it. Any return to the past, even in the most oblique way, was fraught with peril for her health and nervous stability. If Madame Fosco had begged for a face to face meeting on her deathbed, I would have forbidden it. Even now, her fiercer sister might stand over the grave and exult in her final triumph. But the mere sight of a name on a tombstone might be too much for my fragile Laura.
But no one knew this better than Marian, Laura’s first and foremost paladin. “You need fear nothing, Walter. How queer it is to reflect that our final victory shall be so mundane. A floral tribute on a tomb!”
“And …” I hesitated, well aware that I was being wildly over-cautious. But I too bear the scars of my wife’s travail.
We have accomplished feats enough together that our thoughts run in similar lines on certain subjects. Marian gave me a fractional nod. “I will pack wisely.” It was supremely unlikely that my redoubtable sister-in-law would need that revolver of hers, but I was very glad she was going to take it.