BVC Announces The Nautilus Knight by Brenda W. Clough

The Nautilus Knight by Brenda W. Clough
The Nautilus Knight
The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
Book 7
by Brenda Clough

When her husband is accused of distributing pornography, Marian Halcombe Camlet is left in London juggling children, business, and a frightening pregnancy.

For years publisher Theophilus Camlet has been discreetly distributing a pamphlet with some of the most incendiary information in Victorian England: birth control. When he is arrested for distributing pornography Marian’s worst enemy seizes his chance to destroy her most valuable possession: her marriage. To save her husband’s sanity Marian agrees to a false death certificate. But how long can she live as an impoverished widow and mother, when her man has fled to America?

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

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Foreword by Walter Hartright

My dearest wife Laura paused at the turn of the broad marble stair to look for me. The great gallery at Cranmorden was thronged, murmuring with happy anticipation. It was February, the Winter Ball, but the light of a thousand candles made the ladies’ gowns into spring blossoms. Every delicate hue showed bright against the background of the gentlemen’s black formal dress. In the ballroom, the musicians’ twiddles and plinks resolved into melody as they finished tuning their instruments. Soon the dancing would begin.

Laura’s ball gown was of the palest blue moiré, unadorned by lace or trim. It struck me, not for the first time, that her dress is too simple for her station in life. But pinned in the drape of the low bodice was her sole ornament, a massive floral brooch. At this a princess would glance twice, for its central flower bud is an emerald the size of an unhulled walnut. She flaunts it because I won the stone for her from a cenote in the Honduras. Like many emeralds, the gem is flawed. Hold the brooch up to the light, and the weakness is plain to be seen: a dark fissure in the jewel’s green core. Set incautiously or struck by an unskilled hand, a magnificent gem will fall into worthless fragments.

I raised a hand, and when she caught sight of me she floated down the stair to put her satin-gloved hand into mine. “How wonderfully fine we both look, my love,” she said with a shy smile. “I am so glad Marian insisted we come.”

But I was silent. I recognised the metaphor. The emerald is the human heart. A thousand blows may rain down upon a man, and he will laugh. But let the sole weak spot be struck, and he shatters, falling forever into the abyss.

Book 1
Marian Halcombe Camlet’s journal
London, 24 April 1868

The Varnishing Days at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition are open only to the artists. But my brother-in-law Walter Hartright slipped my husband and me into the gallery towards the end of the day. “Address no one, if you would,” he warned as we mounted the broad shallow stair. “Even if you recognise the artist. Their minds will be taken up with the final touches, and conversation is unwelcome.”

“Really, Walter,” I replied. “I cannot speak for Theo, but I myself am entirely civilised.”

“A wanton and unprovoked insult.” My dearest husband squeezed my hand so that I did not dare to glance at him.

The galleries at Somerset House were indeed thronged, and far too small for the number of works. Everywhere painters darted about in a fever of anxiety, work smocks buttoned over their decent frock coats, clutching paint-boxes and palettes and touching up their works even at this final moment. I am not sure where the varnish comes into it! On the marble stair some exalted artist was quarrelling with a committee member about where his work had been hung.

Walter shepherded us past. “Laura shall not be able to bear the crowds, but once the work is returned to Limmeridge she looks to enjoy it daily.”

Theo peered at him through his round steel spectacles. “You are certain your painting will not sell.”

Walter’s smile was sheepish. “I set what I felt was a fair price on the work: a hundred pounds. And then Laura trebled it.”

“Good girl,” I declared. “I’m proud of her.” Laura is transparent as glass, but in Walter’s cause she can be as cunning as – well, as me! “It must be the most expensive painting here.”

“It’s sharp dealing. Millais only got three hundred guineas for Ophelia, and that was unquestionably a masterpiece.”

“It’s fruitless to argue with a wife on such matters,” Theo advised. “Simply nod and move on.” He demonstrated this before an enormous dramatic canvas of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus. It was done in the modern highly-detailed style, so that one could discern every strand of the princess’s long red hair and note from her bunions that she favoured overly-pointed shoes when she was not barefoot, nude, and chained to a rock. “To sit down to a muffin and behold a young woman wearing so very little would depress appetite.”

The smile under the swooningly-barbered moustache, which dipped down to join with the side whiskers, told me exactly what my husband was thinking. He’s unutterably depraved! I was hard put to smother my laughter, and Walter quelled me with a glance.

Even when Walter was a professional artist he had not aspired to these levels. This painting is the most ambitious work he has ever executed. He is not an Academian, and although outsiders may submit works for consideration, nine out of ten are rejected by either the Selection or the Hanging Committees. To have Brunhilde Discovered accepted for the Exhibition fulfilled a dream that I doubt Walter dared to articulate even in his inmost heart.

We approached it with reverence, as we would an icon in a church. The walls of the galleries are hung cheek by jowl with the selected paintings, and many works are so high they can barely be viewed. The most desirable position, at eye level ‘on the line’ is reserved for members only. Walter’s was above some grand RA member’s seascape which occupied the prime spot, but this piece was smaller and so the more largely proportioned Brunhilde was not too high to be easily examined.

The work had its inspiration in a sketch he had taken of me, without my permission, as I lay in Theo’s big bed at Sandett House. Admittedly I was unconscious at the time! It did make for a dramatic pose, myself in bed under the covers but with my loosened hair pouring down to pool on the floor. But to title the work Sleeping Beauty was a blatant falsehood. I may have some minor comeliness, but I am emphatically no beauty. My protests forced poor Walter to begin the work afresh.

When I consider the mountainous obstacles that surrounded even acquiring the canvas, it’s a triumph that the work is at long last complete. The bed canopy is gone and the heavy red bed curtains have become sheer, orange and yellow hues added to transform them into wavering walls of flame. Over in the corner what had been a mahogany chifforobe is now distant snow-capped mountains, clearly inspired by our visit to the Italian Alps a few years ago. Another yard or so of length has been added to the abundant black hair of the heroine, increasing its resemblance to an ebony waterfall pouring into a rippling black pool, and her flannel nightgown sleeve is now chain mail. And her sleeping face has been subtly prettified. Closed, the eyes are no longer so protuberant, and I am certain that British art lovers shall prefer a Germanic roses and snow to my own rather swarthy complexion.

The hero Siegfried, on the further side of the bed, is an entirely new addition to the composition. He has just hauled her helm off and is holding it to one side with his mouth agape, leaning back in a melodramatic attitude of startlement. Walter coerced one of the gardeners at Limmeridge to pose in this uncomfortable attitude hefting a flower pot. But between his sweeping blue cloak and his upraised arm the hero’s face is not terribly prominent.

The eye is instead drawn to the gleaming armour, glittering with gems, heaped beside the bed. The lady clasps to her breast a great sword in a golden sheath that weighs down the covers, which have been changed from the homely coverlet to a very Nordic polar bear’s fur, head and all. Imaginative! No one I know possesses such a rug. Walter must have spent hours outside the polar bears’ cage at the zoological garden, studying the fall of light on its shaggy pelt.

“Did you take sketches at the British Museum?” I stood on tiptoe to see better. “Surely a German warrior maiden is not going to wear a Roman corselet.”

“This isn’t history,” Theo reproached me. “It’s art, and of the most romantic. You handle surfaces well, Hartright. I can distinguish gold, brass, and silver inlay with ease. And one may almost feel the bear’s pelt and the velvet of the hero’s cloak.” He examined the plaque at the bottom of the massive frame. “And this blue label. Is it significant?”

“Label?” Walter looked, and started. “There must be some mistake.”

“You aren’t alone,” I said. “See, that one over there has one.” I nodded at a portrait of three girls by Millais, an artist so famed even I can recognise his work.

“It’s a ‘sold’ label,” he said, in strangled tones. “There’s an error. Excuse me, Marian, Camlet.” He pushed through the crowd and vanished.

Theo went on musing with his usual practicality. “How beautifully polished her armour is. Perhaps the magical flames keep tarnish at bay. One would never carry such a heavily jewelled sword into combat. The lady was therefore immured with her parade armour, a sensible provision by her father Odin. Upon awakening she would need assets, and a ruby or so is easily converted into cash.”

But his reflections were hushed as some others paused to look at Brunhilde. An elderly artist sniffed. “Pho! Another scene from myth and legend. One would never think there were suitable incidents in British history to portray. D’you remember Wollen’s Last Stand at Gundamuck? Now that was a noble painting.”

“Who is he, George?” His companion nodded at the plaque and its blue label.

“Not a member. Humph! They’ll buy anything these days. No discrimination of eye left any more, in the GBP.”

“How sharp the tooth of envy is,” I murmured to my husband. “Can it indeed be sold? Walter will have made a fortune.”

“And so soon, before the public opening, even. It’s a coup.”

“Who could have spent such a sum on a work by an obscure artist? Walter is known, but not for his painting.”

A frantic artist made to pass with a stepladder so that he could reach his masterpiece high up near the cornice, so we moved out of his way back to the hall. I looked over the marble baluster and saw Walter’s tall athletic figure pounding up the stairs, his face red and his tall hat in hand. “This is unbelievable,” he panted as he came up to us.

“Then I congratulate you,” Theo said.

My poor brother-in-law seemed half-mazed, and I steadied him with a hand through his arm as we descended again. “You work has caught the fancy of a rich connoisseur. Who?”

“I shall not know the purchaser until after the Exhibition.”

“So that a buyer may think twice,” Theo guessed. “Well! Any way one considers it, it’s a mighty honour, brother. And now the work shall be the cynosure of the exhibition.”

Outside a chilly evening was closing in, and the evening mist from the river made each gas lamp a fuzzy yellow ball of light. In spite of the dark, the street was as crowded as the gallery, and we had to walk down to where Matson waited at the kerb with the carriage.

The coachman opened the door for us. “A note for you, madam.”

“For me?”

“Yes, madam. A lady passing by recognised the brougham, and left her card.”

“How odd.” It is not at all correct, to leave cards with a coachman as one would at a house. Theo handed me up into the vehicle. Only when we were in motion did I have a moment to look at the card. “Mrs. Pierpont,” I read aloud. “From Birmingham. Do I know a Mrs. Pierpont, my love?”

Crinolines are thankfully falling out of fashion, but my gown is made with a polonaise, ten yards in the skirt. Theo is the mildest of men and made no complaint of my surging tide of maize-coloured silk. “Never heard of her.” The fabric hid his gloved hand completely as he tucked mine into it. “How it rejoices my heart, that you believe I have a budget of everything in your head.”

I had to smile up into his loving eyes, hazel behind the steel-rimmed spectacles. “We are odiously familiar, are we not?”

“You are,” Walter said with conviction, across from us.

Only then did I turn the card over. The five characters penned on the back blurred before my eyes, and with a little cry I fell back.

The card dropped to my lap and Theo picked it up. “Oh, God.”

He passed it across to Walter, who tipped it to the gaslight and then breathed out a long breath. “So. Redmund Lowry is returned to Britain. A bad penny always turns up again. But what does he mean, ‘Soon!’?”

I spoke the lie firmly. “I have no idea. But, Theo – we must inform the earl. Instantly!”

Parliament was in session, so my noble cousin was in town. “Upper Belgrave Street is not far,” Theo said. In half an hour we halted in front of a grand city dwelling on one of the most exclusive streets in London. Herbert Halcombe Faversham Lowry, the sixth Earl of Brecon and Stowe, is my third cousin. We are cordial, but I take care not to presume, he being so very far above me. His countess Winifred is a dear, and I correspond with her regularly, but she spends most of the year at the great estate of Cranmorden in Gloucestershire, her first son being a year old.

As is usual during the season the earl was entertaining this evening, and his butler told us his lordship was not at home to callers. I had to be firm. “His lordship shall wish to hear the news I bring. You are familiar with me, Mr. Bowles. You are aware I would not intrude upon his lordship for a trifle.”

At last Brecon and Stowe was fetched. The earl cuts an unimpressive figure, stocky but on the smallish side, his complexion weather-beaten from days spent in the saddle. A chinstrap beard lends strength to an already stern countenance, and his hair is colourlessly fair. He looked down his narrow nose at us, but when Walter held the card out his long face instantly altered.

“Come through, into the library. Bowles, bring sherry. And let them carry on with dinner. Say that I have an important message.”

The library was a high-ceilinged and expansive room, lined with leather-bound volumes that my cousin never opens. A wood fire crackled in the grate, and the sherry was excellent. There was little we could add to the fact of the card. “His handwriting is unmistakable, my lord,” Walter said. “And that he left it for Marian …”

“Yes. It’s unquestionably him.” We all three sipped sherry and looked away to give the earl time to absorb the shock.

It is a profound secret that Herbert Lowry has a twin brother. Redmund Lowry is the elder by ten minutes, and so the rightful earl. But he was born missing a hand and a foot. His fearful physical deformities led his parents to hide him away, allowing Herbert to succeed to the title all unknowing. And now there is no going back. Redmund cannot win a suit against his brother and shall never claim his birthright. But he’ll never stop trying. If Redmund is returned to England, Herbert is in imminent danger.

Boldly I put my hand on his impeccably tailored black sleeve. “You’ll be careful, cousin. Redmund sticks at nothing.”

“He is more removed from the title than ever now.” For just one instant his lordship’s severe face softened at the thought of Richard Henry Halcombe Lowry, his son and heir.

“And so he must be desperate,” Walter said, “throwing down a barefaced defiance like this. I hope it’s merely chance that he left his card on Marian. Perhaps he was simply going down the street and recognised the brougham.”

I could not tell them – no one knows save my husband – that to save Theo’s life I had promised Redmund Lowry that I would spend a night in his bed, some day. That was what he meant by ‘soon’, a terrifying prospect. But I kept my countenance, not betraying my shame and dread. “You have guests whom you ought not neglect, my lord,” I said. “Return to them and finish your dinner. We may speak of this at some more convenient time.”

“Not here,” the earl replied. “I’ll send word. Perhaps we should go for a ride again.” Only a very few know the earl’s Secret, because he guards it with fanatical devotion. He clasped my hand in both his own in farewell. “You fear him.”

“Yes, I do,” I admitted.

“Know that you are not alone.” He sighed. “I’m grateful for the warning. Good night, cousin Marian. Keep her well, Camlet, Hartright.”

In the carriage again Walter grinned at me. “Your kindness is misplaced, Marian. His lordship would feel more courage if you spoke the truth – that if Redmund should dare to come buzzing about, you would crush the jackanapes like an insect.”

“Painting all that armour and weaponry has addled you, Walter,” I returned with spirit. “I am a matron and a mother. Your warrior woman exists only in fevered imagination. Besides, I already shot Redmund in the head once, to disappointing effect.”

“Do you join us for dinner, Hartright?” Theo asked. “Or shall we leave you off here?”

“No, I have a sheaf of papers to go through, and then must be up early tomorrow. We’ll dine when Laura arrives on Monday.” He opened the door and swung himself down to the pavement. “Be wary, sister. And grateful, that you are not Brecon and Stowe.”

Only when he vanished among the teeming crowds of London could I fling myself trembling into Theo’s arms. “Oh Theo! Walter cannot know – I promised. I put my word to a degrading and infamous bargain, and now Redmund means to hold me to it!”

Every woman I know has been brought up to defer to men. And men, in their turn, are required to be masterly. My hat, a maize-coloured Lamballe confection with black lace and feathers, slipped alarmingly sideways as Theo kissed my brow. “You need fear nothing, little bird. Recall my intent, to lay about the rascal with a horsewhip.”

It was a melodramatic notion, but immediately I felt better. We had assumed that my criminous cousin would fall foul of the law and be jailed for a long term. But a horsewhip would be a fine alternative! “I don’t believe you,” I said. “Do you even own a whip? None of your horses has ever felt a blow from you.”

“But you believe that as long as I’m here, you’re under my protection. It’s my duty to guard and nurture you.” His arms were warm and strong around me. “We shall begin making provision this very evening. I’ll warn all the household that I fear burglars. All the locks on the windows and doors on the ground floor shall be tested.”

He is full of good ideas, and I immediately carried this one forward. “None shall answer the bell except the servants, who shall be instructed to learn the name and business of any caller before letting them in the door.”

“A wise notion. And I shall ride or cab to work, so that the carriage may be at your disposal. You shall not go out without attendance, not even into the garden. Which should be staffed better. The gardener and his boy shall be there every day.”

I rested my cheek on his woollen shoulder. We play these games, but in moments of stress they are a support. “You’ve never failed me, Theo. Although, Hockett to come in every day? That will be expensive. Do you plan to renovate the perennial beds again?”

My naughty man was prompt to reply. “Not in the spring, no. But you lay bare my stratagem. I’ve been thinking of a rockery, over near the side. The digging should take weeks.”

I had to laugh at this. “Oh, you monster. Using my fears as an excuse for colossal indulgence – you are a cunning one!” And I was entirely myself again.

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