BVC Announces The Compass of Truth by Brenda W. Clough

The Compass of Truth by Brenda W. Clough
The Compass of Truth

The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
Book 8
by Brenda W. Clough

Marian’s daughter is heartbroken when her fiancé becomes enmeshed in an American religious cult.

Marian and Lottie race off to Virginia to rescue him, carrying with them Marian’s profligate nephew Wally, who has become entangled with an adventuress. Wally falls victim to another seductress – a violin – and Marian’s daughter learns she must compete with a cult full of willing maidens and her fiancé’s crippling sense of honour. And Marian discovers that the wily Father of the Agapal Fellowship wouldn’t mind adding the most dangerous woman in Europe to the roster!

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 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

Buy The Compass of Truth at BVC Ebookstore

Read a sample

Book 1

Marian Halcombe Camlet’s journal

Sandett House in Hampstead, 2 April 1872

Early this morning the upstairs bathroom door flew open with a crash, revealing my tall twenty-two year-old stepson startlingly clad in nothing but a towel. “You confounded brats!” Micah roared at his siblings.

Little Tad scurried back out of range. “Brother lost his trousies!”

Eight-year-old Merry giggled at the sight. “Your complexion’s past improving, Micah.”

Secure in the dignity of her twenty years, Lottie announced, “We all have to share, brother.” She swept past him, neatly sweeping her long blonde braid clear as she shut the bathroom door behind herself.

“Lottie!” Micah hammered on the door. “Give me my dressing gown!”

There was no reply, and Tad squealed with laughter. His only excuse must be his age, for he is not yet three. And Merry cried, “Lottie, it was my turn! I need to go!”

Theo’s grey head became just visible as my dear husband ascended the stair. “Merry, you are noisy. If your need is so great, you have your bedroom utensil.”

“I kicked it over last night,” my younger daughter confessed artlessly. “Lottie was dreadfully unkind about it.”

His own dressing gown unavailable, Micah emerged from the boys’ room in William’s, which was far too short for his six feet of height. “This is a bear pit, Papa.”

“At least William and Lester are away at school,” my dear husband replied in placid tones. “Come the long vacation we shall be full to the brim. Marian, my bird, would you come down? I’d like your opinion on a letter. And you, naughty miss, are far too boisterous. Come use the downstairs water closet.”

Merry happily took her papa’s hand so that she could be ‘jumped’ down the stairs. I handed my little Tad over to his nurse, and Micah retreated simmering into his chamber again.

“The roof will fly off the house,” I said to Theo. “William is but half Micah’s age. And all three girls crammed into the one bedroom? I think I shall have Lester down in my dressing room.”

“We’re a large family,” Theo said, quite unruffled. “You must remember to keep the doors closed.” His hazel twinkle was so naughty that in spite of our recent difficulties I had to laugh. At colossal expense Theo has fitted Sandett House with the most modern plumbing. We have a water closet on two floors of the house, a luxury unknown to many an earl. To this I can attest from personal experience! On the main floor Merry pattered barefoot into the facility in the back hallway, and I followed my husband into his study.

I was surprised when he shut the door. He gestured for me to sit. “Marian,” he said quietly. “Has Lottie ever shared with you her correspondence with John Prower in Massachusetts?”

“From my Yankee sea captain turned librarian?” I called up in my mind’s eye Mr. Prower, tall and well-built, with his blond moustaches and the far-seeing dark eyes of the sailor. “They come every fortnight or so. She occasionally shares the enclosures. You remember the pressed magnolia blossom from last summer. And she’s read out amusing bits, or messages. He wished us all a happy Christmas last winter.”

He sat down at his big cherrywood desk. “But you’ve never looked over an entire letter.”

Theo is of a liberal persuasion, and would never insist on reading his daughter or wife’s correspondence. But there are reasons why many men do. “Do you suspect him of impropriety?”

“No. But I fear for my daughter’s peace.” From a cubbyhole he took an envelope so plump it bore extra American stamps, and passed it to me.

Within I found another letter, folded and sealed with a wafer, with Lottie’s name on the outside. And a covering letter, written in a firm manly script:

27 March

Theophilus Camlet

Sandett House, Hampstead, London

My dear sir:

Of your great kindness you gave me permission to conduct a long-standing correspondence with your daughter Lottie. We have been exchanging letters for nearly four years now.

I regret to say that although I have enjoyed the correspondence greatly, I am obliged to cease writing to her. I look to alter condition, residence and career in the near future, and shall not have space in my new life for it. I enclose a final note of farewell to her. May I ask you, whose dearest care must be her happiness, to break my news to her gently, before giving it to her to read?

Respectfully,

John Ledyard Prower

Herndon, Virginia

NB: She need have no fears about her own letters. I shall return them to her as soon as I may.

I looked up from the page and met Theo’s intelligent hazel gaze. “I know what you shall ask me,” I said. “Is her heart given to this man, her first suitor?”

“And your reply?”

“Oh, Theo, I don’t know.”

He smiled. “A maidenly modesty.”

He was joking. Lottie is the daughter of his first wife, and Margaret Camlet was the most fearsome woman in Europe. “She has never been missish,” I conceded. “But on this point Lottie has not confided in me, and I’ve respected her reticence. If things are never put into words they’re not real. And she certainly doesn’t lack for admirers.”

“And yet she has written, I calculate, over a hundred letters to him. I hate to contemplate her pain.”

“Would it be better to … well, to simply keep this letter for a time? After a long gap with no mail from him, she won’t be so surprised at his defection.”

“You think he has found another.”

“Look at the address.” I pointed to the town below his signature. “We stayed with Mr. Prower, in the house he shares with his aunt and uncle in Cambridge near Boston. I believe Virginia is a long distance away.” I’ve been to the United States twice, but it’s a large country. On each visit I was occupied by other urgent concerns, and thus know less of the nation’s geography than I ought.

Theo’s experienced imagination immediately conjured up the scene. “The home of an American female,” he said, inspecting the words. “Virginia is where American heroes set up their estates. General Washington and Mr. Jefferson come immediately to mind. Perhaps the lady comes from a family of wealth. Yes, and having called at the pillared plantation house, made his offer to the stern papa and been accepted by the blushing maiden and approved by her people, Prower now in honour must bid a final farewell to his youthful English flame. Well, my decree was that he test the endurance of his devotion.”

“And see how wise you were.”

“And I am wiser yet, not to delay. What if the parcel with all her returned letters arrives tomorrow? No, subterfuge will only increase the hurt –”

A sharp rap at the closed door made me start. “Papa,” Micah called. “The carriage is here, and it’s gone eight. I have a meeting with the artists at nine.”

“I must be off,” Theo said, rising. He put the letter back into the cubbyhole. “We’ll talk further this evening.”

The usual morning tumult filled the front hall. A large family is necessarily noisy. Theo is a notably affectionate parent, and the younger ones always get a kiss or hug. And so do I!

Due to the bathroom contention Micah had left it too late to break his fast, but Cook thrust a paper-wrapped sandwich into his hand, which he sniffed as if were attar of roses. “Butter and ham,” he said, beaming. Micah is wonderfully handsome with his bright-blue eyes and fawn-brown hair, his neat dark suit in the first style of fashion for a hard-charging young businessman.

With his short grey beard and frock coat, Theo was a charming contrast, visibly the staid older executive. So adorable, I was positively compelled to kiss him! Then they climbed up into the brougham and we women stood on the front portico and waved until they were out past the billowing holly trees at the gate.

The next task of the day was to walk with Merry to her school in the village, and on the way back do the day’s shopping. On a fine spring day in London this is no hardship. “Come with us, Lottie,” Merry pleaded. “Papa showed me where the finches have a nest.”

My stepdaughter is an active female, and willingly tied on her bonnet and set off with us. The village is but a mile away, and after leaving Merry at her school I ordered a pair of hens for Sunday at the poulterer’s while Lottie dropped off some gloves to be mended and cleaned.

We met near the churchyard at St. John-at-Hampstead. The new curate, Rev. Bronlewe, immediately came out to speak to us. Or more precisely, to her, for a young man can have little to say to a matron who celebrated her fortieth birthday long ago. He raised his hat to us. “Good morning, Mrs. Camlet. A beautiful day, is it not, Miss Camlet? Shall you be riding out, this afternoon?”

Theo publishes the works of so many clergymen that Lottie has had a wide experience of them. I would have said the Rev. Bronlewe was a promising specimen, not overly tall but with an intelligent aspect to his countenance, but she spoke with complete calm. “I regret, sir, that my stepmama has first claim upon my afternoon.”

“Perhaps you would care to join us, Mrs. Camlet,” the hopeful clergyman said.

“Some other time, reverend,” I replied. “We must be on our way, Lottie. Your little brother will be looking for us. A good day to you, Rev. Bronlewe – give my regards to the vicar.”

Not until we were well down the lane towards Sandett House did Lottie remark, “When I marry I don’t want the Rev. Bronlewe to officiate. The Rev. Lane has a more impressive voice.”

I closed my lips firmly upon a squeak of joy. The happiest of all possible outcomes! If Lottie had formed an attachment to some other man, then Mr. Prower is welcome to his American plantation heiress. When I could speak with a mere idle interest I said, “You are not yet of age, dear. Do you really look to give your hand so soon?”

“Miss Marian, I’m twenty. In a few years I shall be a spinster. And besides…” She paused, and I carefully stared out over the green slopes of Hampstead Heath. Far on the horizon lay the brown smudge that was the fumes of London. At last she went on. “I’m sure you didn’t look at this morning’s post.”

“Well – well, Tad and Merry were dreadfully mischievous.”

“The brats,” Lottie said with tolerant affection. “Then you cannot know, Miss Marian, that Papa received quite a fat letter today from America. And I recognised the writing.”

I gulped. “Did you, dear?”

“Yes!” She gave a little skip of joy that did not comport well with her almost six feet of height. But how the child she had been, when I first came into her life, rose up in my mind’s eye! “John is writing to Papa, and it can only be to ask for my hand.”

“Has he made professions of devotion to you, Lottie? Promised to marry you?” A written affirmation of intent to marry is actionable. I did not think my kindly husband would sue Mr. Prower for breach of promise, but the possibility was there.

Or at least it was until Lottie said, “Of course not, Miss Marian. John is entirely proper. He has admitted to liking me greatly, and I have said the same to him.”

“Oh no!”

“But he gave his word to Papa, to not speak seriously until I was old enough. And next year I shall be!”

It was a dangerous question, but I felt obliged to ask it. “Do you love him, Lottie?”

“Do you know, Miss Marian, I think so! He’s so much more interesting than our English boys. He took you prisoner during their Civil War, now how many men can say that? And – although this is superficial, I admit – he’s tall. I do hope I’ve finished growing, don’t you? I’m nearly six feet. Are there gentlemen in Britain whom I don’t overtop entirely? Not many, and looking down on the top of male heads is a weariness to the soul.”

And, fatally, the Rev. Bronlewe is two inches the shorter. Her ingenuous and girlish effusions made my heart sink. Lottie is young. But would her heart be resilient enough to recover from the impending disappointment? I’m the only mother that Lottie and Micah have ever known, and I take my responsibility seriously. To allow illusion to continue like this, when I know the true facts – it made me writhe. And when she did learn the truth, as she inevitably must, would she forgive my silence? Was I not holding my tongue to avoid my own discomfort, rather than for her benefit and ultimate good?

“Miss Marian! Are you listening to a word I say?”

“Of course, dear! But … but it’s considered more proper, in a young girl, to be certain of a gentleman’s intentions before giving her heart.”

I’m afraid that Lottie instantly identified this. “Bilgewater,” she said. “Miss Marian, you yourself have never been so chary. You often say that you fell in love with the first and only man who wooed you.”

“Your papa is a man among men.” But if John Prower had given his affection to another then he was not fit to set beside Theo. “And I’ve never been even tolerably pretty, you know. I would have had to accept any offer that came my way. Whereas you are comely enough. Should you not at least consider whether a fine match is possible?”

Lottie heaved an exaggerated sigh, an irritating and unmaidenly habit. “You picked that up from Uncle Walter. Who after his artistic career has ridiculous standards for female prettiness! Miss Marian, you have utterly conquered so many men, your trophies litter the house.” Theo’s children are all of a fearful intelligence, and suddenly Lottie’s hazel gaze skinned me to the bone. “Miss Marian. Do you know of the letter I saw?”

Even if I dared to lie, she would see it. “While you were washing this morning your papa showed it to me.”

“And?” Oh dear, the way she beamed at me.

I drew a deep breath. “Lottie, I know your papa intended to show you the letter when he returned home, probably after supper. But in my judgement, it would not be fair to make you wait that long.”

“Oh, bliss! I think so too, Miss Marian!” And she was off at a run, her long strong legs easily swifter than mine. I did not waste breath calling after her, but set myself to briskly walk the remaining distance. It was but five minutes before I stepped up into the shady half-moon portico and through the open front door, drawing off my gloves and unpinning my hat. The post is usually left on the hall table, and Lottie was seated on the floor flipping through the circulars and bills. “It’s not here!”

“Come through into your papa’s study, dear.” I took her discarded bonnet up and hung it on its peg. But the sad moment could not be long postponed. In the study Lottie fidgeted with impatience as I took the fat envelope from the cubbyhole of the desk. “Oh, daughter…”

There was an actual pang in my heart, as I watched her pull out the sheet and read Mr. Prower’s covering letter. The fresh colour in her cheeks faded as she read, and she immediately extracted the inner letter and broke the wafer. It was a short message; she took it in in one glance. Then it fell fluttering to the carpet as she covered her face with her hands.

“He doesn’t love me,” she said with a sob. “I’ve lost him.”

I would have hugged her, but she broke away and ran wailing out of the room and up the stairs. I let her go. She could weep in privacy only until Merry came home from school.

My sister Laura has the purest heart I know. A lie has never passed her lips, and subterfuge is alien to her. I’m sorry to say that after the many travails I have passed through I do not resemble her. Not a scruple deterred me as I picked up John Prower’s letter from the carpet. It was brief:

27 March

Lottie, my dear friend,

I have had some shocking news. I may not confide it to you – I am still struggling to grasp the implications. (Rest assured that my health is not an issue, nor that of my aunt and uncle.) But its immediate import is undeniable: I am no longer worthy to aspire to your hand. I know, almost as if I were standing before you, that you are crying out a denial. I too would deny it. But it is so. An unbridgeable gulf now separates us, for all time.

Forgive me, for enjoying my correspondence with you all these months. My request now is the last I shall ever make of you. Forget me, Lottie. Find a more estimable man, give him your hand, and live in bliss for the rest of a long and happy life. Only then may I be reconciled to my fate.

Sincerely yours (for the last time)

John

I folded the letter up again, returned both sheets to the envelope and set the entire correspondence back into Theo’s cubbyhole. It was high time and more for luncheon, but Lottie did not come down. I dined with Tad and then assembled a plate to carry up to her. Before teatime she swept downstairs like a thundercloud, dressed for the outdoors. Her face was pale and stormy. “I’m going to walk,” she declared. She detoured into the pantry, gathered up everything edible she could carry, and strode off.

Merry came in directly after, saying “Was that sister I passed in the lane? What’s wrong?”

“She has had disappointing news,” I said diplomatically. “Come through and let us have our tea. You must be hungry, and Cook made rock cakes.” With an effort I kept my spirits tranquil. Lottie is both tall and strong, and she brooks no nonsense. Also, she was born in this house and knows every inch of Hampstead and the Heath. Restraining her would never have served, and walking off her sadness would be good for her.

So I comforted myself, betraying nothing of my anxiety to the younger ones, and thank heaven I was justified. When the brougham came tooling up to the portico just before supper there were two passengers, Theo and Lottie.

“Micah’s dining with his cousin Wally,” he reported to me. “And Lottie has told me all.”

I accepted the set of books he passed me, setting them onto the hall table so that I could kiss him. “Forgive me, dear man, for filching your mail.”

“You did well.” He slid his arms around me, and when I leaned my cheek on his strong shoulder I could feel the tweed damp with his daughter’s tears. “I would have done the same. Nothing could be gained by delay.”

“Come and eat dinner, Lottie,” Merry said, her grey eyes bright with sisterly solicitude. “You know you’ll feel better, after.”

“No, I won’t,” Lottie affirmed, but she did come through and sit down in her place. Little Tad joins us for the family meal, propped up high on a pair of thick dictionaries, and I cut his meat and supervise his childish manners. I was pleased to see my daughter eating hugely of the roast pork and potatoes. The Camlets as a breed are hearty feeders, and Lottie needs to eat.

The meal, supplemented by an enormous jam roll, was both calming and cheering, and when after the meal the younger ones ran off to play in the morning room I suggested tea in the study. Lottie is too tall now to perch on her papa’s knee as she did when she was a child. But she pulled the footstool close to his armchair and sat so that she could lean against him and stare into the fire.

“Oh, Papa,” she said. “I’m so unhappy.”

He brushed a golden tress back from her brow with a gentle hand. “It’s hard, daughter.”

I sat on the other side with my work on my lap. “I wish there was some help we could offer, my love.” Conscience prodded me, and I added, “I confess that when I picked it up from the floor I read his letter to you, Lottie. Have you shown it to your papa?”

“Oh, never mind that, Miss Marian. Yes, let Papa read it.”

I transferred the letter from the cubbyhole to Theo’s outstretched hand, and he read the inner enclosure from beginning to end twice, as he does when he is applying his full powers to the text. “A shocking new knowledge,” he said thoughtfully.

Lottie sucked in her breath. “Could it be that he doesn’t wish to connect himself to … to my birth mother? Margaret Camlet, the most dangerous woman in Europe. If only you had not told him that novel was fact, Papa!”

“I sent him Daisy Darnell years ago,” I protested.

“Yes, it would be unreasonable for him to discover your late mother is intolerable after such a long while.” Theo folded the letters together again and put the envelope into Lottie’s hand. “And that’s not what Prower actually says. He writes not that you are unmarriageable. But that he himself is now unworthy to offer for you.”

“Some change in his own situation.” I met Theo’s glance. The phrasing would be somewhat melodramatic. But young master Romeo, having fallen in love at first sight with Miss Capulet, could have truthfully averred he was no longer worthy of offering for the Rosaline he had been enamoured of in the play’s first scene.

Lottie clasped the letter to her heart. “Oh, Papa. Has there ever been as unfortunate a girl as I?”

Theo was too kind to smile at the cliché, but his words were freighted with meaning. “Child, a case could be made that we are not a fortunate family.”

“At least in our beginnings,” I added. “And here is the tale of one whose plight was worse than yours by far.” I held up the three volumes on my lap. “It’s taken all this while because your Aunt Laura and Uncle Walter had to look over the proofs one more time. But The Woman in White is in covers at last, and if you like you shall be the first to read it.”

“Oh! How can you ask!” She held out both hands for the books, which Theo had carried back for me from his office this very day. “Uncle Walter rescuing Aunt Laura was almost unbearably exciting month by month in GG, and now I can read it all in one go!”

“You remember that she was but twenty at the beginning of this account,” I told her. “Exactly your age, and I was as old as Micah.”

Theo smiled. “There’s no better balm for the aching heart than fiction. Which is what the story has become, under your Miss Marian’s clever management.”

For only a moment more Lottie’s tones were brisk and happy as ever. “I’ll begin it straight away. And – and I must return all his letters, mustn’t I?”

“It would only be right, my love,” I said gently. “If he’s returning yours,”

She looked up into her affectionate father’s countenance. “Before I send them – would you look them over, Papa? Read them as you did this one. Tell me if – if I have been mistaken all this time, in…” The firelight glinted on a final tear as it ran down her cheek.

Theo pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it into her hand. “Of course, Lottie. Do not despair. Though all seems dark now, there’ll come a better day.” He touched the books in her lap. “You shall see.”

Walter Hartright’s narrative

Neither my dear Laura nor I admitted the truth to each other. But at that period I feared our eldest son Wally was a dunderhead. I was certain he thought he was consulting his older cousin Micah discreetly. But he arranged the meeting at his own club, the Beargarden off St. James Street, the first place anyone would look for him.

It was a social and gaming club, with decent billiard tables and several card rooms. One did not join for the food, and I was not a member, a taste for high stakes and late nights being a requisite. Given that, however, the place was by no means exclusive. I tipped Herr Vossner the purveyor and easily passed into the dining room. It was a dimly lit and rather louche space, its gaslights few and the fire not well made up. The two young men were at a table in the corner, the fawn-coloured and the dark head bent together in earnest conversation. They did not notice my approach.

“You’re to be felicitated, Wall,” Micah was saying. “To have formed a permanent bond so early in life! I envy you. I yearn to meet a suitable female. The life of a young bachelor in London is like living in a sweet shop, forever penniless and unable to buy.”

“It’s different if one is a gentleman of leisure.” Wally’s patronising tone made me scowl. He was of middling height, with my dark hair and Laura’s sky-blue eyes. From her father the late Philip Fairlie, once famed as the handsomest man in England, my son inherited his harmonious lineaments and Grecian profile. The heir of Limmeridge, he was petted and welcomed wherever he went, possibly to the detriment of his character. “She’s fallen madly in love with me.”

I emulated Jove flinging his lightning bolt. “Shall your affectionate parents have the pleasure of meeting Mrs. LeTrove?”

“Father!” Even in the indifferent light I could see Wally’s countenance turn pale. “How did you know?”

“Good evening, Uncle Walter,” Micah said with a little gasp. “Please, join us. You’re just in time to take a little Madeira.”

“Father, I can explain everything!”

“Your powers are as amazing as ever,” Micah added. As the editor of Sensational Press’s flagship periodical Gadsbee’s Gallimaufrey he had presided over the serial publication of The Woman in White.

I held the glass up to the light to be sure it was clean. The wine, at least, was excellent. This was the sort of establishment that would not scamp upon libations. Wally fortified himself with a swallow. “Papa, I was just testing the waters with Micah here. My greatest concern was breaking my news to Mama. I want this to be an occasion of joy.”

“Joy?” With a supreme effort I kept my tone level. “Mrs. Belinda LeTrove is the widow of a Mr. Sheldon Naylor LeTrove, of Manchester. She was born in 1837.”

“Gad, Wally.” Micah rapidly did the arithmetic. “She must be thirty-five. A bit long in the tooth, don’t you think?”

“As old as your aunt Sarah,” I noted. “She wed LeTrove, a well-to-do man of fifty-six, in 1860. In ten years she ran through his entire fortune. When he died in penury the widow removed to the greener pastures of London. She’s nothing but a common or garden fortune hunter.”

“She is not!” Wally almost sputtered in his vehemence. “She’s the dearest and most affectionate female, and her regard for me is entirely disinterested. I know she’s somewhat older than myself, but more uneven matches are made every day. Remember how one of Nelson’s own captains, a man of fifty, married a girl of thirteen.”

“That was sixty years ago. Bring her up to Limmeridge then, if Mrs. LeTrove is such a paragon. And let your mama make her judgement.” After her previous travails, Laura is exquisitely sensitive to untruth.

Wally immediately fought shy. “So that you may insult her? Father, I love Belinda!”

I hardened my heart. “Wally, let me remind you that although you are of age, your grandfather set up his bequest with care. You do not come into your legacy until your twenty-fifth birthday. Until that date I, and the lawyers who are trustees for the estate, can cut you off without a farthing. And we certainly will do so for your own protection, if you continue in this dubious connexion. You cannot, you shall not become a second Mr. LeTrove.”

“This is rank tyranny, Father! I know my own mind, and it’s right for me to pursue my happiness. You, of all people, know the power of true love.”

With the finest cunning I watched not my wayward son, but my nephew. Micah’s bright-blue glance flickered in alarm. Young men naturally speak more frankly to each other. To Micah Wally must have admitted a greater intimacy with Mrs. LeTrove than he would ever confess to his parent. “How long have you know Mrs. LeTrove, Wally? No, allow me to tell you. You met her at the Bournemouth Racecourse in Hampshire, six weeks ago.”

“That’s not a long period of acquaintance, cousin,” Micah said uneasily. “Perhaps if you test the perseverance of your feelings for a year or so? I’m certain Uncle Walter could be persuaded over time.”

“You’ve taken against her without even setting eyes upon her,” Wally said hotly. “I hadn’t thought you could be so strait-laced, Father! You need not think you have me on a leash. There are many avenues open to a young man of enterprise and drive.”

This home truth stabbed like a sword. If I resorted to the power of the purse Wally could rebel. Seizing the reins of his own destiny, he could emigrate to Australia, or pan for gold in the Yukon – leave England forever and break his mother’s heart. I had to be careful not to come down too hard and irrevocably drive my son away.

A similar thought must have inspired my nephew. In this impasse Micah astonished me by coming to our rescue. “Suppose … suppose I play the intermediary, cousin. Present me to the lady, and I shall talk to her. Perhaps you could bring her to tea at Sandett House. And I could report back to you, uncle, with my opinion.”

“It’s kind of you to offer, nephew.” I spoke with care. Micah was only a few years older than Wally. His judgement could not be mature yet. “I’d also value the opinion of your father.”

“Lord, not Uncle Theo!” When Micah bridled Wally blundered on, “You know how he is, Micah. Your pater’s a real holy-boly, one of your original pillars of rectitude. Not that he’s a Puritan, it’s the damnedest thing, not with those fast horses and dandy waistcoats. He’s not self-righteous. But he’s righteous in a good way, if you take my meaning. One finds oneself wanting to live up to his opinion.”

“Right-oh,” Micah allowed. “It must come of publishing so many volumes of sermons.”

“You fear his judgement,” I said. “A bad omen. And, Micah I don’t want your brothers and sisters drawn into this. They’re too young to hold their tongues, and if word trickles back to Limmeridge…” We all three of us fell silent at the thought of Laura’s distress.

“The mater must meet Belinda some day,” Wally declared. “She’ll be my wife.”

I would have expostulated but Micah held up a conciliatory hand. “Let’s put aside the notion of Sandett House. It’s aboil with brats, anyway – little Tad can scream so that you can’t hear yourself think. Let’s go to tea somewhere quiet, and I’ll bring Miss Marian instead. Would she not be agreeable to you both? Uncle, you would accept the judgement of my clever stepmother. And you, Wally – Mrs. LeTrove should find a lady of years more conversable than a publisher of religious pamphlets and thriller fiction.”

I had to agree. Marian’s heart is as true as a compass. Wally said, “But she won’t come the high-blooded aristo on her, will she? Aunt Marian speaks like a duchess. And Belinda’s people are Irish.”

Dear God, what had the boy gotten himself into? Micah soothed his cousin’s fears. “You know that Miss Marian isn’t the least stiff-necked, Wall. Everybody loves her, and she loves everyone.”

This was a laudably filial sentiment but not an especially good description of the most dangerous woman in Europe. But I held my peace, and Wally said, “I’ll send you a line, once I consult Belinda’s convenience. Sometime next week, cousin?”

This was agreed to, and I made my departure, resolving to call straight away upon my redoubtable sister, and prime her thoroughly for the interview.

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