The Pirate Princess
The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
by Brenda W. Clough
Why does Marian Halcombe Camlet become drawn into the murderous politics of a tiny pirate kingdom in the South China Sea? Because the pirate is tall, dark, and irresistible!
When her husband Theo dies, Marian Halcombe Camlet’s heart breaks. Her plan is to wear black and dwindle away into her grave. But then her brother reveals her late husband’s deathbed request: Theo wants his beloved wife to be happy. To marry again! Suddenly everyone in her family has a likely prospect to offer, and men are lining up. Fed up with the demands of Victorian society, Marian takes the decision into her own hands by returning to her first love–adventure. She sails halfway around the globe and finds old enemies and new loves. But when she returns to Britain, danger and treachery inexorably follow.
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(R) novels— Sharon Lee
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
Walter Hartright’s narrative
“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Micah Camlet misquoted, “that I, a young man in tolerable, though not overly-posh circumstances, am – what?”
“In need of a wife,” Marian finished for him. “Oh my son, it is our dearest hope!”
“Not another drop,” his father Theophilus Camlet added to the footman. “Veuve Cliquot goes straight to his head.”
Micah grinned at his father and stepmother over his champagne. “Which novel shall I now enact, Papa? I’m in a good situation to emulate Pip, and aspire to a wife of rank and wealth.” Twenty-eight and handsome with his vivid blue eyes, Micah Camlet might indeed catch the fancy of some female well above his station. And we were here at Cranmorden, a noble estate. The earl of Brecon and Stowe had invited us all to his Winter Ball, a prosperous pond when fishing for a mate.
“I thought you were going to be Mr. Rochester,” his younger half-brother William said. “And marry someone plain and poor.”
“Not plain.” The family had congregated in the wide lobby outside the ballroom, where Micah lounged with one arm on the back of the sofa. “I do confess that beauty has its power.” Through the doors standing broad open before we could see the flower of female Britain whirling merrily past to the music. Micah raised his glass to the ladies before draining it.
The waltz wound down to its final bars, and I was pleased to see my sister Sarah emerge on the arm of her husband the explorer, Ambridge Skyllington, Lord Fulbeck. She was expecting her third, and ought not to dance the faster measures. I rose and gave her my chair, and her husband cried, “Alas, they’re playing our favorite polka, my pet!”
“You need not sit out,” Sarah returned. “See here Marian, tapping her toes!”
Camlet smiled at his wife. “Yes, lead her out, Skyllington – we’ll keep Sarah company.”
Marian’s shimmering gold silks suited her black hair and eyes perfectly. “Only if we may also dance the mazurka that is sure to follow,” she cried, surging to her feet. “I do love an energetic dance, do not you, Ambridge?”
“On this point,” Fulbeck declared, “we are as one, my dear Marian!” And they were off as the orchestra struck up a merry melody.
Sarah has never been reticent. She produced a lorgnette, a new affectation, and inspected Camlet through it. “So you are not dancing, Theo? How terribly seedy you look. You’ve gone entirely gray. Have you been ill?”
“I’m fifty-four,” Camlet pointed out. “No longer as young as I was.”
Startled, I too peered at him where he sat beside his son. Time was when Camlet and Marian would dance every dance until the musicians collapsed in exhaustion. I am only four years older than Camlet, and do not think of myself as aged. However, Camlet has passed through some deep waters. His short full beard and hair could no longer pretend to color, and he had lost his prosperous comfortable plumpness. “Brother,” I said quietly. “How is your health?”
“My doctor has concerns, Hartright,” he admitted. “But we may not talk of them here.”
“I rely upon you to tell me all, soon.”
He would have replied, but a young woman approached us. She could not have been more than one-and-twenty, still gawky and ungraceful, her pink ball gown visibly handed down and unflattering to her mousy hair and pallid complexion. “Good evening.” Her words, brisk and of a confident carrying tone, were a strange contrast to her green youthfulness. “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Camlet?”
The words were addressed to all of us gentlemen. Camlet cannily kept a poker face and glanced at his son. Micah said, “Indeed I am, miss. And you, you are?”
“My name is less important than what I bring,” she said. “Abby?” She waved a maid forward. This unlucky woman held a manuscript, a great bale of paper at least a foot high.
“Oh, the deuce,” Micah groaned. “Never say that you’re making a submission to Sensational Publications?”
“I am,” the young woman replied. “When I learned that the Mr. Camlets were attending the Winter Ball – the foremost publishers of female authors of our time! – I knew that I must act.”
Marian has set her stepson an example of boldness, and now Micah was blunt. “A ballroom is no place to discuss literature. Rather, I declare that you moved in this direction to seek a partner.”
The color came up painfully scarlet into the girl’s pallid cheeks, making her uneven forehead too plain. “I have done no such thing!”
Micah was not deterred. “I have an assistant editor to hand for this precise need. Billy!”
William started to his feet. “Micah, I can’t polka worth a continental curse.”
“No time like the present to begin.” Micah was inexorable. “Miss, we shall take your manuscript into consideration in due and proper time.”
“But I don’t want to dance!”
With an air of weary resignation William said, “What do you expect, at a ball? Come along, miss.”
When they were safely lost on the dance floor Micah beckoned the maid closer and lifted the cover sheet. “The Fortress at Corunna, by Miss Pomona Oglivy,” he read aloud. “There, I’ve looked at it. All promises are fulfilled. Does the name ring a bell, Papa?”
“I’m afraid not.” Camlet addressed the maid, an older woman of visible respectability. “Your mistress is Miss Oglivy?”
“Miss Pomona, sir, the youngest.”
“And she wrote this?”
“It’s a novel, sir.”
“And no one informed her that submissions for publications should not be made at formal balls.”
“No, sir. Oh please, sir, she’s worked at it night and day for months!”
Micah shuddered elaborately. “I can just imagine.”
Camlet said, “I am the executive editor. My chambers are up in the family wing – the other servants will direct you. Take this up to my rooms, and leave it there. I’ll take it back to London with me and start it on the submissions process.”
“Thank you, sir. Right away, sir!” And the maid staggered off with her burden.
“In due time,” Micah repeated. “What a soft touch you are, Papa.”
His father grinned at his tall lounging son. “A literary female – those are not common, Micah. Perhaps you should have danced with Miss Pomona yourself.”
“It is the duty of the assistant editor to undertake those tasks which the senior editors have not the time to address,” Micah replied. “I consider myself the editor of Gadsbee’s Gallimaufrey, one of the more notable magazines in Britain. The novels I’m happy to leave, Papa, to you. Besides, I’d like a pretty wife, not such an under-ripe peach.”
“Your father is the wrong man for that,” I remarked. “Your stepmother will tell you herself, that she is no beauty.”
“Marian is unutterably beautiful,” Camlet said comfortably. “But in her own way. As your mate will be, to you, Micah.”
“Wait,” Sarah said. “Oglivy – is that not the surname of that debutante, Walter?”
“This girl was not the beauteous Florissa,” I objected. “I remember that young lady perfectly well. She could have been a Pre-Raphaelite model. Long rippling golden hair.”
“Now that sounds more like,” Micah said. “Where is she, uncle? Can you point her out?”
Such was the press of revelers that I could not. There were perhaps a hundred couples twirling energetically around the vast gaily-lit ballroom. I did espy Marian and Fulbeck – they are both tall and of striking appearance, my black-haired sister unlovely of face but magnificent of form, and Fulbeck with a huge gray handlebar mustache and a frizz of faded red-gold hair.
When the music ended in a crash of cymbals the two returned, panting and warm. “I’m getting too old for this!” Fulbeck sank gasping down into the chair beside his wife.
“How you fuss, Ambridge. When I’m dancing backwards, and in bustle and train!” Marian fanned herself energetically, not worn in the least.
“He has no difficulty trekking for a month through virgin jungle,” Sarah assured us.
Marian’s great dark eyes glowed with happiness. “Listen, Theo! Is that not our favorite Offenbach waltz? You haven’t danced with me yet this evening. Your laziness is grown severe of late. Why must it be for me to ask you, when it’s the duty of the man?”
Her husband laughed at this raillery and rose. “My love, your vigor would put any three men to shame.” And they were off as the music struck up again.
“Certainly these three,” Fulbeck groaned. “No, my pet. You get only one more dance this evening, and it shall not be this one. Let me recover somewhat with quiet chat. Hartright, you would know. Where’s Donthorne these days? At that family pile of his, Varneck Hall, near Southampton?”
“Roderick Donthorne? Somewhere in Asia with the FO, why?”
“Damn. I had hoped he was still stationed in America. One of my diggers found a gold and jade mask, and I need someone trustworthy to look at it. I don’t suppose you happen to be going that way.”
“I intend never to leave Britain again,” I declared.
“Then there’s nothing for it. I must go myself.”
“And I go with you,” Sarah cried. “And Raymond, and Augustus.”
“Surely it would be safer for you to stay.” The idea of an expecting woman dragging herself and two children to Honduras was fearful.
“You know Ambridge,” she retorted. “Once in Central America he’ll stay for three years.”
I had to admit this was true.
It was then that I became aware of a disturbance on the dance floor. “Someone’s tripped over their partner’s feet,” Micah suggested.
The merry music ground to a dissonant halt in mid-bar. “See how on a crowded floor it’s easy to catch one’s heel on a hem,” Fulbeck said to Sarah. “We shall dance a sedate measure, perhaps after the supper.”
Still we thought nothing of it, until after a further time a footman pushed through the press. “Mr. Camlet?”
Micah started to his feet. “What is it?”
“Your father, sir.”
We all leaped up and followed. Somehow the crowd parted before us, revealing Marian, sitting on the dance floor in a great pool of golden silks. Camlet lay sprawled on his back, his face whiter than paper. Marian had his head on her lap, and she looked up at me with such a look of terror in her uncomely countenance that my heart turned over in my breast.
Marian Halcombe Camlet’s journal
Sandett House in north London, 18 February 1879
Today we drove over to Highgate where the family doctor Mr. Clive keeps his office. Theo has been going alone, but this time I insisted on accompanying him. And, in a truly underhanded ploy, I brought Laura. My sister makes something of a hobby of illness and has wide experience of medical men. But more crucially, she’s a flame of purity and truth. I can occasionally do it, but she can nearly always discern when someone is lying.
Both our husbands know this perfectly well. “You need not waste your morning attending upon me, Laura,” Theo protested as we climbed into the brougham. “A chill under the liver, nothing more.”
Laura’s fair hair showed not a thread of gray as she took out her ivory memorandum tablet to note the points to be addressed. “The chief complaint is your collapse at Cranmorden, of course. How I wish that my gall bladder had allowed me to come down that evening! But you should not fail to discuss with him your digestion, this intermittent nausea that afflicts you. You certainly are thinner than last season. A weight loss is always worrying. And you bumped your knee as you went down, so that joint should be examined…”
“Is there any pain, dear man?” I noted that he did not reply. The two villages are not far apart, and I told myself it was simply because we were arriving at the doctor’s office.
It would of course be inappropriate for ladies to be present when a man is examined by his doctor. While they were closeted we waited in Mr. Clive’s office, a fearful place lined with gloomy dark bookcases and adorned with the articulated skeleton of a dog in a glass case. A presentation clock on the mantel shelf ticked so slowly I longed to hammer it into silence with my umbrella. It was an hour before the doctor came through, silently drawing the door to behind himself. He is tall and bushy in the beard, a respectable figure in his black frock coat. His voice was deep and furry. “Mrs. Camlet, good morning. And Mrs. Hartright, I hope you are well.”
I drew a deep breath. “Mr. Clive, you have attended all our family for some years now. I rely upon you to tell me the truth.”
His gaze was fixed upon the stethoscope as he laid it back into the velvet crannies of its wooden case. “I will not deny to you, Mrs. Camlet, that your husband is ill. But there is no serious cause for concern.”
Beside me on the sofa Laura glanced at me. Her beautiful blue eyes were eloquent. But I did not need her to speak. I rose, gathering up bag and umbrella. “I am sorry that you see fit to deceive me, doctor. I am to take it this means you no longer require our family’s custom, and that I must seek another medical advisor.”
The wooden stethoscope case clattered as he set it down. “Not at all, Mrs. Camlet, no! You mistake me. I merely – you must know that medical science has made great strides in our lifetimes, and –”
Laura reached to take my gloved hand, and from her grasp I drew strength. “Do not dare to wrap it up in fine linen, doctor. State it in plain English. What is my husband’s ailment?”
The doctor threw up his hands in surrender. “Gastric cancer, madam.”
Shock and horror struck me dumb, but Laura was there to speak for me. “Are you certain, doctor?”
“The growth is palpable, in the right hypochondrium.”
My knees weakened so that I had to sit down again. Because of Sensational’s previous line in educational pamphlets, I have more miscellaneous medical knowledge than many ladies. “Then you must operate. The best surgeons in the world are in London.”
“Surgery, oh! How awful!” Laura shivered at the idea. Chloroform has made the scalpel less of a horror than it was in our parents’ generation, but the word still terrifies.
The doctor’s deep voice was like a tolling bell. “An abdominal operation has never been successfully done, Mrs. Camlet, even by Professor Lister. The patient always dies, if not on the operating table then very shortly thereafter. There are portions of the human frame that will ever remain sacred from the scalpel’s intrusions. However, I have prescribed tartar emetic.”
“The vomiting,” Laura murmured to me.
“And calomel. The late Emperor Napoleon also suffered from the disease and found relief with calomel and purgatives.”
“He died,” I retorted. Tears stole down my cheeks, and I groped for a handkerchief.
“My dear Mrs. Camlet, be assured that everything that can be done shall be done. But there is one essential task that only you may accomplish.”
“What, doctor?” Laura cried. “Theo is the dearest man, the most excellent of husbands. Marian will do anything, and I also!”
The doctor’s beard wagged in his earnestness. “You must keep him in ignorance, ladies. He must be sheltered from the knowledge of this fatal diagnosis. By so preserving his calmness of mind, his courage from day to day shall not falter, and this shall bolster health and foster a good outcome.”
“But…” Laura looked doubtfully at me.
My mind was clouded, stunned by the news. “I … I have never lied to my husband. And he is a businessman, doctor. Should he not have the time to properly wind up his affairs?”
“And to make his peace with his Maker,” Laura added.
“It may be the last and best service you may do him.” Mr. Clive’s tone was heavy as lead, crushing me down, and I began to sob in earnest. “Master your emotions, madam. While he is dressing, thrust your tears back to their source! Else they immediately betray you.”
“Let us take a turn around the village green, Marian,” Laura said. She is ever tender of my sensibilities!
It is not warm at this time of year, but the trees were coming into leaf, and it wasn’t raining. We made a slow circuit of the open space. Laura linked her arm through mine so that, blind with tears, I could weep aloud.
“How can I survive without him, Laura? He is the mate of my body and my heart. I love him more than life itself!”
“You must think of the children,” Laura said, also shedding sympathetic tears. “The older ones may be relied upon to do their duty, but Tad’s only eleven. He shall need you for many years yet. And Merry is almost fifteen. A girl of her looks shall need a watchful parent until she is safely wed.”
We walked slowly, leaning on each other as we have done so often in times of trouble, and I strove to master myself. “I know I should be grateful. We’ve been so happy, for so many years. He has spoken often, of how we must enjoy what is before us. And we have.”
“Your union has been ideal,” Laura said. “But all things in this vale of tears must pass, Marian. We’re all of us mortal. I am so grateful that I am likely to predecease Walter! My health is so poor, I shall never have to live without him. And Dr. Clive was hopeful, Marian. It could be that Theo has many years before you are sundered.”
“Can I be brave for so long?” I wondered. “Can I maintain my fortitude, and keep the awful secret hushed in my breast?”
“Of course you can,” Laura said. “You’re the strongest woman I know, my love. There is nothing beyond your power.”
But as we came around again to our waiting carriage, my dearest husband waited there by its open door. Behind the round steel spectacles his hazel gaze was so grave, so sad, that I knew immediately all of Dr. Clive’s cunning was in vain.
I was brave. I shall maintain always that I kept my countenance, betraying nothing. There is a devious streak on my side of the family, and I called upon it. But I am at that time of life when a woman is subject to hot flashes and temperamental upset. The uncomfortable heat came up into my face, turning it red under the usual swarthy hue. And Laura’s heart beats in the closest concert with mine. I was forbidden to shed a tear, and so she burst into heartrending sobs, and flung her arms around my poor husband. Absently he patted her back, and above her bent bonnet his face was as stricken as my own.