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Authors: Veronica Bennett

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BOOK: Vice and Virtue
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Aurora failed to muster another arch look. “Celia, your imagination runs away with you. “I am sure Joe will choose a wife in good time, from those of the faith to which your family adheres.”

“Oh!” Celia released her knees and stared in dismay. “You and your brother do not follow the Roman Church! I was sure you did! You see, Mrs Fellowes is from a Catholic family. She knew my mother.”

Aurora managed to smile. Edward had coached her in exactly what to say when this subject presented itself. “I do not know Mrs Fellowes well. I only met her for the first time last night, and she asked me no questions about my religion.” She reached for Celia’s hand, hoping that the lie she was about to utter might sound more plausible if accompanied by physical reassurance. “But my late parents, though of the Protestant faith, brought my brother and me up to be tolerant of everybody’s beliefs. You need have no fear.”

“Then you do not think Catholics…” Celia searched for appropriate words. “You do not consider us … in the way many people do these days?” She could not voice the words “as plotters against the king”, but her blue eyes searched Aurora’s face, willing her answer to be the one she sought.

Aurora tried not to think of the punishment God must be storing up for her. She resolved to enter a church on her way home and ask His forgiveness. “I believe,” she told Celia, “that Catholics are, for the most part, decent people like you and your family.”

“So if a Catholic man were to woo you,” suggested Celia with a sly look, “might you be prepared to
convert
?”

Aurora looked at the floor, hoping Celia would interpret her unease as maidenly modesty. “King James himself is a convert,” she said, “and he had a great deal more to risk by his conversion than I could ever have.”

Celia seemed satisfied with this. “That is true. But you know, my father is also a convert,” she said moodily, “and he hates Protestants with a most un-Christian fervour, as did my mother, though I confess I do not.”

“I thank you for that, Celia,” said Aurora. She wished to change the subject, but could think of nothing that would bring the conversation any nearer Henry Francis, his son or the Deedes’ unexpected inheritance. Into her mind came a picture of the room downstairs, with its paper-strewn table and locked cabinet. And suddenly she had an inspiration. “May I look at your library?” she asked brightly.

Celia’s face went blank. “But you said you do not care for books.”

“That is true, I do not. But my brother does. He likes nothing better than to read, when he is not employed in writing, but his collection of books is small. Would you mind if I were to borrow one or two of yours for him?”

“I do not mind, but I must ask permission of my father before you take any books out of the house.” Celia gestured towards the teacups on the table. “We have been so busy talking, I have not made the tea. And the water will be cold by the time we have visited the library. How vexing!”

Aurora could not find much sympathy. “Perhaps, when we come back,” she suggested, “we may call for more.”

“But I always have my tea
now
, after dinner!”

“Then let me go alone to the library.” Aurora’s heartbeat quickened. “I shall be better choosing books by myself, anyway. You can stay here and drink your tea.”

This pleased Celia. “You are without doubt the cleverest and pleasantest girl I know,” she declared, “and you must come and see me again tomorrow. My best friends are the Clarence sisters, in Brunswick Square. There are four of them, each as droll as you like. They will love you as I do, though you are much prettier than any of them. I am eager to introduce you!”

“I look forward to it,” lied Aurora, who had no wish to be introduced to a family of four sisters, droll or otherwise. She stood up. “Does the library contain a volume of Shakespeare? I know my brother admires his work greatly.”

Celia shrugged impatiently. “I do not know. You may look for one if you will.”

“Very well,” said Aurora, opening the parlour door. “I will be no more than a quarter of an hour.”

Josiah and Joe Deede were still in the dining room. Aurora could hear their voices as she passed the door. In the library, she inspected one volume, then another, taking them to the table and leafing through them. When she was sure Celia had not decided to follow her after all, she placed a biography of Cardinal Wolsey on the narrow top of the writing desk, holding it there with one hand while she tried the hinged cover and the drawers with the other. All, as expected, were locked.

The table in the centre of the room had two drawers, for holding playing cards and chess pieces. Aurora had little hope that whoever had locked the writing desk would keep the key there, but she took Cardinal Wolsey to the table and opened them anyway. They did not contain any playing cards or chess pieces, but neither were they empty. One held writing implements – quills, penknife, wiper and ink – and sheets of paper ruled in lines after the fashion of schoolchildren. The other contained a Latin primer, much thumbed, and a rather newer copy of a handwriting practice book. As Aurora had suspected, this had been Edward’s schoolroom.

Her hand shook as she felt at the back of each drawer, then peered underneath them, took them out of their casings and inspected the underside of the table itself. There was nothing there; no false bottoms or secret compartments, no hidden box or envelope. Nothing that could contain a small brass key.

She replaced the drawers as soundlessly as she could, and was straightening up when the door opened and Joe came in, followed more slowly by his father. Both looked surprised. “Miss Drayton!” Josiah the elder was the first to speak. “We thought you were upstairs with Celia.”

“I was, sir,” said Aurora apologetically. She had gone red, she knew. “But I expressed a wish to see the library. Celia kindly allowed me to browse here alone while she drank her tea.”

“Tea is much more appetizing to my sister than literature,” observed Joe with a short laugh. “We despair of her, do we not, Father?”

“We do,” said Josiah, his eyes on Aurora’s face. “But you are a reader, Miss Drayton?”

“My brother is. I wonder if I may have your permission to borrow some books for him?”

“By all means,” replied Josiah.

Aurora bobbed a curtsey. “Thank you. My brother will be most grateful. He is a quick reader – the books will be returned forthwith.” She looked down at the book in her hand. “May I take this one? And this?” She picked up a volume of poems by Sir Walter Raleigh, the first book she had taken from the shelves, and opened it. “I see it is inscribed to someone called Elizabeth Francis,” she observed. “If this lady is of significance to your family, of course I would not dream—”

“Take it! Take it, Miss Drayton!” Josiah Deede had turned on his heel and was striding out of the open door. “And come up and drink some tea, if you please!”

“I must go to my brother now, sir,” she called after him, “so I will not take tea. But I will come and bid your daughter farewell.” She turned to Joe, who gave a slight bow. “Your father is most kind.”

Celia rose as Joe and Aurora entered the upstairs sitting room, where Josiah Deede was already seated. “Father says you are going, Aurora!” she cried accusingly.

“I must, I am afraid. My brother awaits me.”

“But you shall come tomorrow, and visit the Clarences with me?”

Aurora looked at Josiah Deede. “I am invited by your daughter, sir…”

“If she wishes it, then it is so. You may come whenever you like.” He gestured towards the window. “Indeed, why not pay a visit to Spring Gardens, while the weather is so pleasant? Is that not a good idea, Joe?”

Joe nodded, his eyes upon Aurora’s face. “Will you come with us to Spring Gardens – shall we say on Saturday? If your brother will spare you, that is.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Aurora, curtseying. “I am sure he will.”

Celia accompanied Aurora downstairs and embraced her as they parted on the doorstep. “I adore Spring Gardens, do you not?”

“I have never been there,” confessed Aurora.

Celia stared. “How astonishing!”

“I have not lived in London long,” Aurora reminded her. “I am sure I will find the gardens as delightful as people say they are. But now, I bid you goodbye. Please convey my thanks to your father and your … and Joe, for the hospitality I have received today.”

She left Celia at the door, knowing she had coloured, and scolding herself for such weakness. But as she set off towards Floral Street her scolding turned to more serious self-rebuke. Would the spirit of her dear father ever forgive the lies she had told today, the false responses she had enacted and the pleasure she had felt in the company of a handsome – and fervently Catholic – man?

Praying silently, she set off with quickened steps for St James’s Church.

A Skeleton in Her Dress

A
urora had assumed that she would wear her blue silk gown to visit Spring Gardens. But when she took it out of her trunk and shook out its creases, Edward dismayed her by telling her that the dress, at least in its present state, would not do.

“Spring Gardens is a pleasure-ground for the wealthy, but it is also a hunting-ground for professional ladies of low reputation,” he declared. “You must resemble the former more than the latter.”

“Impertinence!” she replied, but she had to acknowledge he was right.

There was not time to get a new dress made, but Edward gave her the money for a new front panel for the skirt of the old dress, ribbons for the back, and a new hat and gloves. “I must repay Richard when I can,” he told her as he handed her the sovereigns. “Do not, I beg you, be extravagant.”

She was as extravagant as a visit to Spring Gardens demanded. The necessity of avoiding anyone in the mantua-making business who might be known to her mother sent her south of the river to Lambeth, near the Gardens themselves, where Celia reported that she and her friends the Clarence sisters patronized a woman who did excellent work and did not overcharge.

The new silk panel, embroidered with tiny flowers and birds, matched the blue of the dress exactly. The ribbons, likewise, reflected the colour of Aurora’s eyes. Standing in the mantua-maker’s parlour before the tall looking-glass, Aurora was pulled this way and that as the woman drew up the back of the skirt and pinned the material into intricately gathered layers, ready for the ribbons to be sewn on. When the hat Aurora had already chosen from the milliner’s next door was upon her head, and the new, lace-edged kid gloves on her hands, she allowed herself the luxury of noting that she was pretty enough to attract any man amongst the many hundreds who frequented Spring Gardens.

Aurora knew it was a wicked thought, but Joe was so handsome, and carried his sword and his opinions so boldly, she could not help observing to herself that he resembled the vision of her future husband far better than the man to whom she was actually married. The many hundreds of men did not matter; she wished to look pretty for Joe.

By Thursday evening the dress was finished, and Aurora put it on for Edward’s inspection. “Lady of the night or daughter of the gentry?” she asked, posing.

She thought he would smile, but his face remained immobile. “Something in between.”

“Perhaps if I wear a mask, as I did at the theatre?”

“No!” he protested. “In Spring Gardens a mask is the sign of a harlot.”

Aurora felt admonished. She disliked it when Edward’s superior age and experience exposed her unworldliness. “Very well,” she said stiffly.

He smiled then, and patted her shoulder. “You are to go to the Deedes’ tomorrow, are you not?”

“I have been invited for dinner.”

“You will be offered fish, no doubt,” said Edward, still smiling, “as Catholics must abstain from meat on Fridays.”

“I like fish,” said Aurora blankly. “And it will be very finely cooked, you may be sure. No expense is spared at the Deedes’ table.”

A change came over Edward’s face. Aurora was suddenly conscious of her careless words. “I did not mean—” she began, but he stopped her.

“Now,” he said, “change out of this finery. I have something of great interest to show you.”

When Aurora emerged from her chamber he was sitting at the table. As usual, Mary had not yet collected the breakfast dishes; Edward had pushed them aside. He motioned to the other chair, and when Aurora was seated he held up the key which opened the outer door of their rooms. “What do you notice about this key?” he asked her.

Aurora frowned at it. It looked the same as every door key she had ever seen. Fashioned from iron, with a ring at the end, a plain shaft and a head with a pattern cut out, like teeth. “It is an ordinary key,” she said helplessly.

“And what about this one?” He held up another door key, which looked the same except that it was plainer.

“That one fits a different lock?” hazarded Aurora, feeling like a child interrogated by its tutor.

Edward lowered his voice. “It will fit almost any lock. It is a skeleton key.”

He laid the keys beside each other on the table. “See, our key has several teeth, and a depression at the end that fits into a pin.”

Aurora inspected the end of the key. True enough, it was hollowed out. “I have never noticed that before,” she confessed.

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