Authors: Veronica Bennett
“Yes?” It was Missy. Aurora dipped her chin.
“Message for Mr Deede,” she announced, imitating Mary by not using unnecessary words.
“Master, or young master?”
“Who is the message from?”
“Mr Marshall of the sign of the Seven Stars in Covent Garden.”
Missy contemplated her with her head on one side. Aurora looked steadfastly at the doorstep, pretending the awkwardness of an inferior servant before a superior one.
“Mr Deede is from home,” said the maid. “If you will tell me your master’s message I will pass it to him when he returns.”
“Master said the message is to be delivered to Mr Deede himself.” From her pocket Aurora drew the letter from her sister, which had been the nearest paper to hand when she had changed her clothes. “He was most particular that I put this into his hands myself.”
An uncertain look came over Missy’s face. “Oh, very well. Mr Marshall should have sent a man-servant, though. Mr Deede will be at White’s.” And without any parting words, she shut the door.
Aurora hurried away, her brain busy. Joe Deede did not feel the need to practise fencing, then. He would rather spend the day discussing whichever subject arose with anyone who would listen. Everyone talked to everyone else in a coffee house, from aristocrats to journalists, from physicians to booksellers, from attorneys to slave-merchants.
Everyone, that is, except women.
There were plenty of people about, mostly of the middling sort, and mostly men. Nobody looked at Aurora as she approached White’s. The door stood open, but a thick fog of tobacco smoke hung between Aurora and proper sight of any of the customers. The place was crowded and very noisy, each voice raised over the din of all the others until every man was shouting. She knew that the only feminine presence would be the woman who operated the steaming, puffing array of coffee pots behind the counter. Ladies did not go into coffee houses, and neither, as Missy had pointed out, did female servants.
She loitered until one of the waiters who carried trays between the tables passed within calling distance of the doorway. “Sir, a word!” she shouted.
The man ignored her. She waited for another, and shouted louder. This time, she was rewarded with a stare. She waited again until an untidily dressed man smoking a pipe came to the door for some air. “Excuse me, sir, but I have an urgent message for a gentleman who might be here. Would you ask him to come to the door?”
The man, who was short, red-complexioned and, Aurora thought, unnecessarily dirty, looked her up and down. “Your mistress send you?”
“No, sir, my master. Please, sir, it is very important, and I must deliver the message personally. Master said.”
He continued to leer at her, sucking on his pipe. “And what reward will I receive for my trouble?”
Aurora bobbed another curtsey, her stomach lurching. “Sir, I wish merely—”
!” Offended, the man stared at her. “You should mind your manners, girl.” And with that he disappeared back into the gloom.
Aurora stood despondently on the pavement. Her arm throbbed. Longing to sit down, she leaned her right shoulder against the door jamb and peered into the room. A strong mixture of humanity, smoke and coffee grounds attacked her nostrils. No one had swept or dusted for a long time; the rushes strewn on the floor were matted with dirt and spilled drinks. The air away from the door was evidently very hot, for almost all the men were in their shirts and waistcoats, though they all retained their wigs, and some of them their hats. Aurora thought they looked comical, like a crowd of chattering, puff-chested birds, pecking at their drinks.
She stood on tiptoe, hoping to catch sight of Joe over all the heads. She could not see him; he might not be here at all, or he might be in the farther room. Even smokier than the room that opened onto the street, this inner room was lined with tables screened from each other by high partitions. How could she alert him to her presence? No one would help her. No one even noticed her. She was only a servant-girl.
Then she saw him. He walked quickly towards the door, pushing his way between the customers, pulling on a coat with wide, embroidered cuffs. He wore a curled wig and his plumed hat. Aurora was as impressed as ever by the beauty of his countenance. Indeed, now she had witnessed the volatile temperament it concealed, its smooth plausibility was the more astonishing.
He was in deep conversation with another man, young like himself, a stranger to Aurora. They spoke earnestly, their hats almost touching. Neither had seen her. Her courage faltered, but she steadied it. Keeping her head down, she waited in the shadow beneath the overhanging building, ready to step into their path.
The stranger suddenly raised his head in laughter. He spoke low, but Aurora was close enough to hear his words. “Tomorrow we shall drink to the death of a man too stupid to live!”
Joe was smiling, though his voice was full of contempt. “And too stupid to know he has set his murderer free.”
“Aye,” agreed the other man. He touched his hat. “Until tomorrow,” he said to Joe, and the two men shook hands.
“I will bring what I owe,” she heard Joe murmur, and then they parted. Joe set off towards Mill Street, the other man more slowly in the opposite direction.
Cold horror spread through Aurora’s body. She was too stunned to cry out. Poor, honourable Edward, practising his swordsmanship in some fencing-hall with his loyal friend! He believed that his opponent would abide by the rules of duelling, as a gentleman. But Joe had hired this unknown man not as his second in a duel, but as his accomplice in an assassination. By laying down the challenge, Edward had given Joe Deede the opportunity to kill him without fear of prosecution – he had indeed “set his murderer free”.
Her brain racing, she turned in the direction of the Black Swan, as unnoticeable in her maid’s garb as the stones on which she trod. How could she warn Edward? She must find him and Richard, wherever they had gone, and tell them of the plot against Edward’s life. Her arm had stiffened, but she clasped her hands under her shawl.
, she prayed silently as she hurried on,
I thank you for watching over me, and preventing me from stepping forth and revealing myself to Joe Deede. Now, I beseech you, in your almighty wisdom, let me find Edward before it is too late. Heavenly Father, protect my husband from harm!
Edward and Richard were not at the inn. Aurora again employed Flora’s folded letter, taking it from her pocket and imploring the innkeeper to tell her where Mr Hoggart had gone so that she could deliver an important message from her master.
“I know not,” he insisted. “I have not seen him today. Now be off with you.”
“Is there someone here who
The man heard the desperation in her voice. He gave her a closer look, and relented. “Out the back,” he said, jerking his head. “Nathaniel might have spoken to him.”
Nathaniel was a wiry man of about thirty, employed to feed and water horses and haul casks of ale. He wore a leather apron and filth-encrusted boots. To Aurora’s dismay, he did not know which fencing-hall Mr Hoggart had gone to.
“Should never have been fencing at all, if you ask me,” he grumbled. “Nasty blow to his head. But that man came … his friend, and—”
“Mr Drayton?” volunteered Aurora eagerly.
“Aye, that be his name. Went off together, they did, about” – he looked at the clock above the stableyard – “must be about two hours ago now.”
The clock said a little after four o’clock. Twelve hours from now, unless Aurora could prevent it, two men would draw their swords, one with thoughts of honour satisfied, the other of murder. “Which direction did they go in?” she asked.
Nathaniel considered for a moment, then pointed to his left. “That way. No, I can’t be sure.”
Aurora’s heart dived, but lifted again when the man continued. “I can tell you, though, there is a fencing-hall in Bow Street, hard by the theatre.”
“Oh, thank you, sir!”
She set off for Bow Street, her spirits rising. Not only was the fencing-hall near the inn, it was a matter of yards from Mr Marshall’s shop. Taking the letter from her pocket once more, she waited by the door until two men came out. But her request met with stares and shrugs. No, they did not know Edward Drayton or Augustus Hoggart. No, they did not know Richard Allcott or Edward Francis. No, they would not go in and enquire.
A boy a few years younger than Aurora emerged from the fencing-hall. He smiled at her when she stepped forward and listened politely to her words.
“I do not know these gentlemen, but I will return and ask for them,” he said pleasantly.
Aurora thanked him, curtseying low, and waited with impatience for Richard or Edward to appear. But only the boy came back.
“Neither of them is here,” he told her. “You could try the hall in Duke Street, or the one on the Strand. That one is rather rough, I warn you.”
“Miss Drayton” in her silk dress might have persuaded this youth to accompany her, but helpful though he had proved, he was nevertheless of the class that could not associate publicly with a servant. “Thank you, sir, you have assisted me greatly,” she said, and watched him walk away.
At Duke Street, she hailed a liveried footman who was about to enter the side door of a grand house. She smiled flirtatiously and he went into the fencing-hall for her. But he too had no luck. And down by the river on the Strand, the fencing-hall was a dark bolt-hole at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. Everyone who came and went was drunk. Perhaps the boy had been mistaken, and it was not a fencing-hall at all.
Aurora approached a passing couple in the hope that they would look more kindly upon a serving-girl than a man alone “I pray you, sir,” she asked the man, “do you know of any fencing-halls hereabouts? I am seeking my master with an urgent message.”
He and his lady stopped, and looked at her haughtily. “There is one in Bow Street and another in Duke Street,” said the man.
“What of this place, here?” asked Aurora, indicating the dark stairs. “Is this a fencing-hall?” asked Aurora.
“Yes,” said the woman, “but
do not fence there.”
“Thank you, madam, and you, sir,” she said, curtseying to their backs as they hastened away.
Despair closed around her. Edward and Richard were no longer at practice. They had gone somewhere else. She must go back to the rooms above the bookshop, though Edward had said he would not return there before tomorrow, and leave a message with Mary. She must put on her silk gown and leave the same message at the inn. Then, after nightfall, she would wait in St Paul’s Church, in case Edward and Richard should decide to ask for God’s guidance, and to ask for it herself. If all else failed, she must intercept them on their approach to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. She must not give up.
Her plait had escaped from her cap and lay like a rope against her back. Dread had drained her blood from her cheeks, and her injured arm bumped lifelessly at her side as she hurried across the piazza and along Floral Street.
Mary opened the door and gaped at her.
“Mary, it is I!” Aurora took off her hat and cap. “Is Mr Drayton in?”
“No, ’m. Not seen ’im since ’e come in with that pie.”
Mary stood back and Aurora stepped into the vestibule. “Then please,” she implored the maid, “will you help me change my clothes? I must be quick, and my shoulder…”
“Yes, ’m.” Mary had collected herself swiftly and offered a sturdy arm. “Lean on me, if it please you.”
Aurora did so gratefully, and they mounted the stairs. The lock had not been repaired; the door swung open. “Mary, I cannot tell you why I am wearing the clothes of a maidservant,” Aurora explained as they entered, “but I must now change into my best dress.”
Mary set to work, unbuttoning the front of Aurora’s bodice, untying her petticoat. “’Ow did you get this on, with your shoulder an’ all?” she muttered.
“Very untidily, I fear,” said Aurora. “You are kind, Mary.”
Mary made a sound like “Heff!” and continued with her task. When Aurora stood in her chemise and corset, the maid scrutinized her blankly. “Shall I do something to your ’air, Miss?”
“Oh, if you would! Let me dress first, though.”
Aurora knelt by her trunk and took out her blue dress. Not allowing herself time to falter, she found the bodice and petticoat, and stood up. “Here, Mary, help me put this on. And my cloak too, that one with the wool lining.”
It was difficult not to cry out as Mary, who was not a lady’s maid, tied and buttoned the inner garments with blunt, work-worn fingers, then drew the blue silk sleeves over Aurora’s arms and fastened the waistband of the skirt. But the result looked neater than Aurora could have achieved alone. “Thank you,” she said. “I am sincerely grateful, and will give you something for your trouble if you will hand me my purse.”
“No, ’m,” said Mary unexpectedly, dropping a curtsey. “I don’ expect nothin’. An’ if it will please you to sit down, I will brush your ’air.”
Unplaited, Aurora’s coppery hair lay on her shoulders like strands of seaweed. Mary brushed it and tied the top up with blue ribbons. “Leave the bottom part loose,” instructed Aurora. “Edward … I prefer it loose around my neck.”
Aurora sensed that Mary longed to know where she could be going that demanded such careful dressing. But how could she confess that she was adorning herself for her husband on what might prove to be the last day of his life? Even if she succeeded in warning Edward, he might still not escape the assassin. And he was still the man who, stubbornly concerned more with his honour than his life, had cast down Aurora’s lace-edged glove. His sense of honour might compel him to face Joe Deede in a duel anyway. A duel was a ritual, just as the aftermath of death was a ritual. Aurora must pay homage to those rituals, preserving as much dignity as she could, for herself, for Richard, but most of all for Edward.
“We have been invited to a musical recital in St Paul’s Church this evening,” she lied as Mary curled locks of hair around her fingers. “Mr Drayton is to meet me there. He loves music.”