“Mister D’Arcy, will you stop badgering me?

“I have absolutely nothing more to add—I’ve said more than enough already in court, and have absolutely no idea what the final verdict will be.

“I’m tired, and it’s been a long day, so the only thing I have to say to your listeners is that publishing and copyright mixed up with time travel gives me heartburn and a thumping headache.

“Now take that microphone out of my face if you don’t want a mess all over those nice shiny boots! Pregnant woman coming through—get out of my way—I need to go pee.”

And those were the last words of the day from Cecelia Calafano outside court number two. Mizz Califano is the founder of the American Library here in Magdeburg, and has been on the stand for two days; a hostile witness for the defense in the case of Burns vs The USE.

“Let me remind the audience at home that this precedent setting case is now in its third week. It is finely balanced between the public domain rights declared for up-time works after the Ring of Fire, and the argument against eminent domain undertaken by the Burns family of Dumfries, Scotland, supported by the Stationer’s and Printer’s Guilds of Edinburgh, surrounding the rights to The Collected Works of Robert Burns.

“After the break, we’ll be exploring what eminent domain is exactly with our studio panel, and what it means for the case at hand . . .

Jonas D’Arcy, The Legal Half-Hour, Voice of Luther,

Magdeburg, broadcast October 1635

Four and a half years after the Ring of Fire.

1635, Thursday 22nd November,

Basing House, Southamptonshire, England

“Come in, come in. I’m almost done.”

The Irish midwife was finishing up fussing and brushing the hair of the lady of the house, who was relaxed immersed in a huge wooden bath in front of the morning fire.

“Feeling any better today, Your Ladyship?” Lizzy, the housekeeper, asked, picking up the rolls of yesterday’s newspapers from the side table.

Lady Honora stared at the wrinkled fingers of her left hand. “I feel like a beached whale.”

“Won’t be long now. Any day, Your Ladyship.” The midwife’s remedy to carrying twins was unusual, and certainly not the English way. The marchioness of Winchester spent most of the day floating in water, topped up by large hot stones dropped in every half an hour to keep it warm. The babes were expected to be born within days.

“That will be all, Shauna.”

“Yes, my lady.” The midwife bobbed a short curtsey, and retired to the dressing room.

“And close the door on your way out.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Oh, and Shauna, go down to the kitchens and bring me some cheese in about half an hour,” milady shouted.

“Anything else, my lady?”

“Just the cheese, thank you.”

****

Lizzy sat in a chair next to the bath, newspapers in her lap, wearing her usual grey uniform dress. “I think we’re finally ready.”

“The rooms in the west wing?”

“Finished last night and laid out for ten, in case some wish to stay over tonight.”

“Tonight’s meal?”

“Last of the supplies should be here this afternoon.”

“And our other guests?”

“Master Weasenham has been called away.”

The project manager of the new sugar mill and factor of the Bedford Corporation was a busy bee, always on the go.

“And his lady wife?” Honora rubbed the stretched skin of her huge belly.

“Deluded as ever.” Lizzy pursed her mouth.

Honora laughed at her housekeeper’s discomfort.

“And walking around the grounds with another of those god-rotted romance novels in her hands.”

“Now, Elizabeth, it would be impolite for you to be killing our other guest in front of Charles’ godfather.”

Lizzy couldn’t decide if Honora was being serious, or if it was just the baleful influence of a new death game played by the other ladies of the house?

The dowager Countess,
In the library,
With the lead piping

She was tired. With the important visitor due this morning, she was dog-tired getting the new house ready these past three weeks. The dining, entertaining, and logistics plans had fallen hard onto the housekeeper. Honora’s difficult pregnancy and confinement was happening at the same time as the fifth birthday of Charles, the heir, and the Winter festivals.

“Anything in the papers?” Honora queried. Unable to read and write, the marchioness depended on Lizzy’s assistance here. Once a day they perused the news from London.

Lizzy unwrapped the tube of the London Gazette, a Royalist rag started by Wentworth some time ago, but currently under the power of the earl of Cork. She fished in her pocket for her eyeglasses, which she perched on the end of her nose. The front page, as usual, was covered in notices and adverts.

“Nothing special—new shops opening in Covent Garden.” Lizzy turned the page to extra-large print headlines.

Princess of the Blood Elizabeth of the Palatine survives assassin in Amsterdam. Wounded, but not in mortal danger.

Prince Rupert, second in line to English Throne survives, kills two assassins unaided.

Beloved English Philosopher Ben Jonson wickedly slaughtered

Other English Lords and Ladies Killed

Interspersed between the headlines were lurid details of assassins attacking a masque rehearsal. Lizzy reeled off the details to Honora. At the bottom of the page was a message to the people of England:

Security at Westminster Palace tightened. King Charles secure.

And the text continued . . .

It has also been reported that several Lords and Ladies of England out of favour at court were involved at the scene, Wentworth, Fairfax and Hampden are missing; two were killed, Lady Fairfax and . . .

“Continued on page six.” Lizzy quickly flipped pages.

The words blurred as she read out slowly:

the earl of Essex.

“Robert!” Honora wailed. She was the earl’s half-sister.

“Robert . . . ” Lizzy, resigned years past to hearing about him dying falling off a horse, or in battle playing soldiers. This was so unexpected and ridiculous.

” . . . you idiot.” She was his wife.

” Elizabeth, what are we going to do?” Honora was crying, “What are you going to do now?”

“Honora, rest easy. We’ll sort this out—Let me get your maid.” Lizzy had a lot of thinking to do. She’d been hiding in Basing House as a servant these last few months because her husband was one of the leading opponents of the king, and the earl of Cork.

Lizzy ran from the room, shouting for milady’s maids, newspaper still in hand.

An hour later

Lizzy sat distracted, staring at her luncheon plate. The knife moved of its own accord, playing with scraps of lark, pigeon, and rabbit reposing in a thin cream sauce. Just like her own thoughts, the knife moved around and around as her thrice-cursed brain came to no conclusion.

“A health to my Lady Essex,
who once had lost her fame.”

Damn him, Lizzy chided, damn him a thousand times.

It had been seven months since she had been deserted, or as Honora might put it “even more deserted.” Their marriage had been a disaster almost as soon as it had been conceived during the last Parliament.

and to my Lord her husband
that is so ill at the game.”

Typical. Gets away with near bloody murder, then slaughtered with a glass in his hand.

She snorted

Probably addled by drink

She looked at the newspaper again.

That maudlin, two-faced, son of a . . .

The editorial was unattributable to the earl of Cork’s coterie, of course. The death toll and injuries were to “damned traytors of King and Countrie,” and at the end promoting “Life and Long Health to His Majesty.”

The king of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales sequestered away, not seen in months. Lizzy shook her head—nothing she or anyone else could do about her distantly-related fifth cousin by marriage.

She had her own worries. She was free.

This changes everything.

Luckily for her, the wanted posters circulated after she fled from the mob looting and burning Essex House had been copied from a two-inch miniature portrait. Made for her engagement in 1629, that innocent, love-struck girl was fluffed, plump and primped, with hair saffron bleached and curled. Some artistic license even suggested a bosom.

Men are idiots and fools.

She hadn’t needed much of a disguise—a bad marriage showing in her wan, thin face with its long nose every morning, with her raven black hair straight as a poker’s handle halfway down her back. Hiding in her role as Mistress Lambert (her grandmother’s name, the acknowledged miss of Grandpa Willie), she was playing a distant cousin (true) and helping out as housekeeper (almost true) whilst the new M’Lady Winchester was sequestered abed with child.

Lizzy re-read the passage describing the death of her husband, shot by assassins at a masque rehearsal in Amsterdam. She barked a foul laugh, hardly recognizing the portrait laid out in the charges.

Him—a general? Don’t make me laugh!

She scooped some sauce with a chunk of bread.

Faithless as a husband, failure as a man.

Chomping a piece as if biting off a head from a doll, Lizzy could think of a few other choice words beginning with “f” that would better measure her dead husband.

And if she ever found that Oxford riddle-maker, that libellous cur, that pox-ridden whoreson of a Cheapside Jenny would be singing another tune—three octaves higher after chopping off his apples.

a Madam without standing,
Fatherless boy without estate.”

She slashed with the knife at a stingy piece of meat floating in the soup. It was so easy to lose herself in blood red fury—her infant son had died in the mad dash out of London, buried secretly on an island in the middle of the Thames at Runnymede.

This news brought a sudden change of circumstance, confirmation she was officially a widow was now public knowledge—and put her into a new bind.

Do I come out of hiding?

With her husband, Robert Deveraux, safely buried in Amsterdam, she would no longer be a target for a finder’s fee. Cork, a tight-fisted beggar at the best of times, according to the newspaper had just cancelled the bounty for her arrest. On one hand, she might get some peace at last, no longer a major chess piece to be sacrificed at the altar of affairs of state.

On the other hand, a nominal title with no money wasn’t much use. The fifth circle of hell would freeze over before there was any chance of retrieving her dowry, which was locked in the confiscated estates.

God rot m’lord Cork’s shriveled liver—I hope his gout makes him rave in the night!

Private assistance from the family whilst she was on the run had been very welcome. Public charity in the open later would be wearing on family obligations over time and could poison the best of relations.

Not good—dangle the poor widow with a troubled reputation out the window, and see who comes a’courting?

Lizzy shuddered, having been down that road six years before. Then powerless, biddable, and wheedled into marriage to curry favor for family advantage. No matter what her family might wish, after all she had been through, the one thing she was no longer was a biddable child.

The point of her knife stabbed into the surface of the new oak dining table that could seat sixteen. The sun on this last day of autumn gleamed through the window, bounced along the sleek honey-yellow wood then reflected off the blade into her eyes.

Lizzy looked away, staring blankly at the tapestry hanging on the walls, glistening with gold and silver thread, mixed in with vivid blues, greens, and blood red.

Or stay the shady housekeeper a piece longer?

The heel of her right foot scuffed and scraped back and forward over the knots of the bulrush carpet installed only last week.

Careful, girl—you might be pushed downstairs as a servant forever.

As a younger daughter of a country baronet, she’d seen other fourth, fifth, or sixth daughters fall into the same grey role; like Bess Arnott, Hope Grey, and second cousin Lucinda. With no money left for a dowry for marriage, in an England without nunneries, it was sad but true that some would be cut off from their families, then used up, beaten, badgered and berated like the rest of the common staff in whatever house they’d been pitched into. No longer invited for celebrations, divorced from family affairs, and never ever spoken of again.

But Lizzy had tasted power and position, made her own way in London after separating from her feckless husband and had ran a large house on the Strand. Her position in society had been improved as a patroness of charity, governess of St. Clement Danes church school for girls, and hostess of regular Thursday salons for the Jappon Society. With enough impartial social standing at court, she had also attended the Tower once or twice to witnesses and report the health and well-being of the female members of American delegation locked within.

No. That quiet country girl had died. The idea she could go back to that level of subservience . . .

She could just hear young Rita Simpson’s scorn, the American ambassador’s sneer, “Let’s not even go there, girl!”

Nope, not doing that—I’d rather die.

With no obligations to immediate family (her brother had his own money problems at the home estate in Wiltshire), what bothered her most was the new net of schemes around her here.

Why don’t those busy-bitches just leave well enough alone?

Known in this house only as the poor cousin with distant connection to the marquis, in her housekeeper role she was neither fish nor fowl.

I really, really don’t need this right now.

The wild rumors about her past amongst the staff had ranged widely. Some thought her a cast off miss of some minor lording. Another pathetic story had her as the dutiful daughter caring for an aged, now dead, father, her position lost in the world when a younger brother had inherited the estate.

Most of the staff sniffed and disapproved, and thought that allowing her to dine with the family an indulgence by the marquis, the line between servitors and those to be served breached by Lizzy’s inappropriate attitude. All in all, it hadn’t made her any friends below-stairs.

And now, without a by-your-leave, she’d just found out the merchant wives of Basingstoke and the ladies of nearby county estates of were off hunting; searching for a suitor of appropriate station; some old widower or new-money merchant, all to get a poor stray cousin of the marquis married off and out of the way soon after Honora birthed her twins. Everyone knew a house could only have one lady holding the keys.

The prospective godmother hovering around the house was the worst, obviously long-married in a love match of her own, and wishing everyone else worshiped at the temple of the court of love.

Lizzy thought it demented, dangerous, and deadly in the extreme.

How can anyone live their life like that? Living in a haze of romantic love doesn’t put food on the table.

As the last scrap of sauce was mopped up by the last chunk of bread, Lizzy finally conceded to herself her hopeless position.

Face it, woman, whatever you do you’re royally fu—

The oak door from the picture gallery swung open and slammed into the arm of the servant next to the side table.

Owwwww!” the fifteen-year-old trainee dining maid, Pink, complained, rubbing an elbow through her white uniform.

“Is he here yet?” Mary Weasenham demanded. A not-so-thin figure wearing wire-rimmed eyeglasses bustled into the oak-paneled family dining room, wearing an appalling light-blue and white dress; a long thin tube of a thing with a single purple ribbon around the bodice below the bosom, and shaped with no waist at all. The outfit was styled Regency from a pattern book some two hundred years into the future. The fancy may have suited a young girl, fresh ready to come out into society. On the frame of a merchant’s wife in her thirties who had already born eight children, it looked a horror.

Lizzy’s soft voice drifted across the room as she folded the letter and newspaper page back into its message packet. “The north gate porter has it our visitor and his party have declined luncheon and are to rest and repair until the evening meal.” An arched eyebrow raising a fraction and expressing her faint regard for the pompous man visited upon them.

Mary gushed, “Oh, dear—our Mister Darcy’s reputation proceeds, I fear?”

“That’s enough!” The knife flew three inches to side of Pink’s right ear and imbedded itself through the tapestry and into the oak paneling behind. The young girl squeaked in fright, frozen, unable to move.

“I may be a pauper in my cousin’s house—but I will not have our lives arranged by silly ideas from—” Lizzy stood up sharply, snarling. “—from That Book.

Lizzy’s desperation had become more and more agitated all week. With the visitor finally here, that frustration blew like a ball from a matchlock. “This is your doing—just show me that Austen girl, or her great-great-grandmother? I have a sharp blade to run through the heart of one of her ancestors.”

Leaving the table, message packet in hand, she stormed across the room, her manner akin to something of a she-wolf; the grey dress and long dark hair were flowing behind. On the way to the door, she snatched the dagger from the tapestry (imbedded in the crotch of a figure Lord A’Courting a Maiden), wiped it on her other sleeve, and stalked out of the room.

“Romantic love, Pah!” Lizzy railed from down the picture gallery corridor.

One hundred and eighty-eight and a half years before the Ring of Fire,

Saturday, 2nd November, 1811

The old bailiff’s house, Chawton, near Alton, Hampshire

Jane Austen crossed out a line back and forward with some vigor in frustration and anger, tiny drops of ink splattering across the page, the small round writing table, the tea cup and saucer on the windowsill on her left, and some spots spattering down onto the floor.

The patchwork blanket had been brought down from bed this morning and wrapped around for warmth. It slipped off her boney left shoulder. Jane dragged it back around her using her right arm, in the process dislodging some more stray mouse-brown curls from the two Prussian pencils holding her hair up in a bun at the back.

The ink-stained left hand screwed up the sheet of paper. Her latest book had started so well, but now Mansfield Park was grinding to a sick halt, the downside of dealing with her agent’s and publisher’s expectations. She sighed, defeated.

Sense and Sensibility, the first to be published, had been on sale for a month now, selling quite well she was told in letters from London. It might even make a slim profit in three or four years. It had better. Persuaded to self-publish and at no risk to the publisher, it had cost Jane and the family four hundred and fifty pounds. But the house needed the money back desperately—now, not next year or the year thereafter. Henry, her agent in London, was trying for a single up-front fee for her next book.

For her part, the first true experience of writing for new cash and a deadline was sheer hell. A series of shrill notes from her publisher were seeking a follow-up story whilst the market demand was hot, and thus requiring a first draft manuscript tuit de suite.

The panic was overwhelming.

Tick.

For the first time ever she was stymied, and blocked.

Tick.

The small French clock on the mantelpiece began its chimes on the hour of eleven o’clock.

Instead of knuckling down with the manuscript after breakfast at nine as usual, the turkeys had been fed, this year’s blackberry and raspberry canes had been cut to the ground, the last of the dying rhubarb leaves cleared away, and four letters to friends and family were sitting by the front door waiting for the mid-day wagon to Alton.

Jane was disgusted with herself. Her main character Fanny Price was stuck in a scene half way up the drive going nowhere.

This isn’t working . . . a tragedy in three volumes that I really should throw into my hope chest for a few months.

Sometimes when a story isn’t setting, all you can do is walk away from it for a piece and then come back afresh later. This time she didn’t have that luxury, people had Expectations.

She paused, rubbed the condensation from the window glass, and peered out over the top of her eyeglasses. Farm hands from the great house were piling old tree trunks and off-cut branches from hedge laying into the middle of the village green for Guy Fawkes Night on Tuesday.

The door opened behind her, and she could hear her sister Cassandra rearranging clothes on the drying frame. “Jane, you’ve almost let the fire go out.”

“Here, toss this on with the others.”

A scrunched up page was tossed over Jane’s shoulder, it bounced off the clotheshorse draped with nightgowns and day caps that sat in front of the embers of last night’s fire. The paper ball fell to the floor.

“Is he here yet?”

“No sign yet. You know Henry. He’s never on time for anything. What’s going on out there?” Cassandra asked, moving up to her sister staring out the window, gently massaging her shoulders.

Mister Pink, the blacksmith, was building wooden frames at the far south end of the horse paddock, where fireworks including rockets and Catherine wheels would be attached.

“How much is Eddie paying for the display this year?”

“No idea. Sometimes I think our little brother has more money than sense.”

The Lord Chancellor’s office had declared that larger patriotic celebrations were in order this year; the whole country was to pray for the health of the king (who was expected to die before Christmas). But on a more cheerful note, also to celebrate in support the regiments at war in Portugal. After two successful battles this year, there were signs that Napoleon’s armies were not invincible after all.

Cassie could feel Jane looking down at the page in front of her on the small table. A line was drawn diagonally across the next page.

Oh dear. “Looks like Old Mister G has nearly finished the barrel run. The boys seem to be having fun,” Cassie said, trying one last time to cheer her sister.

Further away through the mist of the late morning, Old Trickster Goddennson supervised a gaggle of village boys blocking off the soak away gulleys along the side of the Guildford road, creating a clear lane for the fiery barrel run on Bonfire Night down the lane.

Her sister shrugged under her hands.

“I’ll leave you alone to get on with your writing. See you in a bit.”

Cassandra patted Jane’s left shoulder a final time, worried at the obvious distress and anguish Henry was causing.

****

Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. Her headache was making it difficult to focus, the text on the page swimming.

Enough! Ghaaahh!

The hateful metal-tipped nib pen flew across the room, and imbedded itself in a cushion on the old, sagging sofa opposite.

The authoress rubbed the side of the middle finger of her right hand, massaging the indent in her flesh to the left of the nail. These new pens were too hard on the hand and hurt like the blue blazes.

Only a few minutes late for a change, Judgment Day approached from the other side of the parlor room door.

tap tap

“Jenny?” A reedy, thin male voice, somehow both a question and a demand.

Oh why doesn’t someone just go and hit me on the head with a brick?

1635, Basing House

“Oh, dear . . . ”

Mary picked up an empty pewter cup from the side table, looking up over the top of her eyeglasses at the Paulet family crest (three silver swords on a black shield) repeating across the ceiling, tutting and entreating skywards, along the way ignoring the black mold creeping from the window through the plasterwork.

“My dear Miss Austen, do not fash yourself, and forgive her. Unlike the marquis, this poor cousin Lizzy is going to be a bit more of a challenge.”

Mary peered again into the empty cup and saw no jug on the side. “You, girl, more small beer,” she casually demanded of the sniffling serving girl, who went off and bawled all the way through the door.

You just can’t get the staff these days.

Mary looked up again, channeling her favorite authoress and questioning, “I do hope you know more of our merry players than we do?”

Arranging the marriage of the marquis to Lady Honora De Bourgh a few months earlier had been relatively simple. An original, up-time copy of Pride and Prejudice thereafter for the bride as a confinement gift had just been a thoughtful fancy and happenstance on her part. The new marchioness of Winchester’s family and a character in the book by the same name had prompted it as a small entertainment during her first confinement. Unfortunately that pregnancy had not made it to three months, a bad omen.

Now Lady Honora was uncomfortably pregnant again, and this time completely confined upstairs in the ladies wing near the piss-pot, the extensive bath house on the first floor, and said to be expecting twins any day. As prospective godparents, Mary and her husband, Rob Weasenham (also here as a factor for the Bedford Corporation), had travelled to Basing House for the winter.

The marquis of Winchester’s only son, young Charles, aged five (the only surviving child of the marquis from his first marriage to Lady Jane Savage) was to be breeched tomorrow on St. Clements’s Day; taken from the care of the women of the house, his girlish locks cut, and clothing changed for the last time from dresses to breeches.

Mary tossed her latest read A Secret Passage to Love onto the dining table with such vigor her bookmark slipped from between the pages unseen.

By Dame Barbara Cartland’s left tit, this household is in a right stir!

Charles’ uncle and godfather, Lord Sir John Savage, had just arrived at the Basing estate for this important occasion with a small party.

Mary had hopes.

Actually, Mary had had gleeful conniptions last month after she had worked out that Sir John, a recent widower, was the eldest son of Lord Rivers and therefore awash with cash. More accurately named Viscount Sir John Rockfold Peacock D’Arcy Savage, he was also heir through his mother (the fearsome Lady Catherine Rivers) to the prestige and fortune of the D’Arcys of Essex.

This WasMeant To Be.

Lady Rivers was bringing a new companion for Lizzy.

Mary giggled like a loon, and danced a little jig.

Another sign from Miss Austen.

Not a Charlotte, she conceded, a slight moue on her lips—a Katherine.

Oh well—not quite like the book, but almost right.

Nodding to herself, Mary was convinced everything would turn out well with her plans for the emotional housekeeper, Fizzing Lizzy.

“I’m sure she knows not what she says, and that our Mister Darcy is just as you describe.”

And a Lucas girl to hand to be a firm friend.

“Don’t worry, Miss Austen. Lizzy’s frightened; she needs to marry quickly, and it’s only prejudice. And don’t we know what to do there?”

With the fervor of a founding member of the English Goodwife’s Association of Romance Readers, Mary selected her meal with her own knife from the plates on the side table with a wry smile. She accepted her third small beer of the day from the still sniveling serving girl and plotted the next step in her campaign.

Later in the day, inside the village church of Our Lady of Basing

 

“But whyyyy?”

Charlie’s whiney voice chewed through her head as he stomped down the side steps through the arch from the high altar.

Bringing the boy had been a daft idea and had been getting in the way all afternoon. Honora and the Irish midwife had sent Lizzy off into the village with Charlie for the afternoon, away from that awful Weasenham woman. The wives and crones of the village were dressing the church for Saint Kat’s vigil on the First Night of Winter. Lizzy had been left in peace in the north aisle to wrap the spokes of the iron-studded hay wagon wheel with green and yellow.

However the change in Charlie’s own circumstances were looming vast and arriving at speed, and now his tone was petulant in the extreme.

An old pang, Jane—if only Jane were still here, struck at exactly the wrong time, making her tone sharper than intended.

“Charles, pay attention! Take care of . . . “

Of course, at that point the five-year-old spun around at her sharp tone and the top third of the two-foot-long scented beeswax candle cradled in his arms smacked the foot of great-great-grandfather’s pink, green and yellow alabaster statue which was lying in prayer upon his tomb.

“Don’t . . . “

The child tried to vigorously brush the shower of flakes from the front of his pink dress, instead smearing soft beeswax into the red piping and fine stitch work around the buttons all down the front.

Absolutely hopeless.

Before Lizzy had taken him in hand, the boy and his young hound, Ollie, had been running through the house and around the estate like wild things. Accident-prone or devil-charmed, her charge was certain to get through at least three changes of dresses a day; splattered with mud, muck, soot, flour, chalk, grass—you name it, it found him.

Blessed Catherine,save us from boys! Her eyes flicked to the small statue in its niche halfway up the wall. Her own personal saint stared back, the patroness of female scholars and unmarried women, holding a scroll in one hand, and a wheel in the other.

“Charles . . . come here to me.” Draping green ribbons over the axle of the wagon wheel propped against the lime-washed north wall, Lizzy fished a kerchief from her sleeve. Folding down onto her knees, down to the same level as the child, she wiped Charlie’s eyes and ruffled the long, brown, curly hair that was due for the chop on the morrow.

“Give me that.” The remaining pieces of candle from the lad’s hands were placed safely on the floor.

“Blow.”

Charlie snorted into the cloth.

“Your godfather—” Lizzy dissembled, trying to separate her own feelings from what must happen for Charles.

She tried again. “Your uncle is not a monster.”

His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world declared the passage from Pride and Prejudice in her head.

The Seymour Curse, she got that from her mother. Seymour women read too well, remembered far too much, and were hot-tempered in their speech.

Damn that gooseherd, Mary Weasenham, and her stupid, stupid plans!

Lizzy tried not to lose composure in front of the boy. Taking a deep breath, and taking faint solace stroking Charles’ curls, she mentally kicked panic back in its box. “He has come to honor the memory of your mother, and set you on the road to be a lord of England in her memory.”

Well, at least that part should be true enough. And I’m sure he’ll be a stiff-shirted prig about it.

The boy sniffed, not exactly the brightest rabbit from the warren. His little face screwed up as he pulled away with a look of raw cunning. “Aunt Elizabeth?”

“Yes, Charles?”

“What color pony do you think he’s brought me?”

Exasperated, Lizzy looked up into the eyes of old Queenie Godden, who was dressing juniper boughs around one of the square pillars. She could tell they both were thinking the same thing. Men, and especially little boys, could be ungrateful, uncaring, unemotional monsters at just exactly the wrong time.

1811, Chawton

tap tap

“Jenny?” a reedy, thin male voice, somehow both a question and a demand.

Oh God. Why doesn’t someone just go and hit me on the head with a brick?

tap tap

“Jenny?”

Jane peeled off her glasses, wiped the tears and, unnoticed, kicked the disheveled manuscript pile next to her left foot on the floor in the process. By rights it should be twice as high; the original plan laid in spring was to be done with the first draft by now.

“Jenny, are you in there?”

“What do you want?” she snapped as she flicked the latch and opened the door.

“And good morning to you too.”

Tall Henry, supremely self-assured Henry; royal blue frock coat, dark green britches, and today’s pièce de résistance, a red, yellow and brown horizontal striped waistcoat.

“Jenny, I have news. Very good news.”

Her brother was the only one who still called her that. To everyone else in the family she was just Jane. Or Aunt Jane, or Cousin Jane, and she knew damn well some muttered sotto voce in drawing rooms behind her back, Poor Jane.

“Poor Jane, she was cast off, you know? Very sad. And now she writes and writes, spends all her money on paper and books and reads like a demon. Now she’s too old—no wonder no one will make her an offer.”

The Austen children took after their father, all freakishly tall. Henry danced around his five foot eight inch sister, and loped into the small, crowded front room. Two inches taller, the demented bee dropped its beaver-skin tophat and monogrammed gentleman’s satchel bulging fit to burst into Mother’s arm chair (the one on the other side of the fire).

“Well?” The intruder flopped onto the old sofa. “Are you going to ask what it is yet?”

So unlike the rest of their siblings, they were as like two peas in the pod; impatient of temperament, mercurial of humor, talkative often to extreme, inquisitive . . .

“Is this new?” propping his boots on the window sill.

. . . easily distracted.

Henry turned the Wedgwood creamware china cup in his hand, looking intently at the green oak leaf pattern spiraled around the outside rim between thin borders of gold.

Jane kicked the door with her heel and it slammed into its frame, the small metal latch clicking a fraction of a second later.

“Mail order.” She snatched the cup away.

1635, outside the church

“Mistress Llaammbbbbert, are you in thereeee?” a rough male voice shouted from the back of the crowd.

Lizzy fought her way out the double west door of the church, making sure to close it behind her. The crowd of women rushed forward, packed tighter than a queue of housewives waiting to get into the pit in a Southwark theatre to see the hero of the latest halfpenny play.

Lizzy scowled at the women, each with a supporting group of two of three friends huddled together.

“No, no—we’re not ready for you yet.”

An impatient lot, these unmarried spinsters from the surrounding parishes, waiting to add their token to the wheel before it was hoisted aloft. A disappointed groan rose from the crowd, and some bad-tempered mutterings mixed in to leaven the mix.

“Get out of the way! Let. Me. Through.”

It was unclear to Lizzy if her childhood navigating around county fairs with her sisters or her later experience shopping in the streets of London were more useful. Whatever, some strategic use of sharp elbows and the toe of her left boot got her out of the ruck.

“Mistress Lambert?” the call repeated.

The twice-weekly parcel wagon from London was also waiting in the church yard. Collier and Collier, Dry Goods, London to Southampton, and a picture of a gaggle of geese with sacks on their backs was painted on the sides of the wagon.

A young male figure was just disappearing around the corner to the small porch on the south side, struggling with an armful of parcels. “Yes, Mister Collier?” Lizzy looked up at the bald pate of the older man digging through the contents in the back. He would be pulling together another batch of parcels for the village, and would have his apprentice drop them off onto the bench seats on each side of the south door porch.

“Mistress Lambert, I’m glad I’ve caught you—I’ve the supplies you wanted for the house.”

“Good news, Mister C. We’ve new visitors to be fed. Just take them up to the house. The porter will see to the fees as usual.” Lizzy looked around, “Charles?” Where is that boy? “Charles!”

“Aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Elizabeth! Ollie’s been playing, there’s another doggie around there.”

“Well, that’s nice, Charles.” Not really listening, Lizzy smiled at the sight of the boy running and holding onto the collar and lead of the panting hound.

“Mistress Lambert, I wanted to ask if can you be so kind to let your friend, Mistress Christie, know her parcel has arrived from London?” The wagoner stroked his left earlobe.

Lizzy gathered Charlie to her left hand, looked at Mister Collier, and raised her eyebrows in thanks, and nodded slightly. “I’ll let her know as soon as I can.”

“Who’s Mistress Christie, Aunt Elizabeth?”

“Just an old friend, Charles. Now hush and be quiet for a minute.”

What a quandary! Normally she’d be at the house when Mr. Collier tipped her the wink, and would find an opportune moment to steal away to the church.

Lizzy smiled to herself. The resolution was right in front of them both.

“Charles? Would you and Ollie like a ride in the wagon?” Lizzy looked at the boy, teasing somewhat. “This might be your last chance. Tomorrow, when you’re a lord, it might not be proper.”

“Can I? Mr. Collier, can I?”

The wagoner smiled, enjoying the pleasure in the boy, knowing from experience that attitude would be trained out over the next few years.

“Put the hound in the back, m’lad, and I’ll tie him safe. You come up the front with me.”

“Are you sure?”

“We’ll be fine, ma’am! It’s only a quarter of a mile.”

The apprentice appeared around the side of the church, a lanky lad in clothes far too large for his frame, walking lazily back to the wagon.

“Davey! Davey Falknor, if you’re done lolling about? Get a move on—we’re taking the boy up to the house. Get the hound in the back.”

His apprentice with the long hair and bad complexion started fussing the dog and taking the lead.

“Any more?”

“Oh, don’t you worry, m’lad. I’m sure Mistress Lambert here can drop the last two off on her way.”

He handed the housekeeper the small packages over the side of the wagon, one wrapped in newsprint, the other a small cloth bag, both with labels attached. The child had already hopped up onto the front of the wagon, eager and waiting for it to leave, the pink dress now smeared with axle grease across the front.

Mr Collier smiled. Let the child have his last day of fun.

Now that she’d offloaded Charles safely for an hour or two, Lizzy tried not to run around to the south door. She found the decorum required from her assumed position was a royal pain in the rear end at times. The parcels for other villagers were spread on the oak benches, both with writing and pictures on the labels. A parcel for the Fletcher family showed an arrow. Something else that must be for Queenie Godden had a large bee on a brown tag.

Lizzy glanced around for a book-sized brown parcel, and its label, Mistress A. Christie, Basing, SH, England, like the others before. Diverting her subscription from the Mystery Book Club had been simple. Many received their books anonymously via something called The Clearing House somewhere in Hamburg, and an address change was a piece of cake to arrange.

For the subject matter of her subscription however, she was tiring slightly of reading of Miss Jane Marple’s exploits in St. Mary Mead. The sheer number of murders in a sleepy English village was becoming a tad unbelievable, and it was a wonder that anyone of significance was left to write about that had not yet been bludgeoned, stabbed, drowned, or shot. Lizzy had become more intrigued, however. She had been trying to work out which village around Basingstoke the author might have used as the basis of her stories.

The next in the Marple series was supposed to be a little different. The advertised title 4:50 from Paddington didn’t leave any clues as to the storyline.

There it is! At the far end of the left bench, nearest the church door.

As she reached for her parcel a growl started below.

Grrrrrr . . .

Lizzy withdrew her hand. She tried again.

GRRRrrrrrrrrRRrrRRR!

Lizzy drew back again. Carefully she knelt down.

One of those Welsh yard hounds. What is it doing here?

A small stocky body, small legs, triangular pointy ears, and a short bob tail. Normally farm dogs, in the West Counties near the Welsh borders, this breed was also used for theft protection and as children’s nannies; set one in your bedroom whilst you’re out, and a nasty reputation to savage a stranger who enters did the rest.

Lizzy rose again to her feet, and tried something new. Reaching behind her with her left hand in plain sight, she touched one of the parcels on the bench behind.

Nothing.

And with her right hand, again, the bench behind her in sight of the dog.

Again nothing.

She tried for her own package again.

GrRRrrrrRR.

God rot it—it’s claimed the bench and my parcel. Oh, in Kat’s Name . . . Lizzy edged carefully past the dog, into the church proper through the small south door. A sign on a stand right in front “Penitents,” a Winchester pilgrimage seal, and a picture of a man on his knees praying pointed to the left. St. Michael’s chapel was roped off from the rest of the church in turmoil.

“Excuse me? Anyone? Has someone left a hound outside?”

1811

“So how are you getting on?” Henry nodded at the pile of paper on the floor and the few sheets on the table covered in crossings-out.

Jane blew a long, long breath. “It might be the best thing I’ve ever written. But it’s not finished, nowhere near. Do you want me to make some tea?”

“Mother! Mother, can you make Jenny some more tea?” Henry bawled across the room and through the drawing room door. “And can I have some cider?”

“It’s not even midday and you drink too much, Henry. What would Eliza say?”

“Jenny.” Henry wriggled uncomfortably in the old sofa. “Sis, come here and sit down.” he fished behind his back at the cushions. “Let me get to the . . . ” He handed back the pen ” . . . point. Egerton’s agreed in principle to one hundred and fifty pounds.”

Jane blew silently through her teeth, winded, collapsing slowly into her own chair. Money and no book, no book and no money . . .

“He’s desperate. We’ve got him over a barrel. Jane, you’re an overnight success and the mystery is feeding demand for another book from ‘A Lady’ soon, very soon. Our publisher wants a first draft by Easter.”

The door opened sharply and Cassandra poked her head around the side. “Jane, mother wants to know where the tea pot has gone.”

“In the buttery, Cassandra. I was going to use the old tea to start some more wine.”

“And Henry, cloudy or mulled? If you want mulled, it will take ten or fifteen minutes to warm up.”

“Cloudy, please, Cassie.”

“And do you want your friend to come through yet?”

“What?” Jane was thrown by the change in topic.

“Do you want your London friend to come in yet, Henry? He’s eating all my bread rolls.”

“In a minute, Cassie. Leave him there for a bit. I’ll call when I need him.”

“Right.” Cassandra peered at her brother. The skeptical look on her sister’s face told Jane that Cassie didn’t trust their brother much either.

Her older sister smiled, pointed a finger at them both. “I’ll go and see if he’s left any rolls for your tea. Now remember, you two, no throwing. You break it, you pay for it.” The infamous plate-throwing argument in Bath. The rest of the family would never let them forget the early casualties to mother’s first service of Wedgwood.

Cassie moved the Z-shaped three-part clotheshorse away from the fire, clothes and all, lifting by the center bar. Jane put the cup back on the saucer. “Cassie, where are you taking the night things? They’re still wet . . . “

The door snicked shut again, accompanied by Cassandra’s giggle and a fading, “Just clearing away.”

Jane turned back to her brother, biting her lip, not giving Henry the satisfaction of asking who’s the man in the kitchen. “Where were we?”

“Easter. Easter next. A complete manuscript would be nice—anytime between Lent and Ascension?”

Jane used the handle of her pen to tuck some more stray hairs back into the bun. “No—I just don’t see it Henry. Not a chance in merry hell, and hell might need to freeze over first!”

Hmmm. I thought so.”

Henry was looking unusually pleased with himself.

“Pass over my bag, would you?”

Smug even.

Jane hadn’t liked the changes she had seen during this summer while staying in London with Henry and Eliza, finishing off the final revisions of S&S for her editor. The new lifestyle as a successful banker, the large house in Sloane Street and the entertaining required to sustain his growing position in society, was turning her brother into an arrogant, self-important, profligate, overdressed dandy who thought he knew everything, and didn’t stint telling everyone just so. “Poor baby! Lost the use of your own arms? I’m not your wife.” Jane humped the heavy bag onto the floor between them. “Or your servant.”

1635

Lizzy skipped around the heaps of offerings strewn over the floor of St. Michael’s chapel, which ran half the length of the south isle of the church: coat buttons, torn company pendants, regimental flags, caps, helmets, jerkins, overcoats, pikes, mail gloves, swords, horse stirrups and the odd saddle.

She didn’t bother calling for the curate who was supposed to be keeping the mess in some kind of order. There was all kinds of bad blood going on in the local diocese, and he’d been co-opted for other duties in the much larger St. Margaret’s down the road in Basingstoke five days a week.

The English armies were slowly returning from fighting the Swedes, and other groups of English mercenaries were either coming back or heading out to Europe. With a steady stream of fighting men making penance, or seeking forgiveness or favors from Our Lord, a soldier’s chapel did well as they made their way on foot to and from Winchester through the village.

Always a practical sort, Lizzy mused to herself, With what must be in the moneybox and selling this lot off, there might be enough here to fix the roof in the spring.

A single, kneeling figure was staring at the small altar, muttering and sobbing intently in prayer. The glint of a sheathed sword lying prone on the flagstones to one side, and the clothes—Lizzy somehow thought them new—on the tallish man; dark, unremarkable, warm . . . just right for a pilgrimage in mud season. She paused, not wishing to intrude further on anyone’s communion with Our Lord or His Saints.

The afternoon sun streamed through the arched west windows, shining on the cross made from a sword. It was on the altar, imbedded in a wooden base, and adorned and decorated with splashes of silver and gold flames. The ancient black and gold statue of St. Michael that she remembered from her childhood with its stern expression and outstretched flaming sword was gone now. Lizzy thought the chapel somehow now more open, fuller of light.

The Puritans had had their way at last; altar statues were removed before they were smashed as Papish, and the brightly-painted church walls were now covered up by cheap lime wash. Our Lady of Basing had also been relocated, but only as far as the family chapel in the new house.

There was a fair amount of female noise from the rest of the church, screened off from the chapel by hazel and cloth screens. She could see the soldier was unmoved by the shouting and distractions.

Lizzy poked her head between two screens. “Queenie?” she whispered.

“Mistress Lambert, what are you doing in there?”

“The parcels are here. Queenie, does anyone here own a Welsh hound?”

Queenie stared at Lizzy, harrumphed, turned to the rest of the church with hand on hips and bawled, the harridan voice echoing around the church roof, “Girls! Girls—does anyone around here have two farthings to rub together to feed and keep a hound in their cottage?”

The church’s rafters exploded in a cackle of wry female laughter that would have done proud in a London production of The Tragedy of Macbeth.

“Ask Alice Pink, she’s the bitch around here,” a cruel wag echoed down the nave.

Small, round, and powerful, Alice the Alewife, the mother of the house’s new parlormaid, slapped the off-blond neighbor with the smart mouth, knocking the woman to the floor.

Silly question. Lizzy should have known better, and closed the screens leaving the village women to their brawl.

“He’s mine,” the soldier said, speaking gruffly and striding to the south door. Lizzy’s eyes were blinded by the sunlight and could only see an outline of the tall man, sword in one hand, a pair of heavy boots in the other.

“Sir, I’m sorry for disturbing . . . “

The small door slammed shut.

” . . . your prayers.”

Embarrassed, Lizzy stared at the closed oak door for a full minute. She could just hear her Grandmother Lambert’s chiding tone and disapproval from years before, “Think, child, before you talk! Stop worrying about things you can’t change, and dashing and sticking your nose into others you should leave well alone.

Time to pay the piper, Lizzy.

However she found the kneeling stool in front of the altar was already occupied; a small green man down on one knee holding some kind of musket ready to fire.

“This is Our Lady’s house, you two take it outside.” Queenie Godden was still trying to get the fight sorted, through the sounds of slaps, the screeches of hair pulling and oooff of body blows.

Lizzy picked up the figure, expecting it to be made from lead and surprised by how light it was. What’s it made from?

Carefully placing the offering next to the cross, Lizzy went back to the stool to pray to the saint in the man’s place.

St Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,

“I’m gonna kill you Alice Pink!” came a shout over the screens

Defend us against the wickedness . . .

“Yeah—you and who’s army, Lilly Underwood?”

. . . and snares of the Devil.

Lizzy smiled. For a change it was nice to hear someone else’s problems, rather than being totally wrapped up in her own. She kept on with her prayer.

May God rebuke them . . .

****

A quarter hour later, Lizzy left the church with a small smile on her face, a package in hand with a book to be read by candlelight between first and second sleep for the rest of the week, and a decision made.

Later the same day

With the usual last minute disasters to overcome in the kitchens, Lizzy had missed the first two courses. The stelle, star-shaped pasta in mushroom and cheese sauce, would be along shortly as a small intermezzo to the meal, and she wanted to get settled.

The cooking was done in a series of smaller buildings at the far end of Centre Court, well away from the rest of the house in event of fire.

“Fifteen minutes. Tell Cook you have fifteen minutes left to next serving,” she shouted at a page and two waiters running down the corridor in the opposite direction.

Striding vigorously along the picture gallery, rolling her sleeves down her arms, Lizzy waved her arms, puffing the sleeves up with air, and straightening the lace.

Dead woman’s clothes—just you watch, Jane.

Unpinning and untying the kirtle over the silk dress, Lizzy threw the over-apron at a chair in the picture gallery, then fished from a pocket the mourning cross made of Whitby jet decorated with translucent moonstones.

Decided on her new course, she tied the yellow ribbon around her neck, finishing the ensemble that proclaimed her new status as a widow in her mourning year. At least that might give her twelve months of peace. Wouldn’t stop the courting and attention, but she had ancient traditions not to give any answer behind her.

” . . . horoscopes,” a deep Cheshire accent rolled around the dining room as the footman opened the door.

Lizzy entered just as the marquis laughed heartily.

“Ah, my dear cuz, there you are!” The dumpy, florid-faced man rose from his chair, took Lizzy’s hand and kissed first her left, then right cheek.

“Sure you want to do this?” he whispered, then guided her slowly to her own chair at the far end of the table, the rightful place as tonight’s hostess.

“I know what I’m doing, stop fussing,” Lizzy murmured through her teeth so only he could hear.

“I’m sure you have everything in order in the kitchens,” her cousin babbled on to the room, as the other table guests stared at Lizzy, “however you’ve been missing some more stories about the Americans.”

The dowdy housekeeper that the table had been expecting, normally in plain grey, had appeared wearing a fine emerald-colored outfit with court-style three-quarter puffed sleeves, her hair decorated in netting set with small pearls, all of it set off by the widow’s cross around her neck.

“You know everyone here . . . “

Oh, for goodness sake!

Lizzy had made sure the invitations had gone out some days ago, and nodded politely to nine or ten neighbors. She also noticed the seating plan had altered, and Mary Weasenham had wormed her way into the seat next to the main event.

God help us.

” . . . apart from our guest, Lord Sir John. My lords, ladies, sirs, Reverend—I’m afraid we’ve been running a bit of a scheme these past few months, hiding my cousin here in plain sight, and for which I take full responsibility. Thankfully, we expect it is needed no longer.

“Sir John, my good friends—may I introduce you all to my cousin, Elizabeth, the countess of Essex?”

1811

Just as the bag hit the floor, her brother bounded out of the sofa like a rubber ball. “Jenny dear, sometimes your mouth is so sharp that I believe one day you’ll turn into a wasp.” He dashed across the room to open the door.

“Rick! Rick, can you come through, please?” Henry called into the kitchen.

Jane dropped the handle of the bag, composed herself quickly as best as she could, checking her hair by touch, and wished she had a dry lace cap to wear today with a visitor in the house.

Soon enough a smallish, swarthy man, slightly untidy, and of indeterminate late-middle-age stood about three yards from her.

“Jane, let me introduce Mister Richard dePaul, a copywriter from London recommended to me by John Stoddart, the editor at The Times.”

Jane curtsied slightly. “Sir.”

“Rick, can I introduce my sister, Miss Jane Austen?”

“Miss Austen,” the London visitor gushed. “Delighted, most delighted to meet you at last.”

As he bowed, Jane noticed a pencil tucked behind the man’s left ear. How strange.

“My apologies you find us a little disorganized today. My brother didn’t tell us to expect a guest.”

“Don’t think on it. I understand the ways of writers, and have seen much worse in my time. Actually, the next time you’re in London you should see my offices at the newspaper. Most of the time it’s an explosion of paper everywhere.”

Hennnnry . . . ” Jane started panicking, eyes and nostrils flaring, “I thought we agreed family only . . . “

” . . . would know our little secret, I know, I know. But Rick has been working for me in the strictest confidence on a short project, well, for us . . . “

Jane’s eyebrows raised higher, the look of disbelief wide in her expression. “What project?”

“Your book.”

“What? This?” Jane pointed at the pile of paper on the floor. “We just talked about this, and it’s nowhere near ready!”

He reached into his bag on the floor “No, this book.” He produced a manuscript with a flourish, tied with a single purple ribbon.

Jane snatched away the only copy of First Impressions, retreated into her chair, furious, and wrapped her arms around, protecting herself and her past work. My dear child. Her younger self’s first attempt; naive, badly written, with never-ending sentences and awful grammar. Her rejected first attempt that should be locked away right now at the bottom of her own hope chest upstairs.

“Henry, if you weren’t my brother,” she warned. “Sometimes I just don’t believe you’d do things like this! You thieving, two-faced . . . “

Mister dePaul tried to placate the room. “Miss Austen, Miss Austen, the story is almost there,” then made the mistake of smiling, “Of course publishers are no longer accepting epistolary works . . . “

“You mean he’s read it?” Jane bawled, hurriedly undoing the ribbon, flipping through the pages in wild outrage at the blue pencil marks scribbled all over her precious clean copy.

“And if you’d look at my notes, you’ll have to update some of the scenes. Make them more in-the-moment. As the London publishing houses say less Epistle, more Apostle.”

The copywriter’s voice faded away slowly, seeing the scowl in her visage.

1635

The other diners, flustered at the sudden change in Lizzy’s status, sprang to their feet; bowing and curtsying, acknowledging her superior position.

She bowed and nodded slowly one at a time to the others around the table. The shocked expression on the face of Mary Weasenham was a tasty morsel to bury in her secret heart. Play with candles, little moth, expect to get singed.

“Your Grace, may I express my condolences at the sad news of the death of Milord Essex.”

Oh wonderful, just wonderful. That’s all I need. Another say nothing, mean nothing, fast-talking courtier.

“And Elizabeth, this is my brother by my first marriage, Viscount Sir John Savage, Charlie’s uncle and godfather.”

Lizzy turned to Lord Sir John, refusing to strain her eyes and focus on the man’s face. The shape bowed slightly, some highlights of red-brown hair reflecting the candlelight.

Platitudes, the usual social verities. Time to get back on the horse, girl!

“My Lord Savage, and mine to you. I understand your wife, Lady Kitty, was also lost some months ago? Such a great shame. She was a breath of fresh air at court, and shall be missed.” Lockjaw, and snapped her spine in agony. A filthy, messy death a month after childbirth. God rest her poor soul.

The spider’s web that is the network of the noble ladies of England knew most things that went on in each other’s houses; through letters, salon gossip, and social connections between trusted ladies’ maids. Honora had been keeping her up to date.

“Please be seated.” She indicated to the steward to serve wine suitable for the next course. She knew how to play this game, four years in the practice in London.

Defend.

“So, Sir John, please continue. My apologies for my late arrival at table.”

Parry.

“You were telling us about the Americans? I assume you’ve visited their town, their United States.

Deflect.

“Have you formed some opinions? What’s your view, Providence or Perdition?”

“Well, my lady.” A large hand reached for the wine in front of him, three small keys dangling from a bracelet clinking against glass.

Lizzy paused, her own glass halfway to her lips. God’s Teeth! Three keys—a senior factor with wide freedom to act on state business, answerable only to the Lord Chancellor, the privy council, and the king.

Well, that explains why Charlie’s never met his uncle. England’s agents had been busy these past few years with Americans and war.

“Yes, I’ve visited their town. The stories are all true, in the main, and it’s an interesting place. But I’ll leave any earth-shattering religious revelations and defer those to the reverend here.”

Sir John nodded at dour-clad Higgons directly across the table, the holder of the neighboring manor of Greywell and a doctor of divinity who made known at every opportunity he was at odds with the bishop of Winchester and unhappily without a parish.

“Enough American stories. I can be a bore about the topic, I know. Now Your Grace is at table, I’d like to hear more about the character of my godson.”

Sir John sipped his wine, raised an eyebrow. “Hmmm . . . greengage and apple?”

“Of course.” Lizzy acknowledged.

Sir John smiled quickly in her direction, paused a little, then continued to the room, “So then, since we shall be picking through the character of my godson with the next course, and what might be expected from him, let me then finish off quickly my last American tale.

“As I was starting to tell you before, it is my observation that Americans take more care and attention in their imagined fortunes from the daily horoscopes in their newspapers, but little care in the naming of their children.”

“Come now, John. That sounds completely ridiculous!”

Her cousin was a traditionalist. The whys and wheres of naming English children of the landed and noble classes and the giving of first names repeated in a pattern that had been unchanged for centuries.

As the children’s rhyme had it:

A Father’s Father’s grandson, the heir first in line
A Mother’s Mother’s granddaughter, a Lord’s Lady in time
A Father’s Brother’s nephew, a spare just in case
A Mother’s Sister’s niece, who will know her place
A King’s Lord Courtier, to bribe and to fawn
A Queen’s Lady’s Chambermaid, to flatter and to song
A Father’s loyal pride to mould as his own
A mother’s fair consolation, to preserve the home
A Godfather’s loyal prince, to earn the estate
A Godmother’s sweet blessing, to learn good grace
A Saint’s godly son to pray for salvation
A Saint’s dutiful daughter, to cloister in seclusion

And that was the clean version, sung by children in recitals. Lizzy had heard all kinds of variations, some filthy (in taverns), some bawdy (in theatres), some unmentionable and hurtful (unfortunately in larger family gatherings, cousins with axes to grind).

But all true. Young Charlie was a king’s courtier, named after the current king; his two older brothers had died of various misfortunes. She was a saint’s daughter—and her mother often bemoaned the lack of nunneries in the Church of England. “Oft suggested, oft rejected,” Ma used to say.

“I mean it; these Americans have some strange ideas, and do not see the hazard in their recklessness.” Sir John took another sip. “You’ve heard they mix religions, many churches and many faiths in one place?”

“Deeply troubling” said the Greywell reverend.

“Well, they seem to muddle along together well enough, after a lot of shouting. But the children—of all faiths, mind—they name some of their children using something they call the cult of the celebrity.”

“The what?” exclaimed the mayor of Basingstoke’s wife, sitting next to the marquis’ left side.

Wellll . . . ” Sir John stretched his phrasing for effect, waving his glass back and forward. “Some parents call their children after famous leaders of state, or generals of the armies, or admirals of the sea, as if the power and personality will rub off on the child.”

“Slightly unusual—tawdry, and tempting providence,” the reverend proclaimed, “but not unknown even here.”

“Agreed. And so—” The guest nodded in agreement, the voice dropped half an octave. “—and so, I’ll go further.”

At this point Lizzy knew that Sir John was playing with the room. Of course, one of the first duties of a guest was to entertain, and this man was quite the wordsmith, using the most simple of words but still commanding attention from the table. The cadence and delivery of his voice was like a well-delivered sermon, reeling in the weak-minded.

Lizzy knew this particular game—Shock and Awe was played in salons all over Europe as a way of titillating an audience with strange American ways, seeking explosions of amazement, despair, and expletives. That was the Shock.

Sir John set to some more. “I’ve met some children; even from families of their most Puritan of beliefs, a proselytizer sect called the Church of the Later-Day Saints. In one example, I have met one young man named after a famous troubadour in the future, a public singer of songs named DonnyOsmond.”

“Are they mad? A singer—that’s just like inviting the devil in the door!”

Oorrrr . . . there are others named after professional players of games.”

A hubbub of sad disapproval rolled around the room.

“Now let me tell you, most of these men whose working life was set exclusively to play for entertainment every week a version of football . . . “

Football, as everyone knew, was a violent and deadly English pastime banned for almost a hundred years; too many casualties, too many public riots, too many deaths. Old King Hal had put an end to it, on pain of death. Some idiots occasionally attempted to flout the law, of course. During the reign of Queen Bess, Lizzy’s great-great-grandfather had executed the match organizers of a game somewhere in the Midlands.

” . . . or rounders, which these Americans insist in calling baseball. Now I should explain that these teams in the future were paid a thousand-fold and more each and every week, compared with what an honest man would earn in a month.”

“Beware Ye, the sin of Avarice!”

Lizzy, the observer on the sidelines, watched the to and fro around the room. There was even a scoring system to the game.

” . . . named after actors.”

Mutterings built around the table, “wretched whoremongers” was one of the mildest reproofs.

“And with my apologies to the ladies, even actresses.”

The mayor’s wife was struck dumb.

“Yes, female actors!” Sir John was enjoying egging on his audience, she could see.

Reverend Higgons was becoming belligerent, a mixture of blue and red in his face as he exclaimed, “Whores of Babylon!”

Lizzy wondered if Sir John was going for maximum points—a “Full-On Gulf War,” whatever that was? She had no idea of how some of these phrases came about. They certainly were colorful.

“By God, these Americans tempt their children’s destruction!” the marquis’ firm opinion roared with a thump of his hand on the table.

Her cousin was not a complex man, but certain in the ways an English lord should behave, and had a strong faith to shepherd and protect his staff and estate workers.

In response, Sir John gently wiggled his glass at the wine steward, and when he reached out his arm, Lizzy saw more clearly the bracelet from which the keys dangled, made of woven russet hair with a latch finished in gold.

Lizzy coughed and spluttered as Sir John continued his examples. A small amount of her own wine had gone down the wrong way as a scene from a dance during the last Parliament flashed—Lady Kitty Savage co-opting the men at court for a turn around the floor during an afternoon dance, copper-red hair flying, and blue eyes the color of sapphires laughing at the gossips.

“Sorry.” Lizzy coughed again into her kerchief. Well, that’s about as subtle as being hit on the head with a brick! The mourning bracelet: “I’m a widower, leave me alone!” And the keys: “I have power—mess with me, I’ll mess with you.”

Lizzy smiled savagely to herself behind her napkin. Ohh, this is going to be interesting. So I’m not the only one around here sick of being arranged into their next marriage by society. Mistress Weasenham, I think you’re caught between an anvil and a hammer this time. I think you’ll find your geese are not playing.

“Which is interesting,” Sir John’s tone changed again, “we’re all agreed Our Lord brought the Americans here? Three hundred and seventy years, give or take a few months. A miracle—by His favor—yes?”

Oh here it comes. Awe . . .

Nods, and general agreement from the others around the table. That had finally been proclaimed from the pulpits.

. . . the homily that shows Americans are so different, and yet the same in some amazing way.

“Now I’m just a simple soldier, with solder’s ways . . . “

Liar, liar, pants on fire, as Honora’s new book How to speak American, might say.

Now, Lizzy knew Sir John was a king’s agent, and most probably a spy. The latest rumors she had heard herself had had him stuck in Birmingham until recently, working on new cannon for the king’s armies at the Proof House. How she knew this was her own business. As an American might say, Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.

” . . . sooooooo, if Americans have no care at all for onomancy, and care less for the true meaning of names, can any of you here tell me why their leader happens to be named Michael, a namesake of the Archangel?”

That garnered a return volley of bemused expressions around the table. The faults, values, and attributes of Americans had been violently discussed almost non-stop for the past three years. No one Lizzy knew, though, had brought up and considered this aspect of the Prime Minister of the United States of Europe . . .

“I spent some time this afternoon at your village church.”

Lizzy sat back surprised, then peered under the table. The same small dog from earlier in the day stared back, sitting at its master’s feet, pointy ears straight up.

“And I had a long talk with the saint in question.”

The atmosphere broke, and small giggles of laughter pealed in the room. Even the so-far impervious face of the wine steward twitched.

Now she wished she had her glasses to look at the man’s face properly, but this wasn’t the occasion to perch a pair on her nose in front of guests.

The fisherman sat up straight, looking into the eyes of each diner in turn, making sure the little fishes were properly on the hook, “In my view, so far Michael Stearns has been sweeping all their opponents before him with Our Lord’s flaming sword.”

He chugged a large gulp of wine, smiling widely. “I’m so pleased England is no longer at war with the United States of Europe.” Sir John plonked his empty glass on the table, letting his words die away just short of heresy. “Speaking personally, I’d rather be on the side of the angels.”

1811

It took Henry half an hour to talk his sister down from her high dudgeon. It took most of that time for her to see the sense of his plans.

“So, if we want to hit the publisher’s first draft submission date by Easter, so we can get the money by Christmas next . . . ” he prompted.

“I have to stop Mansfield Park,” Jane recounted the list so far, “Rework this whole manuscript in the first person, drop the picnic, lose the argument in the stables, and make the aunt more fearsome.”

“Don’t worry too much with the grammar and sentence structure. Your publisher has agreed to tidy that up as we go.”

“And there’s one last thing . . . ” Henry paused. “Now, Jane, you’re not going to like this.”

” What else do I have to do to prostitute myself?” Jane sulked in front of the two men.

“Names,” from Mister DePaul, prompting so quietly it was difficult to hear.

“Rick here has said as well as re-arranging the story a bit, what we need to do as well is change some of the names.”

“What?”

“Well, to start you’ll have to change some of the girl’s names. Jane and Eliza are common enough, but Cassandra is a bit too obvious. Cousin Caroline we can leave in. That haughty madam still needs taking down a peg or five.”

Henry mused a bit, tapping his chin with a finger, “Oh and yes—daughters of a poor country vicar? Really, Jane! Can we change that just a little to a country gentleman of undetermined means? Just enough for half the ladies of Hampshire and Bath not to point at the Austens, and unmask A Lady before we receive a penny?

Jane screwed her hands around the pen, twisting, twisting. When Henry started using “we,” why did she feel that all the apple racks from the barn loft were about to fall and hit her on the head?

Again the London copyrighter prompted, “And the hero . . . “

“Yes, the hero. Quite right, Rick! Now this is important—if you left it like this we’d all be sued for libel and defamation. Your hero, Mr. Derby, for instance? Very funny, very droll, Jane, when you wrote that, what, nearly fifteen years ago? But still you need to be sensible if this is going to be published. The old duke of Devonshire may have been a blunt-speaking prig, but he was a very, very rich blunt-speaking prig, full of the honor of his family name.

“Now they’ve buried him this year, we have to assume the new sixth duke, Lord William Tall, Dark, and Moody will probably be just as touchy.”

Jane had to admit the newspaper reports on the dealings of the libel courts were often salacious. The end result though, was always the same. The golden rule always applied—those with the gold made the rules, and hired the best advocates from the London Temples of law. Anyone caught badmouthing the noble families of England usually wound up squished like a bug.

“Did you hear that he was on only ten thousand a year before assuming the title? A shocking state, considering the size of the family fortune. Now Edward, our brother, Mr DePaul, our host in the Great House tonight—he himself was on fifteen.”

“Why so?”

“Well, now they’ve just gone and capped it off. The prince regent just made the richest man in England the lord lieutenant of Derbyshire!” Henry gesticulated wildly around the room. “So, unless we want the bailiffs to strip the house of all its possessions and leave you, Cassandra, Martha, and mother standing in your last shifts, we suggest you have to find another name for the hero.”

He rummaged in his bag again. “Here, try this.” He dropped Grandpapa Austen’s tatty copy of Visitations to the County of Southampton onto the small writing table, the listings of the noble and landed classes family trees enumerated within.

Jane gaped like a fish. She hadn’t seen this old thing in ages. Since, since—well, since she’d pinched Bennet from amongst the families on the page opposite Austen for her girls in First Impressions all those years ago.

“Someone dead, very dead.” Her brother’s enthusiasm was getting the better of his diction. “And so I was thinking, why don’t you start with the duke of Bolton’s family? The current duke is only a cousin, the main line are all dead and buried so they can’t sue. Go back a bit, one hundred, two hundred years—there must be someone there you can steal?”

Henry had that smug expression on his face again. Jane wanted to slap it.

“A last thought . . . ” DePaul finally managed to bridge the torrent from her brother. “I almost forgot, Miss Austen, Mister Austen. The soldier, Mr Wheaton, the cad? I was thinking the name’s too nice, too safe—might I suggest something darker for him too? Our educated readers need to know instantly he’s a bad-un. Here’s something I’ve been working on lately for another author.”

A pamphlet advertising a new publication, The Evil and Satanic Practices of the Hellfire Club, the True Horrors and Depravities in the Caves of West Wyckham joined the book on the table.

Somewhere close, a pen snapped.

1635

Friday 23rd November, St. Clement’s Day

“Just so, hold your sword up, so.” The portraitist grabbed at the boy’s wrist in both of his hands. “Up there.”

William Russell, eldest son and heir of the duke of Bedford, and self-proclaimed imager to the lords and ladies of England, grinned desperately at the uncle, who was paying handsomely for this series of shots.

“And hold that pose . . . “

“Lord Bolton! Charles—please! Right arm straight—Your Lordship must always be ready to strike an opponent down from his saddle,” Lord John called from the other side of the yard.

John’s first impression hadn’t changed. He still was shocked at the lack of the boy’s basic education. Even with the new short, page-style haircut and fine silk clothes, Charles had absolutely no deportment at all. The lad looks like a sack of cabbages draped over a donkey. John felt this was partly his fault, pressures of state had ruled his life too heavily after Charles had been born. His contribution as a godfather so far had been nonexistent, and he mentally squirmed that his vows before God were found so lacking.

More penance.

But still! By God the Father’s golden balls, this house was the largest in England and almost a royal palace. His late sister’s husband, the marquis, was the premier noble by rank and precedence in England. His brother-in-law might have retired from court, and be as poor as a church mouse right now, but that was no excuse not to ask for assistance from the wider family. His godson had no skill at arms, not even the basics of short staff training given by a dancing master, for goodness sake, and no inclination to a future role as one of the leading nobles in the land.

In his own mind, the fine pony, miniature sword, and exquisite hunting saddle tooled with an emblem of a bear’s paw holding three swords aloft might be wasted on this one.

“Hold the reins with the left hand, tight,” he shouted, trying to ignore the peril for the servant holding the pony’s bridle. The stable boy was in danger of the chop if young Charles dropped the sword.

Across the yard, with all the surface poise and dash of the advanced age of twenty-two, the imager strode quickly ten feet to the other side of the table in the middle of the courtyard, looking up into the winter midday sunlight.

Mistress Weasenham appeared from up the top step through the inner gatehouse between the east and center courts, being dragged closer by Ollie in harness, the hound straining to get to the boy at the other side.

Oh, dear Lord above . . .

This time the woman was wearing a Victorian hunting outfit; long dark skirt, a silk blouse, velvet waistcoat, and a black tail-coat, a black silk lady’s top hat that looked for all the earth like the black top of a chimney. Very strange. She had been a major pest, asking all kinds of intrusive questions about his family in the early part of last night’s meal. Some people just wouldn’t take a hint.

Oh well, just wait until Mother gets here. Her Majestic Highness, the Lady Catherine D’Arcy Rivers, will put the fear of God Almighty on the women of the house. I might then get some peace and quiet time with Charles.

Today the woman looked hunched, lackluster, and depressed for some reason. Of course, the hound broke free from the strangely-attired woman, and loped across the court. John snatched the plaited leather dog-lead with his left gloved hand as it snaked past his head with a hiss.

“Down, Ollie, get down.”

The hound took his cue from the deep voice of Lord Savage, who without thinking stood on the leash a hand span from the dog harness. Mary watched as the long-backed animal lay prone on the courtyard chippings, Ollie’s eyes swiveling back and forward between the godfather and Charles, the new Lord Bolton on his new pony.

“Just to let you know, your brother-in-law wants to know when he’ll be needed for the group photographs.”

Ollie whined quietly.

“He’s in his library I think . . . “

“Drinking, I expect?” Lord Savage finished her sentence.

Mary blinked her eyes in silent reply, then looking around the court. “Where’s the other one, the artist?”

“Wenceslaus Hollar? He’s gone out to the park somewhere to rough up a sketch of the house”

A young scribbler had also arrived on William Russell’s coat tails. Having made some name for himself in Prague recently, the artist was staying in England for the winter. In an attempt to drum up some business, the artist was availing himself to try to sell copies of prints of his work from the future, a few English scenes that had made it through the Ring of Fire.

In this house, with no spare cash? Not a chance! Mary was sure of that at least.

“Is that thing going to work?” she asked Sir John, nodding toward William’s chest-sized box on the table. On one side was a covered lens, surrounded at the back by a brown felt jacket with the arms reversed inside.

“As long as William takes his time, and no one tries to rush him . . . “

“But it’s not American?” Mary was confused. The wooden device’s outside was decorated with stylized representations of eagles, lynxes, rooks and rats. So much larger, it looked nothing like the hand-held Box Brownie her husband had ordered from the catalogue.

“The formulae for the glass plates and paper, yes,” Lord Savage conceded. “The device itself, no. I believe not—something William picked on tour.”

Mary sniffed meaningfully to herself. Her husband had sneered at the idiot boys with fat purses and brains stuck in their crotches, whoring and gambling around the tour of Genoa, Venice, Florence, Tivoli and Naples. Rob had taken her to Rome after their own wedding, and they’d watched with suspicion the noble English turista hovering over estate sales like ghouls. Statues of dubious origin, goldleaf-framed mirrors, impossible glassware guaranteed to smash in a ship’s hold, and crates of gold plate and Chinese ware . . . the English merchant classes were making small fortunes shipping the stuff back to England.

There were those few who preferred mechanical curios; boxes and boxes of scope-this and scope-that, Venetian astrolabes, Genovese clocks and Bavarian watches.

What was it her husband was calling the gadget hounds now? Something classical? It was all Greek to her.

“Are you interested in the sciences, Mistress Weasenham?”

They both watched as the imager thrust his hands inside the jacket on the table. The young man had shown them all the workings of the camera obscura, and the otter-skin gloves sewn onto the end of each turned-in sleeve of the felt jacket pinned to the side of the box.

With what looked like a fight between two ferrets in a gamekeeper’s sack, a closed wooden box frame was hurriedly loaded into the back of the chest. Last night William had said he normally captured two pictures; something called a negative print to gauge the veracity of the light, then switching to a glass-something . . .

Mary shook her head, already forgetting the technicalities. “No—more my husband’s thing, but I warn you, Rob’s interest only goes as far as the money he can make with it.”

“Then get him to ask William later to show the signature on the inside. I think your husband will be impressed. This camera obscura was made by a master of the sciences, a Maestro Galileo.”

“Who?”

Lord John waved a hand casually. “Oh, just someone most of the Americans I’ve dined with would fall over themselves to meet.”

Mary shrugged, nonplussed, then watched in silence as the imager setup the next photograph with the specially prepared glass plate. She could, however, see William’s showmanship and spiel was obviously well-practiced.

“Hold that pose.” The imager struggled out of the gloves and sleeves then checked the light again from the mid-day November sun over his shoulder.

“Hold it . . . no one move.” He flicked the lens cover off the front of the box.

“One elephant . . . “

“Surely it can’t be as good as an American camera?” Mary whispered to Lord Savage.

“Two elephant . . . “

“Probably takes a little longer, but we used him for the christening in May.” Lord John fished inside his overcoat . . .

“Three elephant . . . “

. . . extracting a wallet used for the folding paper money and postage stamps now being used on the Continent.

“Four elephant . . . “

“Here—these are my girls.” He handed over a three-by-two inch photograph, the subjects posed in the brown and white tableau outdoors sitting on a settee in front of an imposing doorway.

“Five elephant . . . “

“Jane is the eldest.” He pointed at the image of a girl somewhat under ten; all blond ringlets, lace collars and bows.

“Six elephant . . . “

“Then Elizabeth, who’s three.” The next figure with dark hair and a pair of legs swinging from the seat.

“Seven elephant . . . “

“And the twins. Kitty . . . “

“Eight elephant . . . “

” . . . and Mary, in their christening shawls.”

“Nine elephant . . . “

Mary’s hand shook, glancing back and forward from the photograph and Lord John like an idiot. For once, she was completely at a loss for words.

“Ten elephant . . . and done.” The imager finished and flicked the cover back over the lens.

Mary looked up again at the tall man, a mad rush in her head, and then turned south-southwest, roughly in the direction of Chawton village some miles away.

Naughty, naughty she chided her patroness. “Oh. My. Lord.” Mary Weasenham hesitated. Paused. Paused again, then in another rush decided, and turned back to the man beside her. “My Lord Savage, do you read for pleasure? Are you interested in literature?”

She didn’t wait for a reply. “Have you heard of an English author called Jane Austen, and her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice?”

“A woman, an authoress? Certainly not. Should I have?”

Mary beamed, handing back the photograph finally. “You have a lot in common with the marquis’ new wife, Lady Honora de Bourgh. Can I suggest you ask to borrow her copy for a couple of days whilst you’re here? I think you’ll be interested at the contents within.”

****

John stood bemused as the strange woman bustled off in a hurry, talking wildly and giggling to herself as she left the courtyard.

He could make no sense of her last remark . . .

“I’ll need to get the printers to run off two more copies, one for Lady Catherine Rivers, and one for Lord Savage. Just wait until the Ladies at EGARR hear about this!”

1813, 29th January

I want to tell you I have got my own darling Child from London; on Wednesday I received one Copy, sent down by Falknor.

The Advertisement is in our paper today, for the first time

 

Parts of a letter to Cassandra from Jane on the arrival of her new book Pride and Prejudice

1635

tap tap

A hand knocked on the open doorframe to the wine store.

“Your Grace?”

Lizzy was facing away from the doorway, in the middle of tipping a gallon of cider through a funnel of muslin cloth, her tongue between her teeth, and glasses perched on the end of her nose.

“Seeking clarity, Your Grace?” Sir John Savage chuckled.

Lizzy looked quickly over her shoulder. What does he want? “Hold your horses. Let me finish this.”

If anything, the silence as she finished pouring was more infuriating than the gabbling torrent at table last night. There were many more containers of apple cider and pear perry waiting to be checked before tonight’s revels; the men from the village would be demanding apples, pears, and alcohol in exchange for songs and stories.

Lizzy pursed her lips in distaste at her task. “I wonder.” She swirled the remaining contents of the demijohn. “It might have been easier staying the housekeeper.” She tipped the last drips into the funnel.

“A bit too late for that, milady.” John stared at the woman, back in her old grey uniform, and the dust smears on the kirtle. The news of her reappearance would be spreading like wildfire and halfway to London and Southampton by now.

“How can I help you, Sir John?” Milady Essex wiped her hands on a cloth. The expression was the same as last night; all countess; haughty, pithy and prideful. He thought the ensemble cute, a smudge of dust on the end of the thin nose set off the effect nicely—not that he would ever say so.

“We need to hurry. Right now, Cinderella!” he ordered like the solider he was. “We need you in centre court, whilst we still have the light for the rest of the photographs.”

“Cinda-what?”

“Loooong story and we don’t have the time.” He beckoned furiously. “I’ve come to play fairy godfather.” John grabbed Lizzy’s left hand, dragging her out of the winery, and into the garden. “Come on, milady! Charles has commanded I come get you. I was wondering how quickly you can change back into your outfit from last night?”

****