Once Bitten – Aileen Fish

Lurking in the shadows backstage of the Theatre Royal in Haymarket, Lord Adam St. Peters watched unnoticed as the so-called Mr. Tilney performed his lines in the farce, Vicar Pauley’s Petulant Pig. Behind the curtain, stagehands shuffled pieces of furniture and carried painted walls to be moved into place at the end of the act. With all the activity around him, Adam was free to study the actor, the man he knew as Mr. Boiselle. The man who caused the death of Lord Fitzwilliam St. Peters, Adam’s uncle. Dust, powder, and who knew what else billowed about with each movement around Adam, taunting him to sneeze and draw attention to himself, but he swiped the back of his hand across his nose to stifle the urge. Under the lights onstage, Boiselle swished around like a drunken fop with weak ankles, wavering on his feet. The flap on one of his shoes was loose and the buckle, covered with paste diamonds, threatened to slip off. All in all, Adam decided watching to see if that jeweled piece fell off was much more entertaining than the actor himself. As much as he’d prefer to leave, Adam couldn’t risk letting Boiselle out of his sight. There had to be some covert reason the spy would conceal his identity with such a public façade as an actor. One of the stagehands or audience members likely passed information during scene breaks or after the production.

The hair on the base of Adam’s head, directly above his elaborately tied cravat, began to itch. He scratched absently. Again, those short hairs tickled his skin, and he scratched with more force. When the itch continued, he dug beneath the cravat to relieve the discomfort. And promptly felt a sharp sting on his finger. He shook his hand, ripped off his cravat and swiped his neck to get rid of what he was certain was a spider. Several of the workers paused to watch his primal dance, bringing Adam to his senses. His face heated with embarrassment—grown men weren’t afraid of tiny creatures, and drawing attention to himself was the opposite of what he wanted. Straightening his waistcoat, he wrapped the neck cloth as well as he could without a mirror, while keeping an eye on the stage. The finger where he’d been bitten itched horribly, and in the light slipping past the edge of the curtain he saw it burned bright red and swelled remarkably.

When he was a youth, he’d received some sort of bite that had left him gasping for air until he fell asleep, frightening his mother horribly. Cursing silently, he hoped the injury to his finger would be the extent of his body’s reactions. Luck wasn’t with him. Adam began to wheeze, his lungs allowing only small breaths. Damnation. He needed cool air, needed to go outside, away from this crowded, dusty space, but he couldn’t let Boiselle escape again. Bracing himself against the wall, he fought his body, willing himself to remain calm. He took slow breaths as deep as he could, but each brought on the need to cough. He was growing dizzy—he had little choice but to step into the alley. Turning toward the door, he tripped over a box of properties, knocking into a burly man who tugged on a thick rope dangling from above.

“Watch out, you soused slug,” the stagehand barked in a loud whisper. Adam could do nothing but stagger on, tugging at his cravat as if it was the cause of his breathing difficulties. A sweet voice spoke from over his shoulder. “Are you all right, sir?” He waved her off, wanting only to escape. “Let me help you. Mr. Billups has the same complaint. Sit here and I’ll bring him to you.” Having little choice, Adan collapsed on the small wooden chair she guided him to, and prayed she knew of what she spoke. The notion was foolish—unless the man was an apothecary, why would he have medicines on hand? Mere minutes later, the young woman led a thin old man to his side.

The man held out a pipe. “This will help.” Adam waved the man away, gasping, “Can’t breathe. Can’t smoke.” The woman—who looked rather fair in the dim light, he couldn’t help but notice—placed her hand on his arm. “Trust him. I’ve seen Mr. Billups gasping one minute and breathing calmly the next.” Since his breaths weren’t coming any easier, Adam gave in. He put the pipe between his lips and, when Billups held a lit match to the bowl, he inhaled.

The acrid smoke made him cough, drawing scolding looks from the people working backstage, and he fought to take it in. After a few puffs, the change came slowly, but soon he could breathe. Adam caught the woman’s eye. “Thank you. And thank you, too, Billups. What is this I’m smoking?” “Stramonium. It stops me from wheezing.” He’d never heard of it, but the herb obviously helped. He handed the pipe back to the old man and straightened in the chair, allowing himself to draw in more air. And then it hit him.

He’d lost sight of Boiselle. Adam could hear him onstage, but what if another actor has passed a note within a prop, or changed the dialogue subtly with a code? How easily Adam might have failed his family. He must take better care. Boiselle would be charged as a spy or Adam would die trying to expose him. ~~~ Mary Jane Watson couldn’t take her eyes off the young man in front of her. Handsome was too weak a word for the way he looked. Dashing, suave, a bit proud, and quite clearly a gentleman despite his worn clothing, he was pleasing to speak with. What was he doing here? Most of the dandies who waited for a tête-à-tête did so from a box seat in the audience. He wasn’t dressed as finely as the noblemen who often visited the dressing rooms, but he certainly held that air of privilege. “Are you looking for someone? Miss Clarke, perhaps?” she asked.

“You may wait in her dressing room; it’s what most of her gentlemen friends do.” His gaze darted quickly to the curtain and he shifted nervously. “Er, no.” “Simply a fan of theatrics, I take it. Wouldn’t the play be more enjoyable where you could see the entire stage?” He jumped to his feet. “Thank you for your assistance. You’re truly an angel for saving my life. If you’ll excuse me…” With that he strode off in the direction of the dressing rooms. Strange, strange man. He piqued her curiosity.

She had nothing to do until Susan needed to change for her next scene, so she followed him. The gentleman’s destination came as quite a surprise. He paused outside Mr. Tilney’s room, not one belonging to the actresses, and looked up and down the hallway before stepping inside. She had no excuse to offer if she knocked on the door, so she went to Susan’s room and waited just inside the doorway, listening for Mr. Tilney’s return. On previous occasions, she’d heard yelling between the actor and an unknown man. She’d assumed there was a matter of debts owed, but that might be her imagination. Believing Tilney had dallied with a married woman and her husband had come to seek revenge, was much more exciting. Yet the argument never came to blows, so the debt seemed more likely.

Sighing, she chided herself for her wicked fancies. Hearing the dialog onstage night after night left her believing her life was too dull. She didn’t want anything to happen to herself, but being a witness would be very exciting. Her mother would scold her for wishing ill on anyone, yet whether or not Mary Jane imagined it, those things happened. She wasn’t planning to cause anyone harm. From the stage, Susan recited the line that warned of the end of the scene, when she and Mr. Tilney would exit the stage. The gentleman remained in the dressing room next door, heightening Mary Jane’s attention. She turned to prepare the costume for the next scene, knowing she was overreacting. All that would happen was the typical argument with a quick, but loud resolution to the situation.

By tomorrow, no one would remember. Then she heard the creak of the door. She rushed to peer into the hall. The gentleman stepped out of the light from the dressing room and slipped stealthily toward the exit. Now this was what she longed for—excitement! She tiptoed after him, ducking behind a large stage property when he glanced back. He went out the door, closing it quietly behind him. When she reached it and looked outside, he was nowhere in sight. Disappointed yet again, she returned to Susan’s room and went back to work. ~~~ The play ended late in the night. While most of the stagehands and actors had left, Mary Jane cleaned a spot of rouge off the gown Susan wore in the final scene, made certain the jewelry was safely tucked away, then blew out the candles.

Her maid, Bridie, came out of the other actress’s dressing room and followed her to the exit. The theatre was quiet, as was the street where the patrons had awaited their carriages. She preferred it that way, allowing her to leave unnoticed. She’d tipped a hackney driver quite handsomely early on so he’d return for her each night, and he never failed to see her safely home. Luckily, Bridie knew her place and wouldn’t scold her the way Charlotte would have. Her friend agreed to keep Mary Jane’s escapades a secret, torn between envy and concern. Just so long as Papa never found out what she did when he believed her asleep in her room, her life would be enjoyable. Before they reached the end of the alleyway, a man stepped out of the shadows and waited for her to draw closer. Heart racing, she slowed and moved toward the opposite wall, her petite maid hovering just behind. At that moment, Mary Jane wished she’d listened to Charlotte.

“I don’t mean to frighten you,” the man said, his face hidden in shadows below his hat. “I only wanted to thank you.” Recognizing the stranger from backstage didn’t make Mary Jane feel any safer. Just because he spoke like a gentleman didn’t mean he couldn’t be a scoundrel. “There’s no need.” He fell into step but kept toward the wall on his side, leaving a few feet distance between them. It wasn’t quite enough to slow her heart rate. “Are you an actress?” “No.” “I assumed you were.” He lifted one finger to his lips and sucked on it, then shook his hand.

“You’re pretty enough to be.” Subtlety wasn’t his strongest quality. She wasn’t a lightskirt; she wouldn’t dally with him no matter how handsome or rich he was. She didn’t respond. “You work at the theatre, then. I’ve always wondered how one finds a part in a play.” No one had tried that method to befriend her, or seduce her. She wasn’t a fool, regardless. “One would audition.” “Yes.

Yes, of course. When would the next audition be?” He continued to flex his hand as though he’d injured it and appeared to be quite distracted. “Sir, I’m not the person to ask. Nor am I the type of woman you seem to hope. You’re wasting your time.” “Forgive me, again. I hadn’t meant to imply—” He stopped mid-sentence and picked up his pace, leaving her behind. What an odd sort he was. Part of her wondered what he really sought, and why he thought she’d know. Anyone who’d gone home before her could answer as well as she had.

Foremost in her thoughts was the possibility of an intrigue. She could imagine many interesting reasons for his actions. However, she was too tired to think any more about him. All she wanted was to crawl into bed beside her cat and sleep. Any further entertainment must wait for another day.

.

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