Papa was not going to be happy about this, Cassandra thought as she rose from her seat. But it had to be done, and the Andromeda Society had agreed that she would speak for them. Her father was a powerful member of the House of Commons, where Mr. Titus Owsley seemed to be gaining more support than he ought for his ill-conceived bill. He might ignore other women, but he couldn’t afford to ignore Lord deGriffith’s daughter. Owsley was one of the younger members, handsome, well-spoken, and, according to her father, far more ambitious than his apparent humility suggested. Parliament’s generous supply of hypocrites didn’t hurt the gentleman’s cause. She’d dressed so as not to call attention to herself. No flowers or birds sprang from the modest hat perched upon her dark red hair. No mounds of ruffles and furbelows adorned her pale lavender dress. She had dressed, in fact, in the way moral crusaders like Owsley approved. She had sat quietly through his lecture and listened. He was not entirely without sense and compassion, but he, like most of the upper classes, understood essentially nothing about ordinary people. Her face its usual mask of calm, she said, “Mr. Owsley, in recent weeks some pieces have appeared in the London journals regarding your bill for the better enforcement of the Sabbath.
I and many others have patiently awaited your response. Since Sabbath laws and practices have formed the substance of your lecture today, I trust you will answer the critics now.” He gave her a puzzled frown. “Critics? I’m not sure what journals you mean, Miss Pomfret.” This she doubted very much, but she played along. “I mean this sort of thing.” She waved the clipping she’d taken from a recent edition of Figaro in London, a satirical paper with a radical slant. Though by now she’d memorized the words, she looked down and read: “‘The introduction of a bill by Mr. Titus Owsley, which, under the plea of enforcing the observance of the Sabbath, is calculated to withhold on that day the supply of their necessities from the poor, without curtailing the rich of any of their luxuries, is one of the grossest pieces of senatorial humbug that we can remember for a very long period.’” Gasps and titters from those about her.
A crack of masculine laughter from the gallery. She kept her gaze on the clippings. He said, “Th-that is n-n—” “‘He wishes nothing to be done on the Lord’s day,’” she read on, “‘but such work as may be necessary for the existing state of Society. Splendid dinners may still be cooked and eaten in mansions, but necessary food may not be procured at an eating house. Private carriages may throng the roads as usual, but there are to be no public conveyances tolerated on the Sabbath. In fact the alteration is to affect only the poorer classes, while the same license that hitherto has existed is still to be permitted to Society.’” Hisses, boos, and laughter now. She looked up at him. He’d pasted on his red face the condescending smile men customarily awarded women who attempted to reason with them. He cleared his throat and tightened his grasp on the lectern.
Before he could compose a response, she said, “Is it or is it not a fair characterization of your bill? Or would you find it easier to answer the questions the editor asks?” She read from the next part of the Figaro piece: “Mr. Titus Owsley do you think, That on a Sunday ’tis discreet The poor should neither eat nor drink ? That food on that day is not meet ? “That private carriages may go Without the smallest fear of evil, While stages—” “Thank you, Miss Pomfret,” he said through clenched teeth. “This is typical of the impious journals, which delight in ridiculing everything and everybody.” He looked out over the audience. “Other questions?” “Before you have answered mine?” she said. “Let her finish the poem!” somebody called out. “Answer the lady’s questions!” somebody else shouted. “What lady? That’s deGriffith’s Gorgon.” A collective gasp at this. Then a chorus of “See here!” and “Who said that?” and the like.
More voices joined in, opposing, agreeing, daring, threatening. Men rose from their seats. Women began leaving theirs and starting for the doors. Fists waved. The shouting amplified to a roar. In a moment, the lecture hall erupted into pandemonium. deGrif ith House, St. James’s Square Later that day “In a matter of hours I have become a joke among my colleagues,” Lord deGriffith said as he paced his study. “My daughter could not leave it to me to deal with Owsley and his defective bill, but felt obliged to raise questions herself, in a public place, to make us the laughingstocks of London.” Cassandra had expected a severe scolding.
What she had not prepared for was her father summoning her sister Hyacinth into the study as well. But lately, Papa had been behaving oddly regarding Hyacinth. This started when he, Mama, and Hyacinth arrived in London for the sitting of Parliament and the social events connected to it. Shortly after they settled into the town house in St. James’s Square, influenza had begun to rage through Town, and he’d used that excuse to postpone her debut again and again. Once she was presented at Court, he curtailed her social life, refusing countless invitations. She could attend only the most exclusive affairs, among only the highest of the haut ton. She was not nineteen, and relegated to the stuffiest of stuffy parties. Hyacinth hadn’t complained. She never did.
But Cassandra could read between the lines of her letters, and the last note from Lady Charles Ancaster, their aunt Julia, had only hastened Cassandra’s return from France. She’d hardly arrived when her brother Augustus’s wife, Mary, fell ill, and Cassandra had gone to Hertfordshire to help look after her and manage the family. She’d no sooner returned to London than she needed to deal with Owsley’s sanctimonious drivel. “Mr. Owsley invited the public,” she said. “I spoke because somebody needed to point out—in simple terms, in public—his duplicity.” The papers would report the to-do at the lecture hall. Among other things, this would attract the attention of eating houses, transport companies, and others whose businesses would suffer. With them in an uproar, the bill was doomed, she hoped. “Papa, he lectures about pious behavior and claims to be helping the poor while his bill actively seeks to increase their misery.
” “The Sabbath bill—or any other bill, for that matter—is not the issue,” her father said. “You are not a member of Parliament. You’re a young lady. Episodes like these will make you unmarriageable.” “For having an opinion? For caring about more than what frock to wear?” “There are other ways to care, as I have told you time and again. If your little social club isn’t enough for you, you’ve scores of other ladies’ charities to choose from.” As though she’d never lifted a finger to help those in need. How many fêtes and fairs and other fund-raising events had she been part of since she left the nursery? Hadn’t she joined the Andromeda Society—her “little social club”—precisely because the others weren’t enough? “That is the way a lady offers service,” Papa said. “Not standing up at a public event and quoting from the radical journals.” “But you have quoted from Figaro—” “How many different ways must I say this?” he said.
“It is not the belief. It is not the caring. It is not the journal. It is the standing up in public and making a spectacle of yourself.” It was her refusal to be silent, in other words. He went on, “I had hoped this time you’d returned from your travels with greater maturity and patience. I had hoped your efforts with Mary signified a change. But you seem determined to make a harridan of yourself, and place yourself beyond any possibility of marriage.” Uh-oh. Cassandra saw a chasm yawning before her.
Her father was a wily politician. She said cautiously, calmly, “I am unable to see the wisdom of changing my character in order to please a man.” “Not your character. Your behavior. Can you not see the difference?” “I know I cannot pretend to be somebody I am not.” He stopped pacing and looked from her to Hyacinth and back again. He drew a deep breath and let it out. “Very well,” he said in milder tones. “Do as you like. You always do.
But.” He paused and bent his head and appeared to study the floor. Cassandra and Hyacinth exchanged glances. The word but uttered in that particular tone, followed by the pause and the bowed head, was famous. On several occasions it had preceded the death and burial of a piece of legislation. It had led to the untimely demise of four political careers. It had made the previous King cry more times than anybody could count. “But,” Papa said, “be aware that I am unable to see the wisdom of continuing Hyacinth’s Season if you are going to undermine it.” “Undermine—” “Your behavior reflects on her, on all of us. You came out years ago, and you’re still unwed.
You do as you please, with no checks on your behavior, thanks to my overindulgent parents.” Their hands full with an abundance of sons, her parents had more or less transferred the upbringing of their difficult eldest daughter to her paternal grandparents, a most fortunate turn of events. Grandmama and Grandpapa Chelsfield understood she wasn’t like other girls, and they didn’t try to mold her into that sort. However, they remained in Paris, and she was obliged, for the present, to deal with her parents on her own. “It does not occur to you,” her father was saying, “that eligible men as well as their families may wonder whether Hyacinth will follow in your footsteps.” “But Hyacinth is nothing like me, Papa. She never has been.” Neither younger sister was like her. Helena was away at school, not getting into any trouble, so far as Cassandra knew, and Hyacinth . Oh, she was beautiful, inside and out, sweet-natured, kind, forgiving, tolerant, patient.
Cassandra was Medusa and deGrif ith’s Gorgon and Cassandra Prophet of Doom. The world saw her as unwomanly because she did not keep her opinions to herself and, worse, she said what she had to say plainly and directly. In short, she was a shrew. Nobody wanted to marry a shrew—except the swaggering bully Petruchio in the Shakespeare play, hardly her ideal man. Not that the ideal man existed. Marriage was tricky enough even with relatively rational men like her grandfather or father or her brother Augustus. Even intelligent women made fatal errors in this regard. Look at her dearest friend, Alice, now bound forever to the Duke of Blackwood. And only the other day, Lady Olympia Hightower had a narrow escape, she having the abundant good sense to run away minutes before she was to marry the Duke of Ashmont. “I had deluded myself that being in Society with other girls would soften you,” Papa said.
“But Season after Season passed, and you only became more fixed in your ways. I cannot allow you to continue to set a bad example for your younger sisters. I cannot allow you to continue to distress your mother. As I have pointed out to her more than once recently, it is ridiculous to bring out a daughter of eighteen when the one so rapidly approaching thirty will not settle down.” Thirty! She would not reach that dire age for another four years and some months. “Papa, it is not a matter of—” “It would appear very ill for Hyacinth to be wed before her sister, who is quite as handsome in her own way and could be equally agreeable if she would only make the effort. And so, that is the end of it.” He paused, and looked from one daughter to the other. “The end of . ?” “I will not give Hyacinth permission to marry until you are wed,” he said.
“Since she may not marry, I see no reason for her to spend another minute on the Marriage Mart. No dinners, dejeuners, fêtes champêtres, balls, routs, picnics, water parties, plays, ballet, opera. In short, as of this minute, Hyacinth’s Season is over.” Putney Heath Midmorning of 15 June 1833 Lucius Wilmot Beckingham, the sixth Duke of Ashmont, slowly lifted his head from his folded arms. He’d been called the most beautiful man in England. He’d been called other things, too, but that’s for later. At present his fair, curling hair stood in ragged corkscrews. His excessively blue eyes were bloodshot. Bruises, a few days old, adorned one. While he struggled to focus, the clamorous world about him tipped up, down, and sideways, the whole time turning like a fog-filled ship in a swirling sea.
He closed his eyes then opened them again, and the haze thinned a degree. These weren’t sailors, only yokels shouting at one another. The din arose not from creaking ropes in a storm but from the thump of feet and the clunk of ale pots slammed on tables. Not a ship or anything like a ship. A public house. Right. The Green Man. Putney Heath. That’s where he was. After the duel.
With his best friend. He looked down at his hands. They’d finally stopped shaking. It had taken only—what? A dozen brandies and soda? Two dozen? Why not three? No matter. He’d done what he had to do. His Lying, Traitorous Grace the Duke of Ripley, miserable, rotten cur of a so-called best friend, had stolen the girl. Not just any girl, but Lady Olympia Hightower. And not the usual stealing-the-girl business—normal fun and games for him and his two alleged best friends—but Ashmont’s bride-to-be. In her wedding dress! Minutes before the sermonizing and I wills and what’s-its. But no, it was all right now.
All for the best. He and Ripley had done what they had to do and . Ashmont shook his head, trying to shake off the image. But all the brandies and sodas failed to wash away the nightmare stuck in his skull: Ripley’s arm upraised when it oughtn’t to have been, a fraction of a heartbeat too late—the same instant Ashmont pulled the trigger. He’d come within a gnat’s eyelash of killing his best friend. No thanks to the friend. Bloody idiot. Deloping, of all things. “More.” Ashmont raised a hand to signal the barmaid.
“Another.” Then he remembered he wasn’t alone. Not yet. Humphrey Morris. Other side of the table. The Earl of Bartham’s third son. Known at school as Morris Tertius. Tall fellow. Nearly as tall as Ashmont. But younger.
Lankier. Better behaved. Which explained why he wasn’t one of Ashmont’s best friends. Before. Now was different. Morris had acted as his second when His Bloody Grace the Duke of Blackwood refused, traitorous swine. Another so-called best friend who wasn’t. Bugger the lot of them. Ashmont cast a bleary gaze at the man sitting opposite, who looked to be loading a pistol. “Didn’t we already do that?” Ashmont said, his heart sinking.
Had he only dreamt the whole ghastly duel? “Not yet,” Morris said. “You went asleep there for a bit. But before that I said you couldn’t shoot a tankard off the top of the window frame over there without breaking the glass and you said you could and now it’s ten guineas whether you can or can’t. Only first I need to go out.” He jerked his head toward the back of the public house. “Do a piss.” He pushed up clumsily from his seat. “Don’t start without me.” Ashmont watched him move, like a ship in rough seas, out of the room. He stared at the table in front of him, where the pistol case lay.
He considered the proposed target, to the right of the pub’s entrance. Easy shot. “You lying whoreson!” somebody roared. “Say it again and I’ll learn you something you won’t forget.” “Teach,” Ashmont muttered. “Not learn, you sapskull.” Nobody heeded the grammar lesson. Somebody shouted back at the sapskull. Then everybody was shouting, banging mugs, scraping chairs over the floor. The noise set Ashmont’s head vibrating.
“Stow it,” he said. “Stow it, goddamn you all to hell. Stop your bloody row.” He didn’t raise his voice. He was a duke. When he spoke, people leapt to attention. Not this lot. Too busy with their— Oh, and now louder shouting, some funny oaths he hadn’t heard before, chairs falling over, and a table. Somebody leapt onto somebody else. A rush to the door— Good.
Let ’em go. But they left the door open, and the uproar— Louder and louder. Inside. Outside. Men spilling out of the back rooms. What were they all doing here at this hour? He flung open the pistol case and grabbed a pistol. Shoving men out of his way, he staggered to the door. He stomped through it, through the covered entryway, down the steps, and onto the footpath. He cocked the pistol. Meanwhile There was a limit, and Cassandra had reached it.
Mama had wept for two days, Papa wouldn’t listen to reason, and Hyacinth couldn’t find a reason to blame anybody for anything. “Papa wants you married,” she’d said last night. “He wants someone protecting you. He doesn’t mean to be harsh. He worries. About both of us. You didn’t see what it was like after I made my debut. The gentlemen would make a crush about me, and it made Mama anxious and Papa angry. And to tell you the truth, I had rather be able to spend time with the other girls, but it isn’t pleasant for them, when men make such a fuss, wanting my attention.” She’d said, too, that she wasn’t ready to marry anybody, and Cassandra wasn’t to fret about it.
She urged Cassandra to visit their ailing former governess in Roehampton. Mrs. Nisbett was preparing to move to Rome, on doctor’s advice. This would be Cassandra’s last chance to see her. The proposal, for once, met with no parental objections beyond the usual grumbling about her driving herself, and it got Cassandra out of London, at any rate, and into the fresh scenery of the country. And so this increasingly cloudy June midmorning found her driving her demi-mail phaeton toward Putney Heath. Her maid, Gosney, sat beside her in front, and her tiger, Keeffe, behind in the dickey. For a journey of not seven miles from London, in broad day, Cassandra deemed this escort more than sufficient. Though inside her head turmoil reigned, the world about her was quiet. The only other living creature she saw was a stray cow, sole occupant of the cattle pound that stood in the heath opposite the Green Man Inn, not many yards ahead.
Given the hour, the weather, and the number of other vehicles about her (none), she assumed she’d reach Mrs. Nisbett’s place in short order. But. As she neared the Green Man, two men tumbled through the door. From behind her came Keeffe’s voice: “Miss, you’ll want to—” “Yes, I do see.” She saw the combatants scramble to their feet and go on with the fight they’d begun indoors. Other men surged out of the inn behind them, shouting—encouragement and bets, no doubt. She saw a brawl in the making, about to spill into the road. While the way was narrow, she had it to herself at present, and could easily move farther to the left, closer to the heath. She expected to slip by the imminent melee easily.
But in the same instant she turned her horses, another man staggered out of the inn, aimed a pistol at the cloudy sky, and fired. The explosion reverberated through the rustic scene like the start of battle. Gosney screamed, squawking birds rocketed up from the trees, and the horses took off at full speed. Having begun turning toward the heath, they ran straight into it. Gosney clung to her seat while Cassandra kept to the job at hand: Quiet the animals, stay in control, as Keeffe had taught her. She could do this. She hadn’t time. The reins broke, a wheel struck the edge of the cattle pound, and the vehicle went over. Ashmont ran, on unsteady legs, but he ran. A host of men, equally unsteady, went with him.
When he reached the scene, he saw three bodies on the ground. Two women, near the carriage. A man, farther away. Though he needed to cover only a short distance from the steps of the Green Man to the cattle pound, an eternity passed while he approached, sick and dizzy, looking from one motionless body to another. Then he saw movement from the heap of blue clothing. The woman sat up. Shook her head. Looked about her. Her hat had fallen to one side of her head, revealing dark red hair coming loose from its pins. He was moving to her even as he took this in, but the ground was rough, he could barely focus, and his legs didn’t want to work.
The other woman lifted her head then. Still alive. Good. He crouched by the one who was nearer, the redhead. His mouth was dry. His tongue was stuck. With some effort he managed to croak out, “You all right?” She looked straight at him, her eyes stony grey. “You,” she said. She jerked the hat this way and that and pulled it off, tearing a ribbon. She hit him with it, hard.
It was only rice straw but she took him unawares. His reflexes sluggish, his balance swimming in brandy, he went over. She scrambled to her feet and picked up the whip lying nearby. “You,” she said, looking down at him. Ashmont decided to stay where he was. She walked over him, her skirts brushing his trousers. “Yes, you, of course,” she said. “It only wanted this.”