Authors: Beyond the Dawn
BEYOND THE DAWN
London, January 1752
There was no moon. A mist rose from the black waters of the Thames, sending up the dank odor of river slime. The mist mingled with inrolling winter fog. Fog and mist curled over the waterfront like a shroud, hiding the coach-and-four that waited on the quay.
Alert to waterfront dangers and armed with cudgels, three footmen guarded the coach. The footmen sniffed the fog, listening. From a jumble of dilapidated taverns near the quay came the loud roistering of sailors well into their cups.
Footsteps sounded. The guards tensed. Two heavily painted prostitutes with identical orange hair and dirty red petticoats drifted out of the fog and floated toward the coach.
“A moment of joy, dearies? Ten minutes of heaven?” they called to the footmen.
The burliest of the footmen stepped forward, tapping his cudgel to the palm of his hand.
“Begone,” he growled.
The women retreated into the fog with thin, complaining whines.
Inside the coach a girl waited, head bowed, hands clasped as if in prayer. But if the truth were known, she was not praying. She clasped her hands to keep them from shaking. Her fingers twitched nervously, wanting to find the gold ruby ring and twist it. But the hands were ringless.
Despite the warmth of the dark wool cloak that covered her slender body from head to toe, she trembled. At the slightest noise—a raucous echo from the taverns or the muted jingling of horse harness—her head jerked up. Her eyes lit with panic.
eyes, thought elderly Simon Beauchamp as he watched his niece in the dim flaring light of the coach lantern. Eyes like wild doves. No, Simon corrected himself, her eyes were like lotus blossoms, such as grew in far distant lands. What a rare color! A brilliant turquoise when her mood was sunny, untroubled— a jade green when she was frightened, as now.
As he sadly watched her, her incredible eyes lifted to his, imploring.
doing the right thing, Uncle Simon?”
It was less a question than a prayer. He leaned forward, patting a small hand so stiff and cold that it jolted his very soul.
“You are doing the only thing possible,” he assured her quickly.
Sadness tugged at his old heart. She was his favorite, the eldest of his brother’s six daughters. It had given him no pleasure to marry her off at fifteen to the fifty-year-old duke. And tonight gave him no pleasure; it revolted him.
When the panic did not subside in her eyes, he repeated what they’d spoken of privately many times before.
“Your madman of a husband is too vain to admit he cannot father a child. He is obsessed with siring an heir for his dukedom. His first two duchesses died without giving him an heir.” He paused, going on as gently as he was able. “Must I remind you how he behaved to them when they proved barren? He sent the first to his estate in Germany, where she lived friendless and neglected. In her unhappy state, she fell prey to illness and died. A similar fate befell his second duchess.”
“I don’t want to be sent away!”
He sighed unhappily.
“You have been his duchess four years and there has been no child...”
He watched her eyes widen into pools of green terror.
“I would fear
less than I fear
she whispered, scarlet patches suddenly blooming on the high, delicately formed cheekbones.
Simon felt a surge of pity. Instantly he chastised himself for it. Sentiment must have no part in this. His niece must do what she must do: lives and fortunes depended upon it.
Leather cushions squeaked beneath him as he shifted his bulk forward, taking her young hands into his large, time-scarred ones.
“Think of your father,” he exhorted softly. “You love him, but you must realize your father is a fool about finances. Money flows through his fingers like water. He is deeply in debt to the duke. He depends upon the duke to underwrite his every frivolous whim. He counts on the duke to grant your sisters handsome dowries when they come of age.”
“Don’t, Uncle Simon,” she begged.
But he pressed on. He knew she hated to hear ill of her father, but as family mentor he could not afford pity.
“What would happen if the duke sent you away? Think. Would you see your father cast into debtors’ prison? What then would become of your mother and your sisters?”
He was satisfied when the small hand he held gave a violent shudder. She had always been the responsible one, the dutiful one, devoted to her family.
Suddenly she tossed her head in frantic appeal, clutching his hand with both of hers.
“Uncle Simon, advise me. Tell me what to do. I shall do anything. I swear it!”
Simon Beauchamp eased his tired, pain-riddled body into the cushions, comforted by her passionate outburst but saddened. She was the daughter he’d never had. He loved her.
He sighed, a sigh that terminated in a wheeze of poor health. It was a cruel world that required one’s daughters be used as pawns; She was waiting for him to speak, her eyes imploring him for a wisdom he wished he possessed. She was so small and frightened sitting there in the smoky lantern light. He cleared his throat. The words he was again forced to say stuck in his craw like grit.
“Deceive your husband. Bear a child, Flavia.” She said nothing. The only sound was her panicky, uneven breathing. When the rhythm of her breathing changed, when it deepened in resignation, he knew she’d come to terms with it at last. When her voice broke the silence, it was the voice of a lady. Dignified. Calm. Only an occasional quaver betrayed her.
“This... this man you have selected, Uncle Simon. He... resembles the duke?” Simon smiled at the girl’s intelligence. “Dark eyes, dark hair. Taller and more robust. But any child born would be accepted as the duke’s.”
She closed her eyes, paling. “This... man... is young and healthy?” He leaned forward, squeezing her stiff cold hand.
“I have ascertained it, Flavia. By discreet inquiry.”
Her incredible eyes seemed to fill her face, and she searched his face as though searching out Holy Writ.
“You are positive I shall never see the man again, after tonight?”
Simon smiled sadly. “He is a colonial, Flavia. A shipmaster. His ship is the
He sails for Virginia colony tomorrow on the tide.”
Watching her, Simon feared she would hold her breath forever. He could see the pulse thudding in the fragile hollow at the base of her throat. She grew deathly pale.
know who I am?” she begged.
Simon shook his head, hating to say what must be said. He cleared his throat.
“He thinks you a—a whore, Flavia.”
She lapsed into shocked silence.
Simon let the minutes pass. He didn’t press. But when the ten o’clock watch was called by the quay watchman, Simon knew he must prod.
“Little Flavia,” he said softly, “it is time.”
* * * *
Bone-chilling winter fog swallowed her up not five steps from the coach. Its cold wet fingers probed into the hood of her cloak, curling around her neck. She shivered, clutching her cloak closed. The fog billowed so thickly over the ground that she felt she would trip on it. Her footsteps sounded distant, far away, as though they did not belong to her. She walked quickly, lest courage fail. Her short, panicky breaths drew in the fog odors of rotted wharf timbers and damp chimney smoke.
As the glowing windows of the tavern grew to life size, her steps faltered, then stopped. Fear hammered through her. As though to provide a staccato for her fear, the screams of alley cats pierced the fog. Something shot past her, hissing. She whirled in fear, trying to see the coach. One moment she could see it, the next she could not. The rolling fog was playing hide-and-seek with it. She started to run for the coach, then jerked herself back.
You must do it,
she told herself fiercely.
For your own sake. And for Papa.
Boots clattered over cobblestone, running frantically.
“Did ye get his purse, matey?”
“Ay,” a disembodied voice answered somewhere in the fog: “But I lost m’ pigsticker, I did. Stuck in his ruddy rib, it did.”
Flavia flew toward the tavern in panic and jerked open the door. Odors rushed at her:
beer, male sweat, filth, frying fish. Laughter and drunken cursing rumbled from the public room to the left. The dark staircase was straight ahead, as Uncle Simon had said. She bolted for it, but a hand shot out, seizing her cloak. Flavia yelped in fright. The hand belonged to a brassy, orange-haired woman who popped out of the shadows and gave Flavia a vicious shake.
“Say, now, you! Cast off. This tavern is
Flavia instinctively jerked her cloak free of the clutching hand and lunged away from the smell of overpowering perfume.
Another woman drifted out, identical to the first.
“Aw, leave her be, luv. Can’t yer see she’s a
Terrified, Flavia backed away, then whirled and bolted up the staircase, escaping the women. Their crude cackling laughter and screaming perfume pursued her to the top. When she looked down, a drunkenly weaving man had joined the women. He put one booted foot on the first step and leered up at her.
“Care for a bit of company, me pretty?”
Flavia panicked. She flew along the corridor to the end of it, then fell panting against a greasy wall. Overhead, a befouled oil lamp sputtered. Grotesque shadows performed a macabre dance in the lamplight. A rancid smell hung in the hall.
I can’t do it, Uncle Simon! I can’t! I’d rather die!
Just then, a booted step sounded in the stairwell. Then another. Freezing in fear, she hugged the wall, pressing into the shadows.
“Ten o’clock and she’s a foggy night ... ten o’clock and the fog’s rollin’ in...”
The watchman’s call, muted by fog and the closed wood shutters of the window in the hired room above the tavern, evoked a string of soft curses from the bed where Garth McNeil lay whiling away the time by balancing a half-empty brandy bottle on his broad, sun-browned chest.
the little tart!”
With a quick movement he sat up and caught the bottle in a practiced hand as it tumbled. Ramming cork into bottle, he threw it aside. The bottle bumped over crude floor planks.
He was due back at the
within the hour. If he were an honest man, he reflected wryly, he’d admit he needed a whore about as desperately as he needed a cannon blast through the head. The Baroness Annette Vachon had taken care of that during his short London stay. He grinned, rubbing a jaw that cried for shaving. Savoring the deliciousness of the memory, he chuckled. If
was how a baroness behaved in bed, he could hardly wait to graduate to a viscountess.
McNeil lunged up from the bed. His boots hit the floor with a bang. He grabbed a ruffled shirt of cream silk. He was into it in two impatient shrugs, ramming shirttails into expensive, well-tailored breeches. He grabbed his coat.
He’d not wait for the whore. He didn’t need her. In fact, he made it a practice to avoid whores. He wanted no part of the “French disease.”
The heels of his boots pounded across the room to the door. He wrenched up the door latch. Then, as though controlled by invisible wires, his hand was stayed on the latch, unmoving.
The old man had tantalized him with the offer to procure a bewitching girl. First, there was the puzzle of the man himself. A stately well-to-do old gentleman procuring flesh? Ridiculous. Second, there’d been the portrait. The painted miniature, which the old gentleman had carefully drawn from his cloak pocket, was a portrait of a creature so delicate, so stunning that Garth had laughed in the man’s face. A whore, indeed!
Now he stood still, remembering... God, what eyes. Bright blue, flecked with green. The eyes glowed from a heart-shaped face framed by a mass of coppery hair. He remembered the delicate hairline, the widow’s peak giving the face an aura of unbelievable sweetness.
For a long time, he stood scarcely breathing. He let his hand fall from the door latch. Recrossing the room with slow uncertain steps, he retrieved the brandy bottle from where it had rolled, uncorked it and drank.
He wondered if the girl could be a highborn lady from one of London’s secret clubs, clubs in which jaded ladies sold themselves for thrills or for money. But such women usually were “sold” by foppish young men who minced about in lace suits and diamond ear studs.
He laughed. “You’re a fool, McNeil,” he told himself. “The old fox has a game. He means to pass off some well-used slattern as the wonderful creature in the miniature. Her face will be a battlefield of pox pits. The pits will have been puttied over with wax and powdered until she looks like the bottom of a flour sack!”
He snorted in amused self-derision as he lifted the bottle once again. Brandy burned a trail of fire down his gullet. He thrust cork into bottle and slung the bottle away. But this time it broke. The acrid scent of expensive French spirits curled into the air, mingling with the rancid smells of the cheap oil lamp and the unswept room.