My Dear Catherine,
I had hoped that I might, by this letter bring you happy news of our discovering Harriet safe and well, but such a pleasure is not in my power. Despite our hasty departure to London, let me assure you we did not delay by even one hour, much to my aunt’s dismay for she had expressed a hankering to take a turn about the garden, events unfolded that were quite beyond our control.
Our journey was tolerable, though our progress through London was slower as we were forced to take the least populated route in an attempt to be inconspicuous, however complete anonymity was impossible as we travelled in a procession of five sleek black coaches. During the journey we had agreed betwixt us that the most prudent course of action would be to surround the letter writer’s house, if it could be described thus for it had only two sash widows, such a number could never render it respectable, as swiftly and silently as possible; then descend upon it all at once thereby trapping everyone within and reclaim my poor sister.
We halted the carriages two streets from our quarry and I watched Lord Woodville distribute weapons and orders.
“Foot, I shall want two of your nimblest men to climb that oak, I feel a bird’s eye view could prove rewarding.” Engaged thus in observing him, it was several moments before I realised that he did not intend me to accompany them.
“Excuse me Lord Woodville.” I interrupted him.
“Forgive me madam, I neglected to hand you down from the carriage, that was unaccountable of me!”
“Hand me down …” Said I in genuine disbelief “No sir, it is not with your lack of genteel manners that I take issue but with the fact that I am not to accompany you to rescue my sister.”
“Madam, surely you are in jest.” Said he.
“But Miss Maria, forgive me but you are a woman, an elegant female, a member of the gentle…”
“Indeed I am, but such a state does not impede me from wielding a weapon.” As I spoke he paled a little. ” It may shock your sensibilities, but when I was sixteen years old I travelled to the East Indies where I had no choice but to learn to duel. For we elegant females are on occasion required to defend the things we hold in high esteem.” I could see he wished to continue the quarrel so I pressed on, “Lord Woodville we do not have time to exhaust the topic. My sister’s life hangs in the balance.”
To my relief after a few moments consideration he conceded,
“Very well, you may be one of our party if you swear to me upon your honour that you shall do exactly as I say and remain close to me throughout”
Upon my nod he placed in my hands a rifle, a sword and a duelling pistol. Once the latter was secured to my sash we proceeded through the shadows, quiet as game poachers.
“We wait for Foot’s signal then we move.” He whispered.
A handkerchief embroidered with the word “Foot’s Signal” fell from above and holding my gun I followed Lord Woodville into the house. Aunt Margaret close behind quite determined to uphold an illusion of propriety.
“It is an impenetrable darkness, I fear we shall not be able to distinguish even the most refined silhouette” I murmured but before I could finish expressing my concern the room before us was illuminated by the blast of gunpowder, a bullet soared not three inches from me.
I know not what came over me but I was so enraged by the fiendish peasant’s attempt to fire at a woman, that I aimed directly into the flash and fired. There came a cry of pain and a thud as he fell to the floor.
I was then too overcome by my own impetuous nature that I nearly fainted and was most grateful to my aunt for always carrying smelling salts about her person. Lord Woodville hastened forward.
“He is wounded, but not too severely. Foot, bring the candles I wish to see the brigand.”
I could hear footsteps but all was still confusion to me until the filthy parlour in which we stood was warmed by the candles glow.
“The house is empty save for him. there seems to be no sign of Miss Henrietta.”
“Nay sir, that is not the case, may I crave your indulgence.” Foot spoke earnestly.
We followed, I with my nerves all of a flutter, to a small room in which stood a chair and a low easel.
“This is what I wished to show you.” He said.
On the easel rested a canvass illustrated with a series of pictures, all depicting a terrified Henrietta and a masked captor with a chin so large that he could not be considered a well-looking man. Beneath the painting the words “You now have merely twenty-one days to bring to the …” but there the words came to a halt.
“Damnation to it all!” Cried Lord Woodville “But that man must know something.” He indicated the wounded man, who now sat slumped and bound in a corner.
“Miss Maria bring the drawing.” He took my sword from my side and rounded upon the brute on the floor.
“You sir, What is the meaning of this” He indicated the painting with his sword. “You will answer me or I shall cut you from navel to nose.” Lord Woodville shook as though possessed by some demon. The man spluttered and coughed but spoke not a word. Lord Woodville then raised his sword arm to carry out his threat.
“Lord Woodville!” I entreated.
“Tell me.” He repeated quite oblivious to my presence.
“There is a parchment.” the prisoner spoke in little more than a hoarse whisper.
“What parchment” I demanded all eagerness. “Speak you son of a peasant!”
“The parchment is in the … it is in the … in the …” It seems he was capable of no more for with a terrible gouty cough he expired.
“Damnation to it all!” Lord Woodville vented considerable spleen but I was able to issue no more than a gasp of utter despair as our hope faded.
Yours in a state of heightened distress,