My Dearest Sister,
I am quite aware that you shall undoubtedly be suffering from the greatest pangs of agitation, and I believe it would be advisable to settle yourself with a good measure of fortified wine before continuing your perusal of this letter. I am afraid that I can offer you little comfort that the remainder of my account shall be any less shocking to your sensibilities; that would be a wicked deception indeed. You must prepare yourself for something very dreadful, Catherine, I had acquiesced to do their bidding. I had agreed to dispatch Prince!
Before the full consequence of so weighty a burden had full descended upon me, a churl of little significance entered the parlour and addressed my tormentor.
“Mr Pravos.” Said he, revealing his leader’s name. “All the footmen are locked away in the servants’ quarters and we have secured their liveries, Sir, we have brought you several.”
Sister, upon hearing these words I felt a great sense of vexation at such scandalous treatment of my servants.
“Very good Grieves, I shall be with you presently.” Replied the fiend.
“Mr Pravos,” Said I, glad to be returned once more to the familiarity that titles afford. “I must protest at such ill treatment of my footmen, I know my household well enough to know that you cannot have found fault with them, for despite the manner of your arrival in my home they would have striven to ensure you were afforded every cordiality.”
“Lady Woodville, we shall not be harming your man servants but, rather, replacing them.” Said Mr Pravos.
I was all confusion, a state that must have been clearly etched upon my visage for he continued to explicate.
“We shall be taking their positions to guard you and the Prince until your ball … I should hate for for him to come to any harm before he expires at your hand, Lady Woodville.”
“You forget Sir, that you fired your way into my establishment with as little elegance or restraint as a regiment of the French militia. You can scarce suppose that the prince will so very readily forget your physiognomy.”I declared.
“Oh, lady woodville,” rejoined he, with intolerable glee. “I am confident that the Prince suffers from that strong sense of his own magnanimity that comes with great consequence and nobility; anonymity, you is the blessing of the poor. For, do you truly believe that the prince would ever take the trouble to glance above once to observe the countenances of lowly footmen?”
For a violent Rustic, Mr Pravos proved to be in possession of sound logic.
“Besides, madam, I am not fool enough to neglect the knowledge that Lord Woodville has schooled them all in the finer skills of combat and the rules of engagement. Your footmen are no mere servants, they are your very own constabulary.”
I was correct in my assumption that Mr Pravos was strongly partial to the timbres of his own voice, for having concluded his disquisition he embarked directly upon another.
“The Prince shall be taken to his apartment, when he fully awakens from this stupor, which I must say is prodigious long for a man destined for great power, you shall tell him that we were a band of highwaymen who were desirous of nothing more than your finest jewellery and a netted purse full of gold coins. You will then inform him that it was above anything fortunate that your gamekeepers had the good sense to put flight to us in a manner exactly calculated to rid an estate of poachers.”
He turned his attentions to Woodville.
“You may untie your husband, his current incarceration may prove burdensome to excuse before His Highness.”
I hastened over to my poor dear Henry and untethered the ropes that held him to the chaise, and tended to the slash upon his visage. As I did so I noted, with some small feeling of optimism that is so oft associated with a debutante who feels the gaze of a handsome beau for the first time, that Mr Pravos’ eye was now focused elsewhere. The villainous fellow was happily diverted in scrutinising the footmen’s liveries as he attempted to discern which would prove most complimentary to his figure.
“Henry,” Said I making every effort toward the pretence that I was merely whispering the gentle platitudes of a wife who has so lately feared for her husband’s life. “I believe we must attempt to extricate ourselves from here.”
“Maria, our minds are as one. If we could but make it to the gun room we could doubtless overpower these treacherous churls, and save the Prince.” Said he.
“We would be outnumbered, but we have been so before.” Murmured I.
“Perchance Maria, you could feign a faint? I am aware such a thing is not within your nature, however these dastards are not well enough acquainted with the particulars of your character to find such a delicate frailty entirely inconceivable. They shall be obliged by polite convention to permit us to leave this parlour.” Was Henry’s earnest entreaty.
I was entirely in accord with his proposition. Confess, dearest sister, that I had long made a study of your nervous disposition and the manner in which you fall unconscious; thus I took but a moment to throw myself into the most refined of swoons, which so very exactly resembled yours, that, as I landed in Henry’s arms, I understood myself to be a most accomplished mimic, and I inwardly congratulated myself.
“Oh nay, Maria has swooned, she is suffering from some nervous complaint!” Cried Woodville as he cast himself wholeheartedly into our little subterfuge. “She must be taken to her bedchamber this very instant! I should not be surprised if the apothecary will need be fetched, for she seems in a perilous state indeed. Perchance the leeches will be needed, for she is indubitably in the grips of a nervous fever that is beyond the reach of the smelling salts!”
I was upon the point of intimating to him that he had embroidered our fabrication enough, and he had now perhaps, better take his leave of the drawing room; when he gathered me to him and fled the parlour. The churls had not even the time to summon Mr Pravos from behind the oriental screen (where he still struggled to conclude which livery would do justice to his complexion) to give us his leave to quit the drawing room.
As soon as we had reached the dark of the corridor Henry restored me to my feet, took my hand and together we made all haste through the passages toward our best hope of survival, the gun room. However as we rounded that final corner and reached the door those hopes were dashed.
“It is locked. We cannot enter.” Woodville’s spirits seemed to sink like a shipwrecked galleon as he spoke.
“Pray of what do you speak?” Said I in tones of inattentive preoccupation, for I had heard from behind me Mr Pravos terrible scream of piqued displeasure as he felt, most acutely, our absence from the parlour.
“Retrieve them, you vexatious simpletons, you have allowed them to evade me! Retrieve them.”
“Maria, my dearest the door is bolted, we cannot pass.” My husband was all dismay.
“Pray watch over my back.” Said I as I stepped forth and drew an elegant pearl barrette from my tresses and began work upon that lock with the fervour of the most determined thief.
Only a moment seemed to have passed betwixt Pravos’ shouted curses and the appearance in the gallery of a number ill featured rustics.
“Damnation to it all, they are here. Maria, work quickly!”
As Woodville spoke he seized whatever weapon was closest to hand and wielded it with such decided authority at the churls that they did not, at first, notice that it was in fact, my lace parasol.
He was soon overpowered, and fell captive to those peasants; as I turned the hair pin within the lock and felt it give but a little I was aware once again of that troubling sensation of being grasped by my shoulders and forcibly impelled in the very direction from whence we had come. My most hearty objections to such comportment were ungraciously interrupted by my own husband.
“You son of a churl, unhand Lady Woodville, she had fainted!”
“Falsehoods! That woman is incapable of fainting, she is however capable of great deception.” Squalled Mr Pravos.
I had been so happily diverted in combating the churl who had hold of my arms that I failed to notice Pravos’ approach. Sister, he proved himself to have been cursed with a curious disregard for fashion, for he had settled upon a livery that did his figure great disservice.
“And you sir are incapable of good taste; that livery, like your ill mannered addresses, does nought but expose your vulgarity.” Said I with feeling.
“Silence! do you think I do not know that your gun room lies not four and twenty paces from this place? Lord and Lady Woodville will be taken to the morning room so that her ladyship might send out the invitations to her ball.”
As we were roughly chaperoned Woodville lowered his voice to the tones of a barely perceivable, whispering wind.
“Maria you cannot throw this ball. It will not merely ruin your reputation as a society hostess, perhaps forever, it will also mean committing murder of the severest kind.”
” Do not fear, Henry. I know how it might be arranged so that it will all pass off without incurring the expense of a ball or a charge of treason against us.” Said I in tones far too assured to be considered fashionable.
“How?” Enquired he.
“You sister, I shall invite her to the ball”
“Maria, Elizabeth shall never come, she detests a ball.” Woodville was perplexed confusion.
“That is exactly why she will come.” was my whispered reply, “Elizabeth knows I would never subject her to such a trial, thus when she receives my request for the pleasure of her company she shall know something is terribly amiss … and as your dear sister is so very lately married to Major Larkin…”
I saw comprehension and admiration for my scheme flood Henry’s visage, rendering him doubly handsome.
For you see, my dearest sister, by inviting Elizabeth I am summoning the militia.
Yours in delighted anticipation of imminent rescue,
Post script: You may have asked yourself how I have managed to write so full an account of my current predicament, t’would seem that the churl standing guard in the morning room does not count reading amongst his accomplishments; thus he believes me to still be penning beauteous invitations to the ball.