The sight of my poor, husband strewn across the floor in so violent a manner was enough to drive all coherent thought from my head. As I stood rooted to the spot where he had last been, t’was as though I were benumbed to all feelings.
I was scarcely aware of the furore all about me as Colonel Smith and his men continued to search through the wreckage of what had once been the Long Gallery. They reported back to Major Larkin that Mr Pravos and his men had evanesced from hither with the Prince still their captive. But what was that to me when Henry lay before me wholly insentient?
“And Lord Woodville, Colonel?” Enquired the Major, with the air of one who is expecting a battlefield miracle to occur.
“He has been killed to death, Sir.” Replied Colonel Smith.
Upon hearing him speak in such irremediable disconsolate tones, I was overwhelmed by the manifold sentiments more commonly associated with sorrow of the gravest profundity.
The cruel prospect of a world so entirely devoid of Henry was too much to be borne.
Quite suddenly I found that the Major’s arm was not sufficient to keep upon my feet; and, as no solution nor escape from Henry’s death presented itself I surrendered myself to that feminine frailty, the faint.
I remained in the languid state brought about by nervous seizure for the exact time dictated by convention for so very tragic a tragedy; for it expressed both my distaste at Woddville’s expiration, as well as my inability to repose.
I awoke in my own bedchamber in such torment as I have not the power to describe. All my thoughts were of Henry and my lack of husband, it was an all consuming sorrow.
I was reminded of our dear Mamma’s inclination toward the belief that there is little in this world better calculated to relieve the pangs of so powerful a grief, as fortified wine. However I had reached for the bell cord so that I might ring for a glass of that salutiferous elixir, when I recalled that my servants had been incarcerated by Mr.Pravos; and like as not they would still be locked in the stables. As my thoughts lingered upon that black hearted son of a churl I was filled with a vexation so strong that it was quite tenfold that felt by a young lady who’s attentions have been wickedly spurned by her beau.
This hatred, it would seem, afforded me the strength of a midshipmen, for afore I was even aware of moving I was standing face to face with Major Larkin outside Henry’s apartment.
“Lady Woodville, allow me to offer my most sincere condolences” Said he, bowing graciously.
I curtseyed briefly, then with no further attempt at cordiality, said “Major Larkin, I wish to see my husband.”
I took a step toward the door, but the Major stood firmly betwixt me and it.
“Madam, Lord Woodville was killed in battle, I assure you, that is no place for a wife.” Said he inclining his head toward the camber.
“Widowhood is no place for a wife, Major. I demand to see Henry.” I addressed my brother in law with as much commanding authority as I could manage, for I was aware that the mourning gown I had donned did not shew my figure to any advantage. It was enough, however, because Major Larkin opened the door and accompanied me into the room where Woodville lay.
Dearest Catherine, I had full expected that upon seeing Woodville, deceased as he was, I would be overcome with every unhappy feeling. However I was struck, not by bereaved lamentations, but rather, by the strong sentiment that I was had fallen prey to some wicked charade. While the man that lay before me undoubtedly resembled my husband, the hair was of the very same tint, his stature equal to Henry’s, he wore the coat of that peculiarly charming blue hue. But that coat, whose buttons I was certain were fastened as we fought side by side but hours ago. That coat which pleasingly complimented his complexion and features, which had been so perfectly tailored in Town; did not fit.
I was engulfed by that most welcome of emotions, hope! I turned to the major in spirits that were, considering the presence of a dead man, severely wanting in respect and declared;
“It is not Woodville!”
I saw the major’s complexion flush to a hue similar to his regimental coat.
“Lady Woodville of what do you speak?”
“That man,” Said I indicating the pretender; “that charlatan is not my husband.” I saw the doubt upon Major Larkin’s visage. “Come hither Major, regard closely his coat. That coat was the very essence of fashionable needlework yet now it does not fit.”
” His coat? Madam,” Said he in tones better suited to the sick bed of an ailing Godmother; “I believe that the grief may have robbed you of your sensibilities, for a coat can hardly be indicative…”
I would not tolerate such a rebuttal; thus I raised my voice beyond what could be considered ladylike and screamed; “I am no lunatic Sir! That is not Henry!”
the loss of my temper seemed to confirm the loss of my senses, and instead of looking at the coat he ushered me from the room as though fearful I might challenge him to a duel. He did not relinquish me until he had found his wife in the drawing room.
He had scarce explicated to Elizabeth all that had passed, and fervently suggested that I be given a generous draught of the sleep tonic the apothecary had left, so that my nerves might be settled, before he fled to the room, begging the excuse of regimental business.
Whence the parlour door closed behind him Elizabeth turned and said; “You do not believe it to be Henry? Pray, show me.”
We stood once more beside the body of the imposter as Elizabeth, who’s stomach is decidedly strong for one so fair, closely scrutinised the garment.
“Maria, you are entirely correct in your estimations. This is not my brother!” Said she in such rapturous delight that one might easily believe she had lately received an invitation to dine with a countess.
“They must still have Woodville? But why?” It seemed wholly unfathomable to me.
“Perchance they thought he may prove useful as a bargaining token, should they be discovered.”
“We must save him then!” Said I with feeling.
“But Maria, Mr Pravos and his men took the Prince and fled through the subterranean passage that leads to the folly. They are gone we know not where!”
Catherine, I have never before regretted the indulgence of so many improvements to the Park, yet now I sincerely wished I had stopped at planting the lime walk. That folly was folly indeed!
I was close to despairing when I saw Elizabeth stoop low over the churl’s hand.
“Hark at this,” Said she, “he has a parchment clasped in his fist. perchance it may give us some indication as to their scheme.”
And with the dexterity usually associated with a embroidery mistress she twisted the parchment free. We unfurled it together in some considerable anticipation. However as the scroll was full revealed all such hope left me with the velocity of the led fired from a riffle. It contained nought but a stream of almost indiscernible letters.
“Oh, damnation to it all! It is of no use, whomever composed this was evidently an ill bred ruffian, it is wholly nonsensical!” Cried I in ardent despair.
But Elizabeth took the scroll and would not release it from her shrewd gaze. “Nay,” said she “I recognise the arrangement of the page. It is a cypher.” As she spoke she drew a small circular object of polished brass from her netted purse.
“What is that?” I enquired as she laid it upon the table.
“It is a code wheel, one uses it to render such secret notes legible; it is rather diverting.” Said she passionately, my visage must have been all uncomprehending confusion for she continued. “I have already mastered the harp, Maria.”
It would seem that Elizabeth, who has not found the obligations of running a home to be sufficiently diverting for a woman of such astounding abilities, has developed the peculiar habit of finding herself in the Major’s study and happily deciphering whatever mysterious diplomatic pouches happened to cross his desk.
She leant over the curious instrument and swiftly transliterated the message upon the paper.
“Nay! I must show this to my husband.” Said she quickstepping from the room sans further explanation. I pursued her as though she were a highwayman who had relieved of my jewels until she came upon Major Larkin in the morning room.
“Larkin, forgive me, but I have not the time to indulge in the pleasantries of marital discord nor full elucidation. I found this upon that dissembler’s body. It makes reference to the villains designs. They are making their way to Windsor. You must order the regiment to give chase! They have the Prince and my brother, both of whom must be in mortal peril.”
“Madness and nonsense. Elizabeth I had never believed you to be prone to hysterics, but it would seem that you too have succumbed to grief.” He took Elizabeth’s hands with such condescension that I longed to strike him. “I know you wish for Henry to be alive, but your notion belongs in a novel my dear. I cannot very well command my regiment and ask them to risk their lives pursuing the whimsical notions of my wife.” He displayed a particular partiality for the fleeing from female company as he left the room once more.
Elizabeth made to follow him but I could see it was beyond hope.
I caught her arm and said;
“Elizabeth, if we continue to assert our veracity he will surely commit us both to a house of lunatics. I fear we shall have to take matters into our own hands. Pray where is that sleeping draught, I fear we may need to usurp your husband’s authority.”
For Elizaeth’s unusual accomplishments had provided me with a scheme of some brilliance.
Yours, upon the very brink of an act of treachery,
Lady Maria Woddville.