My Dearest Catherine,
I pray that you are full recovered from your perusal of my last correspondence, for I am quite certain that upon reading it you found it entirely necessary to succumb to your overwhelming sensibilities and surrender yourself to a fainting fit, the likes of which could ne’er be equalled. Confess that, although I seldom fall prey to such feminine frailty, I did conclude myself in grave need of the dual remedies of the smelling salts and fortified wine.
Both of which were happily in the possession of Foot, that most excellent of footmen.
He hap’t to hasten into the deserted assembly hall at the very instant that I required his aid (he really is a most dependable servant).
“Lady Woodvile!” Exclaimed he. “We hastened forth as soon as we heard the gunfire, pray, are you injured? Ought the apothecary be sent for?”
“A little, Foot, but do not concern yourself, tis nought that can not be ameliorated by intoxicating liquor.” I assured him as he aided me to my feet. “Pray if I might have a glass?”
As Foot decanted a little of my preferred beverage into a small crystal glass Mr Hand, another of my pleasingly present servants found a gilt chair for me to repose in. Once I had drained half a dozen glasses of the wine and bound the wound upon my shoulder with a length of satin torn from my sash I endeavoured to recount, in the prettiest language at my disposal, what had just come to pass betwixt myself and Woodville.
I concluded my tale with a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia, for the discovery of my husband’s enduring allegiance to the crown and love for me had stirred in me sentiments of a most patriotic nature.
Having joined me for the final harmony, Foot proposed that we ought lose no time afore we summoned the militia and pursued the villains to the castle, for we fervently believed that, accompanied as we were by such a plurality of regiments we should surely be able to overthrow Pravos and his men in a most agreeable amount of time. I concluded this to be an admirable notion, and following one further glass of fortified wine was chaperoned from the assembly hall by my servants.
We returned to the chaise and four to find Elizabeth. She was ensconced in the carriage still, with her writing box atop her knees and looking remarkably well for a young lady who has so lately robbed her husband of his senses and abandoned him in the country.
“Elizabeth! Forgive my neglecting the conventions of polite society thus, but I have little time to indulge in civility. You must command all the regiments to the castle this instant! Your brother hath infiltrated Pravos’ men and we must delay no further in running to his aid!” Cried I as Elizabeth continued writing in a manner, that with every stroke of her quill spoke of one in a state of the most acute agitation.
“Maria, I am in a state of the most acute agitation!” Said she. ” I am afraid what you ask is an impossibility! I have lately received this missive from Pravos himself.”
She drew from her netted purse an elegant scroll written in a tidy, yet cruel hand. I hastily unfurled it and read aloud.
“Men of the Militia, take heed. I have taken the castle! Among our captives are their Highnesses the King and Queen, all of the heirs to their thrones and an abundance of noble members of court. If you wish for them to remain unharmed you shall attend to this; I have placed barrels containing no trifling amount of gunpowder within the castle walls and there are three further caches of barrels concealed hither and thither amongst the fashionable part of town. Should any plot to storm the castle to retrieve the King be made I shall have no hesitation in lighting their wicks. Your humble servant Mr Pravos Esq.”
“Forsooth, what an infuriatingly well conceived scheme. T’would seem Pravos is prepared for every fortuity!” Was the only reply within my power.
“And furthermore,” Continued Elizabeth in tonnes of ill concealed vexation. “I believe I may have lost my usurped command over the militia, for I have been plagued by an uncommonly uncouth colonel who is all insistence that he ought speak to the Major in person! Thus how can I hope to ensure the militia do not advance upon the castle?”
Dearest sister, I was close to despair for I have scarce found myself to be so very truly thwarted. Had I not been in possession of a robust constitution and some of the finest smelling salts, I am certain I would have lost all composure. As it was, however I spoke with decided authority when I addressed Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth, simply inform the colonel that your poor dear husband the Major is still indisposed with an attack of the gout, He is so partial to overindulgence they shall have no difficulty in believing it to be true, but he is anxious that his commands be obeyed at once. Then you must turn all your accomplishments to the task of retrieving the barrels, Pravos is a man of so little honour he will indubitably ignite them for the sole pleasure of causing chaos and destruction. You must discover them afore a single innocent soul is lost.”
I then looked toward Foot and said “Foot, although Pravos’ men shall be awaiting an ambuscade by the regiment I doubt they would expect one by a company of footmen, much less a congeries of ladies. Here is what I propose …”
My dear sister, I shall not trouble you by recounting our exact exchange for I believe you shall only find such battlefield discourse tedious and I fear that you may find my combative tone greatly lacking in grace and poise. And, Catherine, I believe your nerves have suffered enough thus far without witnessing your younger sister conduct herself in manner better suited to a brawling peasant. It is enough to say that we resolved upon approaching the Castle in the guise of peasant women, for like as not such creatures would pass unnoticed (I deem it prudent here to assure you that the suggestion to impersonate of females of such lowly rank was not my own and was the cause of more than a little disputation betwixt myself and my footman). Thence we would, quite certainly, be able to find some clandestine passage into the fortress and catch them unawares.
And that, dear sister, is how I came to find myself in the habiliment of a common rustic, which was rendered doubly ill fitting on account of the abundance of weapons concealed beneath my skirts (I believe my tolerance for a robe with so little pretence at fashion, indeed the waistline sat almost upon my hips, evinces the ardent nature of my love for my husband.) We perambulated as furtively as we could in such displeasing stuff toward the castle.
We were perhaps favoured with goodly luck for it soon became apparent that neither his Majesty the King nor Mr Pravos were of a peculiarly paranoiac distrustful nature; thus the castle was pleasingly poorly guarded at it’s southern most point. We stood braced against the forbiddingly gelid outer wall, our weapons quite ready.
“Pray, Lady Woodville, remain here. I shall advance alone and signal to you when t’is prudent to advance.” Spake Mr’ Foot as he gathered his skirts closely about him and leapt forth with honourable eagerness.
Mr. Foot has been long enough acquainted with my impetuous disposition to know that I am not partial to waiting, particularly when one finds one’s entire household in grave peril; therefore he was kind enough to not leave me in nervous anguish for too long. I felt every sentiment usually associated with relief when that fine handkerchief embroidered with the words Foot’s Signal fell at my feet (Catherine, pray remind me to inform Foot that the cross stitch is no longer considered elegant, I must teach him the Cretan stitch for such occasions), and we stepped forward, once more into action.
As I rejoined Mr. Foot Just within the wall of the castle grounds I noted the look of despair upon his face. I pursued the horizon and my gaze quickly fell upon the root of what caused him such distress. We had entered the grounds on the opposite side to the Royal Apartments.
I turned to Mr. Hand with an ill refined air of vexation which my servants are seldom privy too.
“Mr. Hand,” Said I “you assured us this ingress was the very essence of convenience, and yet the chambers we seek are so sizeable a distance away I am close to despair. Such folly shall not be borne. If you did not shew so keen an ability to shine the silver I would dismiss you this instant. You have endangered our whole deputation Sir!”
We had no choice but to risk exposure by crossing the grounds. I had my footman form a sedan char from their own arms, for no lady of elevated rank and good breeding would allow herself to traverse so great a park sans a genteel method of conveyance. Yet with every step my unease grew to severe disquietude that, even dressed as we were we would be far too easily discernible by our foe; and with each moment that passed our chances of victory would languish away until they had no choice but to perish.
I was upon the very brink of despair when a courier pigeon soared down from above and relinquished a note.
“Tis from Mrs Larkin!” Cried I in delight as I read Elizabeth’s missive. “She writes to say the militia have succeeded in securing the first two barrels of gunpowder they now have but two one to seek, what is more she informs me, in the prettiest language, that she has studied the architect’s drawings for the Royal apartments and the sole place Mr Pravos would have any hope of concealing the cache of barrels he so wickedly boasted of, lies but four and twenty paces to our east.”
It would seem that I was not the only one who was nigh on overwhelmed by that happiest of sentiments, hope; for the footmen chanted Hazar thrice afore we headed, with renewed zeal toward the east.
However as we entered that darkened quarter of the castle and cast our gaze upon a veritable cordillera of gunpowder barrels I realised that my earlier fears that we had been decried came true. Although, the gallery was quite deserted the fuse had been lit.
“Make haste Foot Extinguish it!” Was my cry.
“Madam I fear I cannot.” Replied he.
“Pray, of what do you speak?” Enquired I. But I soon knew that he spake veracity, and was filled with a terror that I have not the ability to describe. The fuse had been encased in a curious glass contraption which boasted such numerous bolts, locks and cogs t’was rendered quite impenetrable.
“Lady Woodville,” Said Foot. “I believe we have less than half a dozen minutes afore the barrels blow, taking us and half the castle with them.”
To Be Continued …