We remained in an attitude so still it was as though we were marble statues in our own collection, waiting for the more powerful blasts to subside. Woodville’s arms shielding us as best they could from the glass that rained down upon us from the windows above. It would seem that Lady Hattersley has never suffered at the hand of the window tax. The ground was all a tremor beneath us as we lay pressed into the earth of the beauteous shrubbery.
“They anticipated our arrival! It was all an elegant snare!” Cried Woodville over the thunderclaps of the fine furniture yielding to the inferno.
But I was capable of no such dispassionate admiration of our foe, for all my thoughts were upon Lady Hattersley. Endeavouring to rise to my feet I was capable of little speech save this.
“Lady Hattersley, I must aid her!” Said I in tones of grievous torment. But even upon these words my husband would not relinquish his hold upon me. Instead he redoubled his grasp and said. “Maria that house was wholly vacant. You saw that. She was not within when the destruction began.”
“But in that case Henry, where is she?” Was my reply. “They must have taken her captive. What fate awaits her now? They will doubtless have devised some cruel way of ruining her spirits, perhaps forever!” I felt sure I would run mad with my alarm for the poor woman.
“There is nought that can be done for her at the present, and such suppositions are of no help to her spirits or yours! We must instead turn our attentions to the matter at hand and discover Mrs Pravos.” Said Woodville in a voice that was all calm resolve.
“Mrs Pravos?” I repeated in dubiety. Woodville did not answer me directly but rather, concluding that the severest peril had passed, rose to his feet and was all civil gentility as he handed me to mine. As we hastened to the safety of a pretty little wilderness that stood nearby he enquired if I was quite well.
“I believe so, I have suffered no injury save these. Though I cannot account for my nerves.” I indicated the excoriated patches of skin of which Woodville had an equal number and a deep wound upon my arm.
Removing his own cravat to bind it, for there was little serviceable stuff remaining of my delicate muslin gown as it had been grievously torn, he soon continued; “That house was full of gunpowder, as carefully rigged as though it were the mast of an admiral’s frigate! And does not all we know of Mr Pravos indicate that gun powder was his preferred manner of dispatching his enemy? Thus I am all certainty that this was the work of his lady.”
“Woodville, Of what do you speak?” I could not yet not yet arrange my mind in a manner that would prove sensible.
“Only this. I believe it is she, Mrs Pravos, Mademoiselle de la Folle as was, who has lured us hither to exact her revenge for her husband’s expiration.”
“Upon my word, Henry! I believe you are correct in your estimation, for that is exactly what I would do if I were ever widowed thus.” Concluded I with feeling.
“Come, my love, we must make all haste and find her this moment.” Said he, leading me with indecent swiftness to the carriage. Dear sister, allow me to sooth your anxious concerns for my neglect of civil conduct. We did not go direct to chase down Mrs Pravos. Instead we returned home to repair our toilette, for even the coachman was fearfully shocked by our state of undress.
We soon found ourselves once more ensconced in our carriage, I robed in my gown of palest pink ornamented with embroidered rosebuds and Woodville in his green coat. My husband suddenly turned to me in some distress, overwhelmed by the realisation that we knew not where Mrs Pravos resided.
“We have so few ways of discovering her now that we are quite separated from the Footman, or indeed Elizabeth’s happy accomplishments.” Lamented he as we drove forth.
I was able to offer him this soothing response; “My Dear, the despicable woman is French. You ought trust that her home shall not prove tiresome to find.
And, dearest Catherine, I was all correctness in my estimations that we should find it readily enough. For it was so abundant in decorous flourishes in the French style, that I confess, my patriotic nature found it more than a little objectionable, and I was exceedingly surprised that this lady had ever held revolutionary sentiments towards her own country.
However, despite it’s Gallic vulgarity, it’s respectable appearance belied the fact that it harboured nought but treasonous malfeasants.
“I believe we have found it.” Said Wooville before commanding the coachman to halt at it’s door. I vociferated my opposition to his command in a tone that was calculated to convey my excessive astonishment at so bold an approach.
“Maria, Pravos’ lady is currently in possession of the ardent belief that we have perished at her hand. I believe we may gain admittance to her home without fear for our safety, though for the sake of prudence we shall not give our true name at the door, thus retaining the advantage of surprise.”
An opulently liveried butler greeted us at the threshold and he showed little hesitation at accompanying Lord and Lady “Smith” (it would seem that Woodville imagination has suffered at he hands of the blast) to the parlour to await his mistress. The parlour, whose design displayed the same French ostentation as the exterior, was in severe disarray. Packing cases and trunks stood open all about the room. Heavily gilded ornaments were protruding from several of them. Plainly the house’s occupants did not intent on residing here much longer. We were left thither, in anticipation of her arrival and without the offer of refreshment, for longer than could considered polite.
At length footsteps could be heard in the vestibule beyond. As they grew louder so did my disquietude from such a want of weapons ( we had left them in the carriage and I had nought about my person save for a netted purse and a fan).
The parlour door was abruptly opened by the butler and Mrs Pravos entered the room. Catherine, you shall undoubtedly be desirous of a description of her person, but upon this subject there is not a great deal to be said, she was neither diminutive nor tall, neither rotund nor slender, neither beauteous nor repellent. She was tolerable, wholly unremarkable and tolerable, the only feature of any note were her eyes which were so very exactly like her husband’s as to render the phenomenon entirely peculiar.
The butler stood before us and prepared to make his introductions.
“Mrs Pravos, Lord and Lady …” But before he could conclude them Woodville stepped forth and did so in his stead.
“Woodville.” Said he. “Lord and Lady Woodville.”
The hue of the wretched woman’s visage became quickly altered with the flush of recognition. Indeed she seemed so overcome that I had felt sure that she would require the smelling salts, but instead she stood as straight as a woman of high rank when entering a ballroom and, in a voice so afflicted by her French cadence it was very nearly indiscernible, feigned ignorance.
“Lord Woodville, I am delighted to make your acquaintance. Are you but lately arrived in the neighbourhood? ”
“Nay.” Woodville cast his glance over the packing cases. “But it would seem as though you have every intention of quitting it.”
Mrs Pravos continued in her deceptive manner. “Yes, I am removing to England to join my husband. Though it is a great shame that I shall not be able to remain when such society arrives. I am sure we would have become great friends.” Said she with cunning warmth.
But Woodville was not in an indulgent humour, he stepped forward until he stood at so short a distance from her that it verged upon impropriety.
“Mrs Pravos cease this pretence! You know of our association with your husband.”
But the lady would not so readily abandon her artifice. “You know my dear Mr Pravos, well that is everything charming. Pray, have you news of him? He has been gone away for some time now, matters of business I believe.”
My husband spake now with a cold distain.”I will not be trifled with thus! You are as familiar as I with his schemes and their consequence. We know that you are wholly aware of his passing. And that you are culpable for the detonation that nigh on dispatched Lady Woodville and me.”
Hither her flush turned to the greyish pallor of the grievously ailing. “Of what do you speak?” Was her quiet enquiry. This did nought but enrage Woodville.
“Take heed Madam! If you do not cease and desist your falsehoods I shall have little hesitation in ensuring that you meet the same fate as your treasonous husband.”
The briefest of looks into Henry’s visage was sufficient to assure her that he spake not in jest. Her countenance and manner altered so completely that t’was as though we stood before a different woman entirely.
“Very well.” Said she. “Very well. I know of Mr Pravos’ plots. I am familiar with every particular of them for a good deal were of my own design. I know that he has perished, I have received a full account of all that betided in London. I am aware that he failed in every regard, save the securing of a pardon and estate, though much good may it do him now. That is where I am bound.”
Catherine, Mrs Pravos’ address, devoid as it was of any of the grief more commonly associated with widows, had me so astounded that I was compelled to speak.
“I wonder at your lack of sentiment upon the subject. You can speak of it so freely. Perhaps you did not feel it so very deeply.”
“Mr Pravos knew the risks when we began. After all one cannot attempt to dethrone a monarchy without imperilling one’s own life. I have lost three previous husbands in this fashion. I am too familiar with such sacrifice to be driven to take leave of my senses.”
“And yet you were sufficiently deranged to inveigle us hither to dispatch us in that blast.” Retorted Woodville in voice,which by every second syllable displayed his grievous displeasure.
“I beg your pardon Sir, but I am all confusion. What blast?” Enquired the lady, her hue became different once more, as a not entirely unbecoming pink spread over her face.
“The blast at Hattersley Lodge that occurred but three ours since, in which Lady Woodville and I nearly expired and quite ruined a fine set of garments …” Woodville’s speech was interrupted by her protestations.”
“I did not!” Cried she.
But Woodville would not be deferred in his listing of her crimes. “You took the poor mistress of the house captive and transformed her manor into an elaborate ambuscade in which to end us, afore the good woman could reveal all she knew!” Concluded he with feeling as he stood before her, his features conveying only a menace of great profundity. She recoiled in fear before speaking.
” I have done no such thing. That was not of my making! I swear it upon my honour. For what advantage could I possibly gain? The old woman knew nought but the most unimportant gossip and my name, which she had already related to you. Besides such a feat as the one you describe would not only draw unwanted attentions to me, but would also require an abundance of powder and a veritable regiment of men at one’s disposal. I have no such power. I am but a woman.”
“Then who?” I demanded in tones as fierce as my husband’s.
“I know not. Perhaps it was George, my husband. Mr Pravos.” Said she with the air of one clinging the last of her composure as a young lady clings to a lock of hair belonging to her suitor when she believes he may cast her aside. “He oft made schemes for every fortuity.”
“Madam, that is illogical!” I cried in vexation.
But my dear husband’s brow had furrowed in that becoming fashion that indicated that he was in the grips of blossoming thought.
“Indeed it would seem so Maria, but did you not say yourself that Mr Pravos was the very essence of a man with a scheme of contingency. Perchance this is it. Perchance the coterie’s work is not yet ended.”
As I felt the full weight of his suggestion I heard Mrs Pravos whisper at my side. “I know not who it was, but it was not I.”
“It was I.” Said the voice from the parlour’s ingress.
Yours upon the brink of abandoning myself to a nervous seizure,
Your affectionate sister,