(Author's Note - There are only the first two chapters here, because Regency Masquerade is now in the Amazon Kindle Unlimited program - which means only 10 per cent of the book can appear on another forum)
Cool grey eyes summed up the situation ahead in one glance. A tall man in black evening dress stood in the narrow street fending off what looked like two – no three, footpads. His drawn sword was keeping them at bay for the present, but for how much longer? Even as he stood there, two of the footpads started working together to engage the sword with their sticks while the third angled in to strike a blow at their victim. The watcher could hear the tall man gasping for air as his sword flashed furiously trying to defend himself from three sides at once.
Rather reluctantly, the watcher realised he would have to go to the aid of the man under attack. Moving quickly once he had reached that decision, he drew a small silver pistol from his right hand coat pocket and levelled it carefully at the nearest assailant. The sudden explosion startled all four men and the nearest footpad clapped a hand to his arm, blood spurting between his fingers. Four heads swivelled wildly seeking to discover the source of the attack and he shouted excitedly, “Quick after them Jack, we’ll see some sport tonight!” In a flash, the would-be robbers deserted their prey and fled down the street.
The watcher waited a minute then stepped out of the shadows and towards the other man who stood still, holding his sword and breathing heavily.
“My thanks to you sir, whoever you are, and to your friend. That was a good shot in poor light.” The only light in fact came from the moon and all that he could see of his rescuer was a dark slight shape of medium height. His dress however seemed that of a gentleman and his voice confirmed it.
“T’was my pleasure sir,” He bowed slightly, “Although as you see, I’m afraid I invented my friend for the occasion!”
“My house is nearby. Perhaps you would permit me to offer you a drink? My name is Carleton by the way, Richard Carleton,” the man in evening dress introduced himself. He held out a hand and his rescuer shook it.
“Peter Francis,” he offered, a little hesitantly it seemed.
“You’ll join me for a drink then?”
“Just for a few minutes,” Carleton interrupted, heading off a refusal. “Or would it not be convenient?” This last was said rather coolly and the younger man realised that to decline the invitation would appear churlish.
“Thank you, that would be very pleasant,” he gave in gracefully.
He fell into step beside the other man and seemed to be concentrating on keeping his footing amongst the cobblestones. After several minutes silence, Carleton inquired pleasantly, “Have you been in London long, Francis?”
“No, only a week. I – I’ve been abroad.”
“Doing the Grand Tour?”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve spent the last three years living in Italy, and several years in France before that.”
Carleton wondered whether it was just his imagination, but each answer from his companion appeared to be carefully considered before being spoken – almost as if he were making them up as he went along. However a few readily answered questions about Rome and Florence soon proved he had certainly spent some time in both places. Perhaps he was merely reserved. “And that is something I can surely sympathise with,” Carleton thought wryly to himself.
Ten minutes walk found them at the house he had rented for the Season in Grosvenor Place and they went up the steps. The door was opened by an elderly butler and Peter followed Carleton inside. He stood blinking in the bright light while the butler removed his master’s coat.
“Bring some claret to the study will you Rawlings? This way,” he gestured, turning to the other man. Seeing him properly for the first time, he saw that his “rescuer” was much younger than he had supposed, surely not more than eighteen or nineteen. He had fair hair, cropped short in the prevailing fashion, steady grey eyes, a smooth skin browned by a foreign sun, and a firm, though slightly rounded chin. He was dressed neatly, if not expensively, in dark blue coat and pantaloons with a white cravat at his throat. He wore no jewellery except for a signet ring on one slim hand.
Peter on the other hand, saw a tall man of perhaps thirty with rather harsh features under his dark curly hair. He was dressed, as he had noticed earlier, all in black which accentuated the thinness of his build though, as his swordplay had shown, it was the thinness of whipcord. It was also apparent that his host belonged to a much higher level of society than himself. His coat was exquisitely tailored and must have cost more than Peter had spent on clothes in his entire life.
At the same moment, each became suddenly aware he was sizing up the other. Peter’s lips twitched and he laughed. “I’m sorry sir,” he quickly apologised and after a second Carleton smiled back.
“Claret?” he offered as Rawlings poured two glasses from the bottle and then set it down on the study table.
“Thank you, sir” Peter took the claret and sipped it appreciatively.
“Seeing as you saved my purse, if not my life tonight, I don’t think you need to call me sir.”
“Thank you ... ” Peter looked a little self conscious.
Suddenly at a loss for conversation, Carleton asked, “What was your favourite place in Florence?”
“The Duomo, of course,” Peter mentioned the famous cathedral. “But to be honest, I really enjoyed the art collections. There are so many masterpieces, the Uffizi alone is simply marvellous.” His guest’s eyes had lit up with true enthusiasm. His eyes went to the painting on the wall in front of him, surely it was a Canaletto? “You are interested in Italian paintings yourself I see?”
Carleton confessed that he was, and also in Italian sculpture, and the two men talked for over an hour. Carleton revealed at one stage that he had made the Grand Tour himself some years ago but that his companion was more interested in sport than art. “Well I enjoy sport as well of course but ... in Italy! My companion couldn’t see any point at all in staring at a lot of dusty old portraits. Nor could my father, which was why I was landed with someone so incompatible for my guide!”
“What a shame! Have you never thought of going back yourself then?” queried Peter.
“Frequently, especially when I get fed up with the Season and its endless gossip!”
Peter laughed and took out his watch. “I’m sure I must have been here for ages. Good heavens! It’s after one o’clock, I hope I haven’t outstayed my welcome.”
“By no means. I haven’t had such an interesting conversation for a long time.” Carleton rose to his feet reluctantly. “Shall I see you at White’s?”
Peter shook his head, exclusive London clubs were above his touch.
“I’d be happy to sponsor you if you’d care to join,” Carleton offered.
“That’s too good of you!” Peter looked up in surprise, Carleton knew next to nothing about him. Then he realised that the offer had been made in part to repay him for the assistance he had given that evening. “However, I don’t think I’ll be mixing in such circles this visit – I- I’m not particularly plump in the pocket at present,” he explained further with a touch of embarrassment.
“I see. Well the offer still stands, there’s no need to play the tables you know.”
Peter merely smiled and inclined his head.
“In that case, I’ll bid you good night,” replied Carleton a little stiffly. “Shall I get you a hackney?”
“No thanks, it’s just a short walk.”
“May I ask where you are staying?”
Peter hesitated a moment then named the Pelican, a modest inn some couple of miles north. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to impose on you.”
Carleton made a noise which in a lesser man would have been called a snort and saw his guest to the door. “Till later then”.
They shook hands and Peter strode off into the night – so much for lying low in London! Still he’d had no choice but to help Carleton and he’d enjoyed his company very much. If things had been different they might have been good friends.
John would be waiting up for him – it was very late, perhaps he’d better take a cab after all. He found one at the next corner, having just unloaded a passenger, and soon he was rattling over the cobblestones at a brisk pace.
Carleton went thoughtfully up the stairs to his room. There was an odd air of secrecy about Francis – apart from his taste in art, he knew nothing of him after their conversation other than his name. What was his background? Where did he come from? Was he even English for that matter? Despite the mystery he rather thought he liked him.
A short, thickset man with the unmistakeable air of an old family retainer was waiting in his room when Peter opened the door. The single candle had burned down to within an inch of the holder but the coals still glowed in the grate. “Well and what have you been up to then?” growled the retainer, coming forward to help him off with his coat.
“Don’t scold, John,” protested Peter, half smiling. “I’ve had such an adventure! I came upon a man being attacked by three footpads and I had to lend a hand. And then he wanted to thank me and we got talking and I forgot the time ...”
Far from soothing the servant this information only seemed to aggravate him further. “Don’t tell me you went to this man’s lodgings? On your own? Who was he?”
“Yes, I did. Don’t worry I was quite safe. His name is Carleton, Richard Carleton – have you heard anything about him?” Peter went behind a screen as he spoke and draped his garments over the top as he took them off.
John stayed in the centre of the room, glaring into the fire. “No, I can’t say ... no wait a minute. I think the family has a place in Surrey. Don’t know where he fits in though – but it’s not right, you visiting him at home, whoever he is!” he protested, returning to his original theme. “And this ain’t seemly either,” he muttered to himself as he gathered up the clothes ready for cleaning.
“You should be used to it now, John – God knows I am!” came the slightly weary voice. “I’m too tired to talk any more about it tonight. Good night, I’ll see you in the morning.”
“’Night, Miss Frances,” came the soft reply and then the door shut behind him.
Frances sighed and stretched. Gad it was good to be out of that binding. Dressing as a man had become harder as her body grew decidedly female. She fell into bed with a final image of a pair of thoughtful brown eyes under unruly black hair lingering in her dreams before she was soundly asleep.
Frances had spent more of her twenty four years as a boy than as a girl. Her mother had died before she could really remember her and since then, she and her father had travelled throughout Europe, spending no more than a few years in any one place. She knew Frances was her Christian name but she didn’t know her surname – she had had at least a dozen different ones over the years and did not know which, if any, was the name she had been born with. Henri Fayette (Paris) or Giuseppe Monteverdi (Rome) had been quite simply an adventurer as long as Frances could remember.
He had lived by his wits and his skill at cards. His fortunes however had fluctuated and many had been the time that it had been safer for Frances to be a son rather than a daughter. Her education had been as varied as the places she lived in. She could speak French and Italian like a native, her German was not quite as good, but as well as these permissibly feminine accomplishments she could shoot and fence and ride without a side saddle.
It had been a devastating shock when her father had fallen ill a few months back and died in their lodgings in Florence. When he had finally realised the seriousness of his illness, in fact the very day before he died, he called Frances to him.
“You must go to London ... find Julia Murray – Lady Julia, she’ll see you right. Just tell her, Henry Metcalf ...,” a fit of coughing had prevented him from finishing. He gripped her hand tightly and whispered his last words to her. “Remember, Lady Julia Murray ... give her my ...” Another bout of coughing shook him and he lay back exhausted against the pillows.
After his death, Frances had numbly made the funeral arrangements, paid their bills, packed her two trunks and set off to England with their manservant John Hopgood for her sole companion. She had automatically chosen her male garb for the journey as it made everything so much easier, and faster. A single woman could not put up at a respectable inn without a female companion or travel by herself in a carriage.
When she eventually landed in England, she saw no reason to abandon her disguise. ‘Peter Francis’ had therefore travelled to London by coach from Dover and booked into the Pelican with the minimum of fuss. Her plans were to lie low while she located Lady Julia Murray and find out what she could about her. Frances had no intention of throwing herself upon the charity of a perfect stranger. She had enough money from their last gambling venture to allow her to live in a moderate fashion for several months.
She had planned to live quietly in London for several reasons other than money however, not the least of which was her desire to be unrecognised should she have the opportunity to become a woman again. Although she had every confidence in her disguise, she realised that a close friend of Peter Francis would remark audibly on his replacement by Frances. She would just have to stay away from Richard Carleton.
The next day was bright and sunny, a fresh breeze blowing a couple of small white clouds about the blue sky. As Frances strode briskly through Hyde Park, she wished rather wistfully that she didn’t have to live quite so quietly. The theatre for instance – how she would love to see some English Shakespeare! There was so much happening in London at the moment, plays, operas, balls. For the first time in her life she thought it would be fun to be a young girl enjoying a London season, dancing and flirting the nights away. She sighed. It would also be very pleasant to hire a horse and ride in the Park – perhaps her purse would stretch to that once or twice during her stay.
She really must get a move on and find this Lady Murray. It was difficult to know quite where to start. She had no acquaintances in London to ask and her tentative enquiries at the Pelican had not borne fruit. She had taken to buying a paper and looking through the Society news, but so far she had had no luck. What she had noticed though was a short column about a masked ball that was being held by Lady Dalrymple in three days time.
Lady Dalrymple was one of the season’s foremost hostesses commented the paper, and the occasion was sure to be a sad crush. Unbidden, the thought had slipped into Frances mind that surely, in such a sad crush, one more person would not be noticed? And how better to find out about Lady Julia than at a ball where the gossip buzzed like a swarm of bees? Perhaps she could even ask someone to introduce her? But the risks! What if she were caught trying to get in the house and was taken up for a burglar? The idea continued to tease her however and she was still deep in thought when she heard her name called. “Francis?”
Startled, she looked up into the amused face of Richard Carleton. At the same time she realised that she had left the Park and was now making her way down Oxford Street. She blinked and smiled, “My apologies, sir, I was daydreaming.”
“Sound asleep more like!” joked Carleton. “Are you on your way to anywhere in particular? If not, perhaps you would like to join me at Mancini’s Fencing Salon? He has a new thrust he has promised to show me.”
Frances’ eyes lit up. “That would be fascinating, I accept with pleasure, sir!” Only then did she remember, too late, her vow to steer well away from Mr Carleton! Oh well, she mused philosophically, I’ll just have to avoid him from tomorrow. They turned off Oxford Street shortly and soon found themselves climbing the steps to the two upstairs rooms where M. Mancini conducted his fencing lessons.
He was a short, dark-eyed Italian and Frances’ heart gave a sudden lurch of fear that she might have met him in Italy, before she realised he was a complete stranger. He came quickly forward to greet her companion, hand outstretched. “Ah my Lord Carleton, you have come to learn the ‘kiss of death’ yes? And your friend? I have not met him before I think.” The inquisitive brown eyes were turned directly on Frances and she gazed steadily back, masking the jolt his use of ‘Lord’ Carleton had given her. A Lord? She should definitely have avoided his company.