The Art of Deception, a WIP #workinprogress #regency #sweetromance

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A Work in Progress.

I’ve been struggling a bit with this one. I had a whole series of chapters describing how Alice was recruited and trained, with a few to try to introduce the hero, Roderick Lord Hightower. It wasn’t working. I realized I could cut all that out, introducing it as background, and suddenly it’s going again.  The bits about codes and secret ink I’d posted earlier are for this one.

Let me know what you think.

Funny Doings in Bristol.

The Asp scudded up the Severn, riding the tide towards Bristol harbour. A fast monthly packet from New York, she’d stopped off the coast of Ireland near Cork. Then after spotting Land’s end she’d worked her way up Bristol Channel. She carried Roderick, Lord Hightower, lately military attaché to the British embassy in Washington and his friend Edward Spode.

A month of dreary cold North Atlantic spray followed by several days of tedious tacking had left both men ready for land. Even if Edward had only joined the ship at Cork as part of his duty to meet the monthly packet and escort diplomatic couriers. They’d tried to hop a shore boat as soon as the Asp lowered anchor in the Avonmouth. A day later, they were, finally, ashore.

Lord Roderick nodded to his companion, “That young chit.” He pointed to a servant on the low rise above the harbour, “she’s counting the ships.”

“No, she’s just watching the workmen down in basin. Probably has a special friend or possibly even a husband at sea. You’re seeing things.”

“I tell you. She’s counting. Didn’t you see her while our ship was docked in the Avonmouth yesterday?”

“Roddy, old chap, you need to relax. I know it was hard, spying on those bloody rebels, but we’re home, England, Bristol. You’ve been on the jump since I met you on the packet boat off Cork. It’s someone else’s problem, if it’s a problem at all.”

“There is something to what you say. Edward. Suspicion is an occupational hazard in our line of work. However, I don’t think I’m jumping at shadows.”

“This is England, we don’t do things like that. Even the blasted French spies are polite. It’s not like poisons are available in every druggist like rhubarb.” Edward watched his friend; he seemed to relax. “If you’ll stay out of trouble so that I have the chance to do it, I’ll send the express to Lord Grey that we’ve landed.”

“Good, can you also check about my other shipment?”

“Which one? Sorry, you mean the one from Philadelphia?”

“Yes, I gave my manservant Thomas the cipher machine, code book and correspondence, we, ah recovered, in Washington. Good thing too, my bags were thoroughly searched in New York.”

“Along with his wife? You said earlier that you had someone, a servant, in the President’s House working for you. Damn Roddy, you’re good.”

“Wasn’t a servant, a slave. We had to decamp in a hurry. I home Mr. Merry was up to cleaning up the details. It was rather a mess.”

“Anthony Merry? Don’t worry, I’ve worked with him before, he’ll smooth things over. He may only be a wine-merchant’s son, but he’s a professional, one of the best.”

“Can’t be worse than Sir Robert was.”

The girl gathered up the sheets she had been exposing to the sun, and put them in her basket. Roderick noticed her writing something on a piece of paper and then tucking it away. After that she started walking back into town. Lord Roderick told his friend, “See you in a few minutes Edward, some business to attend to.”

“Roddy, Drop it!”

Lord Roderick raced through the streets. Edward shook his head in disbelief and then followed. The express would have to wait. Roderick paused to catch his breath, smoothed his garments, and sauntered, deliberately casual, over to her.  He said, “Mademoiselle, bonne journee, est-il pas?”

Without missing a beat, the young lady replied, “C’est bien, ou allez vous Mousier?” in an excellent Parisian accent.

“The Swan, I think that’s where I’m booked.”

“And then London, on the stage, I’d think. Or are you staying in Bristol?”

“It depends.”

“Depends, on what, Sir?”

“Whether the assembly is worth the candle.”

“I wouldn’t know, Sir. My Mistress likes it.” She nodded to him, curtsied, and then walked off. He waited a few seconds and followed her. As he watched from a distance, she put a small piece of paper under a stone near a street corner, and then marked the wall with chalk. It didn’t take her long, and had he not been watching her carefully he’d have missed the whole thing.

“Come on you laggard,” Roderick called to his friend, “We’ve got her. She’s a real professional.” He dashed up, took the paper from under the stone, and started to read it.

“See, Edward, it is a count of the ships. Profes-”

He didn’t get to finish his statement. A member of the militia, delegated to watch the docks, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Sir, if you’d please. You’re coming with us.” Another soldier stood behind him, ready to back him up should force be required.

“What for?”

“We think you’re a spy. Information has been laid to that effect.”

“What do you mean?” Roderick rapidly looked around, and then saw the chit, still carrying her basket, standing a few yards away. She smiled at him, mockingly curtsied, and then turned to continue her daily chores.

After several hours of tedious conversation and explaining, which only ended when he showed his credentials to the commander of the guard, Roderick was finally freed of his confinement. His friend Edward met him as he left.

“I booked us rooms at the Swan for a few days. The Assembly’s tomorrow night and rumour is that there are some dashed pretty young ladies in Bristol.”

“I see you have your priorities in order.”

“Your’re not expected back in the city for at least another week. I telegraphed[1] Lord Grey and he said so himself in his reply. Why not enjoy the trip? Besides there’s no point in catching the night mail to London. Tedious in the extreme, not to mention dashed uncomfortable.”

Roderick gave his friend a rueful grin, “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Gives me a chance to track down that French agent. Clever one, her, reporting me to the watch.”

Lord Roderick spent the next morning watching the hill where that servant had been. Even though it was a fine sunny morning, excellent for the airing of sheets, she did not turn up.  Edward did, “Roddy, old boy, leave it.”

“She’ll be here. I will catch her. No brown-haired, blue-eyed chit gets the drop on Roderick Lord Hightower. No matter how pretty she is.”

“Roddy, it’s most likely not her washing day. She’s off doing, I don’t know, whatever housemaids do when it’s not washing day. Scrubbing floors or something equally dreary. You probably were the best thing that happened to her yesterday, if not in her life.”

“I suppose you’re right, but she used a dead-drop, and was quick about it. A trained professional. A French professional.”

“If you say so, but I still think she was playing a game with you Roddy.”

“Very likely, but something wasn’t right about that chit. I could smell it.”

“You’re making a spectacle of yourself waiting here.”

“How many maids speak perfect French?”

“Not many, I’ll admit, but maybe her mistress is an emigre, or maybe she is one herself. There’s bound to be a perfectly sensible and not very mysterious reason. You need to stop jumping at shadows, Roddy.”

“If you say so.”

“I do, now how about we find ourselves a good public house and something worth eating.”

“In Bristol?”

“They must eat something here, and the beer isn’t half-bad. Or we might find some half-decent Madeira.”

Sir Roderick shrugged, “I suppose you’re correct, as usual, Edward. Lead on MacDuff.”

“It’s Lay on MacDuff, but I second your intent. Once more into the breach, dear friend, once more.”

The Horn, the pub Edward led Lord Roderick to, for their repast, had a well-deserved reputation, even better than the Swan’s, for the quality of its food and drink. While Edward negotiated with the innkeeper for the hire of a private parlour and an impressive spread, Lord Roderick idly watched the crowds in the street.

“It’s her!” He shouted. “That servant.”

As he ran out the door, Edward shouted after him, “Roddy no! I’ve just arranged for … Damn.” As he dashed after his friend, he shouted to the innkeeper, “Please hold the parlour for me, shan’t be long.”

Roderick followed the servant girl while she walked along the street. She turned to talk with a street vendor, and he dodged into a doorway. Then she continued on her way, apparently unaware of his presence.

He followed, carefully avoiding her direct view.

Minutes later, she turned into a stylish Modiste’s establishment, Madame Fanchion’s. He rushed to follow her inside. He ran into a young woman on her way out. “I’m sorry. I nearly knocked you over.”

The young woman was obviously not a maid, as she was dressed in the latest style.

She curtseyed, “I’m sorry. Should have been watching out myself.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No,” she smiled, “Not at all.” Lord Roderick could not help but notice she had a beautiful smile. “Can I help you?”

“I was looking for a servant, a girl. She turned into this shop.”

“She did? Amazing. Imagine turning into a shop.”

“No, I mean she entered the door.”

The young woman turned to the modiste, herself, “M. Fanchion, did you see a servant girl enter? I didn’t.”

Mais non, Madamoiselle.”

The woman shrugged, “Sorry, can’t help you.”

Lord Roderick peered inside. If the servant had entered, she had vanished into the backrooms.  He shook his head, “Lost the spoor …What has become of my manners?” He bowed, “May I introduce myself, Roderick Lord Hightower.”

The young woman curtsied again with a blush, “Delighted, Miss Alice Green, daughter of Lady Green.”

They would have conversed longer, but a stout middle-aged woman joined them, “Miss Alice, talking to strangers. What would Lady Green say?”

If they’re rich enough, nothing. “I don’t know Martha.”

“Well I do. Come.” The woman led her charge away, off to a waiting carriage. “You are needed at home.” Once they were aboard the postilions prodded their mounts and it clattered off, cleaving a path through the crowd with the imperious disregard only noble status could provide.

Edward finally caught up with his friend. “What happened Roddy?”

“I don’t know. You’re right, I need a repairing lease. I’m jumping at shadows, seeing things. I’ll send an express to London and then stay a couple of weeks in Bath.”

“Stout idea, but dinner first. I hope that parlour’s still open.”

“Stout, save me from stout middle-aged harridans.”

“Governess? They can be intimidating.”

****

Meanwhile Alice was being evaluated in the carriage as they rode out of the city. In addition to ‘Martha’, Mrs. Hudson, the woman in charge of training new female agents, gave her critique. “Did you tell that man your real name?”

“Y-yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It just, I mean he smiled.”

Mrs. Hudson stared at Miss Aldershot. “What do you think?”

“Other than that, she did well. That trick of hers, yesterday, to put the watch on that man. Masterful.”

“Yes. … Coming up against a French agent on your first test. It does make for an additional level of difficulty.”

Alice inserted, “Was he a real French spy?”

“Oh yes my dear. Very much one.”

Alice smiled, “Good. I thought something was odd about him. How did he escape from the watch?”

“Most likely a few guineas dropped into the right pocket. Jobbery will be the death of us.”

“Did you like my reports?”

“Most observant. They were accurate and timely… Miss Aldershot, what do you think, is she ready?”

“I think we’ve taught her as best we can. Mr. Ou says she’s earned her black belt, and we’ve both seen that she’s mastered the ciphers and concealed writing. Time for her to move on. Bath?”

“Bath it is. I shall be sorry to see you go, Miss Mapleton, but -”

“Needs must?”

“Indeed.”

“I was wondering,” Alice said, “but no probably not.”

“What?”

“The assembly tonight. Could I be permitted to attend, perhaps with Lucinda?”

“Teach that sluggard some tricks?”

“If you wish. It might motivate her to get on.”

Mrs. Hudson laughed, “That it might, or I might be lucky and have her meet someone. I’m sorry to say she’ll be a better squire’s wife than an agent. I had my hopes for her. Loyal to a fault, but -”

“Not quick on the uptake?”

“Precisely, Miss Mapleton.”

“Then may I make a suggestion?”

Mrs. Hudson nodded.

“Have Lucy play the heiress, and me her companion. No one watches companions, and with luck she might meet someone.”

****

Lord Roderick slowly walked back to the Horn. He shook his head in sad disbelief. Edward met him, “At least you didn’t get arrested this time.”

“I must be losing my grip. I would swear that servant went into the shop. She didn’t. Or, …, No.”

“No, what old chap?”

“I bumped into her on the way out. The old quick change. Edward, we’re dealing with a trained professional agent.”

“Hope you’ve put the scare into her then. Come on, dinner will be cold, and the Horn does one very special spread. You must miss fresh food after those weeks at sea.”

[1] The optical telegraph linked ports and coastal points with London during the Napoleonic wars. It would only have taken a few minutes to send a query and get a reply. At least during the day and in good weather.

Author: rharrisonauthor

International man of mystery. Well not really, although I can mangle several languages and even read the occasional hieroglyphic. A computer scientist, an author and one of the very few people who has both an NIH grant and a book contract. A rising author of sweet romantic historical fiction. A booktrope author.