"Victorian eccentric and reclusive naturalist match wits"
Reviewed by Make Kay
Posted August 25, 2015
A CURIOUS BEGINNING is book one in the new Veronica
Victorian historical mystery series by the fabulous Deanna
Raybourn. Raybourn is a favorite author of mine, and I've
been mourning the end of her Lady Julia Grey series with
her old publisher. I'm happy to say that Raybourn's magic
is still very much in evidence with her new publisher
NAL/Penguin. Veronica Speedwell and her surrounding cast
have much the same slapdash charm as Lady Julia and her
nutty family. Fans of the redoubtable Amelia Peabody from
the late lamented Elizabeth Peters will eagerly lap up this
story. Fans of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce will enjoy
Veronica as well -- she feels to me like a grown-up but still
somehow precocious Flavia.
Orphaned and illegitimate Veronica is raised by her two
peripatetic "aunts," moving from village to village as she
grows up. She is quite the independent thinker, and as an
adult becomes an avid explorer, capturing butterflies for
other collectors and traveling to many exotic locales where
she indulges in torrid but emotionally restrained affairs
with foreign lovers. When the last of her guardians dies,
Veronica is cut free from her ties to England and plans to
leave on another expedition. However, she returns home one
last time where she foils an abduction attempt with the
help of a stranger, Baron von Stauffenbach (I dare you to
read his name out loud without chuckling). The elderly
Baron takes her to London, informing her along the way that
he knew her mother and is in possession of a dangerous
secret about Veronica's past. The Baron deposits Veronica
with a friend for safe-keeping, the reclusive natural
historian Revelstoke "Stoker" Templeton-Vane. The Baron is
murdered before he can inform Veronica about the mortal
danger she is in.
Veronica and Stoker then embark on a beautifully convoluted
journey to discover who murdered the Baron, and who is
threatening Veronica's existence. The mystery is intricate
and utterly compelling, the characters fantastical, and the
banter and sexual tension between Veronica and Stoker all
but leap from the page. This highly entertaining book
keeps me captivated from charming start to exuberant
finish. The unwittingly dryly witty Veronica and the
grumblingly broody Stoker keep me in stitches. I adore
Raybourn's new series, and A CURIOUS BEGINNING lives up to
its name, leaving me anxiously awaiting book two to see what
hijinks will next ensue.
In her thrilling new series, the New York Times
bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey mysteries, returns
once more to Victorian EnglandâŚand introduces intrepid
adventuress Veronica Speedwell.
1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoriaâs
golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of
her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned
Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of
scientific inquiryâand the occasional romantic dalliance. As
familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off
admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened
hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to
England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of
But fate has other plans, as Veronica
discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help
of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious
past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot
against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the
care of his friend Stokerâa reclusive natural historian as
intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can
deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has
concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly
Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an
elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous
I stared down into the open grave and wished that I could
summon a tear. Violent weeping would have been in
exceedingly poor taste, but Miss Nell Harbottle had been my
guardian for the whole of my life, and a tear or two would
have been a nice gesture of respect. The vicar murmured the
appropriate prayers, his voice pleasantly mellow, his tongue
catching softly on each s. It was the first time I had
noticed the lisp, and I only hoped Aunt Nell would not mind.
She had been quite exacting about some things, and elocution
was one of them. I slipped my dry handkerchief into my
pocket with a sigh. Aunt Nellâs death had been neither
sudden nor unexpected, and the warmth of our affection had
been tepid at best. That her death removed my last
attachment to childhood did not unduly alarm me as I stood
in the quiet churchyard of Little Byfield. In fact, I was
aware of a somewhat disconcerting feeling of euphoria rising
As if to match my mood, the breeze rose a little, and on it
fluttered a pair of pale wings edged and spotted with black.
âPieris brassicae,â I murmured to myself. A Large Garden
White butterfly, common as grass, but pretty nonetheless.
She darted off in search of an early cabbage or perhaps a
tasty nasturtium, free as the wind itself. I knew precisely
how she felt. Aunt Nell had been the final knotted
obligation tying me to England, and I was unfettered once
and for all, able to make my way in the world as I chose.
The vicar concluded his prayers and gestured to me. I
stepped forward, gathering a clump of earth into my gloved
palm. It was good earth, rich and dark and crumbling.
âRather a waste,â I murmured. âIt would make for an
excellent garden.â But of course it was a garden, I realized
as my gaze swept over the gravestones arranged in neatly
serried rowsâa garden of the dead, the inhabitants planted
to slumber peacefully until they were called to rise by the
trumpet of the Lord. Or so the vicar promised them. It
seemed a singularly messy undertaking to me. To begin with,
wouldnât the newly risen be frightfully loamy? Shaking off
the fanciful thought, I stepped forward and dropped the
earth. It struck the lid of the coffin with a hollow thud of
finality, and I brushed off my gloves.
There was a touch at my elbow. âMy dear Miss Speedwell,â the
vicar said, drawing me gently away. âMrs. Clutterthorpe and
I would be very pleased if you would come to the vicarage
and take some refreshment.â He smiled kindly. âI know you
did not wish for any formal gathering, but perhaps a cup of
tea to warm you? The wind is brisk today.â
I had small wish to take tea with the vicar and his dull
wife, but accepting was easier than thinking of a reason to
The vicar led me through the lych-gate and onto the path
that led to the great, shambling rectory. He was burbling on
like a talkative brook, no doubt reciting from a lesson he
had been taught in seminaryââComforting Thoughts for the
Newly Bereaved,â perhaps. I gave him a polite half smile to
indicate I was listening and carried on with my thoughts.
Whatever they might have been, they were diverted instantly
by the curious sensation that we were being watched. I
turned to look behind and saw a figure at the lych-gate,
tall and beautifully erect, with the sort of posture a
gentleman acquires through either generations of
aristocratic breeding or enthusiastic beatings at excellent
schools. There was something foreign about his mustaches,
for they were exuberant, long and sharply waxed into elegant
loops, and even at a distance I could detect the slender
slashes of old scars upon his left cheek. A German, then, I
decided. Or perhaps Austrian. Such scars were unique to the
Teutons and their bloodthirsty habit of marking each other
with saber tips for sport. But what business did a
Continental aristocrat have that required him to lurk near
the graveyard of so nondescript a village as Little Byfield?
I turned to put the question to the vicar, but as I did, I
saw a flicker of movement and realized our visitor had
slipped away. I thought no more about him, and in a very
short time I was seated in the stuffy drawing room of the
vicarage, holding a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches.
With the effort of packing up the cottage, I had not always
remembered to eat in the hours following Aunt Nellâs death.
I diligently applied myself to two plates of sandwiches and
one of cake, for the vicarage employed an excellent cook.
The vicaress raised her brows slightly at my prodigious
appetite. âI am glad you feel quite up to taking some
nourishment, Miss Speedwell.â
I did not reply. My mouth was full of Victoria sponge, but
even if it had not been, there seemed no polite response.
The vicar and his wife exchanged glances, significant ones,
and the vicar cleared his throat.
âMy dear Miss Speedwell, Mrs. Clutterthorpe and I naturally
take a very keen interest in the welfare of everyone in the
village. And while you and your aunt are relative newcomers
among us, we are, of course, most eager to offer you
whatever assistance we can at this difficult time.â
I took a sip of the tea, pleased to find it scalding hot and
properly strong. I abhorred weakness of any kind but most
particularly in my tea. But the vicarâs pointed reference to
ânewcomersâ had nettled me. True, Aunt Nell had moved to the
little cottage in Little Byfield upon Aunt Lucyâs death only
some three years past, but English villages were terminally
insular. No matter how many socks she knitted for the poor
or how many shillings she collected to repair the church
roof, Aunt Nell would always be a ânewcomer,â even if she
had lived among them for half a century. I felt a flicker of
mischief stirring and decided with Aunt Nell gone there was
no need to suppress it. âShe was not my aunt.â
The vicar blinked. âI beg your pardon.â
âMiss Nell Harbottle was not my aunt. It was a title she
claimed for the sake of convenience, but we were not kin.
Miss Harbottle and her sister, Miss Lucy Harbottle, took me
in and reared me. I was a foundling, orphaned and
illegitimate, to be precise.â
The vicaress sat forward in her chair. âMy dear, you speak
very frankly of such things.â
âShould I not?â I asked as politely as I could manage.
âThere is no shame in being orphaned, nor in that my parents
were unmarriedâat least no shame that ought to attach to me.
It was an accident of birth and nothing more.â
Another significant exchange of glances between the vicar
and his wife, but I pretended not to notice. I realized my
views were exceedingly unorthodox in this respect. We had
moved from town to town as I grew, and in every village, no
matter how peaceful and pretty, there was always someone to
wag a tongue and pass a judgment. The fact that my surname
was different from my guardiansâ had always excited
suspicion, and it was never long before I heard the whispers
alluding to the sins of the fathers being visited on the
children, occasionally from Aunt Nell herself. Aunt Lucy had
been my champion. Her warm affection had never wavered, but
the constant moves had frayed Aunt Nellâs nerves and soured
her temper. She used to watch me as I grew, her expression
wary, and in time that wariness deepened to something not
unrelated to dislike. With Aunt Lucy watching over me, Aunt
Nell seldom dared to give tongue to her feelings, but I
understood she was quite put out by my excellent spirits and
rude good health. I think she would have found it far more
just if I had suffered from a crooked back or spotty
complexion to mark me as the product of sin. And yet I knew
her resentments stemmed from being excluded, being marked
out as a subject of gossip by the very Christian folk into
whose bosom she longed to be gathered. Folk like the
âI am afraid we did not have the pleasure of knowing Miss
Harbottleâs sister,â the vicar began.
I recognized an inducement to talk when it was offered and
swallowed my mouthful of cake to oblige him. âMiss Lucy
Harbottle died some three years ago. In Kentâno, I am
mistaken,â I said, tipping my head thoughtfully. âIt was in
Lancashire. That was after we lived in Kent.â
âIndeed? You seem to have lived in very many places,â the
vicaress commented, only the slight pursing of her lips
suggesting that it might not be in the best of taste to
change oneâs house almost as often as one changed oneâs shoes.
I shrugged. âMy guardians did not care to stay long in one
place. We moved frequently, and I have been fortunate to
live in most corners of this country.â
The pursed lips pushed out a little farther. âI cannot like
it,â Mrs. Clutterthorpe pronounced roundly. âIt is not right
to uproot a child in so cavalier a fashion. One must provide
a stable home when one is bringing up a young person.â Mrs.
Clutterthorpe, who had no children of her own, was given to
such pronouncements. She was also very fond of issuing
directives on how children ought to be weaned, fed,
toileted, and taught their letters. Her husband might have
learned to ignore her declarations, but being comparatively
new to the village, I had not.
I considered the vicaress with the same detachment I might
study a squashed caterpillar. âReally? I found it perfectly
ordinary and quite useful,â I said at last.
âUseful?â The vicarâs brows rose quizzically.
âI learned to converse with all sorts of people under many
and various circumstances and to depend upon no one but
myself for entertainment and support. I gained self-reliance
and independence, qualities which I must now rely upon in my
His brows relaxed. âAh, you bring me to the point of this
discussion,â he said in some relief.
Before he could continue, the vicaress cut smoothly across
him. âMy dear, no doubt you will think us meddlesome,â she
began, leveling me with a look that dared me to do so, âbut
the vicar and I are most concerned about your welfare.â
I swallowed the last of the cake and dusted my fingertips of
crumbs. âThat is very good of you, I am sure, Mrs.
Clutterthorpe. But I can assure you I have my welfare
entirely in hand.â
Mr. Clutterthorpe looked a trifle startled, but his lady was
not so easily cowed. She gave me a thin smile. âI am sure
you think so. Young ladies,â she said, with a slight
emphasis on the word âyoungâ to show she did not really mean
it, âdo not always know best. You must permit us to guide
you with the benefit of our years and wisdom.â
I glanced at Mr. Clutterthorpe but found no succor there. He
had applied himself to a fish-paste sandwich as if it were
the most interesting thing he had ever seen. I did not blame
him. It seemed to me the shortest way to an easy life for
him was by capitulating to his wife at every possible
âAs I said, Mrs. Clutterthorpe, I have made arrangements.â
The vicar looked up, his expression pleased. âOh, so you are
settled, then? Did you hear, Marjorie? We need not worry
about Miss Speedwell,â he finished with a jovial smile
directed to his spouse.
Her lips thinned. âWhatever arrangements Miss Speedwell has
made, I am sure she will be quick to alter them when she
learns of my conversation with Mr. Britten this morning,â
she said with an air of satisfaction. âMr. Britten is a
farmer with substantial property, very prosperous,â she told
me. âAnd since the death of poor Mrs. Britten, he is in sore
need of a wife for himself and a mother for his little ones.
You would be mother of six!â
I tilted my head and regarded her thoughtfully as I
considered my reply. In the end, I chose unvarnished truth.
âMrs. Clutterthorpe, I can hardly think of any fate worse
than becoming the mother of six. Unless perhaps it were
plague, and even then I am persuaded a few disfiguring
buboes and possible death would be preferable to motherhood.â
She went white for a moment, then deeply red. In his chair,
the vicar was choking gently into a handkerchief, but when I
rose to offer assistance, he waved me aside with a genial hand.
Mrs. Clutterthorpe recovered herself, gripping the arms of
her chair so tightly I could see the bones of her knuckles
through the papery skin. âI have heard you are fond of a
jest, and I think it amuses you to shock respectable folk.â
I spread my hands and adopted a disingenuous expression.
âOh no, Mrs. Clutterthorpe. I never mean to shock anyone. It
simply happens. I have a dreadful habit of speaking my mind,
and it isnât one I look to curb, so you must see that your
suggestion of marriage to this Mr. Britten is quite unsuitable.â
âIt is not the suggestion which is unsuitable,â she
countered coldly. âI have thus far overlooked the rumors
which have come to my ears regarding your behavior whilst
abroad, but if you insist upon utter frankness, let us have it.â
I gave her a smile of devastating politeness and answered
her in my sweetest tone. âWhat rumors, Mrs. Clutterthorpe?â
Her high color, almost faded, heightened again, mottling her
complexion. She darted a glance at her husband, but he bent
swiftly to fuss with his shoe buttons, hiding his face. âA
decent lady would not speak of such things,â she replied,
clearly relishing the chance to do exactly that.
âBut you have introduced them into the conversation,â I
pointed out gently. âSo let us be candid. What rumors?â
âVery well,â she burst out. âI have it on good authority
that during your trip to Sicily you behaved immorally with
an American traveler.â She scrutinized me from head to
heels, condemnation in her eyes. âOh yes, Miss Speedwell, we
have heard of your indiscretions. You are fortunate that Mr.
Britten is willing to overlook such shortcomings in a
I bared my teeth in a wolfish smile. âAnd who told him of
them? Never mind, I think I can guess.â I rose and collected
my gloves. The vicar leaped to his feet and I extended my
hand. âThank you for your kindness during my auntâs illness.
I shall not see you again. I am off this very afternoon upon
my next adventure.â
He dipped his head conspiratorially. âMore butterflies?â he
He shook my hand, but before I could make my escape, Mrs.
Clutterthorpe thrust herself to her feet and launched a
âYou are a foolish, impetuous person,â she said stoutly.
âYou cannot mean to go friendless into the world and spurn
the prospect of an excellent marriage to a man who will look
past the indelible stain of your iniquities.â
âI am quite determined to be mistress of my own fate, Mrs.
Clutterthorpe, but I do sympathize with how strange it must
sound to you. It is not your fault that you are entirely
devoid of imagination. I blame your education.â
Mrs. Clutterthorpe stood with her mouth agape, lips moving
I stepped past her, then turned back as I reached the hall.
âOh, and you might tell your sourcesâit wasnât an American
in Sicily. It was a Swede. The American was in Costa Rica.â
As I walked down the path toward Wren Cottage, I found my
step was very light indeed. I owed the Clutterthorpes a debt
of gratitude, I reflected. I had been feeling a little dull
after the long, gloomy months of Aunt Nellâs decline, but
the visit at the vicarage had cheered me greatly. I was
always on my mettle when someone tried to thwart meâpoor old
Aunt Nell and Aunt Lucy had learned that through hard
experience. I had been an obstinate child and a willful one
too, and it did not escape me that it had cost these two
spinster ladies a great deal of adjustment to make a place
for me in their lives. It was for this reason, as I grew
older, that I made every effort to curb my obstinacy and be
cheerful and placid with them. And it was for this reason
that I eventually made my escape, fleeing England whenever
possible for tropical climes where I could indulge my
passion for lepidoptery. It was not until my first
butterflying expedition at the age of eighteenâa monthlong
sojourn in Switzerlandâthat I discovered men could be just
as interesting as moths.
It was perfectly reasonable that I should be curious about
them. After all, I had been reared in a household composed
exclusively of women. Friendships with the opposite sex were
soundly discouraged, and the only men ever to darken our
door were those who called in a professional
capacityâdoctors and vicars wearing rusty black coats and
dour expressions. Village boys and strapping blacksmiths
were strictly off-limits, and when a splendid specimen
presented itself for closer inspection, I behaved as any
good student of science would. My first kiss had been
bestowed by a shepherd boy in the forest outside Geneva. I
had hired him to guide me to an alpine meadow where I could
ply my butterfly net to best effect. But while I pursued
Polyommatus damon, he pursued me, and it was not long before
the diversions of kissing took the place of butterflies. At
least for the afternoon. I enjoyed the experience immensely,
but I was deeply aware of the troubles I might encounter if
I were not very careful indeed. Once back in England, I made
a thorough study of my own biology, andâarmed with the
proper knowledge and precautions and a copy of Ovidâs highly
instructive The Art of LoveâI enjoyed my second foray into
formal lepidoptery and illicit pleasures even more.
Over time, I developed a set of rules from which I never
deviated. Although I permitted myself dalliances during my
travels, I never engaged in flirtations in Englandâor with
Englishmen. I never permitted any liberties to gentlemen
either married or betrothed, and I never corresponded with
any of them once I returned home. Foreign bachelors were my
trophies, collected for their charm and good looks as well
as attentive manners. They were holiday romances, light and
insubstantial as thistledown, but satisfying all the same. I
enjoyed them enormously whilst abroad, and when I returned
from each trip, I was rested and satiated and in excellent
spirits. It was a program I would happily have recommended
to any spinster of my acquaintance, but I knew too well the
futility of it. What was to me nothing more than a bit of
healthful exercise and sweet flirtation was the rankest sin
to ladies like Mrs. Clutterthorpe, and the world was full of
But I would soon be past it all, I thought as I stooped to
snap off a small sprig of common broom. Its petals glowed
yellow, a cheerful reminder of the long, sunny summer to
comeâa summer I would not spend in England, I reflected with
mingled emotions. At the start of each new journey I felt a
pang of homesickness, sharp as a thorn. This trip would take
me across the globe to the edge of the Pacific, no doubt for
a very long time. I had passed the long, chilly spring
months at Aunt Nellâs bedside, spreading mustard plasters
and reading aloud from improving novels while I dreamed of
hot, steaming island jungles where butterflies as wide as my
hand danced overhead.
My daydreams had been a welcome distraction from Aunt Nellâs
querulous moods. She had been by turns fretful and sullen,
irritated that she was dying and disgusted that she was not
quicker about it. The doctor had dosed her heavily with
morphia, and she was seldom truly lucid. Many times I had
caught her watching me, her lips parted as if to speak, but
as soon as I lifted a brow in inquiry, she had snapped her
mouth closed and waved me off. It was not until the last fit
had come upon her, suddenly and without warning, that she
had tried to speak and found she could not. Robbed of
speech, she tried to write, but her hand was weak, stiff
with the apoplexy that had stilled her tongue, and she died
with something unsaid.
âNo doubt it was a reminder to pay the milk,â I said,
tucking the broom into my buttonhole. But I had seen to the
dairy bill as quickly and efficiently as I had done
everything these past months. Accounts with the doctor,
butcher, and baker had all been settled. The rent on the
cottage was paid through the end of the quarter on Midsummer
Day. Most of the furnishings had been carted away and sold,
leaving the few pieces that had come with the cottageâa
couple of chairs, a kitchen table, a grievously worn rug,
and a poorly executed still-life that looked as if it had
been painted by someone with a grudge against fruit. All of
the Harbottle personal effects and the last of my carefully
mounted butterflies had been sold to fund my next expedition.
All that remained to be done was to take up my small
carpetbag and leave the key under the mat, provided I could
find the key, of course. Folk in the village were remarkably
relaxed about things like keysâand waiting for invitations,
I realized as I reached the doorstep. For the cottage door
stood ajar, and I had little doubt one of the village
matrons had availed herself of my absence to call with a
cake or perhaps a meat pie for my supper. Aunt Nell had not
been popular enough to warrant attendance at her funeral by
the inhabitants of Little Byfield, but an eligible spinster
would bring them all out en masse, bearing sponge cakes and
consolationâor worse, unattached sons for my perusal. A
daughter-in-law with competent nursing skills was a
tremendous coup for an elderly widow, I reflected with a
shudder. I pushed open the door, prepared to do my duty and
offer tea, but the greeting died upon my lips. The front
room of the cottage was a ruin, the carpet littered with
broken bits from the wreckage of a cane chair. The only
paintingâthe indifferent still-lifeâhad been slashed, its
frame reduced to splinters, and the cushions of the window
seat had been torn open, goose down still floating lazily
upon the air.
My gaze fixed upon the drifting feathers and I realized that
whoever had done this thing must have done so within the
last few minutes. Just then, a slight scraping noise came
from the kitchen. I was not alone.
Thoughts winged through my mind almost too quickly to grasp.
The open door stood behind me. I had made no noise. Escape
would be a simple matter of turning on my heel and slipping
silently out the way I had come. Instead, my hand reached
out of its own accord to the umbrella stand and took up the
sword stick I had purchased in Italy.
My heart surged in anticipation. The sword stick was a
sturdy piece, made of good, stout hardwood. I pressed the
button, releasing the sheath, and the blade came free with a
silky murmur of protest. The edge of the blade was dull, for
it had been some years since it had been sharpened or oiled,
but I was pleased to see the end was still alarmingly
pointed. I must thrust rather than slash, I reminded myself
as I crept toward the kitchen.
A flurry of other noises told me that the intruder had not
yet fled and, furthermore, had no notion of my presence. I
had the element of surprise, and armed with that and my
sword, I flung open the door, giving a very good impression
of what I imagined a Maori battle scream might sound like.
Instantly, I realized my mistake. The fellow was enormous,
and it occurred to me then that I had overlooked the
essential precaution of taking the measure of oneâs opponent
before launching an attack. He was well over six feet in
height, and the breadth of his shoulders would have
challenged the frame of any door. He wore a tweed cap pulled
low over his features, but I discerned a gingery beard and
an expression of surprised displeasure at the interruption.
To my surprise, he did not use his size to his advantage to
overpower me. Instead he turned to flee, upending the long
deal table to throw a barrier between us. The most cautious
course of action would of course have been to let him go,
but caution held little charm for me. My rage was roused at
the sight of the ruined cottage, and without any conscious
decision on my part, I gave chase, vaulting over the table
and following him down the garden path. His was the
advantage of size, but mine was the advantage of terrain; I
knew it and he did not. He followed the stone path to the
bottom of the garden where the road passed by. I turned hard
to the left and made straight for the hedge, plunging into a
gap and emerging, breathless and beleafed, just as he passed
by. I reached a hand and grasped him by the sleeve, yanking
He whirled, his eyes wide with surpriseâand panic. For a
heartbeat he hesitated, and I lifted the sword stick.
âWhat is your business at Wren Cottage?â I demanded.
He darted a glance to the end of the road, where a carriage
stood waiting. That glance at the conveyance seemed to
decide him. I brandished the sword stick again, but he
simply reached out, batting the blade aside with one thick
hand while he grabbed my wrist with the other. He gave a
sharp twist and I cried out, dropping the stick.
He began to drag me toward the carriage. I dug in my heels,
but to no avail. My slender form, though athletic and supple
enough for purposes of butterflying, was no match for this
fellowâs felonious intent. I lowered my head and applied my
teeth to the meatiest part of his hand, just above the seat
of the thumb. He howled in pain and rage, shaking his hand
hard, but would not loose me. He put his other hand to my
throat, tightening his grip as I bore down with my teeth
like a terrier upon a rat.
âUnhand her at once!â commanded a voice from behind. I
glanced over my shoulder to see the Continental gentleman
from the lych-gate. He was older than I had thought; at this
distance I could see the lines about his eyes and the heavy
creases down each cheek, the left crossed with his dueling
scars. But he drew no sword against this miscreant. Instead,
he held a revolver in his hand, pointing it directly at the
âDevil take her!â the intruder growled, shoving me hard away
from him and directly into the gentlemanâs arms. My newfound
champion dropped the revolver to catch me, setting me on my
feet again with care.
âAre you quite all right, Miss Speedwell?â the gentleman
I made a low sound of impatience as the villain reached the
end of the road and vaulted into the waiting carriage. The
horses were swiftly whipped up and the carriage sprang into
motion as if the very hounds of hell were giving chase. âHe
is getting away!â
âI think perhaps this is a good thing,â was my companionâs
gentle reply as he pocketed his revolver.
I turned to him, noticing for the first time that his brow
was bleeding freely. âYou are hurt,â I said, nodding toward
He put a tentative finger to the flow, then gave me a quick
smile. âI am rather too old to be dashing through hedges,â
he said with a rueful compression of the lips. âBut I think
it is not so serious as my other hurts have been,â he told
me, and my gaze flicked to his dueling scars.
âStill, it ought to be cleaned.â I took a handkerchief from
my pocket, not one of those ridiculous flimsy scraps carried
by fashionable females, but a proper square of good cambric,
and pressed it to his face.
I smiled at him. âThis was rather more adventure than I had
expected in the village of Little Byfield. Thank you for
your timely interference, sir. I was prepared to bite him to
the bone, but I am glad it proved unnecessary. I did not
much care for the taste of him,â I added with a moue of
âMiss Veronica Speedwell,â he murmured in a voice thick with
the accents of Mitteleuropa.
âI am. I believe you have the advantage of me, sir,â I said.
âForgive me for the informality of the introduction,â he
said. He produced a card. âI am the Baron Maximilian von
The card was heavy in my fingers. It bespoke wealth and good
taste, and I ran my thumb over the thickly engraved crest.
He clicked his heels together and made a graceful bow.
âI am sorry I cannot offer you a place to sit,â I told him
as we made our way into the kitchen. âNor a cup of tea. As
you saw, I seem to have been intruded upon.â
The baronâs eyes sharpened under his slender grey brows as
he glanced about the wreckage of the room. âHas anything of
importance been taken?â
I moved to the shelf where a tiny tin sewing box shaped like
a pig usually stood in pride of place. It had been dashed to
the floor and rolled to the corner. I was not surprised the
housebreaker had overlooked it. Aunt Lucy had firmly
believed in hiding oneâs money in plain sight, reasoning
that most thieves were men and that a man would never think
to look for money in so homely and domestic an article as a
sewing box. I fetched it, crawling upon my hands and knees
to do so. It customarily held all of the Harbottle wealth in
the world, a few bank notes and some miscellaneous coins. I
shook it and it rattledâa slightly less lively sound than it
had given before I had paid the undertaker.
âNo. That was the only thing of value and it seems to be
untouched. Strange that he did not smash it openâperhaps he
did not notice it in his haste. He has made a complete mess
of the kitchen. I shall be ages clearing it up,â I said
The baron fell silent a moment, as if considering things
carefully, then shook himself, muttering, âIt is the only way.â
âI beg your pardon, Baron?â
âNothing, child,â he said kindly. âI do not wish to alarm
you, my dear, but I am afraid I must speak plainly now. You
might be in danger.â
âDanger! I assure you I am not. There is nothing worth
stealing here, and that thief will hardly come again now he
has been chased out by a sword stick and your revolver,â I
told him, but the baronâs concerns were not eased.
He put a hand to my arm, and I was startled at the strength
of the grip of those soft, elegant fingers. âI do not jest
with you. I saw the notice in the newspaper about the death
of your guardian, and I come to see you, only to find they
have already found you. I am, almost, too late.â
He bit off his words then, as if he had said more than he
intended, but I seized upon his statement. âYou said âthey.â
You think this intruder has friends? Friends with malicious
designs upon me?â
He shook his head. âYou saw the carriage. What sort of
burglar rides in a private conveyance? No, I cannot explain,
child. I can only tell you that you must leave this place.
Now. You have chased him away, but he will return and he
will not come alone.â
âYou know him?â
His fingers gripped my arm still more desperately. âNo! I do
not, but I can guess. And your very life may depend upon my
being able to persuade you that I am not some crazy man and
that I speak the truth. And yet how am I to persuade you?
You must believe! I am the Baron von Stauffenbach,â he
repeated helplessly, his voice thick with anguish. âPlease,
my dear child, if you will not accept my offer to take you
to London, at least permit me to see you onto a train
myself. You may ask to go anywhere in the world at my
expense. But I must know that you are safe.â
I had always followed the maxim that intuition should be
oneâs guide, and so it was in this case. The gentlemanâs
obvious distress was persuasive, but his willingness to
permit me to choose my own destination decided me. O! There
ought to have been a frisson of foreknowledge, a shiver of
precognition that the choice to accompany the baron would
prove the single most significant decision of my entire
existence. And yet there was not. I was aware of a mild
curiosity about his excitability and the natural lifting of
the spirits that accompanies the beginning of any great
journey. But above all this was the cool satisfaction at
having saved myself the price of a ticket to London. It was
to cause me great amusement later to reflect that my life
turned on a penny that day.
He gestured toward the front door. âMy carriage is outside
and I will offer you every comfort.â
âAnd once in London?â
He shook his head. âI will have to make plans as we go. I
did not anticipate this.â He fell to muttering again, this
time in German, and I covered his hand with my own.
âI will come.â
The years seemed to fall away from him. âThank God for that!â
I detached myself gently. âI will fetch my bag.â
He shook his head forcefully. âWe cannot tarry, child. Time
is of the greatest importance!â
I patted his arm consolingly. âMy dear baron, I am already
But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she
thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic
German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to
reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the
baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his
friend Stokerâa reclusive natural historian as intriguing as
he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his
tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for
decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker
are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary
partners in search of the villainous truth.
I was as good as my word, and within ten minutes of agreeing
to leave with the baron, I was in his carriage, my carpetbag
and butterfly net perched on the seat beside me. I left the
remains of the Harbottle treasury with a note for the
landlord and considered the matter closed. I reasoned the
sum should be sufficient to settle the damages. I had
brought with me my own slender funds, tucked carefully into
a clever pocket hidden in my jacket. I had changed from my
mourning ensemble to a costume of my own design, and the
baron regarded me curiously.
"You are not what I expected," he ventured at last, but his
tone was not unkind and his eyes shone warmly.
I nodded. "I seldom am. I have tried, I assure you. I have
been brought up to do good works and to conduct myself with
propriety and decorum, and yet I am forever doing the
unexpected. Something always gives me away for what I really
"And what are you, child?"
"A woman in search of adventure," I said gravely.
The baron sketched a gesture that encompassed me from head
to toe. "And these garments will help you to find one?"
I was quite proud of my ensemble. My boots were flat and
laced almost to the knee to protect my lower limbs from
thorns and branches whilst butterflying. I had modified my
corset to a more athletic arrangement with light steel stays
that might, in an hour of necessity, be used as weapons. I
wore slim trousers tucked into the boots, and over it all a
narrow skirt with a peculiar arrangement of buttons that
permitted it to be raised to the knee or opened entirely to
allow me to ride astride. There was a fitted jacket to match
with an assortment of clever pockets, and into one I had
tucked the good luck charm I was never withoutâa tiny mouse
of grey velvet called Chester, the sole relic of my childhood.
My only jewelry was the small case compass pinned to my
jacket, a present from Aunt Lucy to commemorate my first
expeditionâ"So you will always find your way, child," she
had told me, her eyes bright with unshed tears as I left
home for the first time. I brought with me nothing of Aunt
Nell's except an appreciation for a clean white shirtwaist.
The fabric of this curious suit was a serviceable dark grey
wool, but I had made one or two allowances for vanity. The
grey wool was trimmed with scrolls of rather dapper black
silk passementerie, while my hat was an absolute confection.
Broad of brim, with a snug, deep crown, it was crafted of
fine black straw and wound with a length of black silk tulle
that could be lowered to veil my face should bees prove
troublesome. A bouquet of deep scarlet silk roses clustered
on one side, a splash of delectable color I had been
powerless to resist. But even they had a purpose to serve in
the field, being the perfect perch for delicate specimens
with damp wings.
The hat was a stroke of inspiration, and I pointed this out
to the baron. "You see, the fashion for narrow brims has
made it necessary for ladies to carry a parasol as well, but
that means the hands are never free. With this hat, I am
entirely protected from the elements, yet my hands are
unencumbered. I can lower the veil if I like to shield my
face, and the hatpin is reinforced to make a very fine
weapon." I gave a short laugh.
"You needn't look so startled, Baron. I do not anticipate
having need of it."
"Even after you find an intruder in your home?" he asked softly.
I folded my hands in my lap. "Yes, about that. I know you
said you believe my life is in danger, but I must tell you I
think you are quite wrong. No, the fellow was a lowly
villain in search of easy pickings. Doubtless he, like you,
read in the newspaper of poor Aunt Nell's passing and
realized the cottage would be empty during the funeral. It
is a common enough occurrence. The fellow was simply an
opportunistic housebreaker, and I surprised him by coming
home somewhat sooner than he expected. When I gave chase, he
was alarmed at the thought of having a witness to his crimes
and attempted to frighten me by making it seem as if he
would carry me off. That is all."
The baron looked pained. "But if you do not truly believe
yourself to be in danger, why have you come away with me?"
My tone was deliberately patient. "Because you were leaving
Little Byfield. I was planning to depart this afternoon in
any event, but you have very kindly saved me the cost of a
ticket to London. I am obliged to you."
The baron clucked his tongue and muttered an imprecation in
German. "And I thought I had persuaded you. Oh, child, what
must I say to convince you of the dangers before you?"
"Surely it cannot be so bad as all that. I expect you are
merely hungry. Things always look darkest when one is hungry
or tired, I find." I reached for my carpetbag and unbuckled
the straps. "I have some apples in here and some cheese. I
regret there is no bread, but this will serve until we can
stop for some refreshment."
I proffered an apple and a wedge of weeping Cheddar, and the
baron took them, turning them over in his hands. "The apple
is a bit soft now, but it is from the orchard in Little
Byfield and quite sweet, I promise," I told him.
The baron shook his head. "I do not require food, my dear."
"Spirits, then?" I rummaged in my bag until I found a flask,
which I withdrew with a flourish. "It is a little something
I acquired in South America, very good for restoring one's
He handed back the food but took the flask, swallowing a
mouthful under my watchful eye before choking hard. "Very
nice," he gasped.
I assessed his color. "You've a bit more pink in your
cheeks, I am glad to say. You looked quite pale, you know.
Have you difficulties with your health?"
"My heart," he told me, handing back the flask. "Sometimes
the breath, it does not come easily; sometimes there is
pain. But I have work yet unfinished."
"Work?" I replaced the flask carefully and tucked the food
back into a clean cloth. "What sort of work?"
"To keep you safe," he said softly, and it was this
gentleness that caught my attention. I peered at him
closely, scrutinizing him from his aristocratic brow to the
well-formed lips under the generous mustaches, the graceful
hands that clasped his knees loosely, the watchful eyes that
never left mine. "You have her eyes," he murmured at last.
"Your mother's eyes."
My heart rose in my throat, threatening to choke me. I could
not speak for a moment, and when I did, my usually low voice
was quick and high. "You knew my mother! How very
extraordinary. I must confess, I know nothing of her."
He hesitated. "She was the most beautiful creature I have
ever seen," he said simply.
I gave him an arch smile. "I suspect I look nothing like
The baron protested, as I had expected he would.
"No woman can be so lovely and not know it," he told me
firmly. He put a finger under my chin and tipped my head
this way and that, studying me carefully. "You might be her
twin. It is uncanny, as if I were looking into her face once
more. The same lips, the same cheekbones. I told her once I
could cut glass upon those cheekbones. And of course, the
eyes. I have never seen eyes that color before or since."
"Aunt Nell used to say it was not decent to have violet
eyes, that they were the telltale sign of a bad nature, like
ginger hair or a hunchback. And village children used tease
me about being a bad fairyâa changeling child."
"Children can be very stupid," the baron said gravely.
"And dull, which is why I have no interest in becoming a
mother of six," I told him. He lifted his brows.
"Six is a curiously specific number."
"I had a curiously specific offer today, but let us speak no
more of that. Of course, I do not wish to be a paid
companion or a daughter-in-law either. I have had quite
enough of attending to elderly ladies," I finished absently.
"They were good to you, though?" he asked, his tone shaded
with anxiety. "The Harbottle ladies? They treated you with
"Oh yes. I was fed and clothed and I don't suppose I ever
wanted for anything, not really. I had a new dress every
season and new books to read. Of course, that was due to the
lending library. We moved so often I could never keep books
of my own. Aunt Lucy always bought a subscription to the
library as soon as we settled in a new village. As I grew
older, I pursued my own interests. I have traveled far and
seen much of the world, and when the aunts had need of me, I
returned to care for them. It was a pleasant enough life."
"Did you mind, all of this moving to and fro?"
I grinned. "If I am honest, I loathed it as a child. It
always seemed that we moved just as I had amassed a good
collectionâeggs, frogs, beetles. I was forever leaving
behind something I loved. The aunts were driven by their
whims. One year we might live the whole twelvemonth in Lyme,
the next they would have us move from town to town, four
within the span of a year. I learned to accept it, as
children do. And it taught me to travel lightly." I narrowed
my gaze. "You said you knew them. I do not remember meeting
friends of theirs. They kept so much to themselves. And I
never knew my mother, not even her name. What can you tell me?"
The baron opened his mouth, his lips pursed. Then he closed
it sharply and shook his head. "Nothing at this moment,
child. The truth is not mine to speak. I must seek
permission before I reveal to you what I know, but I promise
you, I will seek it, and when the moment is right, I will
tell you all."
I sighed. I was, truth be told, quite frustrated at the
baron's obstinacy, but there was something steely in his
manner that told me he would not be moved upon the point. "I
suppose I will have to be satisfied with that."
The baron relaxed visibly then, but almost as soon as his
expression eased, a shadow passed over his features again.
"For now, the most important thing is to make certain that
you are safe."
"You keep talking of my safety, but I cannot imagine why! I
am the least interesting person in England, I assure you. No
one could possibly want to harm me." That was not entirely
true, I reflected. The last paper I had written for The
British Journal of Lepidoptery had stirred quite a bit of
controversy, but as I always published papers and conducted
my butterfly sales under the anonymity of my first initial
and surname alone, no ill will could be directed toward me
personally. As strongly as I pointed out that publishing in
scientific journals was a scholarly accomplishment, the
aunts had protested just as vehemently that filling orders
for Aurelian collectors was too near to trade to be
permissible for a lady. They had compromised, albeit
reluctantly, that I might continue my studies and work under
the cognomen of V. Speedwell.
In the end, I had not minded, and it never failed to amuse
me to receive letters that began with the salutation, "Dear
Mr. Speedwell . . ." True, I had nipped the odd specimen out
from under the nose of less diligent hunters, for I was
indefatigable in my pursuit, but the very notion of some
sort of lepidopterist cabal after my head was enough to make
A wraithlike smile touched the baron's lips. "I will pray to
God that you are right and that I am merely borrowing
troubles that will not come to pass. In the meantime, until
I am certain, you will be guided by me?"
I looked at him a long moment, holding his anxious gaze with
mine. Then I nodded. "I will."
"Your trust in me is unexpected but most gratifying," he
"I am a great believer in intuition, Baron. And my intuition
tells me that you are a man upon whom I may rely." I did not
add that he was the sole clue I had ever had to my mother's
identity. I had no intention of permitting him to escape me
until I had learned everything I could about my antecedents.
"From your lips to the ears of God," he said, and it struck
me that when the baron mentioned God he did not do so
flippantly. Whatever matter touched me, it concerned the
I leaned forward then, determined to press my luck as far as
I could. "Will you answer one question for me? I promise to
ask no others until you deem it fit."
I stated the question boldly, as I hoped he would wish. "Are
you my father?"
His kindly face creased in sorrow, but he did not look away.
"No, child. I wish I were, but I am not."
A sharp and unexpected pang struck my heart. I had thought
myself indifferent to the answer, but I was wrong. "Then we
will merely be friends," I said. I put out my hand solemnly.
Other men might have laughed. But the baron shook my hand,
and having done so, he bowed over it and kissed it with
courtly formality. "We will be friends," he agreed. "And I
will do everything in my power to make certain you learn
what you wish to know."
"Thank you, Baron." I nodded toward his brow. "You are
bleeding again. It is not a very hopeful omen, is it? A
journey begun in bloodshed augurs ill, according to the
ancients." I meant it as a jest, but the baron did not
smile. And after a moment, neither did I.
The journey to London proved uneventful to the point of
boredom, and I began to be a little sorry we had not taken
the train. The baron insisted upon the precaution of ducking
down various country lanes to make quite certain we were
eluding any possible pursuers, with the result that the
drive took twice as long as it ought. He also refused any
suggestion of stopping for a meal, resorting instead to a
selection of unappetizing sandwiches purchased at exorbitant
cost from a roadside inn. I nibbled at mine as the baron
continued to formulate a plan. He suggested and discarded a
dozen options before throwing up his hands and applying
himself to his own repast.
"We will think of something," he assured me. "But it is not
good to deliberate upon such things when one is trying to
eat. It disturbs the digestion. So we will talk of other
matters. Tell me, if you do not mean to be a governess or a
companion, what sort of adventure do you wish to seek out?"
I wiped my mouth of crumbs and began to explain. "I am a
student of natural history, all branches. I subscribe to all
of the major journals on exploration and discovery. As you
might deduce from my butterfly net, lepidoptery is my
particular specialty. I hunt butterflies as a profession,
filling orders for Aurelians who lack the means or the
desire to hunt their own specimens," I added.
But the baron was not listening. An expression of wonder
stole over his face, and he sat back, his mournful little
sandwich untouched. "Of course," he murmured. "Stoker."
"I beg your pardon?"
He collected himself. "A very old and very dear friend of
mineâStoker. He is just the man to help us now. He will keep
you safe, child."
My brow furrowed. "Baron, I realize I have been somewhat
reckless in accepting your offer of transportation to
London, and I have been quite cavalier in thinking that I
must do as you bid me. But I do not believe I can
countenance the notion of staying with this Mr. Stoker. He
is even more a stranger to me than yourself. You must tell
me something of him."
"Stoker is a complex fellow, but I have never known a man
more honorable. He owes me a debt of gratitude, and his own
conscience will not permit him to fail me if I call upon his
aid. I would trust Stoker with the thing I hold most dear in
the whole of the world," the baron said.
"You would trust him with your life?" I challenged.
"No, child. I would trust him with yours."
It was very late when we arrived in Londonâor very early, I
suppose, for dawn was upon us, pale pearl grey light washing
over the city as it began to wake.
"Only a few minutes more," the baron promised, and he sat
upright in the carriage now. His shoulders had slumped with
fatigue the last several hours, and I had managed to sleep a
bit, curled over my traveling bag with the baron keeping
watch on the road behind. But as we came into the city I
rose, rubbing at my eyes and pinching my cheeks and pinning
my hat more firmly upon my head. My previous visits to
London had been brief ones en route to other lands, confined
to stuffy train stations and unsavory cabs. The sight of the
great sprawling gloom of the metropolis enthralled me.
"You like the city," the baron said with a twinkle in his
eyes. "I should have thought a natural historian would
prefer the country."
"I love it all," I told him somewhat breathlessly. "Every
arrival in London is the beginning of a new story." I tore
my gaze from the view of the city and gave him a smile. "I
wonder if I shall divide my life scientifically into the
periods B.B. and A.B.âbefore the Baron von Stauffenbach and
after. Have you set me off on great adventures, then,
Baron?" I teased.
But the baron made no reply. The carriage rocked to a stop
and he instructed me to alight, taking my carpetbag himself
as I carried my butterfly net. My grasp of London geography
being tenuous at best, I had a notion we were somewhere east
of the Tower on the north bank of the River Thames, but that
was all I could determine. The neighborhood was in the heart
of the docklands, filled with warehouses and cheap lodgings
and people who lookedâand smelledâdistinctly unwashed. Gulls
wheeled overhead, shrieking for food, and the heavy, greasy
aroma of frying fish filled the air.
"Stoker's workshop is in the next street," the baron said,
guiding me over the broken pavement with a hand under my
elbow. "This is not the most salubrious quarter, but I did
not think it wise to have my own carriage stop directly at
We maneuvered through a narrow alley that debouched into the
next street. The baron stopped at a nondescript door at the
very end of an even more nondescript wall. It looked like
any of a thousand other doors in London, and the building
beyond seemed a sort of warehouse, with a high roof and
plain, solid structure.
"He lives here?"
The baron nodded. "It suits his work." He rapped sharply,
more than once, but there was no answer, and I began to
wonder if our adventure was destined to end as soon as it
had begun. To my surprise, the baron extracted a large ring
of keys from his pocket and, after a moment's consideration,
selected one. He fitted it to the lock and let himself in,
motioning me to follow. He locked the door carefully behind
us and replaced the keys in his pocket. We were in a small
anteroom of sorts, and from the various empty packing cases
scattered about the floor I deduced it had once served as a
shopfront for the warehouse behind. The baron beckoned me
forward and we passed into the storage areasâa series of
large rooms, each filthier and colder than the last, and all
stuffed with rubbish. Windows ran along the south wall,
revealing that the warehouse was built directly above the
river. The dank odor of water was heavy in the air, and the
floors were cold with damp.
Finally, we emerged into the warehouse itself, an immense
cavern of a space, and I stifled a gasp.
"You have brought me to hell," I whispered in horrified
delight, for the place was like something out of Dante's
fevered imagination. The room was lit with the unholy
crimson light of an enormous stove, and in its fiery glow I
made out an endless assortment of shelves and hooks, each
laden with something more grisly and disturbing than the
last. Bones leered out from the gloomâlong, knobby femurs
and grinning, pointed skulls with great fanged teeth.
Unspeakable things floated in specimen jars of ghoulish
yellow fluids, and animal skins were pinned flat to the
walls as if newly flayed from the flesh. A wide iron
cauldron, large enough to boil a man, stood expectantly to
one side, as if waiting for its next offering.
But none of these was as disturbing as the sight that met my
eyes in the center of the room. There stood an enormous
creature, rough flesh sculpted over a steel skeleton, pieces
of wrinkled skin half-draped upon it, the rest hanging limp
and lifeless to the floor like a discarded garment. Standing
below it was a man, stripped to the waist, his naked torso
covered in sweat and streaked with black, the smoky soot
mingling with a collection of tattoos that spread across his
back and down his arms. He wore old-fashioned breeches
tucked into high boots and an apron fashioned of leather and
fitted with pockets holding various tools that looked like
instruments of torture. He was wrestling with the skin of
the beast, the muscles of his back and shoulders corded
against the strain, and he swore fluently as he worked.
I felt a smile rising to my lips, for this was no hell, no
monster's den. It was, in fact, the lair of a taxidermist.
The shelves along one wall were fitted with Wardian cases
containing hundredsâno, thousandsâof specimens, a veritable
museum of natural history hidden away in a dingy warehouse
on the north bank of the Thames. I longed to explore
everything at once, but it was the man himself who claimed
"Stoker," the baron called.
The man whirled, his hands still gripping the animal's skin,
his face imperfectly illuminated by the fire. He was half in
shadow, and the shadow revealed him slowly. His left eye was
covered by a black leather patch, and thin white scars raked
his brow and the cheekbone below. They carried on, down the
length of his neck, into the thick black beard, twisting
under his collarbone and around his torso. They marred only
the skin, I noted, for the muscles beneath were whole and
strong, and the entire impression was one of great vitality
and energy, strength unbridled. He looked like nothing so
much as a fallen god working at a trade.
"Hephaestus at the forge," I murmured, recalling my
mythology. The baron shot me a quick appraising glance.
"Nothing," I said quickly, for the man had dropped his tools
and was coming near. Just then he caught sight of me and
paused, reaching for a shirt. To my regret, he pulled it on,
obscuring his impressive form as he turned to the baron.
"Max, what the devilâ"
The baron held up a hand. "I come to throw myself upon your
mercy, Stoker. This young lady is Miss Speedwell. I must beg
your help and ask you to keep her here. I cannot explain
yet, but I must leave her with you."
Mr. Stoker turned the full force of his gaze upon me,
scrutinizing me from my butterfly net to my neatly pinned
hat, and shook his head. "Not bloody likely."
"Stoker, I know how you feel about your privacy, and I would
not ask but I have no choice," the baron pressed, his voice low.
If I had had any sense of delicacy, I would have been
acutely embarrassed by the situation. As it happened, I was
merely bored with their discussion. I had little doubt the
baron would prevail, and I was fairly itching to see what
lurked amidst the collection Mr. Stoker had amassed. I
wandered to the nearest shelf, where I peered at a specimen
floating in a jar. It was a pretty little frog with enormous
eyes and a faintly surprised expression.
I could hear them arguing in low voices behind me, the
baron's aristocratic tones punctuated by Mr. Stoker's
occasional profanity. I put out a hand and he called out
sharply. "Do not touch that! It took me the better part of a
year to find the damned thing and it cannot be replaced."
If he expected his harsh tone to cow me, he should learn
differently right from the start, I decided. I picked up the
jar and turned, setting a pleasant smile upon my lips. "Then
you ought to have taken better care of it. Your seal is
damaged, and the preservative solution is contaminated. The
specimen looks to have been badly fixed as well. Pity,
really, it's quite a fine little Phyllomedusa tomopterna."
His mouth tightened. "As the label quite plainly states, it
is a Phyllomedusa tarsius."
"Yes, I see what the label states, but the label is wrong.
You can tell by coloration of its lower legs. These are very
bright orange with pronounced tiger stripes. Tarsius has
green legs. Really, I am quite surprised you did not see it
for yourself. I should have thought so avid a collector
would have noticed such a difference. Ah well, perhaps you
have not had the chance to examine it closely."
Mr. Stoker's mouth gaped open until he closed it with an
audible snap. "I assure you, Miss Speedwell, I am intimately
familiar with that particular specimen, considering I
collected it myself in the jungles of the Amazon."
I was enthralled. He had appalling manners and questionable
hygiene considering the state of his hands, but any man who
had been to the Amazon was worth talking to.
Evidently Mr. Stoker did not share my interest in
conversation, for he turned back to the baron to remonstrate
with him one last time. "I haven't time to mind strays for
you, Max. I have to finish that bloody great elephant by
next month or Lord Rosemorran will not pay me."
The baron put out his hand. "My dear friend, I would not ask
if necessity did not demand it."
Mr. Stoker said nothing, and, doubtless sensing his
advantage, the baron pressed it. "I ask you for this one
thing in memory of the dangers we have known together."
Mr. Stoker's face flushed dark red. "It is a very genteel
form of extortion to remind a man of his debts, Max. Very
well, dammit. I am nothing if not a man of my word. You have
it. I will keep the lady here until you come for her."
The baron put out his hand to clasp his friend by the
shoulder. "You have repaid your debt in full with this."
"I cannot think how," Mr. Stoker protested. "Overbearing
spinsters are not exactly your stock in trade."
I studiously ignored the insult as I replaced his
Phyllomedusa. Within a few moments the baron was on his way,
taking his leave of me with a bow over my hand and a smartly
Teutonic click of the heels.
He hesitated, my hand still in his, his eyes searching my
face. "I leave you in the best careâbetter than my own,
child. I will send word soon."
"Please do," I replied with a touch of asperity as I flicked
a glance at Mr. Stoker. He curled a lip by way of reply.
The baron hesitated. "You must know, if it were in my power
to tell you everything . . . ," he began. I held up a hand.
"I have come to know you a little in the course of our
journey. I believe you to be a man of honor, Baron. It is
plain that you are bound by strong loyalties. I must respect
"Respect it, but you do not like it," he finished with a
"And it is apparent you have come to know me a little too,"
I acknowledged. "I will bid you farewell in the German
fashion then. Auf Wiedersehen, Baron."
He clicked his heels together a second time and pressed my
hand. "God go with you, Miss Speedwell."
He left then, and Mr. Stoker saw him out, returning a moment
later to find me studying his specimens again. "The baron
did not tell me you were a taxidermist when he suggested I
stay with you," I said pleasantly.
He returned to his elephant, taking up his tools. "I am a
natural historian," he corrected. "Taxidermy is merely a
part of what I do."
He offered neither a seat nor refreshment, but I was not
prepared to stand on ceremony. I found a moth-eaten sofa
lurking under a pile of skins and moved them aside enough to
perch on the edgeâcarefully, for I noticed a leg of the sofa
was missing, replaced with a decaying stack of volumes from
the Description de l'?gypte. "It is very lateâor very early.
And yet you are at work."
He said nothing for a long moment, and I wondered if he
meant to annoy me with his silence. But he was merely
examining his glue, and as he began to apply it, he called
over his shoulder. "I have not yet been to bed. I gather
from Max that you traveled through the night. If you wish to
sleep, shove the hides aside and take the sofa."
I sighed at this bit of churlishness, but fatigue won out
over pride, and I began to move the hides. Suddenly,
something in the bundle growled and I jumped back, nearly
upsetting a case of fossilized eggs as I did so.
"For the love of God, watch what you're doing!" Mr. Stoker
thundered. "'Tis only Huxley. He shan't hurt you."
I peeled away the hides to reveal a bulldog, squat and
square, regarding me with statesmanlike solemnity. I slipped
him a bit of cheese from my bag and he settled back happily,
content to let me take the rest of the sofa. I curled behind
him, feeling oddly contented with the warm, furry back of
him pressed to my belly, and almost instantly I fell asleep.
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