Pulteney Bridge, Bath, England
“Papa! Mama!” Lady Laura yelled, dashing down the hall toward the back parlor of her parents’ mansion. “It came! It came!”
Turning the corner of the archway entrance, all the training in proper etiquette and behavior of the twenty-year-old daughter of a Lord and Lady reinstated itself, quelling her overwhelming elation. Sucking in her excitement, Laura strutted with the grace of a Princess into the room.
Her father and mother, Lord and Lady Sommers, sat on an elaborate French Louis XVI sofa edged in gilt trim engaged in afternoon tea. On a separate Louis XVI chair adjacent to them, perched Laura’s fifteen-year-old sister.
“Papa. Mama,” she said with a great deal more restraint. Holding up a letter, she could not resist a traitorous grin. “It came. The reply to my inquiry.”
On a squelched laugh, Laura’s sister spit tea back into her cup.
“Opal,” Lady Sommers snapped, “you must learn to control your childish impulses. After all, in two years hence, you shall be coming out.”
Lord Sommers eased his tea onto the silver serving tray planted in the middle of a mahogany table. “What is this about a reply, my little angel?”
Laura gathered up all her loose emotions, stuffed them back inside herself, and continued. “The inquiry concerning my real parentage. Pray, you remember I sent posts to several London churches asking if their records contained anything about a green-eyed, redheaded girl having come into their jurisdiction fifteen or so years ago?” She thrust the letter toward her parents, her eyes wide open and the corners of her mouth stretching upwards into a smile of girlish ecstasy. “Well, here it is. Saint Giles-in-the-Fields in Soho has responded.”
“Cherub,” her father said, “how do you know the response is favorable? Perhaps they have written to tell you they found no such record.”
Unable to contain her excitement, Laura darted to the table and broke the letter’s seal. “Because they were the only church to respond. I asked every inquiry to correspond in kind only if they possessed such a record. Pray, allow me to read it:
“Dear Lady Sommers,
In reply to your request for information on our congregation, please be advised that we have record of but one such child ever coming to the attention of this parish. Seventeen years ago, in 1789, a child fitting the description and age of your mention indeed did come to us. Upon recent revelation, it has been determined she is the illegitimate daughter of King George III.”
Lowering the letter, Laura’s heart shriveled down to the size of a prune and hardened into a cold, dark mass. She eyed her family with widening eyes.
Opal choked and started laughing until her mother’s scowl ended it.
Her father coughed. “The illegitimate daughter of George III? It does seem a bit peculiar.”
Reviving her finest etiquette and upbringing, Opal lowered her teacup to the silver tray. “It is little wonder my sister behaves in a daft manner a majority of the time.” After two reprimanding glares, one each from a disturbed parent, Opal continued in a civil tone. “Well, read on.”
Her nerve endings numb, Laura drew her attention to the letter with the demeanor of a person forced into a trance by a magician.
“We hope the above news does not dishearten nor discourage you, but it is our recommendation, since coming from such a disagreeable background, that you keep it hushed up; if not for the protection of your reputation, then for the reputation of our beloved King George, fine fellow that he is. Good luck, Princess.”
Laura choked on the last word as her heart flew into her throat demanding to stand on the edge of her teeth and leap to its suicide. Her breathing strained like a bellows in a smithy’s shop. She gazed at her father, her face twisted out of shape. “I do not understand. Something is amiss.”
Lord Sommers stretched out a hand. “Pray, allow me to examine it.”
Opal reached for a cake. “You may examine to your heart’s content, Papa, but scandalous it will remain. You should have had two natural daughters instead of one. I am glad I do not have to go about searching into sordid backgrounds of questionable heritage. I know mine.”
“Opal,” Lady Sommers scolded. “Mind your manners. Laura is just as much a Sommers as you or I; and you know you are under strict orders not to talk about Laura’s background. Not even to us. I rue the day your father ever told her about it. If word ever escaped, well, think of how it would affect your father’s reputation in Parliament.”
Lord Sommers waved a hand through the air. “Oh, my dear, not to worry. Our secret at least gave benefit to a poor abandoned orphan. There was no hanky-panky about it, as there is with some of my peers in Parliament, the possessors of shadier secrets.”
“But what of our status in this community?” Lady Sommers asked, easing a hand over her heart.
“Again, not to worry. We are the rock of our community. I dare say the secret may escape someday, but these things have a way of staying under wraps. Anyone finding out would keep it within a small circle, for the truth of it is, to damage our house would be to damage all of Weybridge. Now, I ask you, who could do such a thing?”
Lady Sommers fanned herself and glanced around at the others in turn. “I certainly hope you are right, my dear.”
Lord Sommers again turned his attention to the letter by flipping it to the addressed side. “There you are, my cherub, you are the victim of a hoax. This letter is not posted in London, but right here in Weybridge.”
“What?” Laura snatched the letter away in an unladylike fashion, which her father ignored. As she gawked at it, she could not keep her tears from welling up. “I do not understand, Papa. Who would execute such a wicked act?”
Opal burst into laughter with a cake half in her mouth, which produced half gaiety and half choking. Recovering from the gagging, she laughed so hard it seemed her corset would split open.
Laura glowered through her tears at her sister and tossed the letter on the table. “You, you beast! You persuaded another to write it so I would not recognize your hand.”
Slapping one hand over her mouth, Opal choked the laughter off and wiped a tear from her left eye. “No, I wrote it with my left hand.”
Laura’s eyes opened wider. Having never spawned a violent thought in her life, she found herself amongst one then, hands wrapped around her sister’s throat, holding her out from a window on the second floor. “How could you?”
Opal pretended to write on imaginary paper with an imaginary pen in her left hand spelling out her second word. “Very c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y.” She fell into fits of laughter as Laura spun and dashed through the archway.
Lord and Lady Sommers sipped their brew in simultaneous choreography. On setting down their cups in unison, they turned to Opal who had just shed the last of her laughter.
“My dearest,” Lady Sommers began, “do you think that an amiable gesture to perform for your sister?”
“Yes, Pippin, Apple of my Eye,” Lord Sommers added, picking up his cup and sipping from it. “You know how important it is to Laura to search for her roots.”
Opal stretched her face into a scowl. “You, at least, do not have to hear it day in and day out as I do. She is twenty years old and should show more concern for a suitor.” Pointing to the letter on the table before her, she continued with emphatic persuasion. “I say, if she discovers her real past, it may very well be something unpleasant. Who is to say that she is not the illegitimate daughter of King George? Answer me that.”
“You must put yourself in her place,” Lady Sommers said. “Your father and I knew when we found her a stray in London, that one day her curiosity would get the better of her. This is but a temporary obsession. It is for us to stand aside and allow her to act upon it in the manner of her choosing. You know very well Arthur Hailey of Brookshire House is seeking her hand.”
Opal emitted a childish sigh. “Well, the Baron’s son can seek all he likes, because that sister of mine, with no history at all, has not a hand available. Her hands are too busy searching elsewhere.”
Lord Sommers set his cup down a little too hard causing an inadvertent libation to spill from its rim. He leapt up and scowled at his daughter. “By order of this house, Opal, you are commanded to go to your sister and apologize; and nevermore will you write such a letter of deception. Then I want you to return to Miss Talbot and continue your afternoon lessons.”
Opal removed her smile and rose. “Yes, Papa.” She strolled with royal poise to the archway, stopped, and twirled around. “It is too bad you thought you could not have children, Mama. Just think; had you waited another few years you never would have had the need to adopt clandestinely. And I would not have a sister, which would have suited me just fine.”
Her parents shook their heads with synchronized scowls on their faces. “Opal!”
The youngest Lady plunged her head down to hide a smile and waltzed childlike out of the room. In the hidden confines of the hall, Lord and Lady Sommers heard a laugh; but each thought it so faint they guessed it to be their imaginations.
Pattering up the stairs to the bedchambers, Opal knocked on Laura’s door. When no response issued from behind it, she listened and detected sobbing.
Opal knocked again. “Laura, please let me in. Father said I must apologize. Let me do it and return to the governess for my lessons.” Opal listened, and after several seconds, she heard her sister’s footsteps approach the door. It opened to Opal’s nearly authentic smile.
“Come in,” Laura murmured, returning a frown. She spun around and meandered back to her vanity. Sitting in front of it, Laura snatched up a kerchief and wiped her eyes.
Opal stepped in and twirled a ringlet on the right side of her head. “I am sorry, Laura.”
Laura blew into the kerchief, wiped her nose, and swung her head around. “That was the most horrible and wicked thing anyone has ever done to me.”
“You do not know that for certain,” Opal offered, walking toward her. “What of the three years you wandered the streets of London as an infant? Someone may have done many despicable things to you, and many more, had not Papa pulled you from the gutter.”
Sniffing once more and returning the kerchief to the vanity top, Laura sneered through the mirror. “Thank you, dear sister. I always have you to remind me of my nebulous origins.”
“I think it would have been better if Father had never told you about your circumstance.”
“Well, he did, and now I am curious.” Laura licked her lips to the taste of salt. “Oh, I know the last thing you want to do is apologize, so I suppose you should go on to Miss Talbot. I shall recover in due time.”
“Well, confound it all,” Opal exploded, stomping a foot on the floor. “Mother and Father live in a dream. You do not suppose your secret is confined only to our family, do you? I feel many people have guessed it.”
Opal closed her half-open mouth in interruption of herself and spun around. On reaching the door, she twirled back toward her sister. “Why must you persist? Your history is lost. You were three years old then, and tomorrow you are one-and-twenty. Why not leave it alone and move on?”
For Laura, uncharacteristic bitterness usurped remorse. “Opal, tomorrow is the celebration of my birthday, which of course Father incorporates into his Summer Gala Ball. We will celebrate the summer with the townspeople. My birthday is an insignificant lost fact no one cares anything about, and least of all I.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Your self-pity borders on groveling, and a fine Lady never grovels. I am Lady Opal, and you Lady Laura. Though I deserve it more and am a true Lady, you are at least permitted to wear the title, so do it justice.”
Opal whirled around, thought for a moment, and then turned back. “You ought to desist this exploration of your past. Let it lie like a sleeping dog before you dig up something really dirty. My letter should serve as a lesson, not as a prank. The people of Weybridge already judge you with a critical eye. Though we have told no one of your past, your very features betray your origins. We all have black hair and brown eyes. How could my parents produce a bright redhead with green eyes? The conclusion must be that you are adopted … or illegitimate.”
After the sting reached Laura’s heart and broke it into enough pieces for a good-sized jigsaw puzzle, she threw her head down and sobbed as Opal reached for the door. Closing it behind her, she reopened it again. “I am sorry, Laura.”
Judging the sincerity of her sister’s voice to be genuine, Laura offered her a smile. “I know you are.”
The door closed in another second, and Opal strutted on to her governess.
A Far Better Fate
Alfred Brumfield, a common dustman, tucked the infant under one arm and pounded on the front door of his acquaintance. “Mrs. Goodwright, open up. It’s me, Alfie.”
The oak door swung open to reveal a middle-aged woman attired in a gray, middle-class dress.
“Alfie?” Madeline said, fluttering her arms up and down like a butterfly having difficulty achieving flight. “What are you doing on this end of Baltimore?”
“Shut your trap and let me in.” Not waiting for her to respond, he barged past her. After she shut the door to the tiny foyer, he thrust the infant toward her as it cried.
Pulling the child into her bosom, Mrs. Goodwright wiped the soot stains off its face with her apron. “Where did you get this?”
Alfie, who had not cleaned up after a profitable day of picking through the city’s refuse, thrust a filthy finger in her face. “You know you owe me. Well, I’ve come for payment: in favor mind you.”
The woman pulled on Alfie’s tattered coat sleeve. “Where did you get the child?”
“Never mind that. It’s mine now. I want you to keep it for me ’til I can find a buyer.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Girl, unfortunately. I won’t be able to get as much.”
Holding the infant up, she examined the baby’s face. “I would say she is about a year old. Look at her eyes. Aren’t they gorgeous? And the red hair ….” pulling the baby down and cradling her, Madeline’s eyes widened, and her eyebrows flew up. “You didn’t steal her, did you?”
“No,” Alfie said, reaching for the door. “I can honestly say I came by her fair and square.”
“Who would give up such a beautiful child? What’s her name?”
“Her name?” Alfie paused a moment and then opened the door. “For now it’s Marnie. Yes, Marnie Brumfield, after my dear old mother who abandoned me on the streets of Baltimore.”
Bounding toward Alfie, she forced a hand on his as he sauntered through the door. “Wait, Alfie, I can’t care for her. What if her parents want her back?”
Alfie smiled and laid a hand to the baby’s cheek depositing another soot stain. “You don’t know them, and they don’t know you. That’s why I came to the classier end of Baltimore. In a few weeks, I’ll have a buyer, then your debt to me will be paid in full, and I’ll never ask you to do another thing.”
Mrs. Goodwright wiped away the baby’s fresh soot stain. “But, Alfie, I can’t do this.”
Alfie stepped back inside. “Did you forget it was me who revenged your husband’s death? Would the constables do anything when he was murdered? No. It was you who came to me to avenge your husband.”
Her eyebrows flew upward. “But I never wanted revenge. I only wanted you to find out who committed the foul act and bring him to justice.”
Alfie shrugged one shoulder. “Is it my fault the letch didn’t want to escort me to the constable’s office? He attacked me! I had to defend myself.”
Madeline pulled on his arm again and gritted her teeth. “I never wanted the murderer killed!” She let him go. “Oh, I should have turned you in then.”
He jerked his head back. “What? And be named as the accomplice in the crime, the mastermind even? I think not.” He pushed her arm off his. “You do this and you’ll never see me again. I swear it.” He darted out the door and disappeared down the street into the night.
Madeline closed the door and leaned against it. “I wish I had never sought out that man.” After several seconds of contemplation, she searched for the necessities the tyke would require.
Later that night, while changing the baby using one of her own feminine cloths, she spoke to herself. “Oh my. Sell little Marnie? What a horrible fate. Can I bear such a thing?” She completed the task and picked up the child. “I must. Sorry, little girl, but Mr. Brumfield can get me into a lot of trouble if I don’t comply.”
A week passed with no word from Alfie. Mrs. Goodwright rocked the baby in the late afternoon and watched her sleep—and, at the same time, hated herself for doing nothing to alleviate a horrible fate waiting for baby Marnie. A white slave trade thrived in other places of the world. Would Mr. Brumfield sell her into slavery? Madeline thought she could not bear it if that were the case.
She thought about him selling her to another couple. Surely there were those willing to pay handsomely for a clean, healthy baby. Some would have nothing but the best intentions. They would be people unable to conceive: like her and her late husband. On the other hand, they could be people willing to rear an infant to resell for another purpose—slavery, or cheap labor for the sweatshops of the big cities. They started them as young as four—or so she had heard.
Something exploded inside her heart suggesting a new course of action. She packed what she could and boarded the next carriage to Philadelphia.
A Weed in the Rose Garden
Lord Sommers, at his illustrious and prestigious Sommers Wey Park, opened his doors once again to the entire community of Weybridge as he did every July the first. This one, for 1806, was to be the biggest and grandest ever, for Lord Sommers had hired an entire orchestra from London to play at the ball.
By the time evening dusk had chased away the sun, Arthur Hailey had managed to obtain half the dances with Laura. Tiring of the dance floor, Laura directed Arthur into an adjacent overlook to the back of the property.
Standing by the rail surveying the extensive gardens at the rear of the mansion, Arthur and Laura absorbed its beauty and fragrance for several minutes without speaking.
Laura pivoted to face him. “Mr. Hailey. What is your opinion of me?”
“You are of a fine family, Lady Laura. I enjoy the company of all the Sommers.”
“And what of my background? Does that not disturb you?”
Arthur stared into the garden and then lowered his head. “Pray, I do not know to what you refer.”
Laura gazed outward, parallel to his. “You know very well my meaning. My father has told no one outside our family, yet many must suspect. I am sure stories of my sordid beginnings must be all over Surrey by now. Besides, as my sister so painfully points out: how could my parents produce such a redheaded, green-eyed girl?”
Arthur coughed and pulled at his collar. “I know of several redheads who were born of brunette parents. One has only to look at the grandparents—”
Laura choked at her would-be fiancé’s avoidance. “One look of comparison with my sister does pronounce the obvious.” She pulled his arm until he turned to face her. “Look at my mouth. It is small, round, surrounded by the thinnest wisps of lips. Now compare that to the broad and thick-lipped Lady Opal.”
Laura plopped a finger on her nose. “Look here at this miniscule thing. How can you compare it to the broader one of Lady Opal’s? And what of our height? I am less than five feet tall. Opal is five years younger and already an inch taller.”
“I know others think it important, but I would make nothing of it, My Lady.”
Laura eased a little closer, and, to her surprise, Arthur moved toward her as well. Convinced her unknown background did not repulse him; she stepped back, pivoted away, and eased her hands on the rail.
“I thank you for that. There is a great appreciation in my heart to know you can accept me with all my mysteries.”
Arthur laid a hand on the back of Laura’s. “Then allow me to offer you a future at Brookshire House once again—”
Laura yanked away her hand, turned toward him, and backed up a step. “I told you there must be love. Though the fault is not yours, with us there is none. However, it is my persistent fixation with the past that prevents it.” Seeing the hurt grow in his eyes, she pressed a hand on the side of his face. “Oh, Arthur, you have been so very kind. Pray, have patience and allow me to settle my past. Then I will bury it, come back to you, and explore our feelings for one another. At present those feelings are hidden behind a curtain of obsession.”
Arthur grasped her hands and pulled her toward him. “All right, my love. Seek the illusive bird of history. I shall be here for you always.”
Laura glanced around to confirm their solitude, and then she planted her lips to his and pulled away after only a second replacing them with a smile. “Go inside and dance with my sister. I want to remain here awhile and formulate a plan.”
Arthur pulled her hand to his mouth and pressed an extended kiss on the back of her glove. Then he walked away toward the ballroom.
Laura’s father had first discovered her dressed in a street urchin’s rags wandering outside the Seraphim Opera Club on Oxford Street in London. How could she have wandered into such a posh area of town? The closest slum lay several blocks away in Soho—too many for a three-year-old to traverse.
Laura knew she must dig for the facts one day in the slums of Soho. The thought would have scared most sane people, but not having a name, or an address, or any lead at all concerned her the most. She wondered where to start? The letters to the churches had turned out futile, and indeed the one to Saint Giles-in-the-Fields boomeranged to bite her in the soul.
After several minutes of contemplating where next to search for her true ancestry, she surrendered and sauntered inside. Instead of ambling through the surrounding hallway arch to the ballroom, on a whim she decided to stroll down its corridor and think some more.
As she drew near an open foyer, she heard strains of female voices. Stopping in the hall she listened: first to discern the identity of the voices, and then to discover the topic of conversation. Lady Lumner, the daughter of the Lord Chamberlain, led the pack of town gossips.
Except for Squire Ramsford’s daughter, most of the participants consisted of locals with no real social standing. The Squire, the longest resident and largest landowner of Weybridge, had much influence if no official title—as is customary of most Squires. Together Miss Ramsford and Lady Lumner could inflict severe damage on a young lady’s reputation. Lord Sommers, being a member of the House of Lords in Parliament, stood as Laura’s good fortune because as a Lord, most mischief bypassed his position.
Laura crept toward the entrance and peered around the corner at half-a-dozen ladies gathered in a circle. With the ill-intentioned bevy identified, Laura listened to their words:
Lady Lumner: And I say my friend is correct in his information.
Miss Ramsford: How do you know Mr. Blakely committed the crime? After all, it was over fifteen years ago.
Lady Lumner: My friend, Mr. Wills, knew a Mr. Wallace who witnessed the crime. Mr. Wallace saw Mr. Blakely, whom he knew, strike the man with a huge object and chase the little red-haired girl. He would have done her in as well, only she was swooped away by an unidentified horseman.
Miss Watson (the daughter of the bookstore owner): But did the child have green eyes?
Lady Lumner: Yes. That is the most fantastic part. Mr. Wallace stood very close before the horseman swooped up the girl. He looked straight into her beautiful green eyes.
Miss Anderson (the daughter of a Weybridge barrister): Why did Mr. Wallace not help the child?
Lady Lumner: When a constable happened by, he ran. Mr. Wallace was being sued in debtor’s court and had failed to show for judgment.
Mrs. Lancaster (the young wife of Parson Lancaster of Sommers Wey Park): I see. He thought the law would catch up to him, and the child … well, she would have been a burden in a chase.
Mrs. Porter (the middle-aged wife of the town doctor): I suppose there is no doubt as to the identity of the ragged, green-eyed redhead.
Miss Anderson: Is it not just scandalous the way Mr. Hailey chases after Lady Laura? He must know her origins. Surely he would have sought after one of us rather than some ….
Miss Ramsford: Go ahead. Do not be afraid to say it. I think it a shame we have a guttersnipe passing herself off as a Lady.
Miss Anderson: Well, I will say she is lucky to have found her way into such an influential family. No one dares to mar the name of Sommers: not in the county of Surrey, and not even in Weybridge.
Mrs. Porter: It still makes her a guttersnipe. And what is even more shameful is how we must grovel to her high station. What could Lord Sommers have been thinking to take in a ratty street urchin and treat her as his own?
Mrs. Lancaster: There are many who say he treats that tripe bit of rubbish even better than his true daughter.
Miss Anderson: Lady Opal?
Lady Lumner: Of course Lady Opal. She is the only true Lady of their union.
Miss Watson: Why, it is the Emperor’s New Clothes. Lady Laura wears her title like a peacock. Only, the feathers are invisible to all save her.
Mrs. Lancaster: Yet we must pretend to notice.
Miss Ramsford: I am willing to wager no other town in Surrey must tolerate such an abominable scandal in their midst.
Lady Lumner pulled back from the group and glanced at Laura. She sprang into the bevy again and soon they dispersed and strutted toward the archway where Laura waited.
“Why, Lady Laura,” Lady Lumner began as they all edged closer. “I did not see you step into the foyer.”
“Lady Lumner.” Laura held her glare until Lady Lumner darted her gaze aside. “And what is the latest town gossip?”
“Oh, nothing very enticing,” Miss Ramsford said, darting her eyes away. “I am sure it would bore a fine Lady to tears.”
“And where is the charming Mr. Hailey?” Mrs. Watson asked, her grin growing too large to conceal.
“Yes.” Laura narrowed her eyes. “To think he sits in the ballroom, a room filled with the most eligible single women in Surrey … waiting only for my return. Perhaps I should not keep him. We can all gossip another time.” With her tears welling up, she turned and sauntered down the hall.
Easing her way back onto the overlook, she watched the gentle July evening breeze rustle the flowers in the shadow of the moonlit night and allowed her tears to flow freely. She focused on one bush of roses and stared as the closed blooms swayed: sometimes rugged, sometimes less so, and could not keep from seeing a metaphor of herself. She was not a rose. Only a weed masquerading as one: at least that is what most of the town presumed. Did she believe she could marry and live in comfort in Weybridge with such smugness glaring down the noses of most of the town folk? For now, she thought not.
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