Vanquished, p.27

Vanquished, page 27

 

Vanquished
 


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  Looking up through a haze of blood and pain, Hadrian could scarcely credit the proof of his eyes. Gavin and Rourke? "What took you so long?" Dividing his gaze between his two friends, he cracked a smile, which set his swollen lips to bleeding.

  The bullies were on their knees with their hands up. Sykes turned to Deans, and said, "It's only a single barrel he's carrying. He can't hit us both." Eying Rourke, he slowly got to his feet, Deans following suit.

  The Scot broke into a toothsome grin. "Aye, 'tis true enough, but then at this close range, I canna be counted on to miss, either." Waving the weapon between them, he said, "Which one of you brave lads will it be, eh?

  Exchanging looks, the pair wavered, all the time needed for Gavin to reload. "As they say, 'no honor among thieves,' and apparently not a great deal in the way of bravery either." A siren's blare had the two henchmen turning their heads sharply to the road above. In answer to their unspoken question, Gavin supplied, "That would be the police. The magistrate is an old friend of the family. I would have got here sooner, but I stopped to send a message 'round to his house. If you two lads don't mind holding tight a moment or two more, we'll have you safely tucked into the police wagon and slapped in irons in no time at all."

  The visit to Dandridge had been a waste of time and breath as Callie had known it would be, but when her aunt had insisted they couldn't very well sit about quaffing sherry all night, she'd reluctantly agreed to go. Likewise, she'd put up only a fledgling fight when afterward Lottie had wanted to drive by Hadrian's shop on their way home. The shop windows were dark when their carriage pulled up to the curb.

  It wasn't until Lottie pressed for them to disembark and knock on the very door that Callie had put her foot down. "Really, Aunt, I've subjected myself to sufficient humiliation to last another ten years, don't you think?"

  Sitting on the carriage seat next to her niece, Lottie said, "We don't know for certain he's even turned over that picture. It might be in his possession even now."

  Callie shook her head, which ached from grief and fatigue as well as a surfeit of sherry. "You saw Dandridge's face as well as I when we confronted him. The way he stared at me, one would think I hadn't on a stitch. Oh, he has the photograph, all right, and only because Hadrian gave it to him. By his own admission, he took money from Dandridge to ruin me. Really, Aunt, what more in the way of proof do you require?"

  "I am only saying you owe it to yourself to confront him, hear what Hadrian has to say in his defense."

  "I'm not terribly interested in anything he has to say in his defense or otherwise. Why, how could I possibly credit a single word he says? Hadrian St. Claire isn't even his true name. He took it so as not to be traced back to his . . . past." She stopped herself from saying more. Even now that she knew Hadrian to be the agent of her ruin, telling the secret of his past, even to her aunt, still struck her as terribly wrong.

  In the shadows cast by the carriage lamp, Lottie regarded her, expression thoughtful. "Just as times change, people can change, too--if they want to badly enough."

  Callie had the discomfiting feeling that the remark was meant for her. "Very well, Auntie, you win again. If Hadrian wishes to speak with me, I'll hear him out. Only this time, Lottie, it is he who must come to me."

  The early morning streets were just beginning to come to humming life when Hadrian, Gavin, and Rourke stepped out of the magistrate's office, having just finished swearing out their statements. Connecting Dandridge to the night's deeds might take some doing, but knowing Sykes and Deans, Hadrian felt certain one or both criminals would soon confess rather than swing from the gallows rope.

  Looking down at the Manton dueling pistol tucked into his pocket, Rourke chuckled, "Och, but that was quite an adventure."

  "An adventure I can well do without repeating," Gavin added, "particularly as before last night Grandfather's dueling pistols likely haven't been fired since Napoleon's day."

  Dividing his gaze between his two childhood friends, Hadrian said, "In case I neglected to say so earlier, my thanks to both of you for saving my unworthy hide, or rather what's left of it."

  A cursory glance in the cracked mirror of the police loo had shown his face to be a mask of cuts and bruises that would render shaving pointless for the next week if not longer. A knot the size of a robin's egg was fast rising on his crown, and though he was no doctor, he was quite certain his nose was broken. Even so, he would gladly live with this battered face for the rest of his days if it meant Callie might take pity on him, and yes, take him back.

  "Think nothing of it. Only Harry,"--Gavin paused to scour his face with sober eyes--"the next time you take it into your head to go haring off like some knight errant, tell us in advance, will you? Just what did possess you to stake out Dandridge's townhouse?"

  From the street corner, a newsboy's shouts of "Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Maid of Mayfair bares all" saved him from answering.

  "What the devil." Wheeling about, he rushed forward and grabbed the newspaper out of the startled boy's hands.

  "Now see 'ere, guv . . ."

  Hadrian scarcely registered the protest, his gaze, indeed his entire focus, riveted on the paper's front page. Splayed across it was the photograph of Callie, his photograph, the high slopes of her breasts and bare white thighs visible beyond the edges of the "censored" banner printed to cover them. Dandridge had made good on his threat after all. Ruined though the MP would shortly be, he hadn't gone down without first dragging Callie with him.

  Reeling, he reached into his pocket for his money clip. "How much for the lot?"

  The boy looked up at him. From the shadow of his wool cap, his mouth formed a shocked circle. "You want to buy 'em all?"

  "Never mind, here, just take it all." Pressing the wad of notes in the boy's grubby palm, he swooped down and swept up the full stack of newspapers.

  Coming up beside him, Rourke looked over to Gavin and shook his head. "That wee lump atop his head must be addling his wits."

  Gavin came up on his other side. Reaching for his arm, he said, "Seriously Harry, let us get you to a doctor. You don't look at all well."

  Hadrian answered with a fierce shake of his head that set the knot atop to fresh pounding. "That will have to wait. I've to pay a call on a lady first. Now help me flag down a hansom and pour myself into it because there's no time to lose."

  The knowledge that it was only a matter of time, hours perhaps, before the proverbial axe fell had Callie lying awake to see dawn lighting the sky. When she heard the stirrings of life downstairs, she knew she couldn't put off rising any longer. Determined to face the day and whatever it had in store for her with as much dignity as she might, she washed her face, pinned up her hair, and dressed to come downstairs. The bill to extend the vote to women was slated to be read when Parliament convened for its evening sitting and the rally with the petition of more than three thousand signatures from women throughout the country would commence shortly after noontime. She could only suppose that Dandridge would see to it that the photograph of her surfaced sometime between now and the bill's introduction on the House floor. In the interim, she meant to carry on with her usual commitments as though this was any ordinary day, which of course it wasn't. Afterward she would step down from her leadership role in the Movement, quite possibly for good. What she needed now was time alone to take stock of her priorities, her goals, and most importantly her life.

  On her way downstairs, she considered the part Hadrian had played in her imminent ruin. All these weeks he'd been tempting her, daring her to cast off her reserve, her ironclad self-control, and the starch-faced mask she'd taken refuge behind for the past decade much as she'd hidden behind her uncle's old spectacles. Now that she had left safety behind and stepped out into the open, albeit with disastrous consequences, she found she wasn't entirely sorry for having made the shift.

  Her thoughts went out to Hadrian; she couldn't help that any more than she could help loving him, or at least the man she'd believed him to be. Soft
feelings aside, certain of his actions were like missing puzzle pieces that simply didn't fit with the whole. That photograph, why then had he so resisted taking it, or had he been playing her even then? Under either circumstance, why bother confessing his unsavory association with Dandridge? She supposed she would never know the answers, and she supposed it didn't greatly matter. Either way, she was ruined.

  Entering the breakfast room on that sobering thought, she saw that her place at the table looked oddly bare. Usually a stack of newspapers, ironed and folded, lay by her plate. Lottie, hair in curling papers and petite form swathed in her dressing gown, stood staring out the window to the street.

  Drawing the drapes closed though it looked to be a fine, sunny day, she turned about. "Callie, dear, I thought I heard you up and about." Her grim face belied the sunny greeting. She crossed the room toward her, a newspaper fisted in one reed thin hand.

  Callie looked down to the newspaper clutched in her aunt's hand and felt her heart beating like an executioner's drum. "How bad is it? I want to know."

  "You might want to sit first. It's . . . bad, Callie." She handed Callie the newspaper, a folded copy of the London Times.

  Taking it from her, Callie sank into her seat lest her suddenly weak legs give way. She thought she'd prepared herself for the worst, but when she unfolded the paper and looked down, what she saw there sent her thundering heart falling through to the floorboards. The photographed face peering back at her in shades of halftone gray was her image and yet it wasn't. Languid gaze, swollen lips, and mussed hair all bore witness to a woman who had recently known carnal pleasure and been thoroughly sated. As for the body, all that pale skin and generous curves struck her as so very bare. The sole salvation was that the censored banner covered her wantonly straying hand.

  How long she sat there staring in stunned silence she couldn't say but at some point Jenny entered with the morning post, her usual chipper good morning greeting silent on her lips. She glanced down at the mail tray in her hands. "I'll just set this down by you, Miss Callie."

  Lottie answered for her, "Thank you, Jenny. That will be all."

  "But what should I tell them reporter fellers who keep knocking on the door?"

  "I said that will be all for now." Lottie's tone, uncharacteristically sharp, sent the maid scurrying out the door.

  Callie waited until they were alone before asking, "What reporter fellows?"

  Heaving a heavy sigh, Lottie nodded toward the window she'd just left. "You may as well know that the press has been camped out on our sidewalk and front lawn since dawn."

  "I see." Setting the newspaper aside, Callie glanced at the tray piled high with correspondence.

  Cresting the heap was a note from Mrs. Fawcett due back from the States just the day before. Familiar with Millicent's usually precise signature, she could tell the letter had been penned in haste. Feeling numb, she broke the seal and perused the few short lines.

  Standing over her shoulder, Lottie squinted to see. "What does she say?"

  Callie cleared her throat, thick with emotions she'd yet to own. "Apparently I have become through my own 'wanton conduct and ill-advised actions' a detriment to the Cause. She goes on to say she has no choice but to make a public statement decrying my immoral behavior and disavowing any further association with me. Moreover, she has called an emergency meeting of the board of the NUWSS to propose that the London Society for Women's Suffrage be expelled from the coalition unless I step down as president, effective immediately. In the interim, she advises me against showing my face--or any part of my anatomy--at today's march."

  "Callie, what will you do?"

  Callie set the letter aside without bothering to refold it. "Step down, of course. Millicent's measure will most certainly carry, and even were that not the case, showing up at this point would only divide the membership."

  "I meant afterward."

  Callie rose to pace the room, her steps no match for the racing of her thoughts. "Oh, I don't know. Perhaps I'll take some time and travel abroad. I've a fancy to see France again. Isn't that what disgraced women do nowadays, decamp to Monte Carlo and divide their days between playing baccarat and staring at framed photographs of themselves in their glory days? On second thought, I believe I'll skip the photographs." She ended that thought with a ragged laugh.

  Lottie regarded her. "My niece running away, I never would have thought it. Why, you could knock me over with a feather."

  Callie whirled on her. "I am not running away, I'm . . . I'm retiring."

  Arms folded in front of her, Lottie said, "Is that what you call tucking your tail between your legs?"

  "If you'll recall my tail, along with the rest of me, is headlining the Times as well as God only knows how many other newspapers and scandal sheets. What would you have me do?"

  "Stand tall and fight."

  Callie shook her head, feeling at once terribly tired, terribly defeated, and more than a trifle old. "I've nothing to fight with and no future to fight for."

  Lottie reached up and planted a palm on either of Callie's shoulders, stalling her sally about the room. Looking purposefully into her niece's eyes, she said, "Oh Callie, dearest girl, can't you see? No one can take away your honor unless you let them."

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  "We have already women enough sacrificed to this sentimental, hypocritical prating about purity, without going out of our way to increase the number. Women have crucified the Mary Wollstonecrafts, the Fanny Wrights, and the George Sands of all ages . . . let us end this ignoble record and henceforth stand by womanhood. If this present woman must be crucified, let men drive the spikes."

  --ELIZABETH CADY STANTON in response to criticisms of Victoria Woodhull, 1871

  Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Maid of Mayfair bares all." Standing at the breakfast room window overlooking the street thronged with reporters and photographers and sundry scandal mongers, Callie had to admit that the future, hers, looked decidedly bleak. Even so, now that the initial shock was wearing off, she felt an eerie calm descending. Knowing Hadrian had caused her to take a long, hard look at her life, and though their relationship had brought her harm as well as good, she couldn't help preferring the woman she was now to the walled-off person she'd been but a few weeks before. Just what could one say about a woman who'd been utterly at home lecturing to hundreds, and yet at a perfect loss when it came to carrying out a simple, honest conversation with a friend? A woman who'd known how to give orders but hadn't the faintest idea how to smile, who craved physical satisfaction with all her being and yet until a few days before hadn't the courage to let a man close enough to touch her in ten years. So even though she found herself ostracized by her suffragist sisters and polite society alike, she somehow fell short of feeling completely crushed. But before she stepped down, she meant to make a public statement the likes of which would not be heard again for some time.

  The sound of a throat being delicately cleared had her turning her head to the breakfast room doorway. Lottie, restored to her customary elegance, stepped forward. "I delivered your message as you asked. Are you quite certain you want to do this?"

  With a sigh, Callie let the fold of brocade drapery drop and moved away from the window. "Yes, quite, and the sooner better." She started toward the front hallway.

  Lottie's voice stalled her in her tracks. "Will you want these?"

  She glanced down to where the older woman held out her late husband's spectacles.

  Callie bent and pressed a kiss onto her aunt's smooth cheek. "Thank you, Auntie, but no. I don't think I'll have need of hiding behind Uncle Edward's eyewear ever again."

  Fueled by the promise of a hefty tip, the hansom driver made it to Hadrian's shop in record time. As eager as Hadrian was to go to Callie and throw himself on her tender mercies, he didn't care to plead his case stinking like a dead fish and bleeding like a stuck pig. In the process of shucking off his putrid clothing, he heard a soft thud. Looking down, he saw that something had fallen from
his inside coat pocket to the floor. Impatient to change and be on his way, he thought about leaving it lie until Dinah bounded up and started batting it about.

  Cursing beneath his breath, he stiffly bent to retrieve the fallen object. Scarcely larger than a postage stamp, it was swathed in so much cotton wool as to make its shape indecipherable. Sally's gift, he'd all but forgotten. Remembering her admonition that he wait until he was with Callie to open it, he trusted that under the circumstances she would forgive him a small preview peak.

  Swollen fingers clumsy, he unwound the wrapping and pulled out the thin square of pressed metal. Turning it over to view the imprinted image, a smile stole over his mouth, setting his scabbed lip to bleeding.

  Oh Sally, were you here, I'd plant a big, smacking kiss on your cheek.

  His old friend hadn't given him just any gift, but the key to his future, and quite possibly, Callie's, too.

  Out in the front hallway, Callie draped a light shawl about her shoulders. Looking from her aunt to Jenny, she drew a deep breath and then nodded for Jenny to open the door. Tears in her eyes, the maid complied and then moved out of the way as a cacophony of voices poured inside the room on a draft of icy air. Cold wind rushing her face, Callie stepped out onto the stoop. Even though she'd been observing from the window, the scene stretched out before her momentarily stole her breath. The normally quiet street resembled nothing so much as a marketplace on fair day. In addition to members of the press and newspaper boys, a good many vendors had set up shop outside the wrought iron gate, hawking their wares of roasted chestnuts, hot cross buns, and gingerbread from three-legged barrows. And everywhere, absolutely everywhere, was the black-and-white image of her nearly naked self.

 
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