Masque of the Black Tulip
London, England, 2003
I bit my lip on an "Are we there yet?" If ever silence was the better part of valor, now was the time. Palpable waves of annoyance emerged from the man beside me, thick enough to constitute an extra presence in the car.
Under the guise of inspecting my fingernails, I snuck another glance sideways at my car mate. From that level, all I could see was a pair of hands tense on the steering wheel. They were tanned and calloused against the brown corduroy cuffs of his jacket, with a fine dusting of blond hairs outlined by the late afternoon sun, and the white scar of an old cut showing against the darker skin on his left hand. Large hands. Capable hands. Right now he was probably imagining them clasped around my neck.
And I don't mean in an amorous embrace.
I had not been part of Mr. Colin Selwick's weekend plans. I was the fly in his ointment, the rain on his parade. The fact that it was a very attractive parade and that I was very single at the moment was entirely beside the point.
If you're wondering what I was doing in a car bound for parts unknown with a relative stranger who would have liked nothing better than to drop me in a ditch — well, I'd like to say, so was I. But I knew exactly what I was doing. It all came down to, in a word, archives.
Admittedly, archives aren't usually a thing to set one's blood pounding,but they do when you're a fifth-year graduate student in pursuit of a dissertation, and your advisor has begun making ominous noises about conferences and job talks and the nasty things that happen to attenuated graduate students who haven't produced a pile of paper by their tenth year. From what I understand, they're quietly shuffled out of the Harvard history department by dead of night and fed to a relentless horde of academic-eating crocodiles. Or they wind up at law school. Either way, the point was clear. I had to rack up some primary sources, and I had to do it soon, before the crocodiles started getting restless.
There was a teensy little added incentive involved. The incentive had dark hair and brown eyes, and occupied an assistant professorship in the Gov department. His name was Grant.
I have, I realize, left out his most notable characteristic. He was a cheating slime. I say that entirely dispassionately. Anyone would agree that smooching a first-year grad student — during my department's Christmas party, which he attended at my invitation — is indisputable evidence of cheating slimedom.
All in all, there had never been a better time to conduct research abroad.
I didn't include the bit about Grant in my grant application. There is a certain amount of irony in that, isn't there? Grant… grant… The fact that I found that grimly amusing just goes to show the pathetic state to which I had been reduced.
But if modern manhood had let me down, at least the past boasted brighter specimens. To wit, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, and the Pink Carnation, that dashing trio of spies who kept Napoleon in a froth of rage and the feminine population of England in another sort of froth entirely.
Of course, when I presented my grant proposal to my advisor, I left out any references to evil exes and the aesthetic properties of knee breeches. Instead, I spoke seriously about the impact of England's aristocratic agents on the conduct of the war with France, their influence on parliamentary politics, and the deeper cultural implications of espionage as a gendered construct.
But my real mission had little to do with Parliament or even the Pimpernel. I was after the Pink Carnation, the one spy who had neverbeen unmasked. The Scarlet Pimpernel, immortalized by the Baroness Orczy, was known the world over as Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet, possessor of a wide array of quizzing glasses and the most impeccably tied cravat in London. His less-known successor, the Purple Gentian, had carried on quite successfully for a number of years until he, too, had been undone by love, and blazoned before the international press as Lord Richard Selwick, dashing rake about town. The Pink Carnation remained a mystery, to the French and scholars alike.
But not to me.
I wish I could boast that I had cracked a code, or deciphered an ancient text, or tracked an incomprehensible map to a hidden cache of papers. In fact, it was pure serendipity, disguised in the form of an elderly descendant of the Purple Gentian. Mrs. Selwick-Alderly had made me free of both her home and a vast collection of family papers. She didn't even ask for my firstborn child in return, which I understand is frequently the case with fairy godmothers in these sorts of situations.
The only drawback to this felicitous arrangement was Mrs. Selwick-Alderly's nephew, current owner of Selwick Hall, and self-appointed guardian of the family heritage. His name? Mr. Colin Selwick.
Yes, that Colin Selwick.
To say that Colin had been less than pleased at seeing me going through his aunt's papers would have been rather like saying that Henry VIII didn't have much luck with matrimony. If decapitations were still considered a valid way of settling domestic problems, my head would have been the first on his block.
Under the influence of either my charming personality or a stern talking-to from his aunt (I suspected the latter), Colin had begun to thaw to nearly human behavior. I must say, it was an impressive process. When he wasn't snapping insults at me, he had the sort of crinkly eyed smile that made movie theatres full of women heave a collective sigh. If you liked the big, blond, sporting type. Personally, I went more for tall, dark, and intellectual myself.
Not that it was an issue. Any rapport we might have developed had rapidly disintegrated when Mrs. Selwick-Alderly suggested that Colin give me access to the family archives at Selwick Hall for the weekend. Suggested is putting it a bit mildly. Railroaded would be more to the point. The traffic gods hadn't done anything to help the situation. I had given up trying to make small talk somewhere along the A-23, where there had been an epic traffic jam involving a stalled-out car, an overturned lorry, and a tow truck that reached the scene of the crime and promptly broke down out of sympathy.
I cast another surreptitious glance in Colin's direction.
"Would you stop looking at me like you're Red Riding Hood and I'm the wolf?"
Maybe it hadn't been all that surreptitious.
"Why, Grandmother, what big archives you have?" As an attempt at humor, it lacked something, but given that it was the first time my vocal cords had had any exercise over the past two hours, I was reasonably pleased with the result.
"Do you ever think about anything else?" asked Colin. It was the sort of question that from anyone else I would have construed as an invitation to flirtation. From Colin, it just sounded exasperated.
"Not with a dissertation deadline looming."
"We," he pronounced ominously, "still have to discuss what exactly is going to go into your dissertation."
"Mmmph," I said enigmatically. He had already made his feelings on that clear, and I saw no point in giving him the opportunity to reiterate them. Less discussed, more easily ignored. It was time to change the subject. "Wine gum?"
Colin emitted a choked noise that might have been a laugh if allowed to grow up. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror in an expression that might have been, "I like your nerve," or might have been, "Oh, God, who let this lunatic loose in my car and where can I dump her?"
All he actually said was, "Thanks," and held out one large hand, palm up.
In the spirit of entente, I passed over the orange and flipped a red one into his palm. Popping the despised orange into my own mouth, I sucked it meditatively, trying to think of a conversational gambit that wouldn't touch on forbidden topics.
Colin did it for me. "If you look to your left," he said, "you should be able to see the house."
I caught a brief, tantalizing glimpse of crenellated battlements looming above the trees like a lost set from a Frankenstein movie before the car swung around a curve, bringing us into full view of the house. Built of a creamy-colored stone, the house was what the papers might call "a stately pile," a square central section with the usual classical adornments, with a smaller wing sticking out on either side of the central block. It was a perfectly normal eighteenth-century gentleman's residence, and exactly what one would expect the Purple Gentian to have lived in. There were no battlements.
The car scraped to a halt in the circle of gravel that fronted the entrance. Not waiting to see if he was going to open the door for me, I grabbed the oversized tote in which I had crammed two days' worth of weekend wear, and scrambled out of the door of the car before Colin could reach it, determined to be as obliging as possible. My heels crunched on the gravel as I followed Colin to the house, the little pebbles doing nasty things to the leather of my stacked loafers. One would have expected assorted staff to be lining the halls, but instead the front hall was decidedly empty as Colin stepped aside to allow me in. The door snapped shut with a distinctly ominous clang
"You can just take me to the library and then forget all about me," Isuggested helpfully. "You won't even know I'm here."
"Were you planning to sleep in the library?" he inquired with some amusement, his eyes going to the overnight bag on my arm.
"Um… I hadn't really thought about it. I can sleep wherever."
I could feel my face flaring with light like a high-school fire alarm, and rapidly tried to ameliorate the situation. "What I mean is, I'm easy."Urgh. Worser and worser, as Alice might say. There are times when I shouldn't be allowed out of the house without a muzzle.
"Easy to have as a houseguest, I mean," I specified in a strangledvoice, hoisting my bag farther up on my shoulder.
"I think the hospitality of Selwick Hall can stretch to providing you a bed," commented Colin drily, leading the way up a flight of stairs tucked away to one side of the hall.
"That's nice to know. Very generous of you."
"Too much hassle clearing out the dungeons," explained Colin, twisting open a door not far from the landing, revealing a medium-sized room possessed of a dark four-poster bed. The walls were dark green, patterned with gold-tinted animals that looked like either dragons or gryphons, squatting on their haunches, stylized wings poking into the forequar-ters of the next beast over. He stepped aside to let me precede him.
Dumping my bag onto the bed, I turned back around to face Colin, who was still propping up the door. I shoved my hair out of my eyes. "Thanks. Really. It's really nice of you to have me here."
Colin didn't mouth any of the usual platitudes about it being no problem, or being delighted to have me. Instead, he tipped his head in the direction of the hall and said, "The loo is two doors down to your left, the hot water tends to cut out after ten minutes, and the flush needs to be jiggled three times before it settles."
"Right," I said. He got points for honesty, at least. "Got it. Loo on the left, two jiggles."
"Three jiggles," Colin corrected.
"Three," I repeated firmly, as though I was actually going to remember. I trailed along after Colin down the hallway.
"Eloise?" A few yards ahead, Colin was holding open a door at the end of the hall.
"Sorry!" I scurried down the length of the hall to catch up, plunging breathless through the doorway. Crossing my arms over my chest, I said, a little too heartily, "So this is the library."
There certainly couldn't be any doubt on that score; never had a room so resembled popular preconception. The walls were paneled in rich, dark wood, although the finish had worn off the edges in spots, where books had scraped against the wood in passing one too many times. A whimsical iron staircase curved to the balcony, the steps narrowing into pie-shaped wedges that promised a broken neck to the unwary. I tilted my head back, dizzied by the sheer number of books, row upon row, more than the most devoted bibliophile could hope to consume in a lifetime of reading. In one corner, a pile of crumbling paperbacks — James Bond, I noticed, squinting sideways, in splashy seventies covers — struck a slightly incongruous note. I spotted a moldering pile of Country Life cheek by jowl with a complete set of Trevelyan's History of England in the original Victorian bindings. The air was rich with the smell of decaying paper and old leather bindings.
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