London, Autumn 1809
Miss Sarah Tolerance, lately returned to the country of her birth, and engaged in establishing herself in the unusual profession of Inquiry, sat in a rear parlor of a smart establishment in XX Street. She had been waiting for some time, but she knew that peers, and the widows of peers, work in their own time. The day outside the mullioned windows was leaden with oncoming winter, but there was a fire laid and burning in the parlor, and she was comfortably set up to wait for some time.
â€œMiss Tolerance!â€ The duchess, a comfortably plump, forthright woman, entered the room leaning upon a cane. â€œForgive my tardiness. It appears that women as well as men can suffer from gout, and be slowed by it.â€
Miss Tolerance rose and curtsied. The duchess waved her back to her seat.
â€œYou have word for me?â€
â€œI do, maâ€™am, if you will hear it.â€
â€œAnd is the child really my grandsonâ€™s?â€
â€œHe is very like, your grace, and the timing appears to be correct. Lord Harry was seen in the motherâ€™s company often during the spring.â€
â€œAnd the mother?â€
â€œShe says there was no mention of marriage, your grace. She struck me as an honest woman who worries only for her childâ€™s upbringing. If you will forgive my saying it, I think believes that Lord Harry has neither the temperament nor the desire to play parent or husband at this time.â€
â€œSo sheâ€™s clever, then.â€ The duchessâ€™s posture was straight, but there was something about her that suggested that in her heart she was slumped in the chair, thinking. â€œMiss Tolerance, what do you think the girl wants?â€
Miss Tolerance paused to consider. â€œIn truth, maâ€™am, I do not think she wants anything more than she asked for: some provision to be made for the boy. She did not strike me asâ€”â€ she paused tactfully. â€œShe did not strike me as mercenary or opportunistic. She did approach Lord Harry firstâ€”â€
â€œâ€”and he made promises and forgot them, and made more and forgot those, and here we are.â€ The duchess nodded. â€œWill she deal with my lawyer, do you think, or should I call upon her myself?â€
â€œI think she would be very grateful to deal with your lawyer, maâ€™am, butâ€”â€ she paused. â€œIf you chose to meet her, I think you would like her, maâ€™am.â€
â€œPerhaps once the arrangements have been made, when I can meet them without feeling, oh, as if I should be apologizing for my idiot son, or promising more than I ought or--â€ The duchess sighed. â€œAnd the child? What is he like?â€
â€œCharming and red-haired, maâ€™am. Quick, and quite protective of his mother.â€
â€œBoys raised by their mothers often are, I think. Well, Miss Tolerance, you have done all that I asked of you, and more, I think. What is your fee?â€
Miss Tolerance, not accustomed to clients who so readily offered payment for her services, took a moment to calculate the sum. â€œNine guineas, two shillings, tenpence, maâ€™am. Three days, and the rest for monies expended. If you require a listâ€”â€
But the duchess had already taken a purse from the reticule that hung at her side, and was counting out coins. â€œIn my youth I was familiar with what it was to live penny by penny, Miss Tolerance. I hope this is satisfactory?â€
The money was exchanged. Miss Tolerance rose. â€œThank you, your grace. I will not trouble you longer, except to thank you for the trust you reposed in me.â€
The duchess smiled. â€œI am accounted a good judge of character, my dear. I would not have requested your assistance if I had not known you could be trusted.â€
Miss Tolerance curtsied again, youth to age and rank. The footman at the door escorted her to the door and she was shortly on York Street, her purse pleasantly heavy. It was not so very far from St. Jamesâ€™s Square to her auntâ€™s house and, despite the dreariness of the day, Miss Tolerance decided to walk. Given the state of the skies, it might be the last convenient day to take such exercise.
As she walked up York Street she undertook some pleasant calculation. A month of rent for my keep at Aunt Theaâ€™s, and some for saving, and perhaps a new pair of boots. Stopped at the corner on Jermyn Street to watch a dray filled with barrels rumble by, she looked down at the half-boots she currently wore with disfavor. No amount of polishing had restored them to respectability, and at Avon House she had been very aware of a desire to keep them well tucked beneath her skirts.
She had gone perhaps a half-mile (the despised boots were disreputable but sturdy) and was proceeding along Bird Street when she came upon a crowd loudly commenting upon what Miss Tolerance took to be a mill of some sort. As she drew nearer she heard both male and female voices.
â€œThatâ€™s it! â€™it â€˜er agin!â€ from one quarter, while from the other, â€œStop! For Godâ€™s sake, youâ€™ll kill her!â€
The thought that one of her sex was being attacked overtook Miss Toleranceâ€™s common senseâ€”she was unarmed, and not dressed for rescueâ€”except for the despised boots. But she had forced her way through the crowd before she realized it.
There, hedged round by a growing crowd, was a well-dressed woman of middle years, an umbrella in her hand, wielding it to beat another woman who crouched on the sidewalk. The attacker was tall and sturdily built , and in a rage to make her bonnet strings dance. The woman on the ground was slender, dressed in the costume of a maid, and dark skinned; one arm she had thrown across her face, but blood had flowed freely from at least two blows to her skull and her linen cap was drenched with it. She did not move.
Without hesitating, Miss Tolerance moved forward and interposed herself between the attacker and attacked. A blow from the umbrella handle, a sphere made of ivory and brass, landed on her shoulder and made her bones ring. The furious woman looked up at Miss Tolerance blankly, as if she could not imagine how she had materialized there.
â€œYou must stop. You will kill her.â€ Miss Tolerance said calmly.
â€œI can do what I like.â€ The womanâ€™s voice was low, the accent peculiar to Miss Toleranceâ€™s ear. â€œI can kill her if I like. Sheâ€™s mine.â€
Miss Tolerance sought an argument that might persuade the woman. â€œThat may be so, maâ€™am, but this is no sight for a London street. If you kill her, you might well be arrested for breach of the peace.â€ As she spoke, a few of the bystanders moved forward. A man soberly dressed in the wig and clothes of a professional man dropped to one knee and took the fallen womanâ€™s wrist between his fingers.
â€œShe lives--barely,â€ he announced. â€œWe must get her off the street. Quickly.â€
It seemed for a moment that the angry woman might object, but a young man, also dark-skinned and in a livery to match the fallen womanâ€™s, stepped forward. â€œI have the packages, Mrs. Tendwell. Shall I carry your umbrella?â€
As if his words had touched her when nothing else did, the woman straightened and held the umbrella out. The boy took it, tucked it under one arm, and stood back deferentially to let his mistress lead the way.
The woman shrugged as if to reorder her disheveled garments, and started away. Two steps and she turned back. â€œIf sheâ€™s dead sheâ€™s no good to me anyway,â€ she said to the air.
Miss Tolerance, heedless of the danger to her dress in kneeling upon a London sidewalk, knelt beside the girl. â€œIs she truly in danger?â€
â€œI will not know until I examine her, but she is gravely hurt,â€ the man told her.
â€œYou are a doctor, sir?â€
â€œHe is, and Iâ€™m his wife.â€ A handsome woman in half mourning stepped from the crowd. â€œDaniel, let us bring her to our house. At least she will be comfortable there ifâ€”â€
â€œIf she is to die.â€ The doctor nodded. â€œYou, sirâ€”â€ he turned to a man in the crowd. â€œCan you assist me in bringing this woman to my house? It is only a few doors down.â€
The first man refusedâ€”his had been one of the voices urging the woman Mrs. Tendwell on. The second pled urgent business and all but ran away, but the third agreed to help. Between him and the doctor they got the woman off the sidewalk and, with Miss Tolerance and the doctorâ€™s wife following after, processed down Bird Street to a tidy brick house. The door was opened by a maid who was half-way into protesting that her master and mistress had just left, when she realized that something was seriously amiss.
The doctor and his helper carried the girl into a small, dark parlor while the maid caught a taper at the fire and lit candle after candle until the room was brighter lit than the street outside.
The doctorâ€™s wife had disappeared; now she reappeared with sheets, bandages, and an open box bristling with bottles and phials.
â€œMandy, is the front door closed?â€ she said to the maid. â€œThen get hot water and a basin.â€
â€œHow may I help, maâ€™am?â€ Miss Tolerance asked.
The doctor looked up from his patient. â€œSit, if you will. You took quite a blow at that womanâ€™s hands, and I would like to examine your shoulder, if you permit it.â€
â€œThat harridan,â€ the doctorâ€™s wife amended. â€œYou were quite the heroine, my dear. My Daniel was about to step in, but youâ€”â€
â€œIt was nothing,â€ Miss Tolerance said. She sat, as the doctor had suggested. Until now she had forgotten the blow she had taken, but once mentioned, the ache in her shoulder, and a curious reluctance of her arm to move as she directed it, confirmed that she had taken more damage than she had originally thought. â€œThank you, sir.â€