My Lady Robin Hood
Click on image to enlarge.
by Maren Smith
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Penelope's heart is torn. Her aunt's charitble work among London's poor has driven her to help. But as the Season begins, just knowing where her hat ribbons and lace embroidery come from--and the plights of those who make such fripperies to survive--is heartrending. At first, stealing from the rich seems like the perfect way to help. She's not taking much. Just little pieces that she knows won't be missed, from those who can afford it the most. Yes, her heart's in the right place; too bad her methods could land her on the gallows! The Earl of Granville doesn't need an heiress, so Penelope's lack of funds are of little concern. It's her air of mystery that appeals to him the most. As the Season wears on, Niles is drawn ever closer to the lovely Penelope and her odd little habits. Niles is bound and determined to get to the bottom of all her secrets. Particularly since--with Penelope--this particular bottom will likely end with skirts up and knickers down!
eBook Publisher: Newsite Web Services Publishing, 2008 2008
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [245 KB]
Reading time: 155-217 min.
"Step lively, girls, step lively!" Agatha Wainwright called to her two charges, and reluctantly, Penelope and Anstice climbed down from the carriage that had brought them to the Southwark Cathedral. It was an old building, one that stood as a solid sentry of dignity in the squaller of Montague Close in one of London's poorer districts. The old gothic architecture was crumbling in every sense of the word. The ancient spires were near to complete collapse and loose bricks and bits of stone gargoyles littered the streets at their feet. Gazing up at the rundown building, the two young blonde women wore the same grim look of disbelief. Then they turned that look upon one another.
"Quickly now," their Aunt called out. "We haven't got all day, you know."
Gathering the skirts of her sun-yellow gown in hand and swallowing her reservations, Penelope nudged her younger sister and they both followed their Aunt across the uneven cobbles of the road and up the cathedral's equally uneven front steps. Waiting for them at the top, looking for all the world like a human version of a perpetually nervous lapdog, was their Aunt's favorite reformist, a little man with big brown eyes, who went by the name of Bartholomew Hucks.
"Welcome, welcome!" he gushed, clutching his hands before him almost as though he were praying. "Lady Wainwright, I am so glad you came!"
Penelope and her younger sister exchanged glances again, but their Aunt seemed not to notice. A burly woman, broad of shoulder and a little thick around the middle, she marched fearlessly up the steps to meet him. "Of course I came," she announced, brisk and no nonsense. "And we are ready for our tour."
"Right!" Hucks said, and jumped to lead them back down the steps. "Right this way."
The Southwark Cathedral was, as it turned out, the best looking building on Montague Close. The street was a slum and a lesson in the differences between the privileged and the needy; one that Penelope would not soon forget. The very air stank. Fetid streams of water stagnated along both sides of the filthy street, the access of the sewer being blocked by dead fish and rodents and human waste.
Anstice actually covered her nose, and if Penelope weren't just a little less proud of her manners, she'd have followed suit. Aunt Agatha was significantly more hardened.
"The buildings are all falling apart," she noted. "The conditions are dreadful. How many people live here?"
"At last count we had just under fifteen hundred families," Hucks admitted. "All of them crammed into twenty-one hundred rooms with only twenty-five hundred beds among them. There is no fresh water. There are nine companies who deliver to the area, but they only turn on their services for a few hours three times a week--and only for a tidy profit."
"Deplorable," Aunt Agatha said.
"Yes," Hucks agreed. "That is our first course of business. To erect a new water pump, one that can be accessed by all the residents for far less than these disreputable companies provide. Sadly, such reforms are not without expense."
The little man looked even more sheepish. "A lot."
"A lot isn't a number, young man," their Aunt said briskly.
"Two hundred and sixty pounds--b-but that covers all the drilling and masonry and the installing of a new sewer to help with the run off...."
"I'll see what I can do," Aunt Agatha said, clasping her hands over her abdomen. "Now continue the tour, if you please."
As Hucks led her aunt and sister down the street, Penelope lingered behind. Her horrified eyes followed the cracked and crumbling foundation of one tenement building to another equally dirty and broken-windowed one. Beneath the tattered hem of an equally dirty curtain, she saw a small gathering of grubby-faced children, peering down at her through the fluttering cloth. Each was indistinguishable from the next, unsmiling, uncurious. They simply stared back at her with silent resignation.
"Penelope!" her Aunt called sharply, and she jumped. "Come along!"
Glancing back at the children over one shoulder, she hurried to rejoin the tour.
Factories lined the distant end of the crooked street, but as Hucks explained, most of the inhabitants of Montague Close never set foot inside them. "Women and children work straight from their homes. The pay for sewing a dozen shirts is, on average, about four shillings-sixpence. There are no school rooms. Children work alongside their mothers, or they employ themselves in such activities as hawking and far less legal pastimes. Anything to put a little bread on the table for their families."
As they rounded a corner, the street ahead was overflowed with water and--Penelope wanted to believe--mud, but the smell that assailed her nose belied that for the wishful thinking it was.
Anstice squelched a sound at the back of her throat, whipped out her handkerchief and covered her mouth and nose the instant the stench hit her.
"Buck up, girl, and behave yourself!" their Aunt barked, but Anstice was too busy holding her breath to pay attention.
Penelope stared in stupefied disbelief as an elderly man hobbled out of one of the houses, wading ankle-deep into the muck and water as he slogged his way down the street. She swallowed convulsively.
Her head spinning with the horror of what she was seeing, she followed Hucks as he led an apologetic procession across the road and through a different alleyway. He introduced them to a family of nine, a widowed woman who lived in a one-room tenement with her eight children, the youngest two of which were still in nappies. The furniture there consisted of a single bed and a table, at which the widow sat weaving fair-quality ribbons into expensive hats with deft and dirty fingers. Her older children were gathered around her, pinning the ribbons in place with surprisingly nimbleness.
"Oh, Auntie," Anstice whispered on the verge of tears.
Sick to her stomach, Penelope was too shocked to say anything at all. She would never buy another hat for as long as she lived.
"Keep a stiff upper lip," their Aunt said. The queen of stiff upper lips herself, even she had a glimmer of moisture in her eyes.
"I know how this must look," Hucks apologized yet again, as the tour concluded and they returned to the front steps of the Southwark Cathedral. "But I assure you, it's not for the lack of trying. The need for funds is desperate. Even more so now that Marston has transferred his monthly contributions to another organization."
"How can any place be more in need of his money than this?" Anstice cried, ignoring the look of warning Aunt Agatha gave her.
"Exactly the point I've been trying to make," the older woman said, and opened her reticule. She wrote out a bank draft and handed it to Hucks.
Penelope didn't know how much her Aunt donated to the obsequiously grateful reformist, but it could easily have been a thousand pounds and still not have been enough. It was that tidbit of knowledge that would sit in the pit of her stomach, hard and indigestible, for hours to come.
As they all turned to go, something made Penelope look back. Watching her from around the corner of one building was a young red-headed boy of perhaps only four or five. His blue eyes were overlarge in his freckle-strewn face and the lack of expression was telling enough in its own right. It was a sight Penelope was certain she'd never forget.
She had to do something to help.
"That was awful," sobbed Anstice, as they all journeyed home in the back of the Wainwright carriage.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, my dears," their aunt said gruffly. "But perhaps you'll believe me now when I say, regardless of how unbearable you believe your own plights to be, there are those in this world who have it far, far worse!"
Turning her head to the window, Penelope stayed lost in her own thoughts, keeping her own counsel the entire way home. Later that night, she did little more than poke at her supper, saying nothing although Aunt Agatha and Anstice indulged in more than enough conversation to cover her lack of social contribution.
Oddly enough, the only one who made any comment on her lackluster silence was her father, Ansel. Seated at the far enough of the table, dressed in the same clothes than he'd been wearing for nearly a week now, his brown eyes peered down the length of the supper table to where his eldest daughter sat poking at her food. Surrounded as they were by the thick lenses of the magnifying glasses he wore, his eyes appeared to be at least six times their normal size, his chin was unshaven and his dinner plate was surrounded by the rocks that had become the focus of his life after their mother had died. "You are awfully quiet this evening, Penelope, my girl."
Penelope glanced up, quickly masking her emotions behind a wane smile. "I'm sorry, Papa. I am only thinking."
"About what, hey?"
"Leave off the girl, Ansel!" Aunt Agatha snapped. "What do you think she's thinking about? The Season, of course: What she's going to wear, how she's going to act, and who to set her sights on to make the best possible match. That's what girls her age do this time of year! And if you want to show an interest in something besides those blasted fossils, how about coming up with the blunt to pay their ways instead of leeching contentedly off the fortune my dearly departed husband left to me! Humpff! Some father you turned out to be!"
Both Anstice and Penelope dropped their eyes to their plates, while their father only blinked at Agatha with his overlarge owlish eyes.
"Right," he said, and dropped his attention once more to his plate. After a moment, he picked up one of the rocks, took a bite of his supper and, as he chewed, turned the piece over and over in his hands.
The silence grew oppressive and the dining hall became quickly unbearable.
"Please excuse me," Penelope said, pushing back her stair and standing up.
"Where are you going?" her aunt said. "You have hardly touched your food."
"I'm just a little tired," she said. "I think I'll lie down."
"Tired?" Agatha echoed incredulously. "Why, it's barely ten o'clock! The night has only just begun. Tsk!" She shook her head. "How can you be fagging out now? And before the Season even starts, too. Good heavens, girls were much tougher when I was your age. Rest, ha! You can rest when you're married or dead!"
Penelope dropped a kiss upon the top of her father's shiny bald spot, winning a quick smile and a squeeze of his wrinkled old hand upon hers. She caught Anstice's eyes once more, and then left the dining room for the bedchambers her Aunt had given her when first she and her impoverished family had come to live here over a year ago.
A few minutes later, as she was brushing her long blonde hair for bed, she heard a soft knock at the door. Without waiting for an answering hail, Anstice poked her head into the room. "Penelope? Are you all right?"
Penelope smiled waned. "Just thinking."
"Would you like to think with an extra head?" Anstice stepped into the room and held up a tray bearing twin cups of chocolate and cookies. "I brought refreshments."
Penelope smiled. "By all means, come inside then."
As they had done ever since they were little, the sisters helped each other out of their dresses and into their nightgowns, brushed and braided one another's hair, and climbed up into Penelope's bed to enjoy one last cup of bitter sweet chocolate, propped up on a mountain of soft pillows and nestled down together side-by-side beneath the fat goose-down comforter.
"That was an awful thing we saw today," Anstice said, broaching the subject that had yet to leave Penelope's mind all day.
"The truly horrible part is how it doesn't have to be that way," Penelope replied, turning her head to look out the window. "If only we could help them."
"If wishes were pennies," Anstice said sagely, "we could not only fill up all of their little cups, but we could do something to help ourselves instead of depending upon Aunt Agatha's charity. Unfortunately, unless you plan to become a modern day Robin Hood, we can hardly do a thing for ourselves much less for them. As sad a situation as it may be, ours is even sadder. We cannot even afford our own Season. If it weren't for Aunt Agatha, we'd not be having one at all. As it is, I think we shall both be extremely lucky to find anyone willing to overlook our impoverished states and marry us solely because we are ourselves."
Penelope said nothing although her bright blue gaze had ceased to focus on the window. She turned and looked at her sister instead, wide-eyed and unblinking.
"What?" Anstice said.
"Repeat what you just said."
"Maybe somebody will like us for ourselves, overlook our poor finances and marry us anyway. It is a possibility, you know," Anstice said. "Anne Ashford says she knows a friend who has a second cousin, once removed, whose best friend's stepsister was in our very situation, and she married a wonderfully nice man who dotes on her every day."
"No," Penelope said, with a slight shake of her head. "I mean, the other part. The Robin Hood part."
Her sister blinked twice. "Unless you plan to become a modern day Robin Hood?"
Penelope broke into a wide grin. "Anstice darling, you're a genius!" She turned to set her chocolate on the bedside table, scooting back against the pillows to sit upright. "An absolute genius!"
Anstice blinked again, her expression growing warily sober. "Penelope, what are you thinking in that devious head of yours?"
"We'll rob from the rich and give to the poor of Montague Close!"
Anstice put her cup of chocolate down as well, but not before she nearly spilled it in her lap out of shock. "What?! How you lost your mind entirely?!"
"Just think about it, it's the perfect plan! The Season's about to start. We'll have access to all the finest houses."
"Our friends' houses! People we have known all of our lives! That our parents knew all of their lives! That our children will know ... Oh, what am I thinking? We won't have any children! The minute we're caught, we'll be ostracized. No one will want to see us, much less marry us! Not for all the money in the world--as if we could get it!"
"Don't be silly," Penelope said with a disregarding wave of her hand. "That won't happen because we won't get caught. You see, it's the perfect plan, really."
"We'll be hanged!" Gasping in horror, Anstice cupped her throat with both hands. "Strung up like common criminals on Tyburn."
"Now you're being melodramatic."
"I won't do it," Anstice said. "I want no part of this. I absolutely refuse to be a common thief!"
"That's quite all right," Penelope said, settling back among her pillows with a small and cunning smile. She picked up her hot chocolate again and cradled the warm cup between her hands. "I, myself, plan to be a very uncommon one." * * * *
Like every other party thrown before this, Lady Spencer's ball was an unrivaled sucess. The wine was flowing, the guests were laughing, the musicians were unparalleled and the fact that Lord Farrington himself would be putting in a very rare appearance sometime tonight meant that the only members of the Ton who weren't crushed together in her ballroom were either too sick to move or already peacefully in their graves.
Perfect, thought Penelope, as she walked along the edge of the dance floor, the trailing hems of her blue and silver skirts barely brushing those of the dancers still twirling to the lively steps of the quadrille. Leading her from the floor, his hand under her elbow as much for support as it was to offer direction, was Rupert Reeve.
A peacock with clothes and yet a dear friend, Rupert was shaking his head. "My dear, Miss Blayne, if only you had told me you were feeling so poorly." He found her an empty chair and ushered her to it, hastening off to fetch her some punch while she sank weakly onto the cushioned seat.
She fanned her flushed face. "I'll be fine," she assured him. "Truly I will."
"Gracious! I would have been just as content to sit and talk with you, rather than risk your collapsing at my feet."
"And here I thought it every man's dream to find a lady so prostrated," Penelope teased.
"Not my dreams," Rupert declared. "As clumsy as my feet are, she should be very lucky if I didn't trod upon her head!"
Penelope buried her smile in her cup of lemonade, and then closed her eyes with a barely stifled groan and leaned her head against the back of her chair. She touched two fingers to her temple.
Dropping to one knee and warmly patting her hand, Rupert said, "These sickly spells are so unlike you! Have you seen a doctor?"
"I'm all right," Penelope assured, her voice too weak to be soothing. "I am only a little weary."
"I should fetch your aunt," the young man stated and stood up, turning to scan the throng in search of Lady Wainwright's burly silhouette.
"No, no," Penelope said quickly. "I wouldn't want to bother her."
"What bother would it be, considering how sick you are? Blast, I don't see her. I don't see your sister, either."
Penelope reached up to take his hand, recapturing the young man's attention. "Perhaps if you just sit with me a while," she suggested with a weak smile, "my energy might rally, and I'll be able to finish the dance."
Rupert blinked at her, or more specifically, at her hand in his, and she watched as his aunt-finding convictions wavered. "Perhaps..." he again lowered himself to one knee beside her. "Perhaps they might." Then he shook his finger at her. "But if you are not on the mends within fifteen minutes, my girl, I will see you home myself."
"I am sure in fifteen minutes I'll be more than fine," Penelope said, closing her eyes again. "If only I could lie down.... "her voice began to taper off. "I just need to rest."
With her eyes closed, she couldn't see Rupert's worried frown, but she knew it was there, tugging down the corners of his mouth and creasing a furrow into his young brow. But before he could open his mouth, from beyond them, they heard, "What on earth are you two about?"
Rupert leapt to his feet, dropping Penelope's hand in his haste to face Lady Spencer, who frowned at them sternly.
"Young man, that was by far too bold and too familiar!" the matron reproved.
"I-I--" he stammered.
But Lady Spencer turned from him and focused her hawk's eyes on Penelope. "And just what is the matter with you, girl?"
"A slight headache," the wearied young woman sighed, rubbing her temples. "Mostly, though, I feel just a little bit dizzy."
Although far from convinced by Penelope's performance, a flicker of concern crossed the noble lady's regal face. "Where is your aunt? I should call your carriage."
"Oh please, don't!" Penelope exclaimed, rising enough to catch Lady Spencer's hand. "Both my sister and my aunt are having such a wonderful time, and I know they would never forgive me if they had to leave now. Lord Wentworth has my sister on the dance floor at this very moment, and poor dear Anstice's heart will be torn to pieces if they are parted now."
"Young lady," Lady Spencer said sternly, "I am not about to have you collapsing on the floor and causing a scene."
"Perhaps if she could lie down?" Rupert asked, echoing Penelope's earlier suggestion hopefully, and Lady Spencer's mouth thinned.
"Very well," she said, after only a brief hesitation. "Come along, before someone blames my crab cakes for laying you up like this."
Rupert helped Penelope to her feet and then swept into a gallant bow to kiss the back of her fingers. "Perhaps," he said, smiling up at her, "when you are feeling better you might save for me a waltz?"
"I would love nothing better," Penelope told him, and then allowed herself to be led away while Lady Spencer tsked and shook her head over the antics of the young.
"I am so sorry to be such a bother," Penelope said, as she followed the matron from the ballroom.
"Don't be silly," Lady Spencer said shortly. "Such is hardly a bother for a proper hostess."
And Lady Spencer was nothing if not a proper hostess.
She led Penelope down a long hall lit by many candles, their footfalls alternately echoing on the black and grey marble tiles and muffled on the Persian rugs that spaced the length of the floor. A curved mahogany staircase took them up to a second hall that ultimately took them to Lady Spencer's own sitting room.
The strains of the music and laughter below were bare whispers now as Lady Spencer opened the door and preceded Penelope into a room that was overwhelmingly decorated in blinding shades of yellow. From the papered walls swimming in yellow jonquils to the downy coverlet upon the bed with its sunny yellow duster, if Penelope hadn't a true headache before, the sheer brightness of the room was fast on its way to giving her one now.
Knowing some reaction would be expected of her, Penelope said, "What a ... magnificent room! How very.... yellow..."
"Isn't it cheerful?" Lady Spencer beamed as she took Penelope to a daybed that would have rivaled the sun. "I find it very hard for one to be melancholy in a room as bright as this one. Now tell me," she bent to fluff two pillows and braced them back to back before directing Penelope to recline. "Does your head hurt you here?" She touched her temples. "Or back here?" She trailed her fingers to the back of her head.
Penelope sank among the pillows, leaning back her head as she touched the back of her hand to her forehead. "To front. Oh, it's only a slight pounding. I must have over-exerted myself."
"The Season has only just begun," clucked Lady Spencer. "How can you ever hope to catch a husband if you wilt yourself out now?" She got up and went to her dressing table, hunting among the drawers until she found a small vial. She brought it back to the day bed and placed it into Penelope's hand, closing her fingers around the cool glass. "Don't be afraid to take a little nip of this, should you need to. But only a sip, child. There is a lot of hop in this little vial."
Shaking her head, Penelope took Lady Spencer's hand in one of hers. "Dear lady, you are the very persona of kindness. But I feel so very guilty for keeping you from your guests. Especially when I know you are expecting someone of such import as Lord Farrington himself."
Visibly starting, Lady Spencer shot to her feet. She pressed her hands to her cheeks. "The Duke's son! Goodness gracious, I quite forgot!" She looked at Penelope, torn. "I do hope that you'll be recovered enough to join us soon," she finally said, making up her mind and backing hastily from the daybed.
"I'm certain I will be," Penelope murmured, closing her eyes.
"Rest is the very best thing for you," Lady Spencer said. "I'll send my abigail to check on you as soon as I can. But, my dear, if you're not recovered within the next half an hour, there shall be no help for it. I'll be forced to inform your aunt!"
"Oh thank you," Penelope sighed, draping her arm across her eyes. "Thank you."
She lay as if napping until she heard the door softly close. Silently, she began to count. Upon reaching the magical number of ten, she cautiously peeked out from beneath her arm and looked to the door. She was alone.
"That was remarkably easy!" Penelope rolled from the bed. Catching her blue and silver skirts in both hands, she darted on tiptoes to the door and pressed her ear to the white-washed wood. From the outer hall she heard not a sound, though she remained listening intently for several long, heart-pounding minutes. The silence made her bold, and she reached down to depress the handle, cracking the door open by the barest inch.
Outside, the hall was empty.
Penelope immediately shut the door again. The slight nagging whisper of her conscience gave way beneath a wave of sheer excitement as she turned around and once more surveyed the yellow room. She could hardly believe her luck. She was actually inside Lady Spencer's room and it had been easy! Much, much easier than Penelope's first few horribly fumbled attempts at thievery had proved to be. And.... and good heavens, but this room was almost yellow enough to make her want to shield her eyes!
Shaking her head over the lack of some people's decorating sense, Penelope started towards the dressing table and, more specifically, for the large, carved wooden box that rested upon it: Lady Spencer's jewelry box.
Unfastening the clasp, Penelope raised the lid and smiled when she saw the array of jewels that winked up at her as they caught the light of the room. "Hello, my lovelies," she greeted them softly. "Which of you would like to be donated to a worthy cause? More importantly, which of you is of so little consequence that you won't be missed?"
She reached inside, picking through the crush of rings and bracelets, discarding diamonds, emeralds, rubies and garnets, until her fingers finally settled upon a thin gold necklace with a small diamond pendent. It was a simple enough design really, nothing like the lavish arrays that Lady Spencer was fond of wearing these days. Lady Spencer would probably never miss so insignificant a jewel as this. And that made it the perfect choice. Simple and perfect.
Simplicity, however, did not detract from the value of the diamonds and just thinking of all the mouths these twinkling gems would feed was enough to silence the last of Penelope's misgivings and make her smile once more. Why, even with a jewel so small as this, it might even be enough to begin repairs on that crumbling cathedral.
"I thank you, Lady Spencer," she said as she closed the jewelry box and slipped the pendent necklace into the bodice of her dress. "I'm sure the poor will thank you, too."
The gems felt cool against her skin as the necklace slithered down between her breasts to pool in a coil of golden links just beneath them, where a bunch of muslin kept the precious jewels from falling any further.
She paused for a moment to study herself in the mirror. She patted the golden curls of her hair back into place, touched her cheeks, as if to assure herself that her guilt wasn't showing upon her face, and then slipped quietly from the room to rejoined the party downstairs.
Rupert looked up from the cup of punch he was sharing with the young Miss Anne Ashford when she once more walked into the ballroom. He beamed as she came to stand before him. "Well I say, that rest was just the thing, wasn't it? It put the sparkle right back in your lovely blue eyes; you look as fresh as a morning rose!"
"I feel a thousand times better," Penelope told him, holding up her hand. "In fact, I do believe I am more than ready for that dance now."
She smiled, the gems in her bodice having already warmed to the touch of her skin that she hardly felt them as he led her onto the dance floor, and they fell into step with the waltz already playing.