Excerpt from A Bride Unveiled
Four days later Ambrose discovered Violet and Eldbert’s secret. Ambrose suspected the pair of them were up to something, and it irked him to no end to be excluded from an activity in what he considered to be his domain. Ambrose took orders from no one, except his mother, who scared him witless, and his schoolmates, whose bullying filled him with anger and shame.
He nearly had a fit when he found out that Violet and Eldbert had not only ventured into the forbidden churchyard to befriend a boy from the workhouse, but that the boy was teaching clumsy old Eldbert how to fence. Violet was sitting upon a gravestone, of all the disgusting places to sit, threading clover into a crown.
The thin fair-haired boy noticed Ambrose first. His eyes narrowed in hostile recognition, as if he knew who Ambrose was, which was as it should be. Then he straightened in a stance that seemed to challenge everything Ambrose stood for.
“What are you doing here?” Eldbert asked in a masterful voice that he’d never dared to use before this day.
Something had changed. No. Everything had changed. Violet and Eldbert had always played the games that Ambrose chose. But now Violet rose from the gravestone, and a few clovers slipped from the crown she had woven for . . . a rough boy, a poor one, a nobody, a—God bless—a boy who was wearing the missing pantaloons that Ambrose had been accused of misplacing only last week.
“What are you doing?” he sputtered, shaking his head in disbelief. “Why are you associating with—”
“The Knight of the Unconquerable Sword,” Violet said, stealing a look at the other boy. “You’re not allowed in his realm unless you follow his rules.”
“Rules? Rules? I am to follow a beggar’s rules, am I? A beggar who”—his face turned purple—“is wearing my stolen trousers? You stole them off the laundry line!” He hopped up and down in howling indignity. “Come home, the two of you, or I’ll tell my mother what you’ve been doing.”
“No,” Violet and Eldbert said in unison. And Eldbert added, “If you tell, our friend will get in trouble.”
Ambrose’s jaw dropped as the other boy reached back for the sword lying across one of the graves. “That belongs to your father, Eldbert!” Ambrose exclaimed. “It—”
“You’ll have to promise to keep our secret if you want to join us,” Violet broke in sweetly. “Won’t he, Kit?”
But Ambrose and Kit were locked in a staring battle that ended only when Eldbert said, “If you keep our secret, Kit will teach you how to fight, Ambrose, and no one will ever hurt you again.”
“I can’t carry a sword to school.”
“There are other ways to fight bullies.”
Ambrose returned the next afternoon with two of his father’s smallswords.
They met whenever they could that summer, two on each side to compete in treasure hunts using the maps that Eldbert had drawn. The only true find they made was friendship. Violet invented enchanted kingdoms and drew pictures, exasperated that the boys rarely held still. Kit had taught Ambrose the rudiments of sword fighting and how to throw and duck a punch, skills he had perfected in the workhouse yard. Although Ambrose was as obnoxious as ever, he had given one boy at school a black eye and admitted reluctantly that he had Kit to thank.
Four friends, Violet thought with satisfaction, frowning in concentration over her sketchbook. Five if she included Miss Higgins, who was spending more time with Violet since she had discovered that her bricklayer was marrying another girl in September.
One afternoon Kit got careless. He was showing off at swordplay for his friends, and by the time Violet’s governess realized it was time for tea, Kit could not gather more than a few stones from the field. Before he knew it, dusk had fallen.
The older inmates at the workhouse claimed the tunnels after dark. He would lose his privileges of underground passage if he broke the rules. Besides, he felt like a human being after being in Violet’s company. He liked to keep that illusion of integrity, at least until he returned to the palace.
But now, because of his dallying where he didn’t belong, he would have to walk through the woods and hope he could sneak through the main yard before supper. Which would be a bowl of old piss. If no one covered for him, he’d get flogged until he bled through his shirt. The pain of it would be bad enough, and he didn’t know how he could keep his outside friends from finding out that he lived like a mongrel, for all he tried to impress them.
To add to his mounting woes, he realized he wasn’t alone in the woods. He heard whispering from the undergrowth up ahead. He slowed and swung himself into the crotch of a sessile oak. If anyone thought to jump him, he didn’t have to make it easy. He could swing down, kick one of them in the nose and the other in the thingamabobs. He waited. Shit. He counted three heads in the thicket.
Then after another moment he realized that he wasn’t the intended victim. A middle-aged gentleman in a short cape crested the footpath. He carried a walking stick under his arm. He looked to be enjoying a leisurely stroll. He appeared to have no inkling of the three men lying in wait for him. Kit might have whistled out a warning if he didn’t have his own worries.
There was nothing to do for it but twiddle his thumbs while the oafs divested the gent of his pocket watch and whatever else he was fool enough to carry in the woods.
None of my business, Kit thought, and crossed his arms behind his neck.
The three darted out with all the subtlety of wild boars. One butted the older fellow in the belly. The other charged from the rear. The third, who had a meat cleaver, went for the gent’s knees.
It was going to be a slaughter.
“Here, little piggies!” Kit shouted before he could stifle the impulse, reaching into his pocket for a palmful of stones.
He threw hard and fast, positioned on one knee. The three obliged themselves as targets by looking up to locate his hiding place. So did the victim, who upon Kit’s closer assessment appeared neither as unaware nor as helpless as Kit had assumed.
His eyes pinned Kit for an instant, as if he knew who he was. Of course, by then it was too late to do anything but join the fracas. He would as soon get flayed in a decent fight as in the yard.
He rose from his position in the tree, bracing either hand to propel him into flight. He was almost to the ground when a flash of silver caught his eye, and the gent’s walking stick transformed into a lethal-looking sword.
The blade flashed in the falling dark, and the first assailant’s arm flowed bright red. Kit hurled the remaining stones stashed in his pocket for the hell of it, laughing as the three failed thieves ran away. “Pitiful,” he mused. “Amateurs.”
“Indeed,” said a deep voice in the dark.
Kit’s nape crawled with foreboding. He turned, curious despite himself, to study the walking stick before he met the man’s eyes. “The morons never had a chance. Nice work, mister.”
“I have seen you in the graveyard,” the man said slowly. “Are you not afraid of being caught?”
Kit stumbled over a stone.
“What is your name?”
As if it mattered. As if anything mattered except that because of this man he was going to lose the only friends he had ever made in his miserable life.
“I am Captain—”
Kit didn’t wait to hear another word.
Violet realized that she seemed ungrateful. It was her birthday, and she had walked into the parlor after breakfast to find a dancing master waiting for her.
Her uncle cleared his throat. “This is your present from us, Violet.”
“Thank you,” she said, staring past him to the window. She could see Eldbert lurking in the rosebushes. He was motioning her to come outside. She made a face.
“Violet,” her aunt said in embarrassment. “You’ve been asking your uncle for dance lessons ever since we moved here.”
“I know, but . . . does it have to be today, Aunt Francesca?”
“Why not? Are you unwell?”
“I think I might be.”
“Then excuse yourself this minute. Do not get the master ill when he has traveled so far to give you lessons. Dr. Tomkinson said at church there is—”
Violet darted to the door before her aunt could change her mind. She loved dancing. She did want lessons. But not when she was too miserable to care about performing the proper figures of the cotillion.
Kit hadn’t appeared in the churchyard for three weeks. She watched for him from her window every morning and every night, as she had before she was certain he existed. Eldbert braved a daily walk through the churchyard to the edge of the woods with his father’s telescope to scan the palace outskirts.
“Did you see any sign of him?” Violet asked over and over. She couldn’t help but ask, even when she knew that Eldbert would have told her if he had.
“There were too many people milling about in the yard,” Eldbert replied. “It looked as if a procession of coaches were lined up outside the gates. As if visitors had come to tour.”
Ambrose scoffed at him. “Honestly, Eldie, who’d want to tour a prison?”
“A prison?” Violet said in horror. “I thought it was—”
“A palace?” Ambrose regarded her in despair. “You didn’t really think there is anything palatial about a workhouse? Next thing I know you’ll tell me Kit’s convinced you that he’s on holiday when he sneaks about the churchyard. He’s a born liar and a braggart.”
“He never bragged to me about anything,” Violet said numbly. “At least, not about where he lived. It isn’t a prison.”
Eldbert threw Ambrose a warning look.
And Ambrose ignored him.
“Who do you think starts life in a foundling orphanage?” Ambrose asked Violet.
“Well, orphans, of course. Unfortunate children, like me, who have lost their parents.”
“Chance children,” Ambrose countered, folding his arms like a satisfied genie. “Lawbreakers and little bastards.”
An unbecoming pink infused Eldbert’s cheeks. “I lost my mother. Are you calling me a name?”
Ambrose looked past Eldbert to Violet, who knew that she ought to cover her ears for what was to come but couldn’t make herself. “Watered-down porridge for every meal,” he said. “Hiring you out to strangers. Whippings. That’s the workhouse life.”
“Kit has never complained to us of being hungry,” Violet said, her voice warbling. “Not once. He’s never asked me for anything to eat.” At least, not out loud. Yet now that Violet thought about it, Kit had never refused one of Eldbert’s ham sandwiches, either. Violet had thought it was polite of Kit to wander off to eat. But had she once considered the possibility that he was starving? That his sharp-boned face had been a sign of a deprivation he was too ashamed to admit?
“You’re the one who’s lying, Ambrose,” she said with conviction. “You have envied Kit since the day you saw him. He’s better than you with a sword. He’s handsomer, more noble, more—”
“He doesn’t ask for anything because he steals what he wants,” Ambrose replied. “Good grief. He stole my pants. He’s a beggar, a thief, and a liar.”
Eldbert made a fist and drew back his arm. “Don’t look, Violet,” he said, pulling himself up to an impressive height that made Violet wonder whether he had grown overnight. “I shall address this insult to Kit’s honor.”
Violet would have protested if an all-too-familiar voice had not called her name from the top of the slope. She glanced up distractedly and recognized Winifred amid the sheltering stand of trees.
Reluctantly she picked up her skirt to heed the summons. Eldbert threw his punch the moment she turned away. She heard Winifred calling again, a compelling urgency in her voice. “Your uncle is coming, miss! He’s been looking for you everywhere!”
She gasped, ducking on instinct as Eldbert’s fist extended over her head for another punch and caught Ambrose on the chin. She cared not a jot about the clumsy battle that ensued. She was too upset about Kit’s disappearance.
Violet reached Winifred’s side as the baron huffed through the coppice to the top of the slope. He stared at his niece and her governess for an unmeasured interval, as if he sensed something were amiss and could not name it.
“What on earth are you doing this close to the churchyard, Violet?” he demanded.
Violet could not lie to him. Miss Higgins, however, could—and did.
“She heard Eldbert and Ambrose fighting, sir, and tried to intervene.”
At any other time the baron would have said, “Twaddle,” but the sight of Eldbert limping up the slope with a bloody nose stole his attention. “Dear, dear,” he said. “I hope you got in a good one, Eldbert.”
Violet touched her uncle’s arm. “Uncle Henry, have you ever visited a workhouse?”
He glanced back toward the churchyard before allowing Violet to lead him to the manor path. “Yes, my dear. I have.”
“Was it as horrible as Ambrose says?”
He hesitated. She looked up at him and waited. He was an honest man, and she knew that she could believe whatever he told her. “There are few places on earth as hellish as a workhouse, Violet. Pity those who must live there and depend on our charity.”
“But children are well treated there, aren’t they?”
“Some are. Most aren’t. There are twenty-three of them sleeping to a room.”
“Why isn’t it stopped?”
“The parish needs funds to build a decent school and hospital to take care of the sick, and to separate the children from the criminals.”
“I didn’t dream anything like that could exist,” she said in despair, looking off into the woods. And with her newfound knowledge, her innocence gave way to a compassion that would influence the course of her life.
One of the wardens had caught Kit climbing over the locked gate and hit him a blow across the head that turned his vision red. “So Master Cockroach has been good enough to come ‘ome, and by the gate this time. You’ve had it now, Kit. You’ll be in lockup soon, my boy, or sold to the first bidder. You’re almost of the age.”
They flogged him in the yard early the next morning. He bit his tongue so he wouldn’t cry out. It only made it worse for the younger boys who were getting beaten at the same time. Stupid though it seemed, the thought of Eldbert and Violet took some of the sting away. He’d tricked them into thinking he was invulnerable. Now he had to trick himself.
The cane came down harder. He buckled, and a hand caught hold of his shirt. The seam tore at the shoulder. Bugger it. Violet and Miss Higgins would be embarrassed. Don’t think of them. Stop.
Workhouse boy. Dirty little beggar.
Give me another chance. I was born in sin and I don’t know why, but I swear I’m good inside. I know it doesn’t show. I know that I’m all blow—
“Get up,” a voice said, and filthy water hit his chin.
He closed his eyes. Better now. He couldn’t see any faces. He couldn’t see anything at all.
Summer was coming to an early end. Kit turned fifteen. He was always on edge and felt as if he were being watched. Every day one of his pals at the house disappeared or died. He knew he was next.
He frowned at the sketch of him that rested across Violet’s lap. “Stop doing those.”
She glanced up. “Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked, covering a cough in his fist.
“Your face is flushed. And your eyes are red.”
“I’m fine. Don’t draw pictures of me. You always have to make me look like a prince or a knight. Make me a nobody.”
The warden diagnosed him with the measles the next day. Kit wished the illness would kill him, but it didn’t. He recovered faster than his workhouse friends, but he still felt rotten almost a fortnight later when he sneaked to the churchyard to see his friends.
“What is it, Kit?” Violet asked him as they watched Ambrose and Eldbert fencing among the trees.
He noticed that she hadn’t brought her sketchbook, and he felt bad for that. But not as bad as when she stood, her eyes glassy, and put her hand to her face.
“What’s the matter?”
She dropped her hand. Then she started to cough and sway on her feet. “Oh, God,” he said. “Eldbert! Ambrose!”
The boys came running. By the time they arrived, Violet was shaking and holding her arm up to cover her eyes, whispering, “Why is the light so bright? It’s never this bright down here.”
“What have you done to her, you filthy beggar?” Ambrose asked in panic.
Violet swayed on her feet, one arm outstretched. “I’ve caught the plague,” she whispered. “I feel like I’m dying.”
Eldbert stared at her in fright. Ambrose turned an ungodly shade of gray and took off for the woods.
“Help me, Eldbert,” Kit said, sweeping Violet up in his arms. Violet white and sickly was preferable to what he saw at the palace, and he had done this to her. “Where is Miss Higgins?”
“I don’t know,” Eldbert said, stumbling after Kit’s hurried strides. “Where are you taking her?”
“To her house.”
“Look, can you at least carry her feet? If she dies, it will be on me.”
“Die? She can’t die. I had the measles a few years ago, and I survived. My father said it’s spreading through the parish again. “But . . . Violet can’t die.”
For the rest of his life Kit would remember that scene. He ran up the slope and toward the Tudor-framed manor. The butler, standing at the door, sent him a look of gratitude and gathered Violet in his arms. The baron burst from the house with murder in his eyes, and behind him a lady—the baroness, Kit guessed—gave a wail of despair.
Kit watched for Violet at her window, and knew it would be his fault if she died. He and Eldbert kept a vigil outside the garden gate of Violet’s manor, until one day she appeared at the window and gave a weak wave.
“Ye gads,” Eldbert said, passing Kit his telescope. “She looks hideous.”
Not to Kit. She looked lovely and alive.
A week later Ambrose caught the measles. He hacked and ran a raging fever and afterward blamed Kit for imperiling his life. Miss Higgins, having been infected years ago, did not fall ill.
Their small band met for the last time one late afternoon in early August. They had managed to sneak off only because the baroness was helping Eldbert’s father visit sick families in the parish. Kit studied Violet’s face and thought that even her unwholesome pallor would not stop men from falling in love with her. Eldbert and Ambrose were being sent away to school. Violet wouldn’t have any friends soon, he thought.
“I’m going away, too,” Kit said.
She looked across the grass, her gaze stricken. “Where?”
“I’m being sold,” he said. “There’s a bill posted on the workhouse gate if you’d like to buy me.”
He hated himself for having told her the truth, even if it was for her own good. A girl like Violet had no business playing with dangerous boys like him. She was so naive he would have stayed in this godforsaken parish to keep her safe if it were within his power.
“You’ll be a blacksmith or a chimney sweep’s apprentice if you’re lucky,” Ambrose said, sounding half-sympathetic. “Has anyone bid for you yet?”
He could have pushed Ambrose’s arrogant face into one of the graves. “Yes, as a matter of fact. It isn’t official, but it looks as if I’m being apprenticed to a cavalry captain.”
Ambrose snorted, unimpressed. “You mean the old drunk who thinks that his son haunts this graveyard?”
Kit pulled a stone from his pocket. “He doesn’t drink now,” he said, daring Ambrose to defy him. “And he knows his son is dead. He was killed at war.”
Violet had turned away, tears in her eyes. “When are you going, Kit?”
He tossed the stone into the air and caught it. His throat hurt, and he thought he was getting sick again. “I don’t know.”
“You could be a worse apprentice,” Eldbert said adjusting his spectacles. “A dentist could have bought you. I wouldn’t mind being apprenticed to an officer myself. It isn’t an easy life, being the son of the parish surgeon.” He reached into his coat and took out a letter opener that Kit guessed had come from his father’s desk.
“What is that for?” Ambrose asked, sitting up at attention.
“It’s for us to seal our pact of friendship in blood and agree that we shall all meet again in ten years.”
“What should we call ourselves?” Violet said, looking up at Kit.
He smiled at her. “The Bleeding Idiots.” He frowned at Eldbert. “You aren’t giving her a scar?”
“Don’t worry, Kit,” she said.
He turned his head. He felt an inexplicable urge to kiss her hand and knew that for her sake it was a blessing that he had to go away.
They enacted the ritual at the thin stream that trickled amid the crypts. Ambrose shrieked the loudest when he pricked his finger, not as much from the pain but from the blood that dripped onto his trousers. His cry drew Miss Higgins from her post on the slope to scrub at the spot by the stream with a stone, Lady Macbeth in a mobcap, muttering, “I’ll lose my job if I have to explain what I allowed under my guard. The four of you are incorrigible.”
“Five,” Violet murmured.
Six, actually, if one counted the child Miss Higgins had no idea she was carrying.
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