Bringing Down the Duke

Page 5

A marksman-sharp gaze pinned her over the rim of metal-framed glasses, and Annabelle felt a ripple of both guilt and alarm. With his patched tweed jacket, high forehead, and impatient frown, Professor Jenkins looked every inch the brilliant academic he was. Barely forty, he was already a titan in the field of ancient Greek warfare, so if there had ever been a need to pay attention, it was during his morning tutorial.

She looked up at her father’s former correspondent with contrition. “My apologies, Professor.”

He leaned forward over the desk. “It’s the bloody knitting, isn’t it?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The knitting,” he repeated, eyeing Mrs. Forsyth balefully. “The click-click-click . . . it is maddening, like a furiously leaking tap.”

The clicking behind Annabelle stopped abruptly, and Mrs. Forsyth’s consternation filled the room. Annabelle cringed. The woman was rightfully offended—after all, Annabelle paid her sixpence an hour to sit right there, because Gilbert, confound him, had been right about one thing: she did need a chaperone. One who was approved by the warden of her college, no less. Female students were not allowed to enter the town center unescorted, nor could they be alone with a professor. Mrs. Forsyth, widowed, elderly, and smartly dressed, certainly looked the part of a respectable guardian.

But if Jenkins was vexed by the sound of knitting, she had to find another solution. He was the titan, after all. His lessons turned crumbling old pages into meaningful windows to the past; his outstanding intellect lit her own mind on fire. And in order to teach her, he took the trouble to come to the classroom the university had given to the female students: a chamber with mismatched furniture above the bakery in Little Clarendon Street.

A bakery. That was the crux of the situation. It was not the knitting that was distracting; it was the warm, yeasty scent of freshly baked bread that wafted through the cracks in the door . . .

A cart rumbled past noisily on the street below.

The professor slammed his copy of Thucydides shut with an annoyed thud.

“That is it for today,” he said. “I have no doubt you will come up with an original take on this chapter by tomorrow.”

Tomorrow? The warm glow following his praise faded quickly—tomorrow would mean another night shift at her desk. They were piling up fast here, faster than in Chorleywood.

She watched Jenkins furtively as she slid her pen and notebook back into her satchel. She’d been surprised how youthful the professor looked when, after years of dry scientific correspondence, she had finally met him in person. He was lanky, his face unlined thanks to a life spent in dimly lit archives. He was also mercurial, lost in thought one moment, sharp as a whip the next. Managing him could pose a challenge.

Downstairs in the bakery, someone began banging metal pots with great enthusiasm.

Jenkins pinched the bridge of his nose. “Come to my office in St. John’s the next time,” he said.

St. John’s. One of the oldest, wealthiest colleges at Oxford. They said its wine collection alone could pay for the crown jewels.

“But no needles, no yarn,” Jenkins said, “understood?”

* * *

Annabelle hurried down St. Giles with a still disgruntled Mrs. Forsyth in tow. She would have liked to meander and soak up the sight of the enchanting sandstone walls framing the street, but they were running late for the suffragist meeting. She could still feel the withered stones of the old structures, emanating centuries-old knowledge and an air of mystery. She had peeked through one of the medieval doors in the wall the other day, catching a glimpse of one of the beautiful gardens of the men’s colleges that lay beyond, a little island of exotic trees and late-blooming flowers and hidden nooks, locked away like a gem in a jewelry box. Someday, she might find a way to sneak inside.

This week, the suffragists gathered at the Randolph. Hattie and her chaperoning great-aunt rented apartments in the plush hotel for the term and had kindly offered to host them all. The common room of her college, Lady Margaret Hall, would have sufficed for their small chapter, but their warden, Miss Wordsworth, didn’t allow political activism on university grounds. I shall tolerate the nature of your stipend, she had told Annabelle during their first meeting, but use the university’s trust in you wisely. An interesting woman, Miss Wordsworth—paying for the tutors from her own pocket to give women an education, but seeing no need whatsoever in helping women get the vote.

“Now what precisely is your group trying to achieve?” Mrs. Forsyth asked, her breath coming in audible puffs. Ah, she sounded so eerily like Aunt May when she said such things. Now, what precisely was my nephew trying to achieve, overeducating you like this? Aunt May had muttered something along those lines daily, during those long winter months they had spent up north together. Was that why she had chosen Mrs. Forsyth from the pool of warden-approved chaperones? She surreptitiously studied the woman from the corner of her eye. She looked a bit like Aunt May, too, with her small glasses perched on the tip of her nose . . .

“We ask that they amend the Married Women’s Property Act,” she said, “so that women can keep their own property after marriage.”

Mrs. Forsyth frowned. “But why? Surely all the husband’s worldly goods are the wife’s as well?”

“But the goods would not be in her name,” Annabelle said carefully. “And since only people with property to their name may vote, a woman must keep her own property if she wishes to have the vote.”

Mrs. Forsyth clucked her tongue. “It is becoming clear to me why a fair girl like you has been left on the shelf. You are not only bookish but a radical political activist. All highly impractical in a wife.”

“Quite,” Annabelle said, because there was no way to pretend it was otherwise. She wouldn’t make a convenient wife to any man she knew. It had probably been thus from the moment she had read about men like Achilles, Odysseus, Jason; demigods and men who knew how to navigate the seven seas. Men who could have taken her on an adventure. Perhaps her father should have made her read “Sleeping Beauty” instead of The Iliad—her life might have turned out quite differently.

At the Randolph, the meeting was about to begin: Lucie was rooting in a satchel next to a small speaker’s desk. A dozen ladies had formed a chatty semicircle around Hattie’s fireplace. A pink marble fireplace, with a vast, gold-framed mirror mounted above, leaf-gold, she guessed as she handed her coat to a maid.

Hattie was not here, and every seat was taken. Except one half of the French settee. The other half was occupied by a young woman wrapped in a battered old plaid. Annabelle recognized the plaid. The girl had been at Parliament Square: Lady Catriona Campbell. She wasn’t a student; she was the assistant to her father, Alastair Campbell, an Oxford professor, Scottish earl, and owner of a castle in the Highlands. And now the lady startled her by giving her an awkward little wave and sliding over to make more room.

A gauntlet of covert glances ensued as she moved toward the settee; yes, she was aware that her walking dress was plain and old. Among the silky, narrow-cut modern gowns of the ladies, she must look like a relic from a bygone era . . . not quite as bygone as that tartan shawl, though.

She carefully lowered herself onto the settee’s velvety seat.

“We have not yet met, I believe,” she said to Lady Campbell. “I’m Annabelle Archer.”

The lady didn’t look like the daughter of an earl: her face was half-hidden behind a pair of round spectacles, and her raven hair was pulled into an artless bun. And there was the way she wore that shawl, quite like a turtle would wear its shell.

“I know who you are,” Lady Campbell said. “You are the girl with the stipend.”

Her matter-of-factness was tempered by a soft Scottish lilt.

She seemed encouraged by Annabelle’s smile, for her right hand emerged from her plaid. “I’m Catriona. I saw you lobby the Duke of Montgomery last week. That was very brave of you.”

Annabelle absently shook the proffered hand. Montgomery. The name brought it all back—the haughty aristocratic face, the cold eyes, the firmness of his hand clasping her arm . . . She wasn’t proud of it, but their encounter had preoccupied her so much that she had read up on him in the Annals of the Aristocracy. Like every duke worth his salt, his ancestral line went straight to William the Conqueror, with whom his forefathers had come over in 1066 to change the face of Britain. His family had only amassed more land and wealth as the centuries went by. He had become duke at nineteen. Nineteen sounded awfully young for owning a substantial chunk of the country, but recalling the duke’s self-contained imperiousness, it seemed impossible that this man had ever been a boy. Perhaps he had sprung from somewhere fully formed, like a blond Greek demigod.

“Ladies.” Lucie slapped a thick stack of papers onto her speaker’s desk. Satisfied that she had everyone’s attention, she gave the group a dark glance. “Our mission has just become more difficult. The Duke of Montgomery is the new advisor to the Tory election campaign.”

Well, speaking of the devil.

A shocked murmur rose around Annabelle. She understood that some Tories were in favor of giving women the vote, but most were against it, whereas the opposing Liberals had a few members against women’s suffrage and most in favor. The duke had thrown his weight behind the wrong party.

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