Read an Extract
‘I must thank you.’ The swordsman gave himself a shake, slid the blade home in its scabbard and bent to pick up the lantern that had fallen on its side, the candle still, by some miracle, burning. ‘Are you hurt?’
His accent was strange. Educated, definitely upper, but exaggerated with a drawl to it. My linguist’s ear pricked up, despite the situation.
‘Just scrapes and bruises,’ I managed, my voice rasping as I got my breath back. And terminal confusion – I am certainly suffering from that.
‘You had best come back with me, sir. We must check you are indeed unharmed and do something about your clothes. I have rooms in Albany.’ He picked up his hat, shook his head at the state of it and tossed it back down.
Sir? Albany? Albany was the place off Piccadilly in London where aristocratic single gentlemen had suites of rooms in the Georgian period. I’d read about it in a Georgette Heyer novel, looked it up and been intrigued to discover it still existed.
‘Where are we?’
The man, who had turned and begun to walk along the alleyway towards the light at the end, stopped and looked back. ‘Where? Have you had a blow to the head? Allow me to take your arm.’
‘No. No, I haven’t hit my head. Where are we?’
‘London. Crown Passage between Pall Mall and King Street.’
Pall Mall I knew. King Street, I thought, ran parallel to the north of it. That was where Almack’s Assembly Rooms had been. ‘When?’
He tipped his head to one side, his face unreadable in the semi-darkness. ‘The third of April. Possibly the fourth, I was too preoccupied to listen for the clocks.’
‘No, I mean When? Which year?’
‘You have had a blow to the head.’ He walked back towards me. ‘Eighteen seven.’
Eighteen seven. I let him take my arm and went with him, stumbling over my own feet a little, as he walked towards the end of the alleyway. Two hundred years ago, but the same date. This was a dream, obviously. Or I was hallucinating, although it felt like a very firm hand under my arm… Against my side, through the soft cashmere, his body was solid and warm. Had I hit my head during the training session without realising it and now had concussion?
I found my voice. ‘No, it can’t be. That is two centuries ago.’
I felt rather than saw him shake his head. ‘You may or may not be concussed but you are certainly considerably adrift in your mind. We must send for a doctor to look you over.’ His fingers shifted on my arm. ‘Interesting cloth. Did you lose your coat back there? I will go back for it.’
‘No, I had no coat. It was warm when I… came out. It’s cashmere,’ I added, bizarrely feeling I needed to make conversation.
‘You are a stranger in Town?’
‘Yes, I’m from Hertfordshire.’ And the future. My accent must sound strange to him. Then I realised I was trying to put thoughts into the head of a figment of my imagination.
We emerged into a street lit by flaming torches set in holders beside doors and by lads with torches or lanterns in their hands guiding pedestrians. Link boys, my memory provided. They were supposed to be symbols of sex, for some reason I couldn’t recall. There were no street lights. It was busy and carriages were creating a log-jam in front of a building to our right. ‘Almack’s?’ I ventured.
‘Indeed. Best to avoid it under the circumstances.’ He cut across the street and took the one opposite, sloping up to Jermyn Street, I thought, although I was increasingly confused. My companion was keeping to the inside of the pavement, the deeper shadows, and occasionally turned to look behind.
‘Are we being followed? Who were they?’
‘I believe they have given up, although it is always wise to check. Footpads, probably. No cause for alarm.’
I don’t believe you, not about the footpads. That had looked personal, somehow, not a random mugging. We had turned into Jermyn Street and my feet were dragging now as we crossed and took another alleyway. Dream, hallucination. Am I feverish?
A wider road, more traffic. Horses, carriages, the smell of horse droppings, the rattle of steel-shod wheels and hooves. Not a car in sight. The man’s hand was tight on my upper arm as I swayed too close to the curb. Then we were across and into a cobbled yard. It was brighter and the stink of manure and drains and coal smoke diminished a little. He slid an arm around me supportively, then his hand encountered my left breast and he went very still.
‘You are a woman?’ His hand dropped away.
The last time I looked… For the first time in my life I fainted, although not, unfortunately, before I encountered yet another patch of unyielding cobbles.