Whatever happened to that maddening poet, Augustus Whittlesby?
We met him first in Pink Carnation, driving Gaston Delaroche to distraction with happy, happy verses, and then again in Black Tulip, delivering odes to his own Pulchritudinous Princess, Jane Wooliston.
It’s been a while, but Augustus– and his odes– are back.
Unlike the Pink Carnation, Augustus is employed directly by the English government, with a very specific mandate: observe, but don’t meddle. By watching, recording, and relaying, but never acting directly, he’s managed to outlast pretty much every other agent on the ground. He’s become such a fixture in Paris– and such a figure of fun– that he’s even managed to evade the Napoleonic ban on English males in France. After all, a person in flowy sleeves who speaks in rhyme hardly counts as male, at least not by the definition of Bonaparte’s Ministry of Police, who have been subjected to one too many of Augustus’ odes.
But even as experienced and cautious an agent as Augustus Whittlesby has his weaknesses (and I don’t just mean his verse). When the Pink Carnation asks for help, Augustus breaks his own rule by acting as go-between with the junior agent known as the Silver Orchid, aka Laura Grey.
In this scene, Laura has sent through the very circuitous channels required of her, signaling to the Pink Carnation that she is in need of a meeting. She doesn’t expect the Pink Carnation to come herself, but she is entirely caught off guard when she discovers just whom the Pink Carnation has sent as emissary….
Silver bells chimed dulcetly as Laura pushed open the door. Sunlight streamed through the wide, plate-glass windows, illuminating tasteful displays of books on specially constructed racks. Framed prints hung on the red-papered walls, featuring copies of etchings by the great illustrators of the past five centuries.
At the far end of the room, a disheveled figure in a ruffled shirt, topped only by a waistcoat, held forth to a distressed-looking proprietor.
Oh, Lord. Laura prevented herself from rolling her eyes to the ceiling. Just what she needed. That poet. Again. Did he plague all the bookshops in the city, or only the ones she intended to patronize?
Taking a firm grip on her reticule, Laura marched down the length of the shop. After waiting more than a week for this rendezvous, she certainly wasn’t going to be deterred by a longhaired windbag with more sleeve than sense. Laura itched to have a proper conversation with the Carnation or the Carnation’s agent. This whole business of keeping one’s eyes and ears open and seeing what turned up was maddening. If they would only tell her what they wanted to know, in plain English with no nonsense about lost princes and horrid novels, she might actually be able to do something about it.
Laura bore down on the poet and the proprietor. The bookseller cast Laura a hunted look over the poet’s shoulder as the poet waved a small volume dramatically in the air.
The poet struck a tragic pose. “You call this an illustration!”
Laura called it more of a blur as it wafted past her nose.
“Perfidy! Base perfidy! This is nothing less than a betrayal of the muse herself, whose divine trail we all must strive to follow.”
“If you don’t like it,” said the bookseller grimly, “you can take your custom elsewhere. Ah, Madame!” He seized on Laura’s presence with gratitude. “If you will excuse me, sir, I believe this lady—”
“With these rank scribblings profaning the pure prowess of my poetry? I crave—nay! I require!—the counsel and guidance of one of those members of the gentler sex whose minds are more attuned to the lilting call of Beauty’s song.” The poet also seized on Laura. On her arm, to be precise. “Madame—oh, whatever your name is! Would you lend your invaluable aid to the incalculable cause of pure poesy?”
“Er—,” began Laura, very ready to tell him just what he could do with his poesy and his wayward hand. For an effete poetic type, he had a surprisingly strong grip.
“Those blundering oafs in the backroom have made an unpardonable hash of it.” The poet thrust his book at Laura’s nose. Laura sneezed at the scent of ink and glue. “Don’t you agree, Madame—oh, whatever?”
Laura’s tart reply died on her lips. Pressed inside the book, just where she could see it, was a white card embossed with the image of a small, pink flower.
“Unpardonable,” Laura agreed. “Achoo!”
“Come!” The poet towed Laura towards a curtain at the back of the room. “Tell those oafs what they can do to improve their performance. Perhaps the gentle voice of a lady may reach those hardened hearts that the humble plaint of a mere poet has failed to move.” In a lower voice, utterly unlike his unusual singsong drawl, Whittlesby said, “Come with me. Quickly.”
Laura went, stumbling over her skirt. When he said quickly, he meant it.
As Laura notes in the subsequent scene, Whittlesby the agent has very little in common with Whittlesby the poet– other than the costume.
I’m going to be posting a good deal more about Augustus Whittlesby in the months to come, since Whittlesby is the hero of the upcoming (still untitled) Pink IX. Stay tuned….