I really should stop calling it Pink X and start calling it The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, shouldn’t I? Old habits die hard.
As we all try to get back to work after the long weekend, here’s a little something to lighten up that first back-to-school Tuesday: the complete, unabridged first modern chapter of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria.
When we left Colin and Eloise at the end of The Garden Intrigue, Eloise had announced her intention to return to Harvard in the fall, and the two had made a pact to find a cache of missing, and possibly mythical, Indian jewels before Colin’s loathsome cousin/stepfather Jeremy could get to them. The Prologue of Pink X picks up two months after we left off, in July of 2004….
“I seriously doubt the lost jewels of Berar are under your bath mat,” I said.
My boyfriend straightened, narrowly missing banging his head on the underside of the sink. He squinted at me, myopia rather than malevolence. “I dropped my contact lens.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say.” I spotted a glint of blue on the tiles near the mat. I don’t know why, but even clear contacts always turn blue when they dry out. “Over there. No. Your other there.”
“Thanks.” Colin groped for the bit of plastic. “I was afraid I’d stepped on it.”
“Ah,” I said, slipping my arms around his waist. “Then you’d be entirely at my mercy.”
He considered that. “Until I put my glasses on.”
I gave him a peck on the back and let go. “Spoilsport.”
We were being very touchy-feely these days. At least I was. I’m not usually much of one for PDA, even when the only public was the mold in the grouting, but at my back I could already hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near. Or, in this case, time’s winged 747. My flight back to the States was booked. It was one of those flexible STA travel things, but even so. I had a time. I had a flight number. I had a ticket.
I had only two more months with Colin.
Time is a strangely malleable commodity. When I had moved to London, last fall, the first two months had lasted for years, and not in a good way. I had come to London on a ten month grant. Like a good little academic squirrel, I was meant to be gathering the nuts of primary sources, great armloads of them, and then scurrying back to Cambridge—the other Cambridge—to crack and dissect them in the calm of my basement office in the history department. At the time, I had yearned for the comfortable familiarity of the history department, the basement vending machine, the caked-on coffee in the bottom of the department coffee machine that no one ever remembered to clean.
Everything in England was just so… English. As an anglophile, I’d thought I’d known what I was getting into, but years of Masterpiece Theatre hadn’t prepared me for the realities of life in London: the miniature bottles of shampoo, the peanut butter that didn’t look like peanut butter, the sun that set at three in winter. Of course, all that would have been bearable, war stories for later, if only the research were going well.
Scrap that: if the research were going anywhere at all.
I was on the trail of the most elusive element of the Napoleonic Wars, those shadowy men and women who had donned aliases rather than uniform. Spying might have been considered more than a bit ungentlemanly at the time, but there was no denying either its utility or its glamor. With images of the Scarlet Pimpernel dancing in my head, I had envisioned myself making the scholarly coup of the century, unmasking the one spy who had never been unveiled, the spy who sent Napoleon’s Ministry of Police into palpitations and launched a series of florally-themed fashion crazes among England’s aristocratic elite: the Pink Carnation.
Yes, admittedly, the name might be a little less than fearsome, but the roster of exploits attributed to the Carnation were impressive, indeed. In addition to the usual mocking notes on Napoleon’s pillow (there were times when it seemed that the little dictator’s bedroom must have been busier than Grand Central on a summer Friday), the Carnation had thwarted a plot to kidnap George III, intercepted shipments of Swiss gold, spiked Bonaparte’s plans for a naval invasion, and cured the common cold.
The accounts were all inconclusive and contradictory in the extreme. If you believed the contemporary newsletters, the Carnation was reputed to have been simultaneously in India, Portugal, France, and Shropshire, and possibly somewhere in the Americas, as well. He kept popping up like Elvis, minus the shiny suit. The French Ministry of Police were constantly finding him under their pillows; the British press attributed every French disappointment to his good agency.
In short, it was a mess. After months in the archives, I had been no closer to sorting it out. I was on the verge of sourly subscribing to the popular academic theory that the Pink Carnation had been a deliberate fictional construct, invented by the English government to throw fear into the hearts of their French foes, with the role of the Carnation being played, successively, by a variety of English heroes ranging from Sir Sidney Smith to Lord Nelson’s first cousin twice removed. In other words, the Dread Pirate Roberts, Napoleonic edition.
In one last, desperate attempt, I’d played my final card. I’d sent out letters to the holders of private family archives, hoping against hope that something, some tiny clue to the Carnation’s identity (or identities), might have survived, something that would give me something to put into my dissertation other than the theoretical mumbo jumbo that is the scholar’s best smoke screen for the complete dearth of any actual sources. I’d sent those letters out on the off-chance.
Those letters led me to the Pink Carnation. And Colin.
Life works in weird ways, doesn’t it? Romance had been the last thing on my mind in October—I was more concerned with ABD than MRS—but those letters, mailed in desperation, had netted me more than a crack at some private sources. They had plunged me right into the heart not just of historical drama but a modern one, too. Colin and I had been together, officially, for just a little over six months now. Just enough time to put down roots, not enough time for declarations. We were betwixt and between and the clock was rapidly running down.
Just because I was going back to the States didn’t mean it was over.
Why did that sound less and less convincing the closer we got to August?
Colin squirted multi-purpose solution on his contact, regarded it philosophically, and maneuvered it back into his eye.
“Jeremy rang this morning,” he said, thickly. Like mascara application, contact lens insertion requires a partially open mouth.
I could see my own face in the mirror, lips pinched, eyes narrowed. “Oh, did he?”
I mentioned modern drama, didn’t I? That drama had a first name, spelled J-E-R-E-M-Y. Jeremy was both Colin’s cousin and his stepfather. If it sounds complicated, it’s because it is. There was some debate as to whether Colin’s father had been cold in his grave yet when Jeremy took up with his cousin’s widow. There had been a suspicious interval of overlap while Colin father was in the hospital—or, as they say over here, in hospital—struggling through the final stages of pancreatic cancer and Colin mother had been, shall we say, being comforted by Jeremy, said comforting involving lots of long walks on a beach in the Grenadines.
Don’t think that I was jumping to conclusions, or basing my opinion of Jeremy entirely on rumor and hearsay. After some rather intensive observation, I had come to my own conclusions about Jeremy: he was a loathsome cad.
Yes, I know it sounds all Barbara Cartland, but, trust me, the phrase had never been more apt. Like a Cartland cad, Jeremy was the sort of man who would gamble away his daughter at cards and never think twice about it. Human beings were just another form of coin to him. I’d seen him play fast and loose with Colin’s family. Colin and his sister were still barely speaking, thanks to one of Jeremy’s lovely machinations. Of one thing I was sure: Jeremy was pure poison.
Colin blinked experimentally, and then, once he was sure the contact was firmly in place, raised a brow at me. He was so cute when he tried to be all supercilious. I didn’t say that, of course.
“You know he rang,” he said drily. “You were on the other extension.”
“I hung up,” I protested. “As soon as I heard who it was.”
Okay, maybe there might have been a few seconds of lag time. No one’s halo is quite that shiny.
“You could have stayed on the line,” Colin said gently. His eyes met mine in the bathroom mirror. “I wouldn’t have minded.”
I shrugged, poking at a patch of peeling paper on the wall. “I didn’t want to pry.”
It wasn’t true, of course. I was dying to pry. But, now that I knew that I was leaving, I was feeling particularly scrupulous about our respective realms, what was his and what was mine. I might be living in his world, but it was only temporary.
I could feel Colin looking at me, but all he said was, “When it comes to Jeremy, I’d rather have witnesses.”
Fair enough. I pushed my hair back behind my ears and perched on the edge of the bathtub. “So what did he want?”
Colin squirted toothpaste onto a blue plastic toothbrush. “He says he called to apologize.”
“Huh,” I said. The only place I could see Jeremy voluntarily burying the hatchet would be in Colin’s skull. He’d probably keep the scalp, too, and call it installation art. Jeremy is something to do with art sales. That’s his career; his vocation is bedeviling Colin. “What did he really want?”
Colin’s lips quirked. “You don’t pull your punches.”
“That’s why you like me,” I said cheerfully.
Toothbrush suspended in space, Colin looked back over his shoulder at me. “It’s not the only reason.”
It hurt to look at him looking at me like that. It hurt when I knew that the clock was ticking, marking the moments until I climbed on that plane, back to the other Cambridge, the American one.
It would have been easier if I could have blamed someone else for it, but the decision to go back had been mine. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now…. Well, there was no changing my mind, was there? The teaching contract for next year was already signed, sealed and delivered, or the email equivalent thereof. What didn’t break us up would make us stronger. Or something like that.
I lifted the shampoo bottle in mock toast. “Cheers.”
Through a mouthful of foam, Colin said, “You also make a decent toasted cheese.”
I set down the shampoo and scrubbed my hand off on the knee of my jeans. “Only decent? Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Colin rinsed and spat. “Superlatively brilliant toasted cheese?”
“Too little, too late.” I tossed him a hand towel. “Jeremy?”
“Wants to come over for lunch. To make his amends.”
I leaned back, bracing my hands against the enamel sides of the bath. “You’d think if he really wanted to make amends, he could at least take us out.”
“But, then,” said Colin, “he wouldn’t have an excuse to come to the house.”
We exchanged a look in the mirror. We both knew why Jeremy wanted to come to Selwick Hall.
He was looking for the lost jewels of Berar.
Berar was in India. Selwick Hall was in Sussex. Slight anomaly there, no? The jewels had disappeared during Wellington’s wars in India, back in the early nineteenth century. It was the usual sort of hoard: ropes of pearls, piles of rubies, emeralds bigger than pigeons’ eggs (having never seen a pigeon’s egg, that descriptor wasn’t quite as useful for me as it could be), and, the piece de resistance, the one jewel to rule them all, a legendary something or other called the Moon of Berar. I say something or other because the contemporary commentators differed as to what exactly made up the Moon. Opals? Sapphires? Diamonds from the mines of Golconda? No one knew for sure. What they did agree on was that the jewel was credited with all manner of mystical powers, ranging from omniscience to invulnerability to minty fresh breath.
Okay, maybe not the minty fresh breath, but everything else, and then some.
But here was the kicker: somehow, somewhere, the legend had started that the jewels were hidden in Selwick Hall.
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? A treasure in Indian jewels hidden in an English gentleman’s residence. We’re not even talking a grand estate, just a pleasant, reasonably unpretentious gentleman’s house of the sort that spring up like mushrooms in Jane Austen novels, closer to the Bennet house than to Pemberley. Ridiculous, yes, but Jeremy believed it, believed it enough to rifle my notes in search of clues. Jeremy believed and Colin…. Well, let’s just say he didn’t entirely disbelieve it.
It had become something of a running joke between us over the past two weeks. Stay too long in the bathroom? “What were you doing in there, looking for the lost jewels of Berar?” Lose an earring? “Perhaps it’s gone to find its friends.” You get the idea.
We hadn’t, however, actually done anything constructive about looking for them. With the threat of a full teaching load staring me in the face, I’d been knuckling down on my dissertation. I had enough experience of ungrateful undergrads (genus Harvardensius undergradius annoyingus) to know that I would be spending the fall term fully employed fielding emails proffering inventive excuses for missed classes and late papers. Colin, meanwhile, was hard at work on the novel he was convinced would make him the next Ian Fleming. In the evenings, once our respective papers had been put away, neither of us was particularly inclined to hunt around the house with flashlights like a pair of attenuated Nancy Drews. With only two months left, we had far better things to do.
Like quiz night at the local pub. If only either of us knew anything about science, we would have been undefeated. As it was, the vicar trumped us every time.
One of these days….
Only we didn’t have that many days left. I hated thinking that way. I couldn’t stop thinking that way. I needed an off switch for my internal monologue.
“It makes no sense,” said Colin, for the fiftieth time. “What would a rajah’s ransom in jewels be doing in a house in Sussex?”
“Things turn up in strange places all the time,” I said. For example, library books, which possess a disconcerting ability to move from place to place, seemingly of their own volition.
“We’re not talking about a stray pair of socks,” said Colin.
“That would be great. Can’t you just see it? King’s ransom in jewels found in Sussex sock drawer.” Why not? Colin had an odd habit of sticking odds and ends in his sock drawer, from cufflinks to credit card receipts. I’d learned, when in doubt, check the sock drawer. Occasionally, there was even a pair of socks. “Hey, everything else seems to be in there.”
Colin didn’t seem to share my amusement.
I fished out a loofah that had got knocked over into the bath. It still had the Body Shop tag attached and smelled faintly of raspberry body wash. “Seriously, though. How did the rumor get started? There must have been some origin to it all.”
“No smoke without fire?” Colin rinsed his toothbrush and shook it out in the sink. “I don’t know. I remember my father telling me about it when I was little—not in a serious way, mind you. Just as another family story.”
“What did he say?” Colin didn’t talk about his father much. I knew that he had been a great deal older than Colin’s mother and that he had been involved in some branch of the secret services, but that was about it. It was after he had died that Colin had thrown over his old career in finance and moved back to Selwick Hall.
Sometimes I wondered what that other, earlier Colin had been like—not that I was going to trade in the one I’d got.
“These were children’s stories,” Colin emphasized. “Once upon a time, and all that.”
I nodded vehemently to show I understood. “All warranties and disclaimers acknowledged. Go on.”
Colin stuck his toothbrush in a chipped old mug and leaned back against the sink, resting his elbows against the marble countertop. “It’s complete rubbish,” he said warningly, “but….”
“Yes?” The suspense was killing me. So was the edge of the tub, which was distinctly uncomfortable. I shifted forward a bit.
Colin held out a hand to help me up. “According to my father, the story was that the jewels were brought by the Carnation from India to Selwick Hall.”
I felt absurdly disappointed. “But we know that the Carnation wasn’t in India.”
My researches had turned up the true story of the Carnation’s supposed Indian exploits. Yes, a French plot to rouse the country against the British had been routed, but it had been accomplished by a junior political officer named Alex Reid, not by the Carnation herself. The Carnation had been busy in France at the time, watching Bonaparte crown himself Emperor.
“Exactly,” said Colin. “It’s just a story. There was even a bit of doggerel verse—something something Plumeria’s tower.”
I wrinkled my nose. “That sounds like a Whittlesby poem.”
Colin waved that aside. “No,” he said slowly, “it wasn’t. It was just the three lines, and it went something like this: Hard by Plumeria’s tower/Underneath the brooding bower/ The Moon awaits its hard-won hour.”
“Tower?” My ears pricked up like a spaniel’s. “As in your tower?”
Behind the house loomed the original Norman keep, or the remains thereof, built by Fulke de Selwick to keep those pesky Saxons down. Now semi-ruined, it was the perfect location for a lost treasure—at least, in theory. In practice, it would be like putting up a neon sign that said “Get Your Treasures Here!” The place was like a beacon for treasure-seekers.
“Is that why you keep it locked?” I asked, tagging along after Colin into the bedroom.
“No. It really is just because of the farm equipment,” he said apologetically. As I had discovered on an earlier, unauthorized foray, the most exciting thing that the tower appeared to be housing was rusty farm equipment. “But we can take a look around if you like.”
“You’ve searched it already, haven’t you?” I said accusingly.
“And my father, and his father before him. Everyone and his mother’s had a go.”
“All his sisters and his cousins whom he reckons by the dozens,” I murmured. “But Jeremy still thinks it’s here.”
Colin spread his hands in silent acknowledgment.
“He’ll go on pestering you until you find it,” I said seriously. “You do realize that.”
“You can’t find what isn’t there to be found,” said Colin.
“Hmm.” I wasn’t ready to admit defeat that easily. “Who was Plumeria?”
Colin’s eye crinkled. “You know my family tree better than I do.”
“Only the early nineteenth century bits of it.” I sank down on the edge of the bed, which made a faint creaking noise in protest. Okay, fine, I had done a bit of poking around into the more recent bits of Colin’s family tree, purely recreationally, but I didn’t want him to know that. It was like admitting you had googled someone before a first date. “The name does sound oddly familiar, though….”
“Yes?” There was no mistaking the eagerness in Colin’s voice.
Where had I heard that name before? For a moment, I thought I had it, but the wisp of memory drifted away like smoke, nothing to hold onto. Plumeria….
“No. It’s gone.” I looked up at Colin, who had busied himself buckling his watch. “Why not ask your Aunt Arabella?”
He shook his head. “She won’t give us a straight answer. She doesn’t believe such things are meant to be found.”
“Let’s go anyway.” I liked Colin’s great-aunt, not least because she was the one responsible for setting us up. All right, set up might be too strong a term, but she had certainly contrived to throw us in one another’s way. “It’ll be a field trip. Fun!”
Colin came to stand in front of me. “You mean you don’t want to work on your dissertation.”
“Pretty much.” It wasn’t just summer slump. I’d hit a snag in the material and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
Thanks to Colin’s truly excellent archives, I could plot the movements of the Pink Carnation with a fair degree of accuracy between 1803 and 1805. I knew who the Pink Carnation was (Miss Jane Wooliston), where she was living (the Hotel de Balcourt, her cousin’s home in Paris), and exactly what she was doing to thwart Napoleon. Between 1803 and 1805, the Pink Carnation lived in Paris with her chaperone, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows. She kept up a regular, coded correspondence with her cousin by marriage, Lady Henrietta Dorrington. And then, in the late spring of 1805….
The paper trail stopped. Cold. No more letters to Lady Henrietta. No more letters to her cousin, Amy Selwick. Nothing. Nada.
There were several options, none of them good.
The least awful option was the most obvious: the letters hadn’t survived. As my advisor was fond of saying, just because something wasn’t there, didn’t mean it hadn’t existed. It was a miracle that any of these documents survived.
But why meticulously maintain the correspondence up to that point and then burn the rest? It didn’t make sense.
Option Two: the Pink Carnation had changed aliases or contacts. If the French had caught on to her coded correspondence with Lady Henrietta, she might have changed her modus operandi, started writing under a different name to a different contact. Clearly, if she had done so, she had not been thinking about the convenience of future historians. On the other hand, at least it meant she was still alive and kicking.
Then there was the final and deadliest option: something had happened to the Pink Carnation.
It wasn’t impossible. The Carnation was living in constant risk of discovery, her sole protection the French Ministry of Police’s inability to ascribe that kind of cunning to a woman, and a beautiful one at that. All it took was one slip, and it would all be over.
True, legend ascribed years more of deeds to the Pink Carnation, but by 1805, the Carnation’s reputation had been firmly established. It would have made sense for the English government to continue the use of the alias.
Even in the warmth of the unairconditioned room, the thought made me shiver. I’d spent months living in the Pink Carnation’s head. The idea of anything happening to her was anathema to me.
I know, I know. Even if she’d lived to a ripe old age, she’d be long dead now. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter. But it mattered to me.
Of all of them, Option Two was the most likely. It made sense for the Pink Carnation to change up her routine from time to time to keep the Ministry of Police off her tale. Complacency led to discovery. Wasn’t Hotmail constantly reminding me to change my password?
But. That was always the problem, that word “but”. Miss Jane Wooliston and her chaperone, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows—known to the young men of Paris as something that roughly translated to “the Purple Parasol-Wielding Dragon”—were both fixtures on the Paris social scene until spring of 1805. In April 1805, there was a brief mention in the Paris gossip sheets to Miss Wooliston returning to England for a short trip home to deal with what the paper referred to only as a family matter.
After that, nothing. I’d paged through the archives of Le Moniteur, Le Monde Parisien, and even that notorious scandal rag, Bonjour, Paris!, sheer up through 1807. True, the microfilm was blurry, but I didn’t think I’d missed anything. There were no further references to Miss Jane Wooliston and Miss Gwendolyn Meadows in Paris after April 1805.
Why had they gone back to England? And what had happened to them there? I was as far from the answer as I was from tracking down the Moon of Berar.
“Anything I can help with?” asked Colin gently.
I bit down on my lower lip. I’d been trying not to yank Colin into my work—I didn’t want him to think I was just with him for his archives. Not that he would think that, hopefully, but love is paranoid. Or, at least, I was paranoid.
“I don’t think so,” I said slowly. “But I wouldn’t mind a trip to London.”
“Wednesday?” suggested Colin.
I’d have preferred to hop on the next train, but that might have fallen under the heading of running away.
Why had Jane and Miss Gwen left Paris so precipitously? What had driven them back to England? Discovery? Or something else?
“Wednesday,” I agreed, and went off to look up anything I could find about the elusive Plumeria.
More about The Passion of the Purple Plumeria coming up soon!