“…a page-turning story, imbued with fascinating historical detail, a cast of beautifully realized characters, a pitch-perfect Jane Austen, and an intriguing mystery. Highly recommended.”—
Syrie James, bestselling author of The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen
“Good God, Jane!”
Cassandra’s lips were pursed as tightly as a blighted rose. Her eyes swam with tears. As I studied her in trepidation, her throat convulsed and her countenance was suffused with disgust.
“It cannot be so dreadful, surely?” I attempted.
“Worse than your worst imaginings.” She set down her glass. “How can such a peculiar draught be everywhere proclaimed as an aid to health? The most blatant poison could not taste more vile!”
“Perhaps one grows accustomed to the flavour?”
“Only if one were to sample it repeatedly,” she retorted.
“And nothing could prevail upon me to do so—not even my most earnest wishes for your welfare.”
I studied my own glass doubtfully. The water it contained was as brown as the bottom of a horse’s tough. Cassandra and I had taken our doses quite meekly from the hands of Hannah Forty, a pumper who had ruled the Royal Well for as many years as her name suggested; but neither that woman’s challenging look nor the crowd of genteel patrons surrounding us had quelled my sister’s revulsion.
“This particular pump is said to be saline,” I observed.
“It cannot be worse than a mouthful of sea water, surely?”
“It is as sulfurous as a clutch of rotten eggs.”
Cass turned briskly away from Mrs. Forty.
“I must bespeak a cup of tea if I am not to retch this instant.”
I tossed the contents of my glass into a waste bowl and followed my sister further into the Long Room, the elegant saloon that housed the Royal Well’s pumps. Tho’ it was only half-past eight o’clock in the morning, a crowd of fashionable patrons strolled its length while the musicians ranged on the balcony overhead played a concerto by Beethoven. From the Long Room’s crush this morning, I concluded that half the Kingdom was come to the spa town determined to banish the humours from their blood, tho’ the end of May is still considered early in Cheltenham’s Season.
“We may discover the waters at Lord Sherborne’s Well or the Montpellier to be more to our taste,” I called after Cassandra.
“We might remove to either immediately. Neither is at a very great distance; I am persuaded neither is beyond our powers.”
“But what adventure, then, may we hope for tomorrow? Or the day after that?” my sister answered with a pitiable groan.
“Surely some of these delights may be put off to a later hour!”
If one is not to take the waters at a spa built for the purpose, one may at least enjoy the parade of those who do: elderly gentlemen bent over their canes, attempting to appear sprightly; groupings of young ladies newly come upon the town, and determined to go in white regardless of the mud everywhere in the streets; harassed mothers of unruly offspring, scandalising their neighbours with excessive spirits and noise. And then there are the invalids: propelled by companions or family, intent upon the salvation of lives overburdened merely with living. In Bath, these are legion; in Cheltenham, more common still. Novelty will always draw those hopeful of cure. Had I not traveled three days in pursuit of it myself?
“Do observe, Jane,” Cassandra whispered as she slipped her hand through my arm and drew me away from the teacups we had drained at one side of the Long Room.
“Such a pretty creature, and so young, too, to be wheeled in a Bath chair!” She was attempting not to stare openly at an interesting young lady, whose sweetness of countenance and modest air must draw every eye. Flawless skin, tho’ too wan and pallid; shadowed eyes of cornflower blue; guinea-gold curls trailing from a deliciously upturned poke bonnet, a frail figure handsomely gowned—and yet all confined to the basket-chair of an invalid’s conveyance. There was a thinness, a languor, that spoke of suffering gallantly borne. Such a picture, eloquent of Divine gifts and burdens equally bestowed, must inspire the most sympathetic concern! Little ripples of notice followed the lady’s progress down the room. Heads turned, and were as swiftly averted. I guessed her to be in the middle-twenties. Her companion, a dark-haired, sober lady in dull grey, propelled the chair with devoted attention, indifferent to the impertinences of strangers. An elder relation, perhaps?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written twenty-five books, including five novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-Season, Death in Rough Water, Death in a Mood Indigo, Death in a Cold Hard Light, and Death on Nantucket) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the penname, Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.