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Authors: Charles O'Brien

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BOOK: Deadly Descent
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He paused for a moment, then consented. It began to dawn on him that he and the girl were becoming partners. He wasn't sure what Pauline would make of it.

Annie went first off the platform, staring straight ahead, body erect. The muscles of her back tightened, working against the weight of the pole. She glided without a misstep to the opposite platform and threw the pole aside. With a squeak of delight she swung around, smiling ecstatically. Her face glistened with sweat.

Suddenly, the vision vanished. “Damn! Today's August ninth! Her birthday's next week!” Antoine struck his forehead a glancing blow. “I'll write to her now.” He closed the case, caressing it with the tips of his fingers, and replaced it in his coat pocket.

From a drawer in the table he retrieved the small box of writing paper he stored there. He drew out a sheet and stared at its blank surface. Slowly a feeling of great loss swept over him. How he missed her! He cupped his head in his hands, closed his eyes. Felt pain, felt despair.

Eventually, he straightened, reached out for the pen, dated the paper, and wrote a few lines. Annie seemed so near and yet so far away. A wave of fatigue buffeted him. He was tired and hungry. The pen faltered. He laid it in the ink stand, tucked the letter into the box. He would finish it later.

He drew a fresh sheet of paper from the drawer and initialed it in case the directeur wanted to dictate a new passage for the play. He was usually in such a hurry, so impatient. Antoine bent over the sheet, conjuring up the image of Chevalier de Pressigny. Spoiled, arrogant pup! What on earth could he and Lélia be doing downstairs? In the next moment, he thought he heard footsteps in the hallway. He called out, “Lélia?”

Chapter 2

Sadler's Wells, September 1785

A brisk roll of drums, a piping of flutes thrust through the still, warm air. At Sadler's Wells Theatre in Islington, a few miles north of London, the last act of the evening variety show was about to begin. Anne Cartier, a tall woman in a wide-sleeved, loose, silver costume, climbed to a high platform at the rear of the stage. A wire stretched out tightly before her. For the past half-hour she had amused a large, noisy audience with cartwheels, a slack-rope dance, and acrobatic stunts. Now she squared her shoulders back and stood poised. Her smile tensed. Beyond the footlights, rows of upturned faces stirred with nervous anticipation. She called for the finale. A hush came over the house.

From the orchestra, the trumpeter blew a rousing fanfare. Anne strolled regally back and forth on her wire, singing
Rule Britannia
. Her outstretched arms, like slender silken wings, beat a brisk cadence. The audience surged to their feet, faces flushed with patriotic fervor and strong British ale. Two hundred voices joined in pledging: “…Britons never, never, never will be slaves.”

On the last note she saluted, feigned a fall, and back flipped to the stage, landing gracefully on her feet. She bowed deeply. Throwing kisses to her audience, she skipped nimbly from the stage. Loud applause followed her into the wings.

She pulled off her cap, shook loose her thick blond hair, and wove through a crowd of workers in a narrow corridor. At the open door of the women's dressing room she heard loud male voices. Not again! she thought, her jaw clenching in anger. Forcing her way into the room, she saw a fleshy young man in a red waistcoat and tight tan breeches, tearing at the costume of a frightened young dancer, Harriet Ware. A pair of his toadies held the girl by her arms. The other women huddled in a corner at the far end of the room.

Only a month ago Anne had persuaded Mr. Wroughton, the theater manager, to stop the intruders from coming backstage seeking partners for the night. The men gathered instead near the stagedoor after the show, like mongrel dogs lurking behind a butcher's shop. But here they were, inside again.

“Where's the manager?” she asked the stagehands clustered by the door.

“Out with the rest of the company,” one of them replied. “At the White Lion, I think. Won't be back for half an hour.”

Now she remembered. He'd said she was to join them after her act. She glared at the men. “Help me get that red bastard out of here.”

The men shrank back. Jack Roach, the “red bastard,” was feckless and clumsy, but when someone crossed him, he always got even.

“Cowards! I'll do it myself.” Anne shoved the men aside, picked up an empty chamber pot and swung it with all her force at the bully's temple. For a second he stood stock-still, then fell to the floor like an unstrung marionette.

“Take him away,” she shouted to the astonished toadies. In fumbling haste they dragged their fallen leader from the field of battle. The dressing room door slammed shut at his heels.

“Thanks, Miss Cartier,” murmured Roach's victim, pale with shock.

Anne put an arm around the young woman's shoulder and led her to a chair. “You'll be all right, Harriet, in a few minutes.”

The dancer looked up at Anne with alarm. “Roach might cause trouble for you.”

Anne shrugged. “That can't be helped.” She took the woman by the hand and met her eye. “We shall not let him treat us like whores.”

The dancer took a deep breath, then smiled. “No, we shall not.”

***

Monday evening, September 26th, the doors of Sadler's Wells slammed shut marking the end of the theater season for the year. Outside, Anne Cartier waved to the departing custodian, then gazed fondly at the plain brick building that had been her home for the past three summers. A helter-skelter of images swept through her mind. The dancing dogs. Hercules, the Amazing Strong Man. Tumbling by Matthew, the English Mercury. Lovely Maria's sweet Italian ballads. Anne sighed with nostalgia. Decent, honest people, her friends. She would miss their exuberance, their daring, their generous encouragement. Now they would scatter to London, to Bath, or wherever they could find employment, probably to return to Sadler's Wells on Easter Monday next year for another summer season.

She drew on her cloak. Her life was about to take a new turn. She might not come back here next summer. At least not to dance, or sing, or walk the tight wire. Still, she might see her friends again, but from one of the three-shilling boxes rather than from the wings. Between acts she'd join them for drinks in the garden alongside the theater.

The sound of voices broke into her musing. She turned around. Four persons, faces shadowed, were standing at the edge of the road, involved in a lively discussion. One of them hailed her. “Annie! It's only eleven. The night's young. Join us!”

Anne recognized the voice: Harriet Ware, the young dancer she had saved three weeks earlier from the clutches of Jack Roach. The two women had become good friends. Drawing closer, Anne recognized the others: Louis Fortier, the gentle French strong man, billed as Hercules, who bent iron bars like willow branches; Paulo Napolitano, the Italian high-wire clown; and his wife, the singer Maria.

“Right!” Anne replied. “Let's all celebrate.” She twirled her walking stick, then pointed it at Myddelton's Head, the tavern at the end of the street.

Patrons of the theater had filled the inn to overflowing. The noise drove Anne and her friends to an upstairs room overlooking a courtyard. It was a cozy space enclosed by a lightly embossed stuccoed ceiling and linen-fold panelling. A low fire in the stone hearth dispelled the chill of the late September air.

The friends settled around a thick oak table, sharing a bottle of wine. Someone asked Anne if she would move from her cottage now that the summer season was over. She shrugged her shoulders. “I'd like to stay there—it's convenient. My horse has a stall and a pasture in the back lot.”

Paulo slipped into his clown's role, grimacing broadly. “You live alone with a horse, Annie? That's no life for a beautiful woman.” He threw up his arms in mock anguish. “Find a boyfriend, get married, have
bambini.
” He squeezed his wife, Maria, sitting next to him, then nodded to Louis Fortier. “Our Hercules here is just the man for you.”

The giant turned beet red in the face, stared silently into his glass. Everyone knew he was fond of Anne but grew tongue-tied in her presence. Shy with women, he resembled the mythical Greek hero only in his strength. Fortunately, among friends he was good-humored. Screwing up a fierce frown, he muttered, “Someday, Paulo, I shall break you like a twig.”

The slender Italian laughed. “A duel! David and Goliath at dawn on the high wire.”

While they bantered, Anne glanced at Maria. She had smiled, her eyes bright, as her husband squeezed her. But when he turned his attention away, her face settled into a mask. Thin lines of sadness creased the corners of her mouth and eyes. Anne knew why. She had nursed Maria through a difficult pregnancy, followed by a painful depression. Watching this woman suffer reinforced an attitude that had grown in Anne as an adult. She enjoyed children, but the thought of giving birth to one brought up unbidden anxieties. They could be mastered, she knew, like the fear of falling from the high wire, but she would make the effort only for a very good reason.

Unlike most women, she would enter into marriage and have children only on her own terms. She was legally free. No brother, uncle, or father could force her to take a husband. She lived on her salary and on income from a trust fund. She didn't need any man's money. Furthermore, she enjoyed what she was doing and the friendships that came her way. She could afford to wait for the right man.

Maria's eyes met hers in a searching gaze. Anne started. Maria smiled, as if discerning the thoughts Paulo had prompted. Anne asked herself, was she missing something? A vague, floating distress troubled her. She had witnessed the caresses, the gentle teasing, the close attention between her mother and her stepfather Antoine. Their love carried them through hardships, drew them out of loneliness. Anne glanced sideways at Harriet sitting next to her. The young woman had recently begun to blossom. A blush shone on her cheeks, a certain light in her eyes. A young man had come into her life.

Harriet met her glance, leaned toward her, and whispered, “Why don't you take a lover?”

“For one thing…,” Anne broke off for a moment, then continued softly, “the men who have offered themselves thus far seem keener on their own pleasure than on mine.” She could have added that she'd learned from her mother to tie love to marriage. Now it was hard to separate them.

The two men, becoming aware the women were not paying attention to them, stopped their banter. Harriet seized the opportunity to mention Jack Roach—he had been seen gambling heavily. No one knew for certain where his money came from. Harriet had heard he bought smuggled goods on the West Country coast and sold them in London.

Anne chuckled, “If he tries to fence a chamber pot, he'll think of me.”

Harriet glanced nervously at her friend. “Annie, be careful. Roach is vicious.”

Anne patted Harriet's hand. “Thanks for the warning, I can handle him.” She paused, staring into her glass. “I'm also thinking of another line of work. When I begin swinging chamber pots, it's time for a change.”

“You started out with your father, didn't you. I heard you were partners.”

“Stepfather, really. But you're right. I call him father. My real father, Henri, died in a hunting accident when I was a baby. My grandparents say I take after him, their only child.” Anne looked inward, wistfully recalling his image in a portrait. A tall blond young man in riding clothes. She let the image slip away, then turned again to Harriet. “So, I'm fortunate to have had Antoine raise me. A sunny, cheerful man. Kind and encouraging. He trained me as a child on the rope and the wire, while my mother taught me puppetry and to sing and dance. At ten, I joined Antoine on the slack rope. By thirteen, I was in his tumbling act and learning his other tricks.”

Anne's mind drifted back ten years. For a few moments she was on stage again at the Vauxhall in London, precariously balanced in a handstand on his upraised arms. He had winked at her, then smiled broadly. As the vision faded, Anne grew pensive. “Antoine moved to Paris a few years ago. At the time, I thought I might enjoy working alone. And I have, most of the time. But I miss him. We still keep in touch. He always sends a greeting on my birthday in August, except this year he seems to have forgotten.”

Leaving her glass on the table, she walked to the window and stared out into the murk of the night. She was silent for a few moments, then sighed. Harriet joined her and put a hand on her shoulder. “His note may have been lost in the mail,” she said brightly. “It might still turn up.”

Anne thanked her with a wan smile. “I'm wondering if he's all right. I don't think he's very happy in Paris.”

They returned to the table where their friends were signing one another's playbills from the last performance. Harriet picked one up. “Mademoiselle Cartier, the famous slack-rope artist from Paris,” read Harriet aloud. She glanced quizzically at Anne. “How French are you?”

Anne laughed. “French enough, I guess! And I've been to Paris.” She explained that the manager had invented the title, thinking it would add a touch of distinction to her act. She was born in England, as were her parents. Her Protestant grandparents had fled from persecution in Normandy. At home she had spoken French as well as English. “And when I was young,” she said, fingering her glass fondly, “I spent summers in France with my mother and Antoine acting in the garden theater of a noble family.”

When everyone had signed the playbills, a cry went up for a second bottle of wine.

“It's on me,” Anne said buoyantly. “I've just found new employment.” She shook her mane of hair, letting it fall over her shoulders like a stream of gold in the soft candlelight. Her friends filled their glasses and gathered around her, drinking to her good fortune.

“Who are you going to work for?” Harriet asked.

“Mr. Braidwood, an elderly Scot, who recently moved his school for the deaf from Edinburgh to Hackney, about a mile east of here. I'm helping teach deaf children to speak. He's been training me in some of his techniques—the simple ones at first.”

“He's much respected. You are fortunate.”

Anne was surprised. “Have you heard of him?”

“I've met him—my parents live in Hackney.” She hesitated before continuing. “I'm frankly amazed he'd hire anyone outside his family. He keeps his techniques to himself and his son.”

“That's true. But I've promised not to steal his secrets and open up a rival school. He wants me to tutor his younger students when they are sick or away from the school, so they don't become discouraged or lose their speaking skills.”

“But why would you want to leave the theater for
that
kind of work?”

“I've been thinking hard about it.” She fell silent for a few moments, absently swirling the wine in her glass. “After almost twenty years of theater, I feel a need to do something different and worthwhile. Not just entertain people, but help better their lives.” A note of self-doubt crept into her voice. She glanced at her friend. “I'm not sure I've said this as well as I'd wish.”

“Don't worry! As an actress, you've learned how to delight people. You'll be an excellent teacher.”

Anne shrugged her shoulders. “At least I want to try.” She paused. “I enjoy puppetry with children, especially Braidwood's pupils. Two of them, Benjamin and Sarah Brown, have attached themselves to me, watching my lips like a pair of cats staring at a canary. They can speak a little already, and every word they learn gives them pleasure. I'll soon have them taking simple parts in a play.”

BOOK: Deadly Descent
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