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A woman's weapons

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“But my dear Admiral,” Lady Allendale exclaimed, looking up from her writing desk where she was busy arranging a seating-plan, “Pray what is that? You cannot possibly intend to wear that old rag tonight?"

“Why not?” Jane Roland retorted, nettled, hovering in the door. She had disturbed her ladyship to ask for a needle and thread, and ideally the help of one of her servants, to reattach a loose frill, not to expose herself to fashion critique. While she couldn’t deny that the ruffled silk robe hanging from her arm was a monstrosity, and dreaded the prospect of strangling herself into a corset, the thing was a hand-me-down of her mother’s after all, and had served on the handful of occasions that had called for feminine attire, so Jane had always avoided the tedium of being measured up for anything newer.

“Dearest,” Lady Allendale continued, scandalized, “You must know that these days, only a grandmother like me can be seen going around in stays and skirts like that! Surely you cannot wish to expose our cause to ridicule… we ought to find you something a little less dated.”

“I’m sure it will do just fine, the one evening,” Jane muttered, hesitant, “I thought it was just a few of your country friends.” But Lady Allendale had already risen and caught her by the arm to lead her inside her room. She cast a critical eye over Jane in her uniform coat and breeches.

“You are only slightly taller than Elizabeth,” this being her daughter-in-law, “and the cuts are loose enough this season… Pray excuse me a moment, don’t run away!”

Much as she would have liked to use the chance at escape, Jane knew she was quite dependent on her ladyship’s goodwill for surviving the evening ahead, so she stayed rooted, clutching her faded silk, and looked around the room. It spoke vividly of its inhabitant as a woman of culture and character, from the chinoiserie wallpaper to the tasteful writing-table, the bookshelf, the porcelain washstand. She peered at a frame that had some form of delicate needlework strung out on it, the very look of which made her eyes and fingers ache. She could darn a sock, in extremis, and perhaps reattach a button, although she liked to leave such things to her second lieutenant who had much more delicate fingers. Laurence had been rather good at mending, too, she thought, one of the few universally applicable skills the navy taught a man.

She startled when her hostess re-entered the room. Lady Allendale cast two white robes over the dressing-screen on the far side of the room and beckoned Jane to step behind it. “I think one of these should be a fit.”

Heaving a sigh, Jane obeyed, and walked behind the screen as one might to the noose.

“I think I may need some help,” she snapped, some ten minutes later, when she had thoroughly tangled herself in the calico. She had accidentally put it on back-to-front, and could not work out an easy way to remedy the situation. The cloth was so ridiculously flimsy that she feared ripping it as she tried to tug one of her arms out again. Lady Allendale stepped around the screen to rescue her, pulling the dress back up over her head, adjusting it, and lowering it again. “You’ve kept a handsome figure,” she observed, quite sincerely, as she tied the drawstring on Jane’s back. “You’ve only the one child, is that right?”

Jane nodded, nervously smoothening down the folds of the dress. She had to admit that compared to her mother’s corsetry, it was a lesser evil. If only it weren’t so damn transparent. She felt like she were going out in her nightgown. “My Emily, yes. To be frank, I had her because I needed an heir to the captaincy, although she has become very dear to me.”

“Quite sensible,” Lady Allendale said, “So she wasn’t… pray don’t understand me wrong… evil tongues might say…”

“An accident?” Jane laughed, for a moment quite forgetting her discomfort. “Oh, by no means. It is not as if… I mean… well…” she faltered, unable to find words that would not have sounded rude to Lady Allendale.

To her astonishment, Mary Laurence seemed to grasp her meaning immediately. “Oh, I know,” she said, rummaging through a casket on her dressing-table. “Stay in Bath for a season and you can learn all about it, in between the ballrooms and taking the waters … sponges, pessaries, vinegar washings… A word to you in strict confidence, I wasn’t entirely above resorting to them myself, at times, in the past… I had three healthy sons, and although my husband would never agree with me on this point, I could not see the sense in hazarding one confinement after another, when a woman has so many things to attend to in life. But tell that to my sapless daughter-in-law… she can’t think of a better way to spend her days than to bear one child after another.”

Jane was too taken aback to immediately reply. “I… most heartily agree,” she said, grinning to the dark corner of the room, when she had found her voice again.

“I thought you would, dear,” Lady Allendale said, using the element of surprise to place a string of pearls around her guest’s neck. “These should do… And you’ve never felt the temptation to marry, either?”

Jane shook her head. “Never."

This was a slight lie, but she’d as lief have put a bullet through her head as discussed that topic with Laurence’s mother. She had in fact been tempted, once, for an odd split-second, before her better sense had prevailed. She was not sure whether what she had felt for Laurence could pass as love – love in the sense her own mother had used the word, when she had read her sentimental novels and wept quietly. But there was no denying that she had respected him as a fellow officer and aviator, that she had enjoyed his conversation, his good manners, his slow, methodical lovemaking, the satisfaction of tracing the familiar battle-scars on his arms and back. But to marry? Jane snorted. A fine daughter-in-law she would have made; going on forty, a hopeless blunder at society events, a dragon to command, and no time to spare for the breeding aspect of life that was writ large over the echoing corridors of Wollaton Hall. Following a servant to her guest chamber that morning past endless lines of family portraits, Jane had been put in mind of a stable for breeding prize-horses. It didn’t immediately square up with Laurence’s mortification concerning all things physical, although, giving the matter some more thought, she could perceive how seeking any joy in procreation must seem absurd if you had all these thoroughbred gentlemen staring from the walls. Reaching this point, she abruptly checked her train of thought. She must stop thinking of Laurence; ruminating about his headless start and bitter betrayal did her no good. In her darkest hours, she even blamed herself for his folly, thinking of the myriad other ways in which the thing might have been arranged without hazarding the loss of Britain’s valuable Celestial.

Eyes ahead, old sod, she told herself. This evening, there was battle do be done over dinner.

Lady Allendale had gone to her dressing-table again, and when Jane followed her, belatedly and nervously clutching her skirt, she was opening the rose-painted lid of an enamelled tin. “Pray let me put some of this on your face. That scar-“

Jane stopped dead, recoiling the moment the eerily familiar scent from the tin wafted in her direction. Lead powder, bone-white and heavily overlaid with lily-of-the-valley to deaden the noxious smell of it. Her mother had used to keep a portion of the dreadful stuff close by her, hidden in a snuffbox, to cover over the bruises when her boorish first lieutenant, whom Jane deigned not think of as her father, had struck her again half-drunken, to be able to face her crew. “No,” she said, “I am sorry. I can’t bear it.”

Her mother’s only defiance had been to never marry the brute, no matter how hard he pressed her, his eyes on Excidium’s prize-money. She hadn’t relented, and had kept the good name of Roland pure. Jane’s hands trembled a little as she took the little box from Lady Allendale’s hands, shut the lid tightly and placed it back on the dresser with a thud.

Lady Allendale put a hand on her arm. “But my dear Jane. You don’t fear the lead in cannon balls or bullets, but you balk at a pinch of ceruse?”

Jane pressed her lips together. The smell of the powder still lingering about them, she had to muster all her powers of self-control not to seize it off the dresser again and throw it out of the window. Lady Allendale read her face and backed down. “Fine, pray don’t worry, I shan’t press you.”

She rang for her maidservant who was charged to fetch the coronet in its box, yet unopened, from Jane’s room. When the girl returned, Lady Allendale had already undone Jane’s braid and pinned up her hair on her head, which Jane endured meekly, grateful that the flowery tin remained shut. Finally, with an officious air, Lady Allendale tucked the coronet into place, and held up a mirror.

Jane’s first impulse was to turn around to look for the impostor who had to be sitting there, for surely that statuesque diademed woman could not be her. But as she stirred, so did the Pallas Athena in the looking-glass, turning her head to reveal a long scar running from her left eye to her jawbone and neck, cleverly shaded under a loose lock of hair, moulded, through some artistry of Lady Allendale’s, from a gruesome disfiguration into a mere ingredient to the opera character she had created. The sheerness of the dress and its low cut, girthed under the bust, seemed almost improper, but only just, because a woman of distinction like Lady Allendale knew exactly where to draw the line. Give me one of those silly laurel-sprigs, Jane thought, almost chuckling, and I will pass for that Greek creature on my medal.

The medal of the Nile hadn’t escaped Lady Allendale’s attention either, and she unpinned it from Jane’s coat.

“Delightful,” she exclaimed. “How did you win it?”

Jane told her.

“Excellent,” Lady Allendale said as she pinned the medal on Jane’s dress. “Countess Roland, the veteran of Aboukir and Shoeburyness. You will be the toast of the evening, I’m sure.”

Lady Allendale's calculation worked out admirably. By the time the clock struck eleven, and the last guests had climbed into their carriages, Jane blinked at a spread of visiting-cards, which her ladyship had laid out like battle prizes.

“I call that a resounding success,” Lady Allendale said, “You did excellently, my dear Jane. Your anecdotes will be the talk of Nottinghamshire for weeks, I am sure.”

Jane clutched her glass of port, feeling exhausted as if she had indeed come straight off the battlefield, her feet raw from the unfamiliar little slippers her hostess had lent her. She discreetly kicked them off under the table, and stretched her toes.

“They all want to meet you again, and were so very interested in your military work,” her hostess went on, “As soon as your London home is ready, and you have leave, we shall give a bigger dinner there, and I will invite my friends again, so we have some friendly faces to dilute out the splenetics, and you must do them the favour of appearing in your uniform. I promised it already.”

“I don’t think I have time for such a string of theatrical performances,” Jane muttered, although the thought of going back to trousers for their next endeavour, with Lady Allendale’s full approval, was a great relief. “How can I possibly thank you?” she said, picking up a few of the visiting-cards to inspect them more closely. A Lady Lincoln of Clumber Park had left her address, printed in gilt, and asked Jane to meet her four unmarried daughters, in case one of them might be a fit for the Corps. Jane grinned. She had accepted the cards out of politeness, but she sincerely doubted it could be possible to break gently-bred young ladies into the Corps. All her fellow female captains had been born and raised to the life.

She was suddenly conscious of Lady Allendale’s eyes on her. Mary Laurence looked abashed. “Well… there might indeed be something… if it can at all be arranged…

-

Jane stood in the morning mist for quite a while, studying her maps. When she had already given up the notion that Lady Allendale would indeed appear, she spotted her small, upright figure on the path that led to the clearing.

Excidium pricked up his head. Jane put a hand on his battle-scarred jaw. “There comes our guest, after all. Now, we do all as I told you yesterday, right?”

Excidium grumbled his assent.

“Good morning.” She looked Lady Allendale over, who was wearing a sober riding dress and sensible shoes, and nodded. “I think we should do without that hat,” she suggested, pointing at the lady’s bonnet, handing her a fur-lined flying cap instead. She showed Lady Allendale how to buckle the straps on the aviator’s harness. Finally, she pulled out a sword on its belt and offered it. “Your ladyship?”

“I am not sure…” Mary Laurence’s eyes darted nervously from the sword, to Jane’s gashed face, and back.

Jane grinned. “Don’t worry, it is only a dress sword.”

“Oh,” Lady Allendale said weakly, and offered no resistance as Jane belted it around her waist.

Jane stepped back, appraising her work, and saluted. “I shall act as your lieutenant. Are you ready to go aboard?”

Mary Laurence nodded. Her hands trembled a little as she clambered up, but apart from this, she gave no sign of discomfiture, and Jane couldn’t help being impressed by her mettle. She showed her hostess to the captain’s place, high up between the soaring shoulders, and helped her clip the carabiners in place. The longwing cocked his head around curiously, regarding his new rider with bright orange eyes. Lady Allendale met his gaze with a brave smile. “I should like to try a little flying,” she said, “Perhaps a little circuit around the borders of the estate, if you don’t mind?”

In reply, Excidium slowly rose to his haunches, experimentally stretched out his wings, then shook his body quite violently. Lady Allendale couldn’t suppress a small scream, throwing herself forwards to clutch at the harness. “What in the name of God is he doing?” she panted, casting an anxious look to Jane. But even before Jane could reply, Excidium swung his head round again. “All lies well, Captain Allendale. May we go?”

Lady Allendale stared at the grizzled bone-spurred face, her cheeks gone white. Behind her, Jane gave Excidium a disapproving look. This was quite against the plan. They had tested the fit of the harness before her ladyship arrived, as Jane wished to spare her any discomfort, but it was clear Excidium had his own mind about whom he tolerated as a commander. Lady Allendale, however, quickly recovered her countenance, and nodded. “If you please.”

And with a leap and a rustle of wings, they went aloft.

They caught a mild thermal draft and spiralled upwards towards the clouds, almost silently, while beneath them, the clearing, the trees, the stately home grew ever smaller. Jane glanced sidelong at Lady Allendale, but to her surprise, the old lady showed no signs of airsickness. Instead, she seemed captivated by the view of the countryside glowing below them in the morning haze, tinted purple and pink, while the first rays of the sun started to spread from the western horizon, catching in the river glistening underneath them like a band of molten gold.

“Oh, I’d never have imagined so majestic a sight,” Lady Allendale whispered, “It makes it easier to see why anyone would choose this life… Pardon me, the air is biting my eyes.” Her voice suddenly sounded choked, and she wiped at her face with her sleeve.

“Perhaps you would like to go lower, and try some faster circuits?” Jane suggested, not unkindly, although her ladyship’s tears made her uncomfortable.

Lady Allendale nodded. “Excidium,” she called out, “Pray turn around.” She still looked crestfallen.

A slight slant in one of the great wings, and they curved around and hovered lower, facing Wollaton Hall nestled in the shades.

“Madam, report of an enemy regiment, on yonder hill,” Jane said, offering Lady Allendale her looking-glass, and pointed at a collection of haybales on a meadowside.

Mary Laurence peered through the glass with interest. “Indeed,” she said and smiled a little, her eyes still reddened.

The next moment, Jane could barely believe her ears.

There was the hiss of a metal blade being brought out of the scabbard, and then Lady Allendale was leaning forward in the harness, putting a hand on the dragon’s neck, shouting, quite loudly: “Pray go as fast as you may, Excidium, don’t let them escape!”

She brandished the dress sword like a hussar in full attack. Excidium swooped and dived, spraying the haybales with corrosive acid that left them searing and smoking, the dragon’s claws almost scratching the ground. A heartbeat later, they were soaring skywards again, beating upwards and then levelling out into a majestic spiral as the massive blue-and-orange wings fanned out around them with a snap.

“Again!" Lady Allendale commanded, and Excidium tucked in his wings and plummeted, shoulders trembling with joy at the exercise, to launch another headlong attack at the haystack. They flew a good dozen attacks and in the necessary turning loops, Excidium displayed his parade skills, finding an appreciative partner in Lady Allendale who laughed out aloud at each new stomach-twisting aerial figure. When they finally steered away and back to the clearing, the pitiable haystack had taken all Mary Laurence’s wrath at the invaders, the war, her family’s tribulations, and all that remained was a smoking crater in the ground.

Lady Allendale disembarked with visible hesitancy. The colour had risen to her cheeks and her eyes glittered. She patted Excidium’s flank.

“Oh, I never thought it would be… so very enjoyable! Thank you so much, Lady Jane, that was one of the finest mornings I ever spent.”

Excidium lowered his head and gave her side a gentle nudge. “I hope you win a dragon of your own soon, Ma’am,” he said, quite earnestly. “I shall recommend you.”

Jane almost regretted having to leave her, but there was nothing to be done. They had their orders and time was pressing. A good deal of preparation was still to be done at the Dover covert before the formation set off for the Peninsula tomorrow. But after they had said their goodbye and taken to the air, beating towards the coast and its beacons in great sweeping strokes, she suddenly felt rather ashamed for her dismissive thoughts about ladies of polite upbringing. Thinking of the bundle of visiting cards tucked in her flying-coat and Lady Allendale riding her attack, she couldn’t suppress a smile.

She was rather looking forward to meeting the Miss Lincolns.