– The Christmas Ball at The Blackley’s
The following week, when we did our reconnaissance on the day before the ball, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Blackley’s mansion was huge, towering four floors over the gardens below. There had to be a hundred rooms, maybe more, in this house. I trembled at the thought of the number of guests in attendance.
What’s more, there was snow in the air. London, Deanna informed me, seldom sees much more than a dusting of the white stuff, but the New Englander in me knows when a storm is coming.
If it does snow, even if it is a dusting, it will add a new dimension to my ‘Lady Mysterious’ appearance. When I leave the ballroom, the gentlemen who choose to pursue me will note the snowfall and expect to find footprints to follow. I can almost hear them telling each other, ‘Ah-ha. She can’t get away this time.’
I smiled. Sorry, gentlemen, no footprints.
The next night, we stood in the darkness outside the ballroom which, like everything else here, was enormous. Most of the waiters and guests were staying well away from the vast wall of windows, probably because of the cold. Everyone was congregating around the big fireplaces on the opposite wall.
Snowflakes were visible in the air, blowing in every direction.
“Look!” Deanna whispered, pointing. Everyone’s attention had suddenly turned to the footmen opening the big doors leading to the foyer. Moments later, several dozen people, led by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and flanked by, according to Deanna, Lord and Lady Blackley strode into the room.
We looked at each other. Without a word, we returned to my room.
“We’ll wait here for the excitement of the queen’s arrival to subside, but not too long or she’ll have departed.”
“You can’t be serious. You’re going to turn ‘Lady Mysterious’ loose in the ballroom with the queen and prince there?” Deanna looked exasperated.
“Why not? It’s actually a stroke of luck … pure genius. A room full of people can say I was there but many won’t believe them, especially tonight when there won’t be any footprints to follow. But, if Queen Victoria sees me, then I was there.”
“But, there are many more people there now, including the royal guards. That puts a different face on what you’re doing. What will you do if you’re challenged?”
“Why would they? I’m a woman, alone, unarmed, nowhere near anyone, and an enigma. Of course, they want to know more about me, especially who I am, but why would they want to harm me? I’m not a threat to anyone.”
“Ugh,” Deanna nearly shouted in frustration. “They don’t know you’re not a threat. Can’t you see how dangerous this is?” She started pacing, hands clenched at her side.
“I’ll stay closer to the door, and I’ll keep an eye on the guards. It’s too bad, because I’d intended to focus on Lord Hastings.”
She stopped pacing, incredulous. “You’re really scaring me.”
I waved aside her worries. “It’s time to return to the ball.” I wasn’t letting this opportunity slip away.
In a heartbeat, we were outside the ballroom again. I’d scanned the area before we materialized, but saw no one anywhere near this side of the house. Through the window, I searched for the guards, armed or otherwise, but saw none.
“No guards. They must be outside the ballroom and around the front of the house.”
Deanna looked relieved, but still not happy.
“Don’t leave too many footprints. We don’t want them to realize there are two of us.”
I untied the winter cloak, and let it slide from my shoulders. Deanna caught it. Opening the door, I slipped inside, hiding in a jungle of potted trees and shrubs. Using them as shields, I moved as far from the door as possible. When I could go no further, I stepped into the light and stood motionless, waiting for them to see me.
The queen, with her prince at her side, had taken a seat of honor near one of the fireplaces and were talking with a number of the guests.
From where I stood, I could see several copies of my gown, though none was so brazen as to use gold material. In a flash of insight, I realized why. Since my identity was unknown, if any woman appeared wearing a gold gown, she’d be a suspect, particularly if I didn’t attend that ball. I smiled. They wanted to look like me, but not be me.
Suddenly, a woman stood up and pointed my way, exclaiming, “Oh my goodness!” All conversation ceased as all eyes turned to her, then turned toward me. No one moved. The roar of the fires in the big fireplaces was the only sound in the room.
I started to glide toward the guests, searching for Lord Hastings. There … standing with one foot on the hearth of the closest fireplace, chatting with one of the purchased women. When he saw me, he watched me for a moment, then, excusing himself, left his companion and started walking toward me, smiling. I continued my circuit around the room, staying a safe distance from the guests. About half way across the floor, Lord Hastings, his eyes sparkling in the candlelight, stopped and watched me. I, on the other hand, had reason for concern. To make another circuit around the room, I’d have to pass between Lord Hastings and the rest of the guests.
His decision apparent, he resumed walking in my direction. His pace was closing the distance between us faster than I’d projected. Without being obvious, I changed my trajectory and angled toward the door, legthening my stride a bit. The sound of his heels clicking on the marble floor was getting closer. To make good our escape, I needed to get to the door a second or two before he did, but I didn’t want to start running, exposing my growing fear.
Which one of us would get there first?
As I approached, the door opened slightly. I reached through, touched Deanna, and we disappeared in a flash of blue. I took us a short ways into a wooded area not far from the house. There, with my heart pounding and my breath coming in gasps, I put on the winter cloak and removed the veil.
If Lord Hastings had stretched his arm a little, he might have been able to touch me. I’m sure he was confident he could catch me. He almost did.
I had to wonder what he saw when I vanished. I don’t think he saw Deanna. If he blinked at just the right moment, it’s possible I was in front of him before and gone afterward, but if he saw me disappear ….
To Deanna, I said, “Come, let’s find a safe place where we can watch.” I looked around for a good vantage point.
“Adelle,” She hissed, her hand gripping my arm. “Back to your room, now.”
I shook my head, and touched her. Almost instantly, we were on a fourth floor balcony outside a dark room directly above the ballroom. With our dark cloaks, the vines on the building, and darkness of the night, we couldn’t be visible from the ground. The searchers wouldn’t be looking this high, in any event. Staying out of sight, we watched as the men, including the royal guards, and Blackley staff, looked for the footprints they’d never find, while leaving a multitude of their own.
When they found no trace of me, they called off the search. It had stopped snowing, but the temperature had dropped noticeably.
Deanna and I returned to my room, and headed straight for the fireplace. The winter cloak was warm, but I was wearing lightweight clothing under it. The cold had found its way beneath the cloak, leaving me chilled and shivering.
“Adelle,” Deanna said as she added wood to the fire, “what if Lord Hastings had touched you at the same time you touched me and we went into the woods? Would he have come with us?”
For a moment, I was speechless. “Yes,” I admitted, with a sinking feeling. I hadn’t thought of someone getting close enough to travel with us unintentionally.
“And if he’d come with us, what would have happened then?” She saw she had me, at least for the moment.
“I have no idea.” I thought for a moment, trying to imagine the situation. “Does he know you?”
“We met years ago. I was still in school; I doubt he’d remember me.”
“I think we’d be all right. He’d be thrown off guard so we’d probably be able to elude him before he realized what happened.”
She said nothing.
“What’s wrong? Oh, I know. No, I didn’t forget. Do you want to go home tonight, or wait until morning?”
“I’ll wait. I’m sure everyone’s asleep by now and I wouldn’t want to wake them. But, that’s not my concern.”
“So, what’s wrong?”
“Tonight was a close call. You have to admit it. Do you really want to keep doing this? Lord Hastings showed the other men you’re human, not some specter, or being, so, next time, other men will do what he did tonight. As a group, they’ll corner you and you’ll lose everything.”
“You don’t know that. I didn’t spend a year planning this to make two appearances and quit. Why don’t we wait and see what, if anything, the newspaper says in the morning before we do anything. The next appearance of ‘Lady Mysterious’ isn’t until the Carmichael’s ball on January thirteenth, so we’ve got time to think this out, maybe make some changes, and make it safer for both of us. So, let’s get some sleep and see what tomorrow brings.”
My sleep was disturbed. I was running from Lord Hastings. I managed to stay ahead of him, but not by much. Then, there was a door. I ran through it, and slammed it behind me. To prevent his entering, I shoved a straight-backed chair under the latch. He started pounding on the door, calling my name. Pounding, ‘Adelle’, pounding, ‘Adelle’ …
“Miss Adelle. Miss Adelle.” Gloria called while knocking stridently. I fought my way through layers of sleep. When I opened my eyes, it was full daylight, much later than I thought.
“Gloria, come in,” I called out. The door burst open and she ran into the room, waving the newspaper.
Awake in an instant, I jumped from the bed and pulled a robe on over my nightgown.
“You’ll want to see this.” She smiled as she opened the paper to the society page, handed it to me, then crossed the room to add wood to the fire. When she finished, she left the room.
Across the top of the page in big, bold letters was the headline, QUEEN VICTORIA SEES ‘LADY MYSTERIOUS.’ The article gave the details of the ball, the arrival of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and then the entrance of ‘Lady Mysterious’.
The article went on to say: ‘The male guests, led by Lord Donovan Hastings …’ Hmm. I hadn’t noticed any other men involved … ‘advanced on the lady and came close to capturing her. At the last second, however, the lady eluded Lord Hastings by escaping into the gardens where she disappeared without a trace, confounding the searchers. Dozens of men, including the royal guards, combed the gardens and surrounding area but to no avail. Strangely, the fresh snow should have revealed the lady’s footprints but the searchers found none. Her Majesty, delighted by this unexpected diversion, called a brief meeting after no trace of ‘Lady Mysterious’ was found. She knew this was the second sighting of the lady, and no one knew anything about her, including when or where she would appear next. At her urging, those present agreed, the lady was no threat to anyone, and that her appearances were some sort of prank, so the queen decreed no action was to be taken against her. She suggested that if the lady didn’t feel threatened, she might reveal something of herself … and the mystery would be solved. For now, however, the questions remain. Who was she? Where had she come from? Where had she gone?’
I was dumbfounded. The queen had come to my rescue again, even not knowing who she was rescuing. I had to show this to Deanna.
Wait a minute. I looked around. Where was she?
I picked up the newspaper, went across the hall, and knocked. She opened the door. One look and I knew she’d been crying.
“What’s wrong?” Looking past her, I saw she was packing her trunks. “You’re taking a lot home with you for your holiday.”
Then, I realized she wasn’t planning to come back. “Oh, no. You can’t leave like this.”
“Why not?” she insisted. “I can’t take this anymore. It’s too dangerous, and it doesn’t make any sense. I never know when we leave here if we’ll be coming back or if we’ll end up in prison or worse. I can’t—”
“Oh, my dear friend.” I hugged her as she cried. “Everything’s changed. Look.” I opened the newspaper to the article and, pointing, handed it to her.
She stopped crying and wiped her eyes. When she finished reading, she looked at me, puzzled. “I don’t understand. No one can do anything to you now?”
“That’s right. We’re just a diversion … a ‘prank,’ to quote the queen. If I’m reading it right, it seems I can come and go as I please. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, though. Everyone will still want to know who I am, so the men will still want to detain and identify me. But no one would dare harm me, or risk the Queen’s wrath.”
Deanna was visibly relieved, but said nothing.
“So, you’ll stay?”
“I don’t know. I need to think about it. For now, though, I’ll leave my things here, and we’ll talk when I come back.”
I smiled, knowing she’d stay. The pressure was off. The reasons for her concerns had vanished. There was nothing to fear. “Can I take you home?”
“Thank you, but no. I’ll use conventional transportation. I’ll have time to think before I have to be the happy-go-lucky daughter and sister with the great companion position.” She smiled.
“I’ll be leaving for a holiday week at home later today. I’ll be back on New Year’s Day.”
“As Adelle … or ‘Lady Mysterious’?”
I didn’t know.