Petty Treason: A Sarah Tolerance Mystery

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9780765304001: Petty Treason: A Sarah Tolerance Mystery
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman
of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.

Miss Sarah Tolerance refuses to follow the path of the Fallen Women who have gone before her. She's a straight shooter, with her pistol as well as her wit, and her mind is as sharp as the blade of her sword.

Miss Tolerance is an Agent of Inquiry, a private investigator of sorts--the sole one of her kind in London, in this year of 1810 with mad King George III on the throne and Queen Charlotte acting as his Regent. Her aim was to trace lost trinkets, send wastrel husbands back to their wives, and occasionally provide protection to persons with more money than sense--but she is continually drawn into the plots of others.

Her newest case poses a puzzle unlike any she has faced before: who killed the Chevalier d'Aubigny? The French émigré was beaten to death in his own bed, found by his retainers the next morning, all the doors and windows of the house sealed tight. The murder is a classic locked-room mystery, but Miss Tolerance knows she can find the key.

As Miss Tolerance examines the situation and interviews witnesses and suspects, she realizes things are far more complicated than she originally suspected--for the Chevalier had more enemies than he had friends, and Miss Tolerance is hard pressed to find someone who didn't wish him dead. Her search for his killer takes her from the lowest brothels of the seedy London underworld, where men go to indulge their more aggressive desires, to the Royal Family and a Duke who must hide his perversions or risk the Throne.

Welcome to Miss Tolerance's Regency London, where nothing is what it seems and the only way to serve justice is to follow conscience rather than law.

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About the Author:

Madeleine E. Robins is certified as an actor combatant in rapier, quarterstaff, broadsword, and hand-to-hand fighting, and was a member of a troupe of actors who perform Shakespeare scenes with combat for high schools and Renaissance festivals.

Madeleine is a New Yorker by birth, training, and inclination, but recently relocated to San Francisco, where she now lives with her husband (Emmy Award-winning sound editor Danny Caccavo), and their two daughters. She authored the New York Times Notable Book The Stone War, several Regency romances, and many short stories. Petty Treason is her second novel to feature Miss Sarah Tolerance, Agent of Inquiry.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Petty Treason
OneIt is one thing, and a quite considerable thing, to be a lady. A true lady is a person of virtue and beauty, of accomplishment and talent, of gentle birth and rigorous upbringing. She inspires love in her suitors and obedience in her servants, and knows how to hold housekeeping and bully the butcher and chandler so cleverly that those persons feel it their privilege to serve her. The suggestion of strife oppresses her, and her pleasures are the mildest and most delicate. Her honor is a possession prized above rubies, and even the gentlest breath of scandal damages it forever. If adventure offers itself she understands that her reputation is at stake, and wisely settles for tedium. Or so the theory goes.A gentleman, however, is not contained by prudishness. His sex licenses him, even encourages him, to seek out adventure and prove himself. There is no woman too low, no bottle too deep, no horse too fast or play too high, but there are gentlemen willing to swive, drink, race or wager. It is customary for a young man to prowl the fleshpots of London before he marries, to exercise his appetites to the fullest and slake them so that he does not appall the sensibilities of the Fair Flower he ultimately takes to wife. And for most gentlemen that is exactly what happens: each finds his favored dissipation--the bottle, the bootmaker, the bookmaker orthe brothel--and falls violently in love for a time. And the passion runs its course and the young man is then suited for matrimony. Or so the theory goes.But there are some gentlemen who find that giving rein to their desires only leads to the increase of those desires; and a man who lives for pleasure, and for the pleasure of being more debauched, more drunken, more spendthrift, more heedless, than his peers, is called a Rake. Young men with more money than sense who aspire to something higher than mere Fashion strive to be as thoughtless and wasteful as they may, ruining themselves pell-mell at drink, venery and gaming. But the true Rake has something more of imagination than of spendthrift waste, and his motto might well be "Because I wish it." Many Rakes combine considerable address and genuine thoughtfulness for the welfare of their tenants and aged parents, but it is also true that where the gratification of their wishes is concerned, they can be merciless. To be that man or woman who stands between a Rake and his desire--or as likely, comprises that desire--is not an enviable thing.Of course, as in every other field of human endeavor, some men have more natural talent as Rakes than others. For every true Rake in London in the year 1810 there were likely a dozen pretenders to the title. The Dueling Notices in the weekly Gazette were peopled with those wounded or killed in pursuit, either of vice or honor. Spunging houses and debtor's prisons were likewise occupied by those who had been stripped of their fortunes by improvident congress with Rakes. As for women--those of both high and low estate were accosted with such regularity that it is surprising there were half the number of respectable females remaining in the nation. And the alleys and corners of gin-shops and taverns were lined with young inebriates whose ambitions outmatched their tolerance for drink.Thus, Mr. Maurice Waldegreen, who was very drunk."Good God, I'm foxed!" he said thickly. "Cup-shot. Drunk as David's sow. No, drunker!" He giggled. "Drunk as ... drunk as what?""A hippogriff?" his companion suggested politely. They had only met that evening, but Mr. Waldegreen clearly regarded brevity of acquaintance as no bar to friendship. His arm flungheavily across his new friend's neck, he leaned down until their faces were but a few inches apart. His breath was very foul."What's a hippogriff?" he inquired, his head weaving back and forth."Perhaps I meant hippopotamus?" his friend suggested, shrugging to shift the weight of Mr. Waldegreen's arm from collar to shoulder.Mr. Waldegreen considered, tilting his head. Alas, as slight as this motion was, it overset him. Mr. Waldegreen stumbled, falling forward until he encountered, with every evidence of surprise, a wall of grimy brick. They had emerged only a moment before from a wine-shop into the icy November night, but the chill was not exercising a sobering effect on Mr. Waldegreen."Drunk as a hippogriff!" he announced, and groped his way down the wall until he was sitting in the mud and cobbles. His coat, which must have recently been clean and well tended, was wrinkled and dirty. His neckcloth had come untied and was stippled with wine, demonstrating that Mr. Waldegreen was not one of those dandies for whom elegance was a bar to dissipation. He leaned back against the wall and squinted up at his new friend. "Damn, what are you doing all the way up there?""Wondering where my hackney coach is." Relieved of Mr. Waldegreen's weight, his companion stepped back a pace and straightened the collar of her coat.A careful observer--of whom there were none at that moment--would have discerned despite the darkness and her garb--breeches, boots, neatly tied neckcloth and a long, caped greatcoat from the Belgian tailor Gunnard--that Mr. Waldegreen's companion was young, female, and quite handsome. But Miss Sarah Tolerance had discovered that most people saw what they expected to see unless the truth of her sex was forced upon them. In more than three hours spent at Mr. Waldegreen's side, he had not focused his gaze upon her long enough to uncover her imposture. If their neighbors at the wine-shop they had just left had discerned her sex, none had seen fit to mention it. Miss Tolerance looked down at Waldegreen with amusement. "Are you comfortable, sir?""Aye, Frenchy, fine as frog hair," Mr. Waldegreen said. "Just aslight case of barrel fever is all. Don't know how, though. My father always said it wasn't possible to get drunk on Bordeaux--""Your father perhaps never encountered Bordeaux that bad. And of course, much is possible to a man of dedicated purpose."Waldegreen snickered. "Dedicated purpose! Z'all clear to me! My father never 'preciated my dedi-dedi--" he belched loudly. "My dedi-cated purpose! Always wearing on about--" He belched again and took his head in his hands, as if all the less pleasant aspects of his condition had suddenly threatened to visit themselves upon him.Miss Tolerance regarded him with a mixture of sympathy and impatience."How am I to get you home," she muttered. It had been a long night, she had necessarily drunk enough wine to pretend to keep pace with Waldegreen, and the thought of now having to raise the man's unreliable person to its feet and move him along the alley to Fleet Street did not appeal to her. "If the hackney's gone, how the Devil am I going to find another in this neighborhood?"Mr. Waldegreen vomited. Miss Tolerance jumped nimbly to avoid being caught by the flow, and after a moment offered her handkerchief to the young man. He mumbled a thank you and mopped at his face. "Drunk as a hippogriff, Frenchy. How is it you're not?""A naturally more abstemious character, Mr. Waldegreen." She refused the return of the besmirched handkerchief, but added its cost to a mental reckoning.He shook his head. "Mustn't call me that. Poggy, that's what you call me. That's what everyone calls me. 'Cept milord father." Mr. Waldegreen was dearly descending into the morose stage of drunkenness. "Milord father don't call me at all if he can help it. A fierce disappointment I am to milord father. Dammit, m'mouth tastes like a stable. Haven't a sip of brandy, have you?"Miss Tolerance regretted that she did not. "I think perhaps I ought to go look out a hackney coach, Poggy," she said. "You'll have the Devil of a head tomorrow." She regarded her charge for a moment longer, then looked up and down the empty length of thealleyway. They were some paces away from the wine-shop in which she had found him, and its door was shut tight against the cold. In the chill post-midnight it was unlikely that Waldegreen would be troubled by idle passersby. She went down the lane to the corner of Fleet Street.Finding a hackney, even on this thoroughfare, proved to be as thankless a chore as she had expected. It was a full ten minutes before she reappeared at the corner with the bulk of a disreputable coach paused behind her on the street."All right, Poggy," she began. Then stopped, when she saw three men clustered around Mr. Waldegreen. Miss Tolerance prepared for the worst--pushing her coat aside to free the hilt of her smallsword--but spoke with unruffled politeness. "It's kind of you to concern yourselves, but my friend will recover when I get him home, gentlemen."The men turned to her, scowling. The man nearest Miss Tolerance appeared, by his attitude and appearance, to be the leader. He was short and extremely fat, his coat and breeches so tight that he gave the impression of being almost explosively compressed into his clothing. His several chins were forced up by the elaborate style of his neckcloth, and his face was shadowed by a small hat with a shallow, curled brim. The moon was not full, but there was some light from two torches flanking the door of the wine-shop from which Miss Tolerance and Mr. Waldegreen had lately emerged. She could see enough to know that the fat man meant her charge no good."Go away, boy." The fat man barely wasted a glance upon her. His voice was gravely, punctuated by audible wheezing. "This 'ere ain't none of your business."She stepped forward. "I'm afraid I cannot do that, sir. I promised my friend's father I'd see him safely home.""This 'ere ain't no business of yourn," the fat man said again. "Go 'ome."Miss Tolerance continued to advance upon the group. The fat man's confederates, she saw, were trying to raise Mr. Waldegreen to his feet without success. Mr. Waldegreen, now unconscious, had apparently achieved a state of leaden pliancy which was defeatingtheir efforts. The fat man tugged upon the shoulder of the tough nearest him."Bob, take the boy," he growled. "Sid, you get that one up now."Bob, taller than his master by a foot and well muscled, pivoted away from Mr. Waldegreen and reached for Miss Tolerance. His coat gaped open, displaying a brace of pistols tucked in his belt, but no sword. Miss Tolerance made a rapid decision that Bob should not be permitted to get either of the pistols into his hands; she stepped into the circle of the man's arm, grasped her sword, and by unsheathing it, drove the pommel up into Bob's jaw with considerable force.Bob fell like a stone, toppling onto the fat man."Sid!" The fat man disentangled himself from Bob and bent, wheezing, for the pistols in his hireling's belt. He was halted by the point of Miss Tolerance's sword, pressed into the folds of his neckcloth against the meaty flesh of his throat. The fat man straightened up, staring at her.At his master's call, Sid had dropped Mr. Waldegreen and turned, cudgel in hand."Don't try it!" Miss Tolerance cautioned the man. "I should dislike to get blood on your employer's linen."There was a moment of silent communication between the fat man and Sid, at the end of which Sid dropped the cudgel and stood still."I think it is time you left," Miss Tolerance said after a moment. "You needn't worry. If this gentleman cooperates he will come to no harm. You, sir, kindly dismiss your hound," she added for the fat man's benefit.Under the curly-brimmed hat she saw the fat man's eyes move from side to side, as if surveying his options. Miss Tolerance was forced to encourage him with the slight pressure of her sword against his throat."Go home, Sid," the man said at last, with no good grace. "Wait for me."Sid needed no encouragement. He turned and ran as his master watched, scowling after him."Yellowback coward." He turned his gaze to Miss Tolerance. "Who are you, boy?" the fat man growled. "There's no need for swords, you know. I just need a word or two with your mate here--make it worth your while.""No, sir, I really think not. My friend's in no case to speak with anyone, and his father, as I said, is already making it worth my while to see his son safe home."Miss Tolerance relaxed her arm somewhat, dropping her sword's point an inch or so from the man's throat. The fat man looked down at Bob, who lay across his master's boots, unmoving; clearly he would have no help from that quarter."Well," Miss Tolerance said. "We shall each of us have a chore getting our companions to their right places tonight. Unless you like to leave your minions littering the street?"Mr. Waldegreen, still on his back on the cobblestones, stirred and belched. Moving with remarkable speed, the fat man pushed Miss Tolerance's sword aside, reaching for the pistols in Bob's belt. Without hesitation Miss Tolerance grabbed for the man's neckcloth and pulled up and twisted, overbalancing the fat man so that he flipped beetle-like onto his back beside Mr. Waldegreen. She stood over him with her sword again touching his throat."Now, will you tell me what this word is that you were so eager to have with my friend? Perhaps I can assist you." Miss Tolerance's heart was pounding, but she managed a tone of polite command, rather like that of a governess.Evidently the fat man had never had a governess. Her tone did not encourage him to cooperate. He looked upward, studying Miss Tolerance's form with an expression of disbelief. "Christ," he said at last, a long slow hiss. "You're a female." His eyes bulged and his voice bespake revulsion. "What kind of unnatural bitch are you to parade about in man's clothes?""A Fallen Woman with a chore to do," Miss Tolerance said mildly. Her point remained where it was. "These clothes are far more convenient for my purpose than a muslin gown and kid slippers would be."The fat man shook his head. "Abomination, that's what it is. Whore! No, lower than a whore! Wearing men's clothes, fightinglike a man, standing the nat'ral order of things on its ear! And for the likes of him!""Do his likes make my dress worse, sir? I merely came to fetch him home from a several-days' absence and found you in the midst of what looked like a robbery. Or a kidnapping," Miss Tolerance suggested. "But--could it be that you are Mr. Haskett?" Her tone of polite surprise was not meant to convince.The fat man's eyes shifted from side to side, then down to the blade of the small sword in Miss Tolerance's hand. "I'm Haskett," the man said reluctantly. "What of it?""Then you are the gentleman who has been attempting to extort money from Lord Pethridge on his son's account.""Extort!" Haskett's eyes shifted back and forth agitatedly. "Not I! I'm the wronged one here," he protested. His tone became theatrically grieved and his speech finically genteel. "My family honor at stake! The virtue of a lady! You can't know the sort of man you are protecting!" Still lying on his back, Mr. Haskett twitched a tear into his eye."What melodrama, Mr. Haskett! As good as Drury Lane! I have, I think, a very good understanding of what sort of man poor Poggy is"--Miss Tolerance pushed gently at Waldegreen's foot with the toe of her boot. There was no response--"and I have as good a notion of what sort of man you are. I have been instructed to tell you that my client will not prefer charges or exact reprisal, providing you c...

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