Reading Group Discussion Questions
The lamplight shone against the cobblestones, washing over the grime, adding a glow of warmth. Creating an illusion of beauty on a street that in the merciless light of day would show the scars and stains of countless carriage wheels, horse hooves, shoes, pattens, and boots. Much as stage lights could transform bare boards and canvas flats into a garden in Illyria or a castle in Denmark.
Simon Tanner turned up the collar of his greatcoat as a gust of wind, sharp with the bite of late November, cut down the street, followed by a hail of raindrops. His hand went to his chest. In his greatcoat pocket, he could feel the solidity of the package he carried, carefully wrapped in oilskin. Were it not for that tangible reminder, it would be difficult to believe it was real.
He’d hardly had a settled life. He’d grown up in Paris during the fervor of the French Revolution and the madness of the Reign of Terror. Here in England, his plays had more than once been closed by the Government Censor. He’d flirted with arrest for Radical activities. He and his lover risked arrest or worse by the very nature of their relationship. But Simon had never thought to touch something of this calibre.
He held little sacred. But the package he carried brought out something in him as close to reverence as was possible for one who prided himself on his acerbic approach to life.
The scattered raindrops had turned into a steady downpour, slapping the cobblestones in front of him, dripping off the brim of his beaver hat and the wool of his greatcoat. He quickened his footsteps. For a number of reasons, he would feel better when he had reached Malcolm and Suzanne’s house in Berkeley Square. When he wasn’t alone with this discovery and the attendant questions it raised.
He started at a sound, then smiled ruefully as the creak was followed by the slosh of a chamberpot being dumped on the cobblestones–mercifully a dozen feet behind him. He was acting like a character in one of his plays. He might be on his way to see Malcolm Rannoch, retired (or not so retired) Intelligence Agent, but this was hardly an affair of espionage. In fact, the package Simon valued so highly would probably not be considered so important by others.
He turned down Bolton Street. He was on the outskirts of Mayfair now. Even in the rain-washed lamplight the cobblestones were cleaner, the pavements wider and neatly swept free of leaves and debris. The clean, bright glow of wax tapers glinted behind the curtains instead of the murky yellow light of tallow candles. Someone in the next street over called good night to a departing dinner guest. Carriage wheels rattled. Simon turned down the mews to cut over to Hill Street and then Berkeley Square. Another creak made him pause, then smile at his own fancifulness. David would laugh at him when he returned home and shared his illusions of adventure.
He walked through the shadows of the mews, past whickering horses and the smells of dung and saddle soap and oiled leather. The rain-soaked cobblestones were slick beneath his shoes. A dog barked. A carriage clattered down Hill Street at the end of the mews. It was probably just the need to share his discovery that made him so eager to reach Malcolm and Suzanne. If–
The shadows broke in front of him. Three men blocked the way, wavering blurs through the curtain of rain.
“Hand it over,” a rough voice said. “Quiet like, and this can be easy.”
Lessons from stage combat and boyhood fencing danced through Simon’s head. He pulled his purse from his greatcoat pocket and threw it on the cobblestones. He doubted that would end things, but it was worth a try.
One man started forwards. The man who had spoken gave a sharp shake of his head. “That isn’t what we want and you know it.”
Acting could be a great source of defense. Simon fell back on the role of the amiable fool. “Dear me,” he said, “I can’t imagine what else I have that you could want.”
The man groaned. “Going to make this hard, are you?”
Simon rushed them. He had no particular illusions that it would work. But he thought he had a shot.
Until he felt the knife cut through his greatcoat.
Malcolm Rannoch glanced up from his book and tilted his head back against the carved walnut of the Queen Anne chair. “There was a time when I thought we’d never have a quiet night at home.”
Suzanne Rannoch regarded her husband over the downy head of their almost-one-year-old daughter, Jessica, who was flopped in her arms, industriously nursing. “There was a time when I thought we’d never have a quiet night.”
His gray eyes glinted in the candlelight. “Sweetheart, are you complaining of boredom?”
“You mean do I miss outwitting foreign agents, getting summoned by the Duke of Wellington and Lord Castlereagh at all hours, sitting up into the morning decoding documents, dodging sniper fire, and taking the occasional knife to my ribs?”
Malcolm picked up the whisky glass on the table beside him. “Something like that.”
Suzanne glanced round the library. Warm oak paneling, shimmering damask upholstery, gilded book spines. Velvet curtains covering leaded-glass windows that looked out on the leafy expanse of Berkeley Square. She had never thought to live in such luxury. Or such security. “Do you miss it?” she asked.
“Sometimes.” Malcolm took a sip of whisky. One of the things she loved about him was his uncompromising honesty. “But there are compensations. Like not worrying about my family.”
The family she had once never thought to have. Jessica tucked warmly in her arms. Their four-year-old son, Colin, asleep upstairs in the nursery. Berowne, the cat they had found in Paris as a scrawny kitten, now sleek and well fed, curled up on Malcolm’s lap. All the reasons she had to preserve her improbable life here in Britain.
Jessica stirred and stretched, her arms reaching over her head, her legs kicking the fluted arm of the sofa on which Suzanne sat. Suzanne smoothed her daughter’s sparse hair. Jessica still had the high, hairless forehead of an Elizabethan lady, but she had enough hair now that Suzanne could ruffle it with her finger. The candlelight glinted off a bright gold that might one day darken to Malcolm’s leafy umber, mixed with strands of Suzanne’s own walnut brown. A year ago, when Jessica was born, they had lived in Paris. Malcolm had been a diplomat, not a Member of Parliament. A diplomat and an Intelligence Agent. A spy, though he didn’t like to use the word. From Spain, where he and Suzanne had met in the midst of the Peninsular War, to the Congress of Vienna, to Brussels before Waterloo and Paris after, they had shared adventures and intrigue and often been one step ahead of danger. Sometimes not even that. They both had scars inside and out to prove it. Those exploits seemed a world away from this house in Mayfair and their life among London’s beau monde, where Malcolm was an M.P. and she was–a political hostess? She still wasn’t sure how to define herself.
“Unfair,” she said, putting a touch of raillery in her voice. She tried never to let him see her qualms about the way their life had changed, because she knew it worried him and she owed him so much already. “You’ve played the trump card. How can I say anything weighs in the scales beside the children’s safety?”
“But I owned to missing the excitement as well.” Malcolm’s rubbed Berowne’s silver gray ears. “Though I don’t miss being at Carfax’s beck and call.”
Suzanne pictured Lord Carfax’s sharp-boned face and the piercing gaze he could shoot over the frame of his spectacles. “Lord Carfax is a spymaster. He never–”
“–really lets his agents go. Quite. With another man one might call it kindness that he hasn’t demanded my services yet. With Carfax it makes me wonder what he’s up to.” Malcolm stroked the cat’s head while his gaze moved from the glass-fronted bookcase that held his first editions to the lamplight spilling onto the library table, softening and illuminating the chestnut-veined Carrara marble. “I never thought this house would seem so like a home. You’ve worked wonders.”
The house, a small jewel set on this exclusive square, had been Malcolm’s father’s until his death last summer. It was filled with memories of Malcolm’s childhood that Suzanne still did not fully understand. Malcolm, she knew, had had mixed feelings about living here. He’d been inclined to sell the house at first. When they walked through it, still filled with Alistair Rannoch’s furniture and art treasures, she’d seen the memories cluster behind Malcolm’s eyes, more painful than sweet. But he’d looked out at the railed square garden overhung by leafy plane trees, a rare bit of greenery in the city. Perfect for the children, he’d said. How could they not raise Colin and Jessica here given the chance? So Suzanne had set about ordering new paper and paint, choosing new upholstery and wall hangings, sketching new moldings, and conferring with the builders about which walls they could knock down.
“It was good to have a project,” she said. In truth, it had saved her sanity as she adjusted to life among the British beau monde–Malcolm’s world where she would always be an outsider–and struggled to come to terms with everything she had given up.
The smile he flashed her was filled with understanding. “It will get easier. Living here in London. Finding a scope for your talents.”
She nodded. Malcolm understood so much and could read her so well. But there were things he couldn’t understand. Such as just how much she was missing from her old life or the reasons that even in the heart of Mayfair she would never truly feel safe. For her husband, the man she had married out of necessity and come to love so much it frightened her, didn’t know she had been a Bonapartist agent when they met. That she had married him to spy for the French. That she had gone on doing so for the first three years of their marriage. That even now, more than two years after she had made the choice to leave off spying, she felt the tug of divided loyalties. That she lived with the constant fear of discovery, like the nagging pain of a headache that never went away or the gnawing ache of a half-healed wound.
For every day of their marriage she lied to her husband. And the best she could hope for was that she could preserve the lie for the rest of their lives.
“I don’t have any regrets,” she said. Like so much of what she said to her husband, it was a half-truth. She didn’t regret for a moment her marriage, her children, the life they were building here in Britain. But when she thought back over the past five years, regrets clustered thick and fast.
Berowne rolled onto his back on Malcolm’s lap. Malcolm rubbed the cat’s stomach. “I’d say we were tempting fate, save that I don’t believe in fate. But our life has a way of not staying settled for long.”
“It’s different now.”
“To a degree. Much as I like to claim I’m my own master, once an agent always an agent.”
That ought to have been funny. Save that it tore at her throat. She stroked Jessica’s tiny hand. Jessica’s fingers curled round her own, the way they had when she was a squirming newborn. Suzanne tried to savor moments such as this. To commit to memory the boneless weight of the child in her arms, the tug of the small mouth at her breast, the soft translucence of Jessica’s skin, and the web of veins showing at the temple. The glint in Malcolm’s eyes, the angle of his head, the way his long fingers moved over the cat’s fur. The rumble of Berowne’s purr and the sight of his head lolling off Malcolm’s knee. To store the memories up against whatever the future might hold. No matter what Suzanne missed from her old life, no matter the fears she lived with, five years ago she could never have thought she’d find such contentment simply sitting in lamplit quiet, with the patter of the rain on the windows, her baby at her breast, and the steady warmth of her husband’s smile. That counted for a lot. Perhaps she should–
A thud on the window glass cut through the candle-warmed air. Malcolm dropped his book. Suzanne nearly dropped Jessica. Malcolm sprang to his feet, disrupting Berowne, and put himself between Suzanne and Jessica and the window. Suzanne tightened her arms round Jessica. Old defensive instincts sprang to life, like hairs responding to a shock of electricity. The Berkeley Square house, still so new, had perhaps never felt so much like home than now, when it was threatened.
Berowne hissed and arched his back. The window scraped against the sash. Malcolm snatched up a silver candlestick. Jessica released Suzanne’s breast and let out a squawk.
“It’s all right.” A slurred, strained voice came from the window. “It’s me.”
Malcolm exchanged a look with Suzanne. “Simon?”
They both ran to the window. Malcolm pushed the sash up the rest of the way and extended a hand to haul Simon Tanner, muddy and dripping rainwater, over the sill.
Simon had lost his hat and his greatcoat was soaked and caked with mud. His straight dark hair was plastered to his forehead. And–
“You’re bleeding,” Suzanne said.
“Scratches.” Simon pushed his wet hair out of his eyes and grinned at her with his habitual nonchalance. “Sorry for the dramatic entrance. I may not have your skills at espionage, but it seemed safer not to use the front door. Not that I think they were actually trying to kill me, but they didn’t seem too concerned about collateral damage.”
Malcolm crossed to the drinks trolley, splashed whisky into a glass, and put it in Simon’s hand. Suzanne kissed Jessica and put her in her bassinet, then pressed Simon into one of the Queen Anne chairs. He protested, spluttering whisky. “I’ll ruin the upholstery.”
“The upholstery’s more easily repaired than you. Darling, can you get my medical supply box?”
Malcolm ran out of the room. She could hear his footsteps on the marble tiles of the hall and the polished wood of the stairs. She helped Simon out of the sodden greatcoat and the damp coat beneath. Above his silver brocade waistcoat, blood seeped through the linen of his shirt.
“Scratches,” he said again.
“Only in the sense that Berowne and a lion are both cats. Hold still. David will never forgive me if I bungle this.”
By the time Malcolm came back with her medical supply box, she had Simon’s cravat and waistcoat off. Malcolm helped her cut away the bloodstained shirt. The main cut was long but, if not precisely a scratch, not overly deep. It wouldn’t require stitches. She cleaned and dressed it and the cut on his face while Malcolm replenished Simon’s glass of whisky. Berowne, deciding there was no imminent danger, ran over to bat at a roll of lint. Jessica sat up in her bassinet and observed with wide eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Simon said. His hands were steadier now. “I didn’t mean to put you in the middle of this.”
“I’m glad you came to us.” Malcolm didn’t add, What the hell are you in the midst of? though the unasked question lingered in parchment and whisky–scented air. Simon was one of London’s foremost playwrights, but it seemed more likely his involvement in Radical politics had led to tonight’s adventure.
“I was on my way to you before I was attacked, as it happens.” Simon winced as Suzanne secured a dressing over his chest. His gaze slid between them. “No, I’m not involved in a plot to bring down the government. I do recognize that you’re a Member of Parliament now, Malcolm. I may not be the most considerate of friends, but I wouldn’t knowingly put you in such an awkward situation.”
Malcolm smiled, though the strain remained round his eyes. He perched on the arm of the other Queen Anne chair. “What then?”
Simon settled back in his own chair as Suzanne drew the folds of a blanket about his shoulders. “I wanted to get your opinion on a manuscript.”
“One of your own?” Malcolm asked. Simon frequently got into hot water with the Government Censor.
“No, I’m not nearly so cautious. Not that I don’t value the opinions of both of you.” Simon flashed a smile between them and took a sip of whisky. His face had a bit more color, Suzanne was relieved to see. “A play I was sent. We’re planning a production at the Tavistock. Read-throughs start tomorrow. Though we know it will mean no end of controversy.”
“Another Radical playwright?” Malcolm asked. Jessica had begun to fuss, fretful squawks that were the prelude to cries while her hands beat a tattoo on the wicker of the bassinet. He got to his feet.
“No, the playwright’s reputation is as solid as pounds sterling.” Simon stroked Berowne, who had jumped up on the arm of the chair. “Though he dramatized his share of revolts and assassinations. You could say you and I and David and Oliver owe our friendship to him.”
Suzanne sat back on her heels. Malcolm lifted Jessica against his shoulder and stared at Simon. David, Simon, Malcolm, and their friend Oliver Lydgate had met in an Oxford Production of Henry IV, Part II. For a moment the air trembled with disbelief. “Simon, are you saying someone sent you a lost Shakespeare play?” Suzanne could hear the wonder in her own voice.
“Not exactly. It’s a play we know well. But I’ve never seen this version before. It is–or purports to be–a different version of Hamlet.”
A chill ran through Suzanne, touching a part of her that went back to childhood. To days when she had sprawled on her stomach watching her father stage rehearsals or dozed in a dressing room while her actress mother swept on and off the stage. Suzanne lived and breathed politics now, but she had grown up in the theatre. A new version of Hamlet was like touching Excalibur. “How different?” she asked.
“There are several scenes of Laertes in Paris. And a new scene of Claudius and Polonius plotting. Including a line that could imply Claudius is actually Hamlet’s father.”
Malcolm’s fingers tightened against Jessica’s head. “Good God.”
“Yes, it does add even more layers to Hamlet’s motivation.”
“Could the manuscript be authentic?” Malcolm asked
“Difficult to tell.” Simon shifted against the chairback, then winced as he jostled his wound. “The language feels right. A bit rough round the edges, but that could be accounted for by it being an early version. Some of the familiar scenes have slightly different language as well.”
“There are two different versions of Hamlet that we know of,” Malcolm said. “And there are mentions of an earlier play that was a source for Hamlet, by Kyd, perhaps even by Shakespeare himself. A lot of Shakespeare scholars, including my grandfather, think Shakespeare was working on Hamlet for years. So theoretically one can imagine an earlier draft existing.” He drew a breath. Suzanne could hear the shock and wonder that underlay his words. “Does it look authentic?”
“It certainly looks old.” Simon stroked Berowne, who had jumped into his lap and was kneading his knees. “It’s handwritten, and at least one other person has made notes and corrections on the manuscript. But I couldn’t tell if either is Shakespeare’s hand.”
“I don’t anyone could. The only examples of his handwriting we have are a few signatures.” Malcolm moved across the room, shifting Jessica against his shoulder. He voice was temperate, but Suzanne could read the excitement in the taut lines of his body.
“You know Shakespeare. Both of you.” Simon’s gaze flickered to Suzanne. “And you know forgeries.”
“We should get my grandfather’s opinion. Fortunatley he’s staying with my aunt Marjorie in Surrey, so I can reach him more quickly than if he was in Scotland.” Malcolm rubbed his hand against Jessica’s back. His grandfather, the Duke of Strathdon, was a noted Shakespearean scholar.
“Yes, I was thinking of that. Obviously it’s a ticklish situation. It could be the making of the Tavistock if it’s authentic. We could make fools of ourselves if it turns out to be a forgery. But it never occurred to me it was dangerous.”
“Simon?” Suzanne said, watching his face. “What happened on your way here?”
“Three men jumped me. I fought back–I don’t take kindly to having my possessions appropriated. But when I took the knife to the chest even I was willing to concede it was prudent to let them have what they were after.”
“Do you have any idea who they were?” Malcolm asked, jiggling Jessica in his arms.
Simon shook his head. “There were three of them. English, I think, but we didn’t stop to exchange pleasantries.”
Suzanne closed her medical supply box. “Where did you get the manuscript?”
Suzanne’s fingers froze on the bronze latch. She forced them to unclench. Manon Caret had been the leading actress at the Comédie-Française. She had escaped Paris two years ago just ahead of agents of Fouché, the minister of police. For in addition to being a brilliant actress, she was a Bonapartist agent. And Suzanne had helped her escape. Which of course Suzanne couldn’t say to anyone. Even her husband. Especially her husband. “How on earth did Manon–”
“Harleton gave it to her. Apparently he found it tucked away among his father’s things after Lord Harleton’s death.”
Suzanne set the medical supply box on the sofa table, controlling the trembling of her fingers. Crispin, Lord Harleton, was a cheerful young man, a couple of years ahead of Malcolm at Oxford. He had been Manon’s lover for the past year or so. His father had been one of the sporting set. Suzanne had met him once or twice before his death six months ago, a bluff man with a hearty laugh, an appreciative eye for a low-cut bodice, and hands that were inclined to wander.
Malcolm dropped down on a footstool, propping Jessica in his lap. “I’m surprised old Lord Harleton had a manuscript of such value. Though not surprised he left it tucked away.”
“Crispin said ten to one his father didn’t realize what he had,” Simon said. “I must say Crispin quite impressed me. I always used to wonder what Manon saw in him.”
Jessica wriggled in Malcolm’s lap and arched her back. Malcolm set her on the carpet, and she began to scoot across the floor, heedless of the undercurrents. “Did Crispin and Manon give you any indication that anyone might be after the manuscript?” Malcolm asked.
Simon shook his head. “No. They were merely curious if it could be genuine.”
“Simon.” Malcolm reached down to steady Jessica as she pulled herself up on the edge of an ormolu table. “Tell me that you didn’t give up the only copy of the manuscript?”
A slow smile spread across Simon’s face. “I copied the whole script out the night Manon and Crispin gave it me. I was thinking of fire or damage more than theft. And then I had copies printed up for the actors.” He stroked Berowne under the chin. “I’m not sure why I brought the first copy I made with me tonight. I had some vague thought that we might want to read from it to spare the original. But I’m very glad I did. Because the thieves couldn’t tell my copy from the original manuscript.”
Malcolm echoed Simon’s smile. “You still have the original?”
“Wrapped in oilskin in my greatcoat pocket. They glanced at my copy enough to determine it was a script–which apparently is what they’d been told to look for–and then saw no need to search me further. Bring my coat over and we can have a look at it. I’m eager to see what you think of the authenticity. And more.”
“More?” Suzanne scooped up Jessica, who had crawled over to grab her mother’s sarcenet-covered knees.
Simon’s fingers went taut against Berowne’s soft gray fur. “Even when I was bleeding on the cobblestones, I felt I should put on a show of reluctance to give up the manuscript. One of the men dealt with me a blow to the jaw and snatched it from my hands. Another said, ‘All this fuss just for some old paper.’ And another replied, ‘It’s not the paper. It’s the secrets hidden in it.’ ”