Gentle, quirky historical adventure:
Heist capers in search of justice
Near Cambridge, 1685, the Foxe cousins practice a bit of genteel highway robbery to fend off grinding poverty. Now, deep jeopardy brings them together to seize justice and to save their family.
Want a taste of this world?
Below, “A Man in a Mizzle: A Prequel” introduces one Foxe cousin, caught in a quandary.
The series begins: No One Dies
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There’s cross-dressing and other masquerades to hide secrets and desires. But for even one pre-Regency happy-ever-after romance to advance, the Foxe cousins must first dig their way out of the crater left by the English Civil War and the Restoration.
The Low Countries, February 1685
That sodden winter’s day in Rotterdam, the rain drizzled as it does in the Low Countries, piddling down your neck, all the way to your boots. Neither Lieutenant Rowland Foxe nor his comrade Peregrine Frake had so much as a dry kerchief or spare stockings.
Drenched felted hat, its feather ruined.
The dead-animal feel of wet leather breeches on cold thighs.
Wool coat soaked through, smelling of the original sheep.
They’d left Amsterdam on their captain’s command to guard Princess Mary’s courier on a journey to England. Rowland had let himself imagine future glory. Then fate and rain hammered his hopes. The entire enterprise now poured out pure misery.
“The innkeeper’s dog followed you, like dogs always do,” Rowland said. “I avow, Mr. Frake. Dogs prefer you more than me, though I possess a kind heart.”
“Thank you for noticing my one virtue,” Perry growled. “As a reward, I shall have this valorous mutt for company while we wait in this dreck for the tide to turn.”
“We are braving the rain in defense of the English Crown.” That was Rowland’s life choice, but he hoped to amuse Perry with this claim while they drowned on that wharf. “Further, Mr. Frake, we shall improve our future employment by demonstrating once again our faithful and brilliant service.”
“A bennish belief, Lieutenant Foxe, sir.” Perry produced an odd Yorkshire term at all occasions. He pushed dank, streaky straw locks under his hat. Even in the cold wet, he resembled one of the marble-faced statues the French king keeps in his gardens, with chiseled cheekbones and a projecting Roman nose (broken only once). Taller than most men and inhumanly quick despite his broad, muscular frame, he could gentle any horse, cat, or dog. They tended to address each other formally when working, Perry deferring to Rowland’s senior rank; however, after eight years working together, Perry knew Rowland’s heart and mind well. “We fools stand here drookit—”
“Is that what your granddam from York calls drenched?”
“Aye, Rollo.” Perry abandoned formal address. He hunched, tucking his giant’s body under the low eaves of a chandler’s storehouse. “I shall boldly declare that we are here, letting this smizzle rot our privates and ruin our boots, because you are in love with your cousin Ysabel.”
“I can’t afford to be in love,” Rowland said. “A romantical gentleman requires a title or at least gold to buy a real officer’s commission.”
He had no expectation of gaining sufficient coin for either love or a bed better than a barracks pallet. He and Perry survived among English diplomats at the edge of Mary’s royal court only by taking assignments others declined.
“And I can’t afford new boots,” Perry complained, “but here I am, freezing my small bits for the sake of a love that the lady does not return to you in kind.”
Lizzie, a favorite in Mary’s court and Rowland’s second cousin, was the courier they were to guard, making this mission also Rowland’s chance to serve as noble hero for the woman he admired most in this sopping world.
Their captain had praised Rowland and Perry as the best protectors for Lizzie’s courier task. (“You often snatch success when others are ill fated. After this, take ninety days respite in Paris, to give people here a bit of time to forget you.”) Just before this new mission, Rowland and Perry had delivered a verified list of English rebels living in the Low Countries, men who’d sworn to support the Duke of Monmouth if he invaded England to seize the crown from his Catholic uncle, James II. Based on that list, the governor in Holland, William of Orange, began deporting those rebel Englishmen to remote English ports, to make it difficult for Monmouth to rally them to his cause. Even a village fool could guess that Lizzie, as courier, carried that list of rebels to share with Princess Mary’s supporters in England.
No one in Holland could connect Rowland and Perry to that development, but before Rowland reached Lizzie to begin the journey to London (and to boast of what he’d done to protect Princess Mary), enemies had whisked Lizzie out of Amsterdam. It didn’t take genius to guess that a band of those rebels snatched her—likely men Rowland knew. Men he was paid to report on.
He and Perry had tracked Lizzie’s captors as far as Rotterdam. Late that wringing wet afternoon, they again described Lizzie to innkeepers, in hopes that any locals might have seen her. At the last inn in Rotterdam, Perry asked in Dutch.
“She’s a tall, comely woman with courtly manners and the dark complexion of a Spanish senorita.”
“Ja, meneer. Her men kept the woman swaddled, but you’d be a blind dog to miss such a beautiful bird.” Then the innkeeper added spice to their improving luck: Lizzie’s captors were out seeking passage to Harwich. “There’s three ships, private packets bound for England, waiting on the tide, their captains prepared to sail in a Dutch spitter.”
That information left Rowland and Perry in the smizzling rain, ready to rescue Lizzie.
“I shall stand at the wharf’s north end,” Perry said. “You remain here. Our beautiful bird cannot pass us without notice.” He sauntered down the wharf, rain dripping from the broad brim of his leather hat, that ragged dog following on his heels.
Rowland leaned on a shed wall for the sake of its meager eaves and counted minutes by rolling an antique gold angel across his knuckles, the kind of trick a child sees as magic, but that his captain called a bad habit. Rowland’s best guess: the tide would turn in three thousand rolls of his lucky coin.
“Hallo, vriend. Good day, Englishman.” A woman shrilly called hello at his elbow, jarring Rowland from his reverie. She came joined him under his narrow shelter. “You are English, yes? Your friend sent me, sir, for company in this smiting weather.”
A wool shawl over her head, the young woman opened her oil-cloth coat to show her faded finery, a wool gown the color of the summer sky, with no lace or collar to cover her pale chest. Damp blond hair escaped her hood. The woman lifted her skirt, showing an ankle, and pressed a knee against his breeches.
“No…uh, nee, mevrouw. Dank u. You’ll only waste your time with me.” While refusing her offer, Rowland judged her to be under sixteen. The notion of what her life must be dampened his spirits beyond what the pissing rain achieved. He slipped his coin back his pocket and tucked his hands under his arms for warmth.
“But your friend has paid for all my time until the tide turns. Doesn’t want you to be lonely.”
Hilarious. Just like Perry to spare a coin to buy a jest in the rain. Yet come nightfall, he’d be expecting Rowland to pay for supper. Rowland stepped from under the eaves to jab two insulting fingers toward his friend down the wharf. Perry’s rugged face and body attracted women wherever their captain sent them. And always, Perry redirected any woman seeking company to his long-time friend, while warning that Rowland held overly lofty ideals.
“Don’t cock your brow at me. I’m not a thief, Englishman.”
“My face was made this way, mistress.”
“Ah. My aunt taught me the science of phisonomie. Shall I tell you the future that is written on your face?”
“The science of judging a man by his features? Aye, mistress. What’s my fate?”
It’s wasn’t science. Rowland believed that anyone could read his future, just seeing his shabby coat and the worn heels of his boots. That is, a gentleman with no funds shall endure a restricted future.
“First,” the woman proceeded, “you are fated to forever question what others accept. I see it in that single arching brow.”
Rowland said, “My uncle calls it quizzical. Most of my cousins have the same brow.”
“And your cousins have sharp cheeks too?”
“I haven’t seen them since we were children.”
“Then we can see only your future, not your family’s. Your sharp cheeks indicate a leader who is unsullied, who takes care of others. You shall endure a life of fame and power, and your straight, hard nose means wealth will come to you easily.”
Surely the scudding rain blinded her. God had set aside no wealth for Rowland, and even Perry wouldn’t follow him further than the next dice game.
“Now, your slim build and nobleman’s chin mean—”
“Enough, mistress.” He held a hand up to stop her words, received a gushing drench from the eaves that sent cold water up his sleeve. “Your aunt’s wisdom must apply for Dutchmen, because you haven’t described me. No one notices me, except that I stand taller than most men in either a French court or an English church. I have a pleasant, friendly but forgettable face. My comrade Perry says my hair is the color of a well-rusted iron blade.”
“I think that color is called after a kind of nut. And your eyes too. And you are fated to keep that much hair into old age, which means that—”
“No more about my fate. Let us discuss our present world.”
“Ja. Why does an Englishman stand out in weather not fit for geese and ducks?
“I serve English diplomats. When you serve lords and their captains, you must go wherever they send you.”
And he lived like an exile, hoping a new assignment might lead to respectability, if not wealth. He was fated to serve at a far lower status than his grandfather. Through no fault of his own.
A gust of wind picked up water from the puddles on the wharf and dowsed him, his body sheltering the woman from most of it.
“So Englishman, you must stand in the wet while our watchmen have shelters with coal braziers? This is how men do things in your country?”
A coal brazier. Such seductive words.
When Rowland arrived in Paris almost a decade ago, he secured a place as page to an English diplomat. In a crowd of ambassadors and former exiles, the fifteen-year-old Rowland showed aptitude and discretion. At seventeen, he was sent to serve with the English ambassador’s personal guards, where he met Perry. Their captain led them into a new kind of service, using French words to describe that work: surveillance, reconnaissance, espionnage.
Rowland knew the English words. Intelligencer. Spy.
He and Perry joined a cadre in Paris that served the English king, Charles II, who paid them to protect his natural son, the Duke of Monmouth whenever Monmouth happened to be in Paris. When Monmouth moved to Holland, their old captain sent them to new work under a spymaster for William of Orange, husband to Princess Mary, England’s true presumed heir.
In Amsterdam, Rowland and Perry worked as guards and couriers for English diplomats while also assigned to unearth secrets among Monmouth’s entourage. Privately, Perry argued that they seek other work. Clear off. Go to India. Or sail to the Americas. They weren’t getting rich in Holland.
Though he had barely sufficient coin to maintain life on the periphery of Mary’s royal court, Rowland had no spare coin to go elsewhere (the lucky gold angel in his pocket wouldn’t take him far). He saw no choice but to spy on Monmouth, never believing the Pretender could amass an army sufficient to stake his claim to be king of England.
Rowland gained a special benefit from following Monmouth to Holland. His cousin Lizzie, in service to Mary Stuart, came to Amsterdam when Mary wed William of Orange. For the past year, Lizzie and Rowland had whispered amid the commotion of Mary’s court, trading memories. (“You make me laugh, Rollo. You are the cure for the ‘vexation of the mind, and damn’d despair’ of court life, lambkin.”)
Aye, Rowland had to be satisfied with serving as a cure for Lizzie’s vexations, being her pet. With no title, no future. Rowland had always—out of necessity—governed his heart more strictly than any Stuart king had ever governed England. Perry was just wrong to claim otherwise.
Hunched in a Dutch rain, Rowland rolled those memories over instead of rolling his coin. He and Lizzie had been raised in a troop of cousins, who all followed rules for enlightened behavior, taught from the cradle in place of any catechism.
I keep my promises.
My family obligations are sacred.
“Ja, you’ve proved to be a hearty Englishman.” The young woman, who’d been chatting about making cheese at her aunt’s farm, raised her voice, rousing Rowland from his reverie. “But it’s dark and the tide is turning. Come to the inn for dinner.”
“I need to wait a while more. You’ve earned your pennies, mistress. Go home. Get out of the rain.”
“You won’t be lonely? What about tonight? Come. Enjoy my aunt’s good erwtensoep. And roggebrood with katenspek.” The woman departed, pointing to the inn where he might find her when he finished his odd English chores.
While declining her last invitation for a seat by the fire to dry out, Rowland translated what he’d given up: pea soup, rye bread with bacon. However, as that sad young woman on the wharf pointed out, the tide was turning. The ships would sail.
His toes numb inside wet boots, Rowland beat his hands under his arms again, to keep them nimble for the next action, when he and Perry would retrieve Lizzie from her captors.
The young woman returned, tugging at Rowland’s sodden coat, crying to him. “My aunt! A man is killing her!”
She yanked hard, steering Rowland into an alley, where the sounds of blows on flesh thudded over the noise of tinkling rain.
“He says he’ll murder her!” she cried.
Rowland had no choice but to run toward the screams. Yet the cries receded in the alley as Rowland followed.
Then two shots rang out in rapid order.
At the wharf.
He’d failed Perry.
His drenched boots squealed on the rain-slick wharf as he ran back to where he had last seen Perry. The mongrel that had lingered with Perry ran past, away from the wharf.
Perry staggered, falling against Rowland, who let his huge friend down slowly onto the wharf’s wet planks. Perry’s leather jacket was torn open, as if a bear had gnawed at his chest.
“The cacafuego shot me.” Perry breathed as if racked with pain. “Henceforth, I lost her. And ruined my best coat.”
Rowland wadded his cravat to staunch Perry’s wound. But instead of blood, he found crushed leather wet from the rain.
“My cuirass saved me.” Perry breathed slowly, still catching his breath. “Though my middle hurts as if the devil’s own horse kicked me.”
“Did you see Lizzie?” He’d failed her, letting himself be fooled in the rain.
“She was well wrapped, but I’m sure it was her. Your Lizzie, however, didn’t see me.” Perry wheezed. “I had her in reach, Rollo. Then your cousin Tom stepped out of the shadows and shot me.”
“My cousin Tom?”
“I’m guessing about that, since I’ve never met him. But your Miss Foxe shouted, ‘Run, Tom! Before the traitors overtake us.’” Perry imitated Lizzie, missing her angelic tones. “She must be traveling with your cousin, Tom Foxe.”
But Lizzie must know that Rowland would chase to the earth’s edge for her.
“Where are they now?”
“Onboard ship. Call Tom’s name and run after—”
“No, Lizzie is safe with Tom. You need a doctor, Perry. But why did Tom shoot you? Why did Lizzie call you a traitor?”
“It distresses me to think it, Rollo, but Lizzie must believe it’s Monmouth’s men who pursued her. She never had a peek at me under the eaves. What distresses me more is that you failed to come when I whistled.”
“God blind me! That woman distracted me, the one you paid to keep me company. She begged me to rescue her aunt.”
“Me? Pay a woman to keep you company? A disgraceful notion.” Perry groaned, trying to stand on his own. “I’d wager your cousins paid for chaos, to escape their pursuers. We shall try that trick the next time we’re being chased.”
“If we’re chased by someone even more gullible than me.”
“In the midst of your distress, Rollo, please remember that I never chastise you.” He groaned again. “I trust that you shall do better rebuking yourself than I could manage.”
A new, stronger wind whipped them, swirling bitterly hard rain down the wharf. Confusion had been sown among the Foxe cousins, ending with Perry shot and a failed mission.
Perry leaned on Rollo, pointing to the closest inn. They began hobbling there together. That raggedy dog returned, hunkering close by Perry’s side, whimpering, as if in pity.
“Back to Amsterdam tomorrow, Rollo?”
“Aye. We shall explain what happened and beg our captain for a new assignment.”
“You shall explain, Rollo. You’re always good at spinning tales. Explain how your cousins took on the duty to keep your Lizzie as asafe as the new king’s supper.”