The escape was all anyone wanted to talk about, even weeks later, until Sally was sick of hearing the same conversational pathways repeated again and again. The escape, Mr Penchley's unsuccessful attempt to foil it, and the combined effort of all authorities in the archipelago to find Crowhurst and his fellow villains and bring them in to justice.
An investigation into how the prisoners managed to escape had been stymied by their ruthless slaughter of the guards on duty that night. One or more of them had been bribed, Papa thought. If so, he was killed with the rest.
Mr Penchley was the hero of the hour. He had chanced to see the escapees leaving the hastily altered building being used as a goal, had called the alarm; had even shot several of the gang.
"I had not considered him a man of action," Papa told his wife and daughter. "I misjudged the man. Pity he missed Crowhurst, though."
Papa insisted on extra guards to follow Sally everywhere, even within the Governor's Residence. And a suitable escort — him, Penchley, a senior officer of the army contingent assigned to the Island. Sally assured him that Crowhurst would be mad to remain on the island, but Papa said he thought the man was mad. "The man is obsessed with you, dearest. There's no knowing what he might do."
Sally thought she had the answer. "Then tell the guards to hide when they follow me, and we'll catch him." She was so tired of being hemmed around by restrictions and watched wherever she went.
"Use you as bait?" Both ducal eyebrows shot up towards Papa's hairline, and one remained quizzically crooked as he rejected any possibility of ever putting her in any kind of danger. Ever.
Sally thought of pointing out all the trouble that had arisen from his trying to protect her from Toad. Who was in England, according to the letters from Antonia and Henry, desperate to find her, and determined to marry her.
"He was sure he would need to carry you off like young Lochinvar," Henry wrote, "and was preparing a home for you in Italy. But I daresay you know, for he told me he writes to you every day, and sends the letters several times a month."
Sally had frowned at that, for she'd had nothing from Toad since the hasty hand-delivered note at Christmas. But Papa had denied interfering with the mail, so they must have been lost or delayed somewhere along the way. Perhaps they would all arrive at once, and she could read about his intentions in his own hand.
Maddox's unexpected arrival was a welcome distraction. He became her principle escort, being much more available than Papa, and better company than Mr Penchley. And his balloon, once unloaded from the hold of his ship and inflated, took over as the main topic of local conversation.
The ship was a sleek beauty of his own design, built for him in the shipyards of Kalicut, and recently delivered. "I needed something to chase me when I balloon out over the ocean," he explained to Sally. "On land, it doesn't much matter if I'm blown off course. Once I'm down, I can usually figure out how to get to where I'm going. But the sea? Especially the Pacific, which is a big place."
He showed Sally and her companions around, proud as a new father. The ship was not much larger than Papa's yacht, and as beautifully appointed, with small but luxurious accommodation for Maddox and his team, and purpose-built storage in the hold for the ballooning equipment.
Aronui asked why it needed both sails and a steam engine, since the balloon would go where the wind went, and Sally and Maddox both started to answer. "You tell her," Maddox said, and Sally explained that the winds high up in the sky often blew in a different direction to those at sea level.
That gave Maddox the cue to tell a story about the first time he'd floated out across an ocean — between Italy and Greece. He was followed — or rather, not followed — by a support ship that was desperately tacking in order not to finish up on another coast entirely. "Fortunately, I came down on land," he explained, "and was rescued by bandits. I had a very pleasant fortnight with them in the mountains before my support crew caught up with me."
"Hence, the steamer," Sally said.
"Precisely. I wouldn't attempt any transits between Pacific islands without it."
At Papa's request, Maddox set up on the Governor's lawn to give rides in the tethered balloon to the dignitaries of the archipelago, and so many people accepted the challenge that they opened the invitation to anyone prepared to donate to Mama's orphanage fund and made a week of it. Every day, tattooed chiefs and their tribesmen and women, missionaries, settlers, sailors from the port, servants, and others crowded onto the lawn; some to purchase tickets for a flight with their gift to charity, some to gape in awe at the huge balloon in its ascents and descents.
Sally went up three times, and even Mama took a flight, after putting a whole gold guinea into the charity box.
That night, Mama and Sally were having a quiet evening together. Papa had taken Maddox and Penchley off to have dinner with the leaders of the settlers. "The hero of the escape and the hero of the balloon might distract them from forcing me to explain yet again why I will not use the Queen's soldiers to enforce their demands for more land from the tribes," he said.
"I like Maddox," Mama said to Sally as she poured their tea.
"I like Maddox, too," Sally replied idly, looking in the mirror. She had failed to fully protect her skin from the harsh tropical sun, and was paying for it with a few freckles, which Maddox had pronounced charming. Would Toad like them?
"Do you, Sally? Is he replacing David in your heart?"
Shocked at the question, Sally gave her mother her full attention. "Of course not. Maddox is my friend; almost a brother. How I feel about Maddox is nothing like my love for David."
"Poor Maddox," Mama observed. "Do not toy with his affections, Sally. He does not deserve that." She passed Sally a cup and began preparing another.
Sally shook her head. "No danger. Even if he cared for me that way, he knows I am betrothed to David."
"That is true, Your Grace," Aronui confirmed, joining the conversation as if she'd never heard that attending maids should be silent and invisible unless addressed. "Lady Sally had spoken to Lord Maddox many times about her love for Lord Toad and the letters that she is sure have been lost in the mail. Poor Lord Maddox."
Mama nodded to Aronui. "You see it, too." She smiled at the maid, looked down at the cup of tea she had been preparing, and held it out to Aronui. "Here, Aronui, this one is for you.
She picked another cup from the lower tray of the tea trolley and set about preparing her own brew. "Sally, Maddox is in love with you. I see it. Your maid sees it. Your Papa sees it. I dare say half the archipelago sees it."
Sally shook her head, but her mother's conviction and Aronui's smug nod gave her pause. Could it be true? She liked Maddox, enjoyed being with him, could talk to him for hours and about anything. "He doesn't behave like..." She trailed off. He didn't write her poetry, or offer extravagant compliments, or glower when she spoke to other men.
"Like your other admirers?" Mama quirked an ironic eyebrow. "He is far too smart for that."
He did listen to her, argue with her, respect her intelligence and abilities — the only man near her own age who ever had, apart from David. He gave her his attention, escorted her wherever she chose to go, joined in her activities and welcomed her into his own. He had even entered enthusiastically into her sword, gun, knife, and unarmed combat classes. Yes, and he didn't pull his punches.
It would be very easy to marry Maddox, she thought, and smothered the weaktreacherous thought. It would be very wrong to give poor Maddox a wife whobelonged, body, heart and soul, to another man.
YOU ARE READING
Never Kiss a ToadRomance
[A Victorian romance continuing family stories begun in the various Regency books of Jude Knight and Mariana Gabrielle.] David "Toad" Northope, heir to the Duke of Wellbridge and rogue in the mold of his infamous father, knows Lady Sarah "Sal" Grenf...