The Secret History of the Pink Carnation
Nothing ever goes right for Eloise. The day she wears her new suede boots, it rains. When the subway stops short, she's the one thrown into some stranger's lap. And she's had her share of misfortune in the way of love. So, after deciding that romantic heroes must be a thing of the past, Eloise is ready for a fresh start.
Setting off for England, Eloise is determined to finish her dissertation on two spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. But what she discovers is something historians have missed: the secret history of the Pink Carnation-the most elusive spy of all time. As she works to unmask this obscure spy, Eloise has more and more questions. Like, how did the Pink Carnation save England from Napoleon? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And will Eloise Kelly escape her bad luck and find a living, breathing hero of her own?
The Tube had broken down. Again.
I clutched the overhead rail by dint of standing on the tippiest bit of my tippy toes. My nose banged into the arm of the man next to me. A Frenchman, judging from the black turtleneck and the fact that his armpit was a deodorant-free zone. Murmuring apologies in my best faux English accent, I tried to squirm out from under his arm, tripped over a protruding umbrella, and stumbled into the denim-covered lap of the man sitting in front of me.
“Cheers,” he said with a wink, as I wiggled my way off his leg.
Ah, “cheers,” that wonderful multipurpose English term for anything from “hello” to “thank you” to “nice ass you have there.” Bright red (a shade that doesn’t do much for my auburn hair), I peered about for a place to hide. But the Tube was packed solid, full of tired, cranky Londoners on their way home from work. There wasn’t enough room for a reasonably emaciated snake to slither its way through the crowd, much less a healthy American girl who had eaten one too many portions of fish and chips over the past two months.
Um, make that about fifty too many portions of fish and chips. Living in a basement flat with a kitchen the size of a peapod doesn’t inspire culinary exertions.
Resuming my spot next to the smirking Frenchman, I wondered, for the five-hundredth time, what had ever possessed me to come to London.
Sitting in my carrel in Harvard’s Widener Library, peering out of my little scrap of window at the undergrads scuttling back and forth beneath the underpass, bowed double under their backpacks like so many worker ants, applying for a fellowship to spend the year researching at the British Library seemed like a brilliant idea. No more student papers to grade! No more hours of peering at microfilm! No more Grant.
My mind lightly touched the name, then shied away again. Grant. The other reason I was playing sardines on the Tube in London, rather than happily spooling through microfilm in the basement of Widener.
I ended it with him. Well, mostly. Finding him in the cloakroom of the Faculty Club at the history department Christmas party in a passionate embrace with a giggly art historian fresh out of undergrad did have something to do with it, so I couldn’t claim he was entirely without a part in the breakup. But I was the one who tugged the ring off my finger and flung it across the room at him in time-honored, pissed-off female fashion.
Just in case anyone was wondering, it wasn’t an engagement ring.
The Tube lurched back to life, eliciting a ragged cheer from the other passengers. I was too busy trying not to fall back into the lap of the man sitting in front of me. To land in someone’s lap once is carelessness; to do so twice might be considered an invitation.
Right now, the only men I was interested in were long-dead ones.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, the Pink Carnation . . . The very music of their names invoked a forgotten era, an era of men in knee breeches and frock coats who dueled with witty barbs sharper than the points of their swords. An era when men could be heroes.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, rescuing countless men from the guillotine; the Purple Gentian, driving the French Ministry of Police mad with his escapades, and foiling at least two attempts to assassinate King George III; and the Pink Carnation . . . I don’t think there was a single newspaper in London between 1803 and 1814 that didn’t carry at least one mention of the Pink Carnation, the most elusive spy of them all.
The other two, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian, had each, in their turn, been unmasked by the French as Sir Percy Blakeney and Lord Richard Selwick. They had retired to their estates in England to raise precocious children and tell long stories of their days in France over their postdinner port. But the Pink Carnation had never been caught.
At least not yet.
That was what I planned to do—to hunt the elusive Pink Carnation through the archives of England, to track down any sliver of long-dead gossip that might lead me to what the finest minds in the French government had failed to discover.
Of course, that wasn’t how I phrased it when I suggested the idea to my dissertation advisor.
I made scholarly noises about filling a gap in the historiography, and the deep sociological significance of spying as a means of asserting manhood, and other silly ideas couched in intellectual unintelligibility. I called it “Aristocratic Espionage during the Wars with France: 1789–1815.”
Rather a dry title, but somehow I doubt “Why I Love Men in Black Masks” would have made it past my dissertation committee.
It all seemed perfectly simple back in Cambridge. There must have been some sort of contact between the three aristocrats who had donned black masks in order to outwit the French; the world of the upper class in early nineteenth-century England was a small one, and I couldn’t imagine that men who had all spied in France wouldn’t share their expertise with one another. I knew the identities of Sir Percy Blakeney and Lord Richard Selwick—in fact, there was a sizable correspondence between those two men. Surely, there would be something in their papers, some slip of the pen that would lead me to the Pink Carnation.
But there was nothing in the archives. Nothing. So far, I’d read twenty years’ worth of Blakeney estate accounts and Selwick laundry lists. I’d even trekked out to the sprawling Public Record Office in Kew, hauling myself and my laptop through the locker rooms and bag searches to get to the early nineteenth-century records of the War Office. I should have remembered that they call it the secret service for a reason. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Not even a cryptic reference to “our flowery friend” in an official report.
Getting panicky, because I didn’t really want to have to write about espionage as an allegory for manhood, I resorted to my plan of last resort. I sat on the floor of Waterstones, with a copy of Debrett’s Peerage open in my lap, and wrote letters to all the surviving descendants of Sir Percy Blakeney and Lord Richard Selwick. I didn’t even care if they had access to the family archives (that was how desperate I was getting), I’d settle for family stories, half-remembered tales Grandpapa used to tell about that crazy ancestor who was a spy in the 1800s, anything that might give me some sort of lead as to where to look next.
I sent out twenty letters. I received three responses.
The proprietors of the Blakeney estate sent me an impersonal form letter listing the days the estate was open to the public; they helpfully included the fall 2003 schedule for Scarlet Pimpernel reenactments. I could think of few things more depressing than watching overeager tourists prancing around in black capes, twirling quizzing glasses, and exclaiming, “Sink me!”
The current owner of Selwick Hall was even more discouraging. He sent a letter typed on crested stationery designed to intimidate, informing me that Selwick Hall was still a private home, it was not open to the public in any capacity, and any papers the family intended for the public to view were in the British Library. Although Mr. Colin Selwick did not specifically say “sod off,” it was heavily implied.
But all it takes is one, right?
And that one, Mrs. Arabella Selwick-Alderly, was currently waiting for me at—I dug the dog-eared scrap of paper out of my pocket as I scurried up the stairs in the South Kensington Tube station—43 Onslow Square.
It was raining, of course. It generally is when one has forgotten one’s umbrella.
Pausing on the doorstep of 43 Onslow Square, I ran my fingers through my rain-dampened hair and took stock of my appearance. The brown suede Jimmy Choo boots that had looked so chic in the shoe store in Harvard Square were beyond repair, matted with rain and mud. My knee-length herringbone skirt had somehow twisted itself all the way around, so that the zipper stuck out stiffly in front instead of lying flat in back. And there was a sizeable brownish blotch on the hem of my thick beige sweater—the battle stain of an unfortunate collision with someone’s cup of coffee at the British Library cafeteria that afternoon.
So much for impressing Mrs. Selwick-Alderly with my sophistication and charm.
Tugging my skirt right way ’round, I rang the buzzer. A crackly voice quavered, “Hello?”
I leaned on the reply button. “It’s Eloise,” I shouted into the metal grating. I hate talking into intercoms; I’m never sure if I’m pressing the right button, or speaking into the right receiver, or about to be beamed up by aliens. “Eloise Kelly. About the Purple Gentian?”
I managed to catch the door just before it stopped buzzing.
“Up here,” called a disembodied voice.
Tipping my head back, I gazed up the stairwell. I couldn’t see anyone, but I knew just what Mrs. Selwick-Alderly would look like. She would have a wrinkled face under a frizz of snowy white hair, dress in ancient tweeds, and be bent over a cane as gnarled as her skin. Following the directive from on high, I began up the stairs, rehearsing the little speech I had prepared in my head the night before. I would say something gracious about how lovely it was of her to take the time to see me. I would smile modestly and express how much I hoped I could help in my own small way to rescue her esteemed ancestor from historical oblivion. And I would remember to speak loudly, in deference to elderly ears.
“Poor girl, you look utterly knackered.”
An elegant woman in a navy-blue suit made of nubby wool, with a vivid crimson and gold scarf tied at her neck, smiled sympathetically at me. Her snowy hair—that part of my image at least had been correct!—was coiled about her head in an elaborate confection of braids that should have been old-fashioned, but on her looked queenly. Perhaps her straight spine and air of authority made her appear taller than she was, but she made me (five feet nine inches if one counts the three-inch heels that are essential to daily life) feel short. This was not a woman with an osteoporosis problem.
My polished speech dripped away like the drops of water trickling from the hem of my raincoat.
“Um, hello,” I stammered.
“Hideous weather today, isn’t it?” Mrs. Selwick-Alderly ushered me through a cream-colored foyer, indicating that I should drop my sodden raincoat on a chair in the hall. “How good of you to come all the way from—the British Library, was it?—to see me on such an inhospitable day.”
I followed her into a cheerful living room, my ruined boots making squelching noises that boded ill to the faded Persian rug. A chintz sofa and two chairs were drawn up around the fire that crackled comfortably away beneath a marble mantelpiece. On the coffee table, an eclectic assortment of books had been pushed aside to make room for a heavily laden tea tray.
Mrs. Selwick-Alderly glanced at the tea tray and made a little noise of annoyance. “I’ve forgotten the biscuits. I won’t be a minute. Do make yourself comfortable.”
Comfortable. I didn’t think there was much chance of that. Despite Mrs. Selwick-Alderly’s charm, I felt like an awkward fifth-grader waiting for the headmistress to return.
Hands clasped behind my back, I wandered over to the mantel. It boasted an assortment of family photos, jumbled together in no particular order. At the far right towered a large sepia portrait photo of a debutante with her hair in the short waves of the late 1930s, a single strand of pearls about her neck, gazing soulfully upwards. The other photos were more modern and less formal, a crowd of family photos, taken in black tie, in jeans, indoors and out, people making faces at the camera or each other; they were clearly a large clan, and a close-knit one.
One picture in particular drew my attention. It sat towards the middle of the mantel, half-hidden behind a picture of two little girls decked out as flower girls. Unlike the others, it only featured a single subject—unless you counted his horse. One arm casually rested on his horse’s flank. His dark blond hair had been tousled by the wind, and a hard ride. There was something about the quirk of the lips and the clean beauty of the cheekbones that reminded me of Mrs. Selwick-Alderly. But where her good looks were a thing of elegance, like a finely carved piece of ivory, this man was as vibrantly alive as the sun on his hair or the horse beneath his arm. He smiled out of the photo with such complicit good humor—as if he and the viewer shared some sort of delightful joke—that it was impossible not to smile back.
Which was exactly what I was doing when my hostess returned with a plate filled with chocolate-covered biscuits.
I started guiltily, as though I had been caught out in some embarrassing intimacy.
Mrs. Selwick-Alderly placed the biscuits next to the tea tray. “I see you’ve found the photos. There is something irresistible about other peoples’ pictures, isn’t there?”
I joined her on the couch, setting my damp herringbone derriere gingerly on the very edge of a flowered cushion. “It’s so much easier to make up stories about people you don’t know,” I temporized. “Especially older pictures. You wonder what their lives were like, what happened to them. . . .”
“That’s part of the fascination of history, isn’t it?” she said, applying herself to the teapot. Over the rituals of the tea table, the choice of milk or sugar, the passing of biscuits and cutting of cake, we slipped into an easy discussion of English history, and the awkward moment passed.
At Mrs. Selwick-Alderly’s gentle prompting, I found myself rambling on about how I’d become interested in history (too many historical novels at an impressionable age), the politics of the Harvard history department (too complicated to even begin to go into), and why I’d decided to come to England. When the conversation began to verge onto what had gone wrong with Grant (everything), I hastily changed the subject, asking Mrs. Selwick-Alderly if she had heard any stories about the nineteenth-century spies as a small child.
“Oh, dear, yes!” Mrs. Selwick-Alderly smiled nostalgically into her teacup. “I spent a large part of my youth playing spy with my cousins. We would take it in turns to be the Purple Gentian and the Pink Carnation. My cousin Charles always insisted on playing Delaroche, the evil French operative. The French accent that boy affected! It put Maurice Chevalier to shame. After all these years, it still makes me laugh just to think of it. He would paint on an extravagant mustache—in those days, all the best villains had mustaches—and put on a cloak made out of one of Mother’s old wraps, and storm up and down the lawn, shaking his fist and swearing vengeance against the Pink Carnation.”
“Who was your favorite character?” I asked, charmed by the image.
“Why, the Pink Carnation, of course.”
We smiled over the rims of our teacups in complete complicity.
“But you have an added interest in the Pink Carnation,” Mrs. Selwick-Alderly said meaningfully. “Your dissertation, wasn’t it?”
“Oh! Yes! My dissertation!” I outlined the work I had done so far: the chapters on the Scarlet Pimpernel’s missions, the Purple Gentian’s disguises, the little I had been able to discover about the way they ran their leagues.
“But I haven’t been able to find anything at all about the Pink Carnation,” I finished. “I’ve read the old newspaper accounts, of course, so I know about the Pink Carnation’s more spectacular missions, but that’s it.”
“What had you hoped to find?”
I stared sheepishly down into my tea. “Oh, every historian’s dream. An overlooked manuscript entitled, How I Became the Pink Carnation and Why. Or I’d settle for a hint of his identity in a letter or a War Office report. Just something to give me some idea of where to look next.”
“I think I may be able to help you.” A slight smile lurked about Mrs. Selwick-Alderly’s lips.
“Really?” I perked up—literally. I sat so bolt upright that my teacup nearly toppled off my lap. “Are there family stories?”
Mrs. Selwick-Alderly’s faded blue eyes twinkled. She leaned forward conspiratorially. “Better.”
Possibilities were flying through my mind. An old letter, perhaps, or a deathbed message passed along from Selwick to Selwick, with Mrs. Selwick-Alderly the current keeper of the trust. But, then, if there were a Selwick Family Secret, why would she tell me? I abandoned imagination for the hope of reality. “What is it?” I asked breathlessly.
Mrs. Selwick-Alderly rose from the sofa with effortless grace. Setting her teacup down on the coffee table, she beckoned me to follow. “Come see.”
I divested myself of my teacup with a clatter, and eagerly followed her towards the twin windows that looked onto the square. Between the windows hung two small portrait miniatures, and for a disappointed moment, I thought she meant merely to lead me to the pictures—there didn’t seem to be anything else that might warrant attention. A small octagonal table to the right of the windows bore a pink-shaded lamp and a china candy dish, but little else. To the left, a row of bookcases lined the back of the room, but Mrs. Selwick-Alderly didn’t so much as glance in that direction.
Instead, she knelt before a large trunk that sat directly beneath the portrait miniatures. I’ve never been into domestic art, or material history, or whatever they’re calling it, but I’d spent enough afternoons loafing around the British galleries of the Victoria and Albert to recognize it as early eighteenth century, or an extraordinarily good reproduction. Different-colored woods marked out fanciful patterns of flowers and birds across the lid of the trunk, while a large tree of paradise adorned the center.
Mrs. Selwick-Alderly withdrew an elaborate key from her pocket.
“In this trunk,” she held the key poised before the lock, “lies the true identity of the Pink Carnation.”
Stooping, Mrs. Selwick-Alderly fitted the key—almost as ornately constructed as the chest itself, with the end twisted into elaborate curlicues—into the brass-bound lock. The lid sprang open with well-oiled ease. I joined Mrs. Selwick-Alderly on the floor, without even realizing how I’d gotten there.
My first glance was a disappointing one. Not a paper in sight, not even the scrap of a forgotten love letter. Instead, my sweeping gaze took in the faded ivory of an old fan, a yellowed scrap of embroidered cloth, the skeletal remains of a bouquet still bound with a tattered ribbon. There were other such trinkets, but I didn’t take much notice as I sank down onto my haunches beside the trunk.
But Mrs. Selwick-Alderly wasn’t finished. Deliberately, she eased one blue-veined hand along either side of the velvet lining and tugged. The top tray slid easily out of its supports. Within . . . I was back on my knees, hands gripping the edge of the trunk.
“This . . . it’s amazing!” I stuttered. “Are these all . . . ?”
“All early nineteenth century,” Mrs. Selwick-Alderly finished for me, regarding the contents of the trunk fondly. “They’ve all been sorted by chronological order, so you should find it easy going.” She reached into the trunk, picked up a folio, and then put it aside with a muttered “That won’t do.” After a moment’s peering into the trunk and making the occasional clucking noise, she seized on a rectangular packet, one of those special acid-free cardboard boxes they use to protect old library books.
“You’d best start here,” she advised, “with Amy.”
“Amy?” I asked, picking at the string binding the box together.
Mrs. Selwick-Alderly started to respond, and then checked herself, rising to her feet with the help of the edge of the box.
“These letters tell the tale far better than I could.” She cut off my incoherent questions with a kindly, “If you need anything, I’ll be in my study. It’s just down the hall to the right.”
“But, who is he?” I pleaded, pivoting after her as she walked towards the door. “The Pink Carnation?”
“Read and see. . . .” Mrs. Selwick-Alderly’s voice drifted behind her through the open door.
Urgh. Gnawing on my lower lip, I stared down at the manuscript box in my hands. The gray cardboard was smooth and clean beneath my fingers; unlike the battered, dusty old boxes in the stacks of Widener Library, someone cared for these papers well. The identity of the Pink Carnation. Did she really mean it?
I should have been tearing at the twine that bound the box, but there was something about the waiting stillness of the room, broken only by the occasional crackle of burning bark upon the grate, that barred abrupt movement. I could almost feel the portrait miniatures on the wall straining to peer over my shoulder.
Besides, I counseled myself, mechanically unwinding the string, I shouldn’t let myself get too excited. Mrs. Selwick-Alderly might be exaggerating. Or mad. True, she didn’t look mad, but maybe her delusion took the form of thinking she held the key to the identity of the Pink Carnation. I would open the box to find it contained a stack of Beatles lyrics or amateur poetry.
The last loop of string came free. The cardboard flap fell open, revealing a pile of yellowed papers. The date on the first letter, in a scrawling, uneven hand, read 4 march, 1803.
Not amateur poetry.
Dizzy with excitement, I flipped through the thick packet of papers. Some were in better condition than others; in places, ink had run, or lines had been lost in folds. Hints of reddish sealing wax clung to the edges of some, while others had lost corners to the depredations of time and the clutching fingers of eager readers. Some were written in a bold black hand, others in a spiky copperplate, and many in a barely legible scribble. But they all had one thing in common; they were all dated 1803. Phrases rose out of the sea of squiggles as I thumbed through . . . “provoking man . . . brother would never. . . .”
I forced myself to return to the first page. Sinking down onto the carpet before the fire, I adjusted my skirt, refreshed my cold cup of tea, and began to read the first letter. It was written in ungrammatical French, and I translated as I read.
“4 March, 1803. Dear Sister—With the end of the late hostilities, I find myself at last in a position to urge you to return to your rightful place in the House of Balcourt. . . .”
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: