20 November 2008

Quantum & Quality

Being an Excerpt from an Unpublished Spy Novel
by an Anonymous Author

It was widely said of Jane Bond that the benefits of her otherwise admirable measure of beauty were useless to her, as she was nearly thirty, and her dowry much less than one hundred pounds, along with a large ball of string, which it had been her late father’s habit to collect, and to study, and which was much praised throughout the county. In her youth, long ago, Miss Bond had acquired such skills of sewing, painting, and dancing that might have won her a match, had her father not burdened her with considerable debts, a ready wit, and an instruction in French grammar, and ‘No man will take a bride who speaks her mind, particularly if he does not understand her when she speaks it,’ Mrs. Bond had warned them both, from the outset, to no avail. Among the other, gossiping ladies of Maidsworth, it was said further that Miss Bond had once enjoyed a round of whist with a man who was known to be in trade, the shame of which nearly exceeded its whispering report. Her reputation thus compromised, it seemed likely she must perforce remain unmarried; having failed to exact a promise from Mr. Woodcock, the new curate in Maidsworth, and having no other expectation but the management of her widowed mother and fourteen younger sisters, Miss Bond saw no recourse but to seek employment, suitable to a lady of good family and no property; either as governess to a country household, or as agent in His Majesty’s Secret Service.

‘Might we stroll a moment about the garden?’ Mr. Smallwood inquired; ‘for the closeness of the ballroom and the exertion of our last quadrille have made of cooler air a necessity for me, and perhaps for you, as well, I may venture.’

‘How I regret your words, sir, for I should have been content to take a glass of punch and to sit for a moment here, by the open window, though I am usually susceptible to any draught,’ Jane replied; ‘but I cannot accept even that engagement, nor any future one, in your company, Mr. Smallwood, now that you have spoken. It would be in any case improper for a gentleman to pose such a question, to an unmarried woman, with neither prospects nor chaperone. Yet more pressingly, I am no longer unaware of your true identity, and of the jeopardy in which your roguish impertinence must place me, not only to my reputation, but to my very life. For, in making this proposal, you have revealed yourself at last to be the greatest scoundrel of them all, Napoléon Bonaparte, on a reconnaissance mission in Britain, with a view to conquest of these shores. Confess yourself, sir!’

‘I fear I fail to apprehend how a single question of remarkable innocence can have led you to so astonishing a conclusion,’ Mr. Smallwood replied.

‘I have for no small time observed you, sir,’ Jane said, ‘and it has not escaped my attention that you are short of stature, as Mr. Bonaparte is known to be; and although you profess yourself to be a major in the Highland Guards, your uniform bears buttons of the Royal Navy; and whenever the ranks of corporal and general are mentioned in conversation, you answer. These are ranks, sir, that you have held in the French Army, under the name, I repeat, not of Smallwood but of Bonaparte.’

‘There are, I assure you, Miss Jane, explanations of a perfectly simple nature for each of the anomalies that you perceive, and these explanations I shall most happily supply,’ Mr. Smallwood said, ‘at your earliest convenience, of which you may inform me by letter.’

‘I shall be most interested to receive such explanations,’ Jane said; ‘and perhaps, too, you can explain how it is that you persist in addressing me as “Miss Jane,” when, as the eldest daughter of my father, I am properly addressed only as “Miss Bond,” which any true Englishman would know, but a Corsican would not; and why it is that you keep one hand always in the breast of your waistcoat, precisely as Mr. Bonaparte is known to do, from the many paintings of him that have been much on public view.’

At this, Mr. Smallwood smiled. ‘No such portrait has been circulated publicly on England’s shores, Miss Bond; for it is only in France that Napoléon is recognized as a great man,’ he said. ‘How is it possible that you, a simple country governess, may have observed such a painting? It is universally spoken of you that you are a keen observer, and yet your eyesight must be very good indeed, to see from a vantage in Maidsworth a painting that hangs in Paris.’

The colour mounted in Jane’s cheeks. ‘As I am obliged to provide instruction in French to my charges,’ she said, ‘it has long been my custom to consult any journal or newspaper in that language that should come my way, from the hand of a man who has travelled; and in such a publication, it is only natural that an engraving should — ’

‘I put it to you roundly that you are a member of His Majesty’s Secret Service,’ Mr. Smallwood responded; ‘or else you are a silly girl, given to elaborate fancies, and most especially when in the company of a handsome single man of six thousand a year; which fancies and, indeed, hysteria a Frenchman might observe are typical of the puritanical English virgins when confronted with the virile Latin sex; whereas any French girl would have surrendered herself to me already without a care; though as an English gentleman I shall of course let the matter lie unspoken. Nevertheless, you are either a spy or a fool. Which is it to be, Miss Bond?’

‘I would advise you to invade Egypt instead of Britain, sir,’ Jane said, ‘for you will find it an easier conquest, having few defenses and no Christian as its sovereign; and to decline the Directoire’s heedless strategy for my country, which has brought you to these shores.’

‘You cannot think that Napoléon Bonaparte would undertake such a mission of reconnaissance alone and unaided,’ Mr. Smallwood said; ‘and — if I were he — I would therefore be surrounded by stout arms, ready to leap to my aid at but a signal.’

‘Arms do not leap,’ said Jane; ‘your phrase is inelegant. This is further proof that you are a Frenchman; I am never mistaken in my impressions. But I hope that I may answer you, sir, in a tone of becoming modesty, by allowing that, if I were an English spy, at a country dancing party which I suspected to be attended by foreign persons of questionable intention, I would not do so without carrying a weapon; and that a pistol of discreet proportions, but no less deadly, must therefore be concealed somewhere about my person.’

‘A pistol carries but a single bullet, Miss Bond,’ said Mr. Smallwood.

‘Even a very small bullet may suffice to bring about the death of a man, whether he be English with an annual income of six thousand, or French with a battery of henchmen,’ Jane replied; ‘and if I were to remove from this earth so odious a menace to my Crown, and to die for it, I should nonetheless count myself happy.’

‘See here, Miss Bond, about the bush let us beat no more. You are outnumbered,’ Mr. Smallwood said; ‘and if I may say so, outwitted. I am indeed Napoléon Bonaparte, and though I find myself on hostile shores, my prospects are happier than yours. For you, Miss Bond, are my prisoner.’

Jane smiled now, and touched Mr. Smallwood lightly with her fan. ‘It is therefore incumbent upon you, Mr. Bonaparte,’ she said, ‘to do your worst.’

‘I shall, and with alacrity, Miss Bond,’ the imposter replied; ‘but prior to subjecting you to manifold tortures, of a violence and invention unthinkable to anyone but a Frenchman, I hope you will allow me to enlighten you on certain points of my plan for world domination.’

‘I can think of no more desirable an entertainment, sir, nor one more likely to improve the evening hours,’ Jane replied; ‘let us make haste to your carriage, and away.’


Mikebench said...

Brilliant! I can already see Charles Boyer and Greer Garson playing this scene... :-)

William V. Madison said...

Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of our contemporaries: Mathieu Amalric, who's playing the villain in the new Bond picture; and Anne Hathaway, who needs to redeem herself for the dreadful Becoming Jane.

William V. Madison said...

Oh - and Mathieu Amalric is a short fellow, too.

Anonymous said...

I love this! And see distinct television possibilities...

Anonymous said...

You've narrowed the child's prospects too harshly. She could be a painter of the most delicate china---using the tiniest paintbrush---shaping the sable brush tip by mouth---and only very slowly, pathetically, and prettily declining into lead-induced dementia.