A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey is a thrilling historical novel that involves recipes, revenge, mystery, and marriage (Available January 12, 2016).
Manchester 1787. When budding young criminal Mary Jebb swindles Michael Croxon's brother with a blank pound note, he chases her into the night and sets in motion a train of sinister events. Condemned to seven years of transportation to Australia, Mary sends him a 'Penny Heart'-a token of her vow of revenge.
Two years later, Michael marries naïve young Grace Moore. Although initially overjoyed at the union, Grace quickly realizes that her husband is more interested in her fortune than her company. Lonely and desperate for companionship, she turns to her new cook to help mend her ailing marriage. But Mary Jebb, shipwrecked, maltreated, and recently hired, has different plans for the unsuspecting owners of Delafosse Hall.
∼ Sassafras Tea ∼
Take a large spoonful of sassafras root ground to a powder and put into a pint of boiling water, stirring until it is like a fine jelly; then put wine and sugar to it and lemon, if it will agree. A most refreshing drink sold liberally about the streets and said to lift the spirits and ease the mind of suspicion, all for a halfpenny piece.
Mother Eve’s Secrets
Dusk shrouded Manchester’s damp streets, disguising familiar landmarks and giving a lurid cast to buildings lit by oil lamp and candle. Michael Croxon dragged his brother past half-built skeletons of factories and mills, the lofty temples to the new religion of commerce. He marvelled at serried rows of golden windows shining against the mauve sky, announcing the new machines’ inexhaustible industry. The rhythmic hum and clatter of the looms filled the air like music, a striding overture to a prosperous future. He had learned so much of the modern world on this visit; how damp air kept the cotton from breaking, where the wondrous looms might be purchased, and for what small cost the workers could be housed – and how easily replaced should they not prove satisfactory. At last he had found the grand venture that would prove his worth – and make him prodigiously rich, besides. In his excitement, his boot slipped on the frosty stones and he clutched at Peter to maintain his balance. An oil-black chasm opened up before him; the canal stank of drowned vegetation and blocked privies. He was glad of Peter’s arm, but felt a flash of resentment at his gentle, ‘Take it steady.’
They left the clamour of the mills and came to older streets. He recognised the gables of the ancient college at Chetham’s, and took a side street, passing floridly tiled public houses that exuded bursts of hubbub and sudden wafts of beer and fried fish. At one corner a huddle of men smoked, one of their number whistling a slow Irish melody that never faltered as the tunesmith followed them with his eyes. The Manchester mills were luring in multitudes of the poor, as a poultice draws in filth: with every visit he saw greater degradation and lawlessness. The coming of night increased his anxiety. The coach to Greaves would wait for no one.
Then there it was at last, the pillared frontage of the Cross Keys inn. Passing through the gate, he found the inn yard crowded with a noisy rabble. Hawkers thrust unwanted items in their faces: a tray of knives, stinking fish. They shoved their way towards a group of fellow travellers, all of them smothered in cloaks and greatcoats, warily keeping watch over their boxes and baggage. A space was instantly made for the two gentlemen; both of them so fair and agreeably modish that a few onlookers, most especially women, cast covert glances towards them.
‘Look. For all your harrying, we still have fifteen whole minutes.’ Peter pointed towards the inn clock, his boyish voice reproachful. But if they were on time, it was only because he had spent all day chivvying Peter; cutting short his supper, insisting he broke off his goodbyes to that alderman’s daughter, conscious all the time of the hands on his gold pocket watch, marching steadily forward to the moment at which he would announce his plans to his father. Though at twenty-five he was only two years older than Peter, the contrast between his own ambitions and his brother’s indolence would be triumphant. Next, he must raise capital, find suitable land, and machines. He felt himself unstoppable, on the road to a glorious future.
The bill of charges for their journey confronted them, pasted on the wall. He turned to Peter. ‘Did you keep back the right change for the journey? Look. Nine shillings and sixpence from Manchester to Greaves.’
Peter half-heartedly rummaged in his pockets. ‘Damn it. My last few bob went to the barber. The coachman must change my pound note.’
‘Will you never learn? I told you the coachman may choose not to change such a large sum. And if the coach is full and another passenger offers the correct fare, then what will you do? What shall I tell Father when I arrive home without you, all because of your negligence?’
Peter attempted a face of contrition, but Michael fancied his lips twitched in amusement. ‘I am sorry. No, truly I am. But it cannot be helped. Shall I see if the landlord has change?’ He looked vaguely about; but the press of people at the inn’s entrance did not bode well.
‘Well, I cannot lend it you.’
Peter’s flippancy brought out the worst side of Michael’s character; the bombastic older brother who must always be right.
At that moment a woman standing by them pulled at his sleeve – afterwards, he wondered that he hadn’t noticed her at his elbow. She stepped forward into the lamplight.
‘Sir, perhaps I can help you. I’ve a right lot of coin I can exchange for you.’ Her voice was as clear as a bell, though marred by the accent of Manchester’s lower orders.
Peter glanced at him triumphantly. ‘You see. Providence provides.’ He looked at the girl, a fine strong-looking piece, with a wooden tray hanging from her neck on which a jug and wooden cups were laid out. She looked handsome in a shabby, housemaid’s sort of way. Wide feline eyes smiled at him from a pleasing heart-shaped face.
‘It is a whole pound he needs change for,’ he said gruffly.
‘It’s just as well I’ve had a good day, sirs.’ She tested the fat leather bag in her hand. ‘Now if you was to take this heavy coin it would be doing me a favour. Save me hauling it all the way to my mother’s at Strangeways.’
She smiled modestly, clearly aware that he was the senior of the two brothers. ‘Go on, help yourself to a cup, won’t you? No, not a penny. I’ll have less to carry.’ She offered each of them the remains of her fare, a sweet and pungent tea. As she passed him the cup, her fingertips brushed his own for a pulsating moment. Drinking the tea, he wondered why he had never discovered this delight before; it was refreshing in the manner of spirits, setting off little thrills in his veins. After replacing the tea things with the money bag on her tray, she said gravely, ‘This is a whole twenty shilling in coin. I should rather one of you counted it with me.’
Peter rushed forwards, of course, forever springing to help a lady. Though this was no lady, in spite of her lace cap trimmed with green ribbon. He hoped his brother could distinguish that much, for he was already murmuring, ‘A pleasure. And most kind of you, dear girl.’
She glanced up at Peter’s fawning expression with that sweet smile. ‘Why, thank ’ee, sir.’ Then she lowered her eyes as if she were quite unused to the civility of gentlemen. Michael pictured her in the very different exchanges of the lower orders: scenes of cursing, scolding, degradation. She had a remarkably well formed body, and her face was as fair as that of a duchess. As for her eyes, they were bright and probing when they met his, seeming to seek entry to some hidden chamber within himself. Then there it was in her bold stare; a stinging jolt; an invisible connection. Discomfited, he rapidly turned away.
The next time he looked, a cascade of copper and silver tumbled across the tray. Quickly, Peter and the girl began counting as he looked on, watching the girl especially. Soon they had made neat piles of shillings: six, seven, eight. Peter passed her the pound note and she folded it reverentially, tucking it into the pocket in her skirts.
‘Seventeen shilling, eighteen shilling,’ she counted, her clean and graceful hands gathering and heaping. ‘Look. A black dog.’ She held it up for them to see the black-leaded forgery of a sixpence. ‘I’ll not count that, you gentlemen needn’t fret.’ She replaced the coin with a shiny one of her own.
He glanced at the clock: it was almost half-past. ‘Hurry, can’t you?’
‘Nearly there, sir. Nineteen, and that is surely twenty.’ She stiffened, and raised her hand to cover her mouth. There was an awkward silence. ‘On my mother’s heart, there’s some mistake,’ she whimpered. ‘Why, it’s all wrong, there must be a half-crown more of coin here, at least.’ She grew flustered, checking each tottering pile so clumsily that she toppled a few, undoing all their careful work.
Just at this juncture a crash at the gates announced the arrival of the Manchester Flyer, scattering bystanders and spraying mud like a racing plough. The horses strained in their harnesses as the coachman drew hard on the reins.
Peter tried to retrieve the situation. ‘If we quickly recount these twenty?’ he suggested. But the girl was too agitated to reason with. ‘I can’t account for it,’ she wailed. ‘I must have counted wrong. If I give you too much, I’ll be for it all right.’
She stared a moment at the untidy heaps. Suddenly she gathered them all together in a tumble of coins. ‘Oh, I am sorry, sirs; I wish I had never started. It’s more than my skin’s worth to lose a penny.’
Now the Flyer’s coachman had dismounted, and their fellow passengers eagerly pressed towards the carriage doors. The man at the head of the queue proffered the right fare and received a friendly salute from the coachman.
‘Peter, for goodness’ sake come on!’ He picked up his own bags and looked back impatiently over his shoulder.
‘Never mind, dear,’ Peter said. ‘Thank you for trying.’
‘Here, sir. Your pound note.’ She rummaged in the pocket of her skirts and pushed it back into his hand.
In the event, they had to wait to board the coach. A couple of youths clambered up on the roof, and were slow in hauling their bags up beside them. The old fellow in front of them fussed abominably over being parted from his portmanteau. Finally, Michael paid the coachman his nine and sixpence. He lingered to watch Peter pay, torn between wanting to see his younger brother humiliated and a desire to board at once.
‘What’s this for a lark?’ asked the coachman, holding Peter’s pound note aloft as if it were a filthy rag. ‘You think I don’t have no notion what a banknote looks like?’ Michael frowned, looking closely, and then saw it clear before his eyes. Instead of the copperplate inscription, Skipton Bank I promise to pay the bearer on demand One Pound, and the cashier’s freshly inked signature, the note bore all the signs of a forgery; the ink a crude blur, the motif ‘One pound’ a childish blot.
‘The girl!’ he shouted. Then, to Peter, ‘You damned idiot.’
Michael looked to where she had stood with her tray – of course she had gone. A bearded man selling clay pipes now stood in her place. Craning his neck, he saw she was no longer in the yard.
‘Stay here with the bags until I return,’ he shouted at Peter. Consumed with fury, he shouldered his way to the gates, and from there, by great luck, he saw her running in the distance, a flurry of movement beneath a street lamp. He set off after her, his feet pounding the hard frost, feeling the same savage exhilaration as when he was a boy, hunting with his dog, careering after rats in the stables.
His father’s money. It must be repaid. He could never admit to his father that Peter had been duped by a Manchester swindler – and a trollop of a woman at that. It was a matter of preserving his reputation. Careless of his boots slithering on the mud, he ran until a stitch jabbed his side, his gaze never leaving his quarry. She was moving fast, darting through pools of darkness but always emerging into murky lamplight. There were few other people abroad; only gaunt creatures shuffling close to the walls.
Then two gentlemen emerged from a side alley, nearly colliding with him. He cried, ‘I have been robbed!’ and, enjoying the drama of his situation, pointed at the woman’s distant figure. When he set off again he could hear their footsteps behind him. He felt like the leader of a pack, his breath white vapour in the darkness.
Rapid hoofbeats and a post-horn trumpeting the rapid trills of Clear the Road signalled the approach of the Manchester Flyer. Michael was forced to take refuge in a doorway and protect his eyes from the hail of dirt from the wheels. As it receded, he squinted up at its bulk, but of course Peter had not boarded without him. He looked once more for the woman, peering this way and that. Devil take her, she had vanished.
He had marked the spot of her last appearance with his eye, but when he reached it he stopped, perplexed. Before him stood an old shop: a ramshackle place with a wooden sign swinging over the door. His fellow pursuers arrived at his back, bending double and puffing hard.
‘She’s gone,’ he said. ‘Disappeared into the air.’
The elder of the two gentlemen, who introduced himself as a magistrate, fetched a lantern and began to inspect the vicinity. The ancient shop sign bore a primitive design of a quill pen and an ape-faced angel with a sword. Squinting, he saw that it read ‘The Pen & Angel’. The tiny pool of light moved over a window displaying only curling, ancient paper behind its dirty pane. Then, he spotted a narrow opening that he had earlier thought to be a drainpipe. Approaching the ginnel, he saw it was barely a few feet wide. Alerting his companions, he slid his body between its walls, and was instantly so cold that he might have fallen underground. Coal black darkness enveloped him; he was forced to reach out with fingers, simultaneously recoiling from the oozing slime. He groped his way forward, fearing each step might betray him into a pit or sewer. With great relief, he emerged into a gloomy yard, from which the only exit was an unobtrusive door in a blank brick wall. When he tried the door, it opened.
He had expected some sort of wretched warren. Instead, he found himself inside the loveliest of mansions, in a salon lit with coloured lights reflected by gilded mirrors. At the centre of the chequerboard floor rose a fountain. Picking up one from a row of glasses on the stand, he drank thirstily, and was astonished to find that the fountain ran with wine. As if in a marvellous dream, he wandered into a parlour where a half-dozen women lounged beneath crystal girandoles, dressed in flimsy silks. He could see at once, from their hot glances and painted pouts, that they were as wanton as the Devil. He could smell them, too: a fecund dampness beneath their ratafia scent.
He inquired where the girl with the green-ribboned cap had gone, and a plump whore giggled. ‘Mary?’ she said, and pointed up the stairs.
For a long while he explored silent corridors lined with doors: all very fine, but as gloomy as sin from a paucity of candles. He would have given up, only his boot struck what he fancied was a dog crouching on the stair. As he reached out he touched a mop of soft hair. A child in a nightgown, no more than eight years old, cringed back from him against the wall, whimpering like an infant. Just then the ceiling creaked. Footsteps sounded above his head; there was something so furtive about them that he knew they belonged to his quarry. The ceiling creaked again. Forgetting the child, he ran up the narrow stairs and through a door. Outside, he halted to breathe in the clean cold air of the night.
He was standing on a flat roof, where neglected washing hung as hard as boards across sagging lines. His feet slid unsteadily over twinkling frost as he searched behind ghostly laundry. With a clattering crack, he knocked over a stool. In response, he heard a sharp, female breath. He lifted a bed sheet that glittered and burned his fingers with cold. The girl stood against a high wall, unable to retreat any further.
‘Here. Take it.’ Her voice was different, almost refined, a breathless whisper. She threw the pound note at him and it fluttered lazily to the ground. Her eyes were fixed upon him, very wide and bright. ‘Now let me go free.’
He picked up the note and stuck it in his waistcoat. ‘Why should I?’ he asked. ‘You stole it.’ His breath was still hot from the chase; his throat painful.
At first she didn’t answer. Her cloak had fallen open and her skin looked icy white in the moonlight; she was panting like a hart at bay. Then her eyes met his, with a penetrating recognition that slashed through every layer of his earnest respectability.
‘Why should you?’ she said slowly. ‘Because that pound is nothing to you. Because I know what you are after.’
Later, he understood she knew him better than he did himself. ‘If you let me go. No one need ever know about you,’ she said very softly and the unspoken words thrilled him. Then, in the light of the frosty stars, he saw her smile. It was not such a sweet smile now. A fierce and wanton smile.
Her pale hand reached for her skirt edge and lifted it to her knees. A white stocking. It was impossible to prevent his manhood from rising at the prospect. Her face was entirely fixed upon his, entirely commanding. He strode to her and grasped her skirt in his fist, and the cloth felt fired up with an unearthly force, like an electric charge that galvanised his whole body. His sigh emerged as a groan.
She had discovered him. However courageously he battled to maintain his high moral manner to the world, this strumpet knew him better. Not for him the simpering misses whose coy glances Peter chased; he liked a bold woman best of all. Why, here in Manchester, if he had only managed to free himself of Peter, he had glimpsed some wild creatures that had thrilled his very being. Next time, he had vowed to himself, he would travel alone.
There followed an interval in which he scarcely believed his senses. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he had comprehended what she was from the moment he saw her. Desire ignited inside him like gunpowder.
‘There they are!’ came a cry from the doorway. ‘Catch her quick!’
Damn their eyes! It was the two gentlemen, with a constable. He sprang back and battled to recollect himself, then lifted the pound note, like a trophy.
‘Proof,’ he said, his voice still thick. ‘I caught her red-handed.’ The men rushed up and congratulated him; he felt himself to be a hero. But it was a poor sort of balm to his recent pitch of excitement, for he still felt queasy and itchy about the loins.
The constable took the girl roughly by the arm.
‘No, I beg you,’ she wailed.
‘Sir,’ the constable interrupted. ‘Will you bear witness in court that this young woman stole a pound note from you?’
‘From my brother,’ he corrected.
‘I will hang for it, sir. Look to your conscience,’ she cried. ‘Think of it. All on your word. And I gave it back at once,’ she appealed to them all. ‘He knows it was an honest mistake!’
He couldn’t look at her again without shame inflaming him. He violently wished the other men would disappear. He could have been indulged as he wished, and then he might have returned triumphantly to Peter with the pound note. It scarcely mattered that they had missed the coach. They could have travelled tomorrow and no one been the wiser.
Yet still he could save her from the gallows and agree he had made a mistake. Damn this crowd of onlookers. But the girl, was she not very wicked, would she not continue her tricks on other men? She was shameless. She had discovered him. He had been on the cusp of revealing his lewdest, most sinful self.
‘Please sir, don’t be living with the murdering of me. Don’t have it on your conscience!’ She was struggling in the constable’s grasp, trying to throw herself down on her knees before him.
He tucked the pound note back in his pocket. ‘I’ll bear witness,’ he said, and he let them congratulate him all the way down to the constable’s office.
Copyright © 2016 Martine Bailey.
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Martine Bailey was inspired by eighteenth-century household books of recipes, and writing has allowed her to indulge in her obsessions with food, history and travel. As an amateur cook, Martine won the Merchant Gourmet Recipe Challenge and was a former UK Dessert Champion, cooking at Le Meurice in Paris. In pursuit of authenticity she has studied with food historian Ivan Day and experienced Georgian food and fashion at firsthand with an historic re-enactment society.
Martine lives in Cheshire, England after recently returning from a 20-month stay in New Zealand. She is married with one son.