Dover, England, March 1803
Dominique Celine Dawson stepped off the teetering plank of the ship and sought the comfort of solid land beneath her feet, knowing that as she did, she instantly became a traitor to England. Thanking the purser, she released his hand with a forced smile.
He tipped his hat and handed her the small embroidered valise containing all her worldly possessions. “Looks like rain,” he called back over his shoulder as he headed up the gangway.
Black clouds swirled above her, stealing all light from the midmorning sun. A gust of wind clawed at her bonnet. Passengers and sailors unloading cargo collided with her from all directions. She stepped aside, testing her wobbly legs. Although she’d just boarded the ship from Calais, France, to Dover that morning, her legs quivered nearly as much as her heart. She hated sailing. What an embarrassment she must have been to her father, an admiral in the British Royal Navy.
A man dressed in a top hat and wool cape bumped into her and nearly knocked her to the ground.
Stumbling, Dominique clamped her sweaty fingers around her valise, feeling as though it was her heart they squeezed. Did the man know? Did he know what she had been sent here to do?
He shot her an annoyed glance over his shoulder. “Beggin’ your pardon, miss,” he muttered before trotting off, lady on his arm and children in tow.
Blowing out a sigh, Dominique tried to still her frantic breathing. She must focus. She must remain calm. She had committed no crime --- yet.
She scanned the bustling port of Dover. Waves of people flowed through the streets, reminding her of the tumultuous sea she had just crossed. Ladies in silk bonnets clung to gentlemen in long-tailed waistcoats and breeches. Beggars, merchants, and tradesmen hustled to and fro as if they didn’t have a minute to lose. Dark-haired Chinamen hauled two-wheeled carts behind them, loaded with passengers or goods. Carriages and horses clomped over the cobblestone streets. The air filled with a thousand voices, shouts and screams and curses and idle chatter accompanied by the incessant tolling of bells and the rhythmic lap of the sea against the docks.
The stench of fish and human sweat stung Dominique’s nose, and she coughed and took a step forward, searching for the carriage that surely must have been sent to convey her to London and to
the Randal estate. But amidst the dizzying crowd, no empty convey-
ance sat waiting; no pair of eyes met hers --- at least none belonging to a coachman sent to retrieve her. Other eyes flung their slithering gazes her way, however, like snakes preying on a tiny ship mouse. A lady traveling alone was not a sight often seen.
Lightning split the dark sky in two, and thunder shook it with an ominous boom. For four years she had longed to return to England, the place of her birth, the place filled with many happy childhood memories, but now that she was here, she felt more lost and frightened than ever. Her fears did not completely stem from the fact that she had never traveled alone before, nor been a governess before --- although both of those things would have been enough to send her heart into a frenzy. The true reason she’d returned to her homeland frightened her the most.
Rain misted over her, and she brushed aside the damp curls that framed her face, wondering what to do next. Oh Lord, I feel so alone, so frightened. Where are You? She looked up, hoping for an answer, but the bloated clouds exploded in a torrent of rain that pummeled her face and her hopes along with it. Dashing through the crowd, she ducked beneath the porch of a fish market, covering her nose with a handkerchief against the putrid smell.
People crowded in beside her, an old woman pushing an apple cart, a merchantman with a nose the size of a doorknob, and several seamen, one of whom glared at Dominique from beneath bushy brows and hooded lids. He leaned against a post, inserted a black wad into his mouth, and began chewing, never taking his gaze from her. Ignoring him, Dominique glanced through the sheet of rain pouring off the overhang at the muted shapes moving to and fro. Globs of mud splashed from the puddle at her feet onto her muslin gown. She had wanted to make a good impression on Admiral Randal. What was he to think of his new governess when she arrived covered in filth?
Lightning flashed. The seaman sidled up beside her, pushing the old woman out of the way. “Looking for someone, miss?”
Dominique avoided the man’s eyes as thunder shook the tiny building. “No, merci,” she said, instantly cringing at her use of French.
“Mercy?” He jumped back in disgust. “You ain’t no frog, is you?” The man belched. He stared at her as if he would shoot her right there, depending on her answer.
Terror renewed the queasiness in her stomach. “Of course not.”
“You sound like one.” He leaned toward her, squinting his dark eyes in a foreboding challenge.
“You are mistaken, sir.” Dominique held a hand against his advance. “Now if you please.” She brushed past him and plunged into the rain. Better to suffer the deluge than the man’s verbal assault. The French were not welcome here, not since the Revolution and the ensuing hostilities caused by Napoleon’s rise to power. Granted, last year Britain had signed a peace treaty with France, but no one believed it would last.
Dominique jostled her way through those brave souls not intimidated by the rain and scanned the swarm of carriages vying for position along the cobblestone street. If she did not find a ride to London soon, her life would be in danger from the miscreants who slunk around the port. Hunger rumbled in her stomach as her nerves coiled into knots. Lord, I need You.
To her right, she spotted the bright red wheels of a mail coach that had Royal Mail: London to Dover painted on the back panel. Shielding her eyes from the rain, she glanced up at the coachman perched atop the vehicle, water cascading off his tall black hat. “Do you have room for a passenger to London, monsie --- sir?”
He gave her a quizzical look then shook his head. “I’m full.”
“I’m willing to pay.” Dominique shuffled through her valise and pulled out a small purse.
The man allowed his gaze to wander freely over her sodden gown. “And what is it ya might be willing to pay?”
She squinted against the rain pooling in her lashes and swallowed. Perhaps a coach would be no safer than the port, after all. “Four guineas,” she replied in a voice much fainter than she intended.
The man spat off to the side. “It’ll cost you five.”
Dominique fingered the coins in her purse. That would leave her only ten shillings, all that remained of what her cousin had given her for the trip, and all that remained of the grand Dawson fortune, so quickly divided among relatives after her parents’ death. But what choice did she have? She counted the coins, handed them to the coachman, then waited for him to assist her into the carriage, but he merely pocketed the money and gestured behind him. Lifting her skirts, heavy with rain, she clambered around packages and parcels and took a seat beside a window, hugging her valise. Shivering, she tightened her frock around her neck and fought the urge to jump off the carriage, dart back to the ship, and sail right back to France.
Several minutes later, a young couple with a baby climbed in, shaking the rain from their coats. After quick introductions, they squeezed into the seat beside Dominique.
Through the tiny window, the coachman stared at them and frowned, forming a pock on his lower chin. He muttered under his breath before turning and snapping the reins that sent the mail coach careening down the slick street.
The next four hours only added to Dominique’s nightmare. Though exhausted from traveling half the night, rest was forbidden her by the constant jostling and jerking of the carriage over every small bump and hole in the road and the interminable screaming of the infant in the arms of the poor woman next to her. She thanked God, however, that it appeared the roads had been newly paved or the trip might have taken twice as long. As it was, each hour passed at a snail’s pace and only sufficed to increase both her anxiety and her fear.
Finally, they arrived at the outskirts of the great city capped in a shroud of black from a thousand coal chimneys --- a soot that not even the hard rain could clear. After the driver dropped off the couple and their vociferous child on the east side of town, Dominique had to haggle further for him to take her all the way to Hart Street, to which he reluctantly agreed only after Dominique offered him another three precious shillings.
The sights and sounds of London drifted past her window like visions from a time long ago. She had spent several summers here as a child, but through the veil of fear and loneliness, she hardly recognized it. Buildings made from crumbling brick and knotted timber barely held up levels of apartments stacked on top of them. Hovels and shacks lined the dreary alleyways that squeezed between residences and shops in an endless maze. Despite the rain, dwarfs and acrobatic monkeys entertained people passing by, hoping for a coin tossed their way. As the coach rounded one corner, a lavishly dressed man with a booming voice stood in an open booth, proclaiming that his tonic cured every ache and pain known to man.
The stench of horse manure and human waste filled the streets, rising from puddles where both had been deposited for the soil men to clean up at night.
Dominique pressed a hand to her nose and glanced out the other side of the carriage, where the four pointed spires of the Tower of London thrust into the angry sky. Though kings had resided in the castlelike structure, many other people had been imprisoned and tortured within its walls. She trembled at the thought as they proceeded down Thames Street, where she soon saw the massive London Bridge spanning the breadth of the murky river.
Her thoughts veered to Marcel, her only brother --- young, impetuous Marcel. Dominique had cared for him after their mother died last year of the fever, and she had never felt equal to the task. Marcel favored their father with his high ideals and visions of heroism, while Dominique was more like their mother, quiet and shy. Marcel needed strong male guidance, not the gentle counsel of an overprotective sister.
So of course Dominique had been thrilled when a distant cousin sought them out and offered to take them both under his care. Monsieur Lucien held the position of ministère de l’intérieur under Napoleon’s rule --- a highly respectable and powerful man who would be a good influence on Marcel.
Or so she had thought.
The carriage lurched to the right, away from the stench of the river. Soon the cottages and shabby tenements gave way to grand two- and three-level townhomes circled by iron fences.
Dominique hugged her valise to her chest, hoping to gain some comfort from holding on to something --- anything --- but her nerves stiffened even more as she neared her destination. After making several more turns, the coach stopped before a stately white building. With a scowl, the driver poked his open hand through the window, and Dominique handed him her coins, not understanding the man’s foul humor. Did he treat all his patrons this way, or had she failed to conceal the bit of French in her accent?
Climbing from the carriage, she held her bag against her chest and tried to sidestep a puddle the size of a small lake. Without warning, the driver cracked the reins and the carriage jerked forward, spraying Dominique with mud.
Horrified, she watched as the driver sped down the street. He did that on purpose. She’d never been treated with such disrespect in her life. But then, she’d always traveled with her mother, the beautiful Marguerite Jean Denoix, daughter of Edouard, vicomte de Gimois, or her father, Stuart Dawson, a respected admiral in the Royal Navy. Without them by her side, who was she? Naught but an orphan without a penny to her name.
Rain battered her as she stared up at the massive white house, but she no longer cared. Her bonnet draped over her hair like a wet fish, her coiffure had melted into a tangle of saturated strands, and her gown, littered with mud, clung to her like a heavy shroud. She deserved it, she supposed, for what she had come to do.
She wondered if Admiral Randal was anything like his house --- cold, imposing, and rigid. Four stories high, it towered above most houses on the street. Two massive white columns stood like sentinels holding up the awning while guarding the front door.
The admiral sat on the Admiralty Board of His Majesty’s Navy, making him a powerful man privy to valuable information such as the size, location, and plans of the British fleet. Would he be anything like her dear father?
Dominique skirted the stairs that led down to the kitchen. Her knees began to quake as she continued toward the front door. The blood rushed from her head. The world began to spin around her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she swallowed. No, she had to do this. For you, Marcel. You’re all I have left in the world.
She opened her eyes and took another step, feeling as though she walked into a grand mausoleum where dead men’s bones lay ensconced behind cold marble.
She halted. Not too late to turn around --- not too late to run. But Marcel’s innocent young face, contorted in fear, burned in her memory. And her cousin Lucien’s lanky frame standing beside him, a stranglehold on the boy’s collar. “If you prefer your brother’s head to be attached to his body, you will do as I request.”
A cold fist clamped over Dominique’s heart. She could not lose her brother. She continued up the steps though every muscle, every nerve protested. Why me, Lord? Who am I to perform such a task?
Ducking under the cover of the imposing porch, Dominique raised her hand to knock upon the ornately carved wooden door, knowing that after she did, she could not turn back.
Once she stepped over the threshold of this house, she would no longer be Dominique Dawson, the loyal daughter of a British admiral.
She would be a French spy.
Excerpted from THE FALCON AND THE SPARROW © Copyright 2011 by M. L. Tyndall. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.