Six weary months passed in this way. The winter brought with it new boredom, as the Heywoods packed together into their home for shelter. The children who spent most of their time outside when the whether was fine now tripped over each other and fought and made a general nuisance that nearly brought Charlotte to madness on a regular basis. Visits with Anne and Aunt Constance brought occasional respite, but Anne soon announced her engagement to a young local man. The wedding soon followed, and Anne’s new obligations, as well as her old ones to her aunt, left her with little time to spare for her friend.
In April, excitement came in the form of a dense brown paper package addressed to Mr. Heywood. He announced that he recognized the handwriting as being Lord Embrey’s, and set to opening the package. Inside were two books, along with a note. “He has sent us a two-volume novel called Angelina, by an unidentified author.” Mr. Heywood unfolded the note, and read it quickly. “Apparently Lucia’s scratchings and musings have also come to fruition. This is her novel, and it has been well-received in London. And he adds that he is quite satisfied with the description of the villain, and feels flattered that the character is depicted as having a full head of hair.”
The older girls, excepting Charlotte, begged to begin reading right away, and Mr. and Mrs. Heywood felt that, despite it being a novel, which were generally discouraged in polite society, the fact that Lord Embrey had sent it and that his ward had written it mitigated any concerns about its contents.
Charlotte refused to be drawn in to the furor over the book, and took up her own reading again – Catherine Macaulay’s History of England. She also refused, however, to leave the room. Therefore, during the next few days, as the girls made steady progress through the book, Charlotte stopped pretending to read her History so she could listen carefully. The story was about a young Italian girl, Angelina. Orphaned and friendless in Italy, she was brought to England to live with a mysterious guardian, Blackwood, in a large, gloomy castle.
“Charlotte, is Reddings Hall so mysterious and grim?” asked one of her sisters. “I would have absolutely been frightened to death to stay there!”
“It is a lovely place, bright and airy, with magnificent prospects from every window,” Charlotte said, in defense of Lord Embrey’s home. “Lucia obviously has taken liberties in an effort to appeal to certain readership.”
Her sisters did not pick up on Charlotte’s irony; or, perhaps after months of similar, sardonic commentary from their sister, they readily recognized it but chose not to acknowledge it. They read on.
As Angelina discovered that her guardian and the castle hold secrets and danger, she befriended a handsome young servant named Jerome. “Tall and lithe, like the dancers she remembered from her youth,” one of the sisters read breathlessly, “his blue eyes were capable of lighting the room. His hair was the color of the sand at Atrani. And though he spoke only rarely, his voice made her think him capable of singing an aria.”
“What is Atrani?” asked one of the younger girls. “Is it a mythological allusion?”
“It is a beach on the Almafi coast,” Mr. Heywood interjected, and disappeared behind his ledgers once more.
“Does that description not sound like precisely like Mr. Stringer?” Mrs. Heywood asked.
Charlotte had been contemplating the same idea, but responded, “As well as a significant percentage of the English male population.” By now her History had fallen to the floor, open to Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition, looking like an injured and immobile bird.
“Wait – this is Mr. Stringer. ‘His smile spread slowly, and when nearly expressed, was usually followed by a quick glance toward his feet, so that the full extent of his pleasure was never quite revealed.”
“That is Mr. Stringer,” Mrs. Heywood agreed confidently. “She has a remarkable knack for capturing his personality.”
The rest of the girls, excluding Charlotte, agreed enthusiastically.
The tale of mystery – and romance – unfolded. Angelina, despite her innocence and youth, became the target of Blackwood’s desire. He was clearly the villain of the story: ugly and selfish, he became more and more merciless toward Jerome and cruel to Angelina. The young couple secretly found ways to support each other and even express their love – but the day arrived when Blackwood had Jerome arrested for alleged theft, and he then forced Angelina to prepare for their wedding day to save Jerome from prison.
Blackwood and Angelina stood before the minister in his castle’s dank, unused chapel, when shouts and voices were heard. The minister rushed through the ceremony, Angelina’s protest was ignored, and the couple was pronounced man and wife. At that moment, the door of the chapel burst open, and members of the local militia arrive, along with Jerome. He announces that through his efforts, he has located an old servant who once worked at the castle and who is able to reveal Blackwood’s true identity. When the old woman was brought into the room, Blackwood rushed to attack, but was stopped. She announced that he was not the rightful owner of the castle, and was in fact the valet of the true owner, the latter having disappeared mysteriously along with his infant son nearly twenty years before. She recognized Blackwood as the valet of the missing man – he had looked enough like his master to take on his identity after the other’s disappearance. The guardian demanded proof, and she pointed out that the true master, and his son, and their forefathers for generations, each bore the same heart-shaped birthmark near their left shoulder. She remembered seeing it on the infant, and on the master when he was a lad, when she worked as their nurse.
“If there is a birthmark,” one of the sister said with excitement, “surely they will find it on Jerome’s shoulder.”
“If I had written the book,” observed Mr. Heywood from his seat, “I would have ensured that all the militiamen had the same birthmark on their shoulders. A good fight to the death between them for the inheritance would be quite entertaining.”
Indeed, Jerome revealed such a birthmark, to the great astonishment of all present, although, Charlotte noted with suspicion, it was not clear that Angelina’s surprise was as great. The book ended with Blackwood escaping the grasp of his captors, clutching Angelina and pulling her up the stairs of the high tower that was located adjacent to the chapel.
“Architecturally doubtful, but certainly convenient to the story,” noted Mr. Heywood.
In the tower, a struggle ensued, which Jerome joins, and, finally, Blackwood toppled out of the tower window, plunging to his death in the stone courtyard below. In the same night, Angelina is wed and widowed, but reunited with her true love. In their haste to marry, Jerome and Anelina return to the chapel – the guardian all but forgotten – and the minister agreeably marries them among the many witnesses, including Jerome’s old nurse, who is immediately re-hired.
Days after the book was completed, the girls in the Heywood house who had been privy to its contents clamored about the story and characters – in particular, the romantic Jerome. Charlotte, on the other hand, couldn’t bear to hear any more of it. The entertainment of the story was, for her, overshadowed by the prospect that Lucia had won the heart of James Stringer, and was announcing it to the world – and to Charlotte – through this awful novel. Correspondence with Embrey House was limited — her father rarely wrote, and likely was friends with Lord Embrey because he wrote just as infrequently. Charlotte refused to write to Lucia, and Lucia evidently had more financially rewarding reasons to write. And so Charlotte heard nothing to disabuse her of the idea that Lucia and Mr. Stringer, as the book strongly suggested, and as her own observations during her stay at Reddings indicated, were romantically linked.