The Black Knave
Readers who are familiar with The Scarlet Pimpernel will undoubtedly recognize the main elements in The Black Knave: A seemingly foppish, ineffectual young nobleman fools everyone around him, including his wife, into thinking he could never be the man responsible for aiding in the escape of persons threatened with execution by a merciless authority. Only in this case, the victims of terror are Jacobites in the aftermath of Culloden, and they’re fleeing vengeful British soldiers, not a wrathful French revolutionary government. Patricia Potter takes Baroness Orczy’s tale, puts a Highland spin on it, and delivers a rousing tale of intrigue, danger, and forbidden romance that engaged my interest from first to last page.
Sickened by the wholesale slaughter of innocents at Culloden, Rory Forbes walks off the battlefield, refusing to take part in the carnage. He comes across some British soldiers taunting and torturing a small group of Jacobite women and children attempting to flee, and takes matters into his own hands. As he helps them to reach safety, the only thing he has to use as a sign they’ll recognize when he sends someone for them is a pack of cards. Taken by a sudden turn of cynical whimsy, Rory pulls out the jack of knaves, appropriate since his father and older brother think he’s a worthless gambler and lout. Soon other fleeing Jacobites hear of the mysterious Jack, and a small network of sympathizers forms to assist those in danger to sail to France, and safety.
Caught in the political vacuum that the Scottish defeat has brought, Bethia MacDonnell is forced by the Duke of Cumberland (the notorious “butcher” of Culloden) to wed a man she’s never met. To ensure her compliance, Cumberland holds her only living relative, her younger brother Dougal, as a hostage. When she meets her intended, the day before the wedding, Bethia is beyond disappointed. There’s no way she can remain with this popinjay Rory Forbes, now Marquis of Braemoor, whose dress is outlandish and whose every word and action oozes a cowardly, shallow self-centeredness. There’s even a rumor that he fled the battlefield at Culloden rather than fight, even if it was for the Hanover king. If only she could get in touch with the man calling himself the Jack of Knaves! Now, there’s a real man, a brave soul who could help Bethia and Dougal escape from under the heel of English interest and oppression.
Of course Rory falls, unwillingly and against his better judgement, in love with his young wife, just as Percy Blakeney fell in love with Marguerite. And, like Percy, Rory forgets himself just enough with her that his mask slips ever so slightly, enough to pique Bethia’s curiosity, enough to enrage her when he remembers himself and reverts to the masquerade of male airhead. He tells himself he can never endanger her by becoming intimate with her, but Cumberland has a keen interest in seeing that a child is forthcoming, and the sooner the better. But why? As he tries to untangle that mystery, while keeping the strands of his dual life separate, Rory discovers that the heart does not necessarily always follow the dictates of the mind.
This couple is nearly perfect for each other; it just takes them a long time to realize it. Bethia, having been raised in a close and loving family, knows what she’s missing, and the bitter knowledge that she’ll never have it again, especially with a wastrel like Rory, makes her mistrustful and wary. Rory, on the other hand, has never had affection, since he’s always known he was an unwanted bastard, not even a real Forbes, except in name. He tries to distance himself from Bethia, but he can’t help himself, standing alone and cold outside the fire of intimacy, creeping close to the flames, always pulling back just before he gets burned. I understood exactly why each of them did what they did, and my heart ached for them.
The setting is very effective in echoing the bleak moods of the hero and heroine, with lots of Scottish gray skies, and cold rain and mist. The secondary characters are well done, notable among them Rory’s only friends, a blacksmith and an outcast woman pretending to be his mistress so he can explain his frequent absences from Braemoor Castle. Then there’s Neil, Rory’s cousin, who resents Rory and thinks he should be the master of Braemoor, instead of Rory, who appears to have no love for the land or people. I wonder whether Ms. Potter has a sequel planned for him. I hope so!
It’s almost a given that a Scottish historical should have some Scottish dialect in it, and this is the only point where the book stumbled for me. It’s a bit inconsistent, and that inconsistency drew me out of the story too often. Overall, however, The Black Knave was a most satisfying read, featuring a truly heroic hero and a heroine with real courage, and I look forward to this author’s next effort.