The Etruscan Skull
Greenmoor Commons, England
The young girl sat on the bench just below the window in the cavernous Library of Crawford Hall, catching the final rays of light before dusk wholly overtook the sky. A book, that seemed almost as big as she, was spread across her lap. She remained at her post reading carefully that forbidden tome. Her father had chastened her before - anatomy was not a proper thing for a young lady to read - her mother had called those pictures within ghoulish and scandalous. But they were preoccupied today; they did not notice as she climbed the ladder to the top shelf to retrieve the banished book, nor did they see her spend the entire afternoon pouring through it as though it might be her only chance.
She stared at the picture of a skeleton that was knelt in prayer, intent on memorizing every feature, every element. She hurriedly turned back to a previous page upon which the skeleton of an infant (like the baby, newly arrived, squalling loudly in the room down the hall) leaned against a leg bone split lengthwise down the middle and stood on end to show its strange interior. She flipped back and forth comparing the two.
Behind her, she heard the rustling of the bushes below the window. She started, closing the book quickly and attempting to cover it with a throw pillow to little effect. She waited for a moment, warily scanning the bushes for signs of her brother and his friend waiting to jump out and surprise her. But no such surprise came. It was probably an animal, she concluded, reaching to pull her beloved work of Cheselden from its hiding place when the sound of a sudden, sharp gasp caused her to jump.
She glanced about the room but saw no one. She heard the sound again! It was coming from beyond the window - yet she saw no one there. A low, almost imperceptible moan followed - had she not sat in such complete silence these last few hours she should not have heard it at all; but her ears were tuned to even the smallest whisper. There was definitely someone there!
She knelt on the bench and poked her head out over the casement, her medium brown locks cascading around her head. There, lying on the ground just below the window sill, concealed from the rest of the grounds by the thick hedges, lay a dark haired man. His shirt had been sliced and the lower portion appeared to be dyed by a dark liquid she guessed to be blood.
"Sir, do you need help?" she asked in her high soprano trill.
"No, I'm fine. It looks worse than it is." he answered with a strained grin on his dashing face.
"Well it certainly looks very bad. Do you want me to call the doctor for you? He's just in the other room."
"That won't be necessary, it's only a flesh wound. Gah!" he cried out grasping his hand.
She took a deep breath to call the doctor.
"No!" he yelped, she let the air out slowly. "No," he repeated, regaining his composure. "You see I've been about something I was not supposed to be at and I am afraid no one can know I was here or my life might be in danger."
"Ah! So you are a thief who was caught in the act," the little girl concluded.
"No! No... I am not a thief," he said, his voice still straining from the pain of his wounds. "What I did was in service to my Queen and country. There can be no wrong in that."
"Then why would your life be in danger if you did nothing wrong?" she asked, perplexed.
"It's very complicated," the man answered.
"And you think I would not understand? You say you work for the Queen yet you go about your business in secret and you say if you are found out your life would be in danger. You are a spy, aren't you?" she accused, her eyes gleaming with excitement.
"You are very astute for such a young child. How old are you, anyhow?"
"I'm eight years old," said the child proudly, as if the mere attaining of age were an accomplishment in itself. "What were you doing spying around here? Who were you spying on? You said you served the Queen – is she in trouble? Is there anything I can do to help her?"
"Who are you talking to, Philomena?" the voice of her younger brother asked from the doorway.
"Chet!" she exclaimed in surprise. "I'm talking to..."
"Shhh! If you wish to help your Queen, whatever you do don't tell him about me," the man pleaded from below the window sill, his voice scarcely a whisper.
"The moon!" she finished, looking up at the pale orb hung low in the sky.
"The moon?" her brother said, incredulous. "Why are you talking to the moon?"
"Well…" She searched her mind for a reason. "Well, it must be very lonely up there all by itself with no one to talk to. So I'm talking to it to keep it company," she said with her most sincere smile.
Chet fixed her with a singular stare, as though she were some manner of freakish creature.
"I'm off to see the baby now," he said by way of an excuse before quickly exiting the room.
Philomena looked to the man. "Now he thinks me mad," she pouted.
The man managed to prop himself up onto his elbow. "Better to be thought mad -" He winced. "Then to end a life. Help me inside," he said, pulling himself up.
"Why should I help you? You're a spy. You could be lying to me," Philomena answered curtly.
"Well, you shouldn't. Here, take my hand."
Philomena grabbed his hand with both of hers, bracing her feet against the baseboard, as he stepped up onto the window sill and popped over the ledge sending both tumbling into the library. The man's dark eyes flew open, he sucked in air viciously in what seemed an attempt to keep from screaming from the pain of jarring his injuries.
"How did you get hurt?" the little girl asked, helping the man to his feet.
"I assume you are familiar with the Duke?"
"Yes, he is Arthur's father. They visit often because they only live a few miles up the road. Arthur and his mother are just in the other room. Arthur's mother and my mother are close friends."
This statement caused concern to flash across the man's face. He followed with another query that was, at this moment, far more important than the first, "And what do you think of the Duke and his family?"
"I don't like the Duke. He's not a very nice man. He hits Chet and one time I saw him kick a cat that was in his path just because it was there. I think he hurt it. And Arthur always teases me and pulls my hair and his mother never puts a stop to it."
"You are quite honest with your opinion."
"Always." She nodded. "Why should I lie about such things?"
"Can you keep a secret, then?"
The young girl's eyes flashed eagerly, "Yes!"
The man leaned in closely, less out of necessity than for effect.
"Well, a friend of mine who knows the Queen told me the Duke might be planning to do something bad to her with some of his friends. On behalf of her majesty my friend asked me to look into the matter."
"I had managed to sneak into the Duke's office and had just come upon the object of my search when I felt a sharp pain in my hand and looked up to find the Duke standing in front of me, his fist wrapped around a letter opener cruelly embedded in my hand. He drew a scabbard from his cane and made to do me in but he only managed to slash my side before I was able to escape through the open window. Let that be a lesson, espionage is best accomplished in the summer," he said wryly, attempting a charming smile that all too quickly turned to a grimace. He produced an envelope from within his waistcoat, "But I obtained my prize." He waved it tantalizingly about.
"What is it?" The child's eyes were as large as saucers as they followed the motion of the envelope.
"It is a plot to overthrow the queen."
"But that's treason!"
"That it is."
"Will you turn him in?"
The man tucked the letter back into its hiding place.
"No, I think not. The letter does not say anything definitive to the plot beyond a mere piece of the puzzle. It would be better to maintain the illusion of undivided loyalty among the nobles and order in the country than to upend it with such information - I doubt he would dare to carry the plot out now that his perfidy has been discovered." He winced, clutching his side. "Though it will all be for nothing if I am caught."
A few crimson drops fell to the floor.
"Here, let me see," Philomena spoke, turning up the man's shirt to reveal his stomach.
"I never knew a little girl who did not faint at the sight of blood," the man remarked, mildly impressed by the precocious being examining him.
"I don't like it, but it doesn't seem a thing to be afraid of." She took his wounded hand in her own and held it close to her eyes. "You were right about the slash, it will only need a bandage, but your hand will need to be stitched."
"I suppose we will just have to wrap it and hope for the best." He smiled weakly.
"The nearest town beyond this one is not for at least a dozen miles - by then infection might set in and you may lose the hand. I can stitch it," she suggested, her mien serious.
The man expelled a sharp laugh.
"Infection might set in? You sound like a doctor, though you appear a bit too young for St. Andrews."
"I read about it in a book."
"There is a wide gulf between reading and living."
"I know that!" She appeared somewhat incensed at his suggestion.
"Have you ever stitched a wound before?"
"No," she answered. "But what choice do you have?"
"Surgery from a child. This has been a poor day for me," he sighed.
"Stay there while I collect some supplies." she ordered, running from the room.
"Where else would I go?" he mumbled taking another look at his hand as if to try to contradict the girl's diagnosis. He let it drop with a deep sigh. Blood trickled down the fingers and pooled on the floor below.
A few minutes later the child proudly returned with a steaming bowl of water in which sat a bar of soap. Draped in the crook of her arm were a number of long scraps of fabric and rags. She wasted little time setting her efforts upon the injuries. She gave him a rag soaked in the boiling water,
"Here - wrap this around your hand." she ordered. He rolled his eyes but obeyed. "Pull up your shirt so I can clean you up before I wrap it." He did as he was told, lifting his shirt and his eyes as if praying to be delivered from the indignity of the situation. The little hands scrubbed the slash diligently.
"Hold this," she said, placing his good hand on the edge of a piece of cloth.
She walked around him, winding the rest about his slender body, pausing to occasionally tie another strip on until she had circumvented him four times - then she tied the ends together. Finally, she took a needle from the sewing basket near the chair and, threading it, she dangled it over the candle until it had blackened, then she wiped it clean with a wet cloth. "There's no need to worry, I've watched the Doctor do this a dozen times."
"Why does that not reassure me?" he muttered.
"I'm sorry, did you say something?" She stared at the sharp metal object, trying to rethread the eye as it had come undone.
"Nothing of import." He closed his eyes as she took his hand in her own, bracing for the inevitable pain. A moment passed, yet no sharp stab came. Another moment passed as well and still nothing. Finally, he opened an eye and peered down at the child who thrust the needle into the thin air above his hand. "You will need to open your eyes as well."
"Oh. Yes." Her voice trembled slightly. She took stock of the wound before her as though attempting to better plan the path of the needle.
"You may want to pinch the skin together," the spy suggested. "That should make it easier."
She did as directed. He winced as the needle pierced his flesh. After a few agonizing minutes she finally knotted the thread, cutting the remainder off. Looking at her work, both could see it was far from an expert surgeon's job. The black stitches were wide and jagged, but they held - the bleeding ceased. She took a handkerchief from her dress and tied it primly around the injury.
"Thank you for your services, doctor," the man condescended. "I believe I am now in a much better place than I was when you found me."
"Here is some bread and cheese for your journey," she said thrusting a small package into his hands.
"Your Queen and country owe you a great debt of gratitude. As do I Miss…"
"Miss Philomena Moore," she supplied with a low curtsy.
"Miss Philomena Moore, I am in your debt." He stooped over and gave her a quick peck on the cheek, then turned to the window.
"Wait!" she cried.
He turned his head, "Yes?"
"What do I call you?"
"I am, and always will be, your spy," he said, quickly stepping from the window.
She saw him stop short as he hit the ground, heard the sharp intake of air before the sound of barking dogs in the distance caused him to dart from the lawn like a hind with the hunter in hot pursuit.
"Take care," she waved as the shadowy figure melted into the trees, "my spy."
"So has the moon talked back yet?" came the mocking voice of a young boy not her brother. She turned to see two blond boys, almost identical in many ways, standing in the doorway.
"Arthur, I'll have you know if it did I would never reveal its secrets to you!" she scolded the future Duke.
"You're correct Chet," Arthur said to Philomena's younger brother. "She's a loony."
"Better a loony than the son of a-" She stopped herself before the word "traitor" could cross her lips.
"The son of a what?" Arthur dared.
"The son of a..." she searched her mind, "Dastardly cat hater!"
Arthur broke out into laughter.
"Mad Mina! Mad Mina!" he taunted.
Philomena could feel her temper rising, her small hands balled into fists.
Chet was quick to notice the growing danger to his friend, "Artie, come off it. Come along Philomena; let's go see Elizabeth."
Horton Kirby, England
"There are no words in the English language that can describe how much I despise Balls." I mumbled struggling to remove a far too tight heeled slipper from my swollen foot. Losing my balance I fell onto the duvet.
"Let me help you with that, Miss," Sarah pleaded.
"No, thank you," I replied, holding my hand up to repel the young maid from me. In her grey eyes I read a certain hurt helplessness. "I'm sorry, I just prefer to attend to these matters myself." She seemed uncertain of what to do - was I really such an oddity? Finally, I resigned myself to her attentions, "If you would, please help me with the buttons - I do have such trouble reaching them." This was a lie, my arms and fingers, long spindly things that they were, were quite adept at reaching those tormenting devices; but it was better that she should do something rather than stare like a bewildered puppy.
My own Lady's Maid was habituated to my standoffish habits, but she remained at Crawford Hall in Greenmoor Commons - a far cry from the dingy alleys and brightly lit ballrooms of London where I was to be situated for the foreseeable future. It was my Father's plot that I should stay with relatives in London for the season - and beyond if circumstances required - in an attempt to secure a favorable match for myself. This was a concept I thoroughly detested; yet my protests fell on deaf ears. Thus I was parceled off to that great city on the Thames.
Had there been more time I should have been able to convincingly feign illness to excuse myself from the torments of London society but, as it was, I had scarcely had a moment to catch my breath from the train ride before I was dressed and drug to a ball at some local dignitary's house - I can't recall who for there were far too many people of no great interest for any one among them to stand above the fray. The night had been dreadful! The men were either: at best, self-important boors who would happily talk at length in order to fill the room with their own voice for no other reason could be discerned based on the content, and, at worst, wicked profligates who should have put my brother to shame with their overindulgent habits.
The situation was greatly worsened by the dancing. My guardians were quick to accept any partner on my behalf. I found myself oft imprisoned by these men on the dance floor, my attentions forcibly fixed on them, enduring the dull witticisms that they attempted to glamourize into charm or banal observations that were to prove their intellectual capabilities. The sound of the dwindling music gave me hope of reprieve from this dismal fate, yet each time it was dashed - for as soon as one jailer was dispatched another rose to take his place. Though they strove greatly to make an impression, I must admit I don't remember any one of them, only the ever increasing pain in my feet and the throbbing of my head as the night wore on into morning and finally the sunrise of my salvation!
I fell into my bed with the sole aim to sleep for the next year; a goal woefully impaired by the loud chirping of a flock of hateful birds outside my window. Resigning myself to the full observation of the morning I rung for a breakfast tray. If I must endure my exhaustion I should at least be spared the pangs of hunger beside.
I ate until I was sated and then sat, cooling my tea with my breath while I pondered my situation. I do not exaggerate my claim that I am an unmarriagable woman nor do I lament that fate. To the contrary, I have diligently worked to cultivate that particular image - accentuating oddities and disguising talents with deficiencies. My brother, Chet (though he should prefer "Jet" I have never been able to adjust to my sister, Elizabeth's, childhood name for him), and his comrade, Arthur, have proven invaluable to these ends; spreading rumors among the other lads that I might be somewhat touched. And perhaps they are not wholly wrong in their assessment.
Until now I have been allowed to pursue a quiet, yet studious life - but I have come of age and there can be no question that my Father hopes to dangle me as bait to a ravenous London, hoping that a sizable dowry and favorable connections might entice some man to accept such an ignoble prize. I am certain I shall be able to foil his efforts - though at what cost to my feet! Already they are red, blistering and swollen, unaccustomed to dancing as they are. And that is not even to mention the cost to my sanity from having to endure the company! Perhaps I should stand in the next rain until taken with a chill - or a twisted ankle would surely remove me from any guest list. I smiled wryly as a pondered the various methods I could use to spare myself from further torments.
It was sometime while I was lost in thought that I became aware the birds had ceased their cursed songs. Relieved, I put my tray aside and rolled underneath the covers pulling the pillow over my head - sleep wasted no time in finding me. But then, neither did evening, it seemed.
A knock at the door startled me from my slumber. "Miss Moore," the voice called.
I let out a deep sigh of disappointment at the prospect that my rest was almost certainly over.
"Yes, Sarah, come in."
The girl entered as nervously as if she were walking into the tiger's lair. I suppose I had been unfairly difficult with her enough to have earned such cautious treatment. It wasn't her fault that I was the subject of such an ill-conceived plan.
"The missus has asked that I prepare you for supper. We are to be entertaining a number of guests and she wishes for you to look your best."
"That wish would best be served by my absence. Or, at the very least, a few more hours sleep."
The Lady's Maid seemed unsure of how to respond to my attempt at a self-deprecating jest.
"Never mind. I submit myself to your skills in sorcery."
And sorcery it seemed Sarah to be capable of - transforming my long, homely mug into one that could, at least be described as tolerably pretty. Not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination (an inheritance my father cursed despite the larger share of blame he held in the matter); but pretty.
"So who am I to expect tonight?" I asked, trying to set Sarah at ease through conversation.
She tilted her head so that her eyes focused just above the window frame as though reading some invisible script written there, "Well Miss Moore, there's Lord and Lady Danvers..."
Ah, friends! Allies in what would otherwise be a tedious exercise in manners!
"Reverend Underhill and his son and daughter... Lord Norbert... Mr. and Mrs. Martin as well as their sons, Nicholas and Darby... I believe that is all." she concluded.
Oh! To have the deck so unfairly stacked against myself! It seemed I would be forced into familiar associations whether I wished them or not. I resolved I should make a close companion of the Reverend's daughter who would certainly sympathize with my plight. Perhaps together we might ward off those intentions so unjustly laid upon us.
Alas, it was not to be! A letter preceding the Reverend Underhill and son arrived with only the regrets of their female companion within. Apparently, she had been affected by a sudden bout of illness - it only required a few moments amongst the sons of Martin before I had to admit that I, too felt the burn of fever upon my brow.
Darby arrived with such pomp and import in his step one would have thought it amiss that trumpets did not announce him even though there was nothing in his mien to support such airs. He strutted about the main room like a peacock, his slender figure clothed in the finest fashion, his too-angular face was capped in a fluffy mass of blond hair which was styled in such a way to suggest an inordinate pride in it. Instantly he set about talking to the host about the most inconsequential of things, as though he were deeply invested in putting on a one man play in which he was the sole character of import and all others merely props from whom he could showcase his talent for nonsense.
His brother, Nicholas, seemed the polar opposite of Darby in temperament. His brunette features were dark and swarthy, he less walked than slinked from one portal to another - finally resting near the corner column just outside the dining room, his elbow propped on the mantelpiece. The manner he stood in suggested, to my mind, an uncoiled snake more than a man.
Mr. and Mrs. Martin did not seem, themselves, to be a disagreeable couple: rotund and affable if nothing else remarkable could be said of them. Lord Danvers and his wife soon followed them; much to my relief.
"Oh Mina, it has been far too long!" Mrs. Danvers exclaimed upon seeing me. Her enormous brown eyes lit with excitement seemed to outshine her other piquant features.
"Millie! I believe I must lay the fault at your feet, for you were the one who has been so long absent." I replied embracing my friend. I always marveled at how tiny she was, barely a slip of a woman. It was amazing that tiny body could contain all of her spirit. In truth it seemed it couldn't for that very insubstantial matter radiated from her.
"It is true, we did not intend to remain in Sweden for so long, but my Goddaughter was such a delight that I could not be convinced to leave her. My poor Edgar!"
"Nonsense, my dear," Lord Danvers said, a wide smile upon his lips. "The fresh air did wonders for me."
"Will you be in town for the season?" I inquired, hopefully.
"I am sorry to say we will only be in London until the month's end, then we must return home. Edgar has neglected his duties for far too long."
"Yes, but your father will be gratified to know the time was not wasted. Though I shall not bore you with the details of my dealings in the North," Lord Danvers added.
"Oh, please do - for it shall certainly be far less boring than my current predicament," I implored him.
"My dear, you always were far too harsh. I believe you shall find the Underhill's to be quite interesting company," the man answered.
"Yes, but they have not yet arrived and it shall only be the men," I pouted.
"Ah, the impatience of youth. They shall not be long, I am certain."
"It is a pity you could not meet Miss Underhill. Dinah is, in many ways, a woman after your own heart," Millie said.
"In what ways specifically?" I probed archly.
I was only teasing, of course. If there was any person whose judgment I trusted it was Millie's. Though she was seven years my senior we had been the closest of friends from my youth. She had always fawned on my knowledge and I her ease of manners for there were few as readily agreeable as my Millie. Though of humble origins - her father had only recently entered the halls of the Gentry class - her poise and simple beauty had won her great admiration among those of noble birth. A match with a gentleman farmer of notable connection had been easily arranged before she had reached her seventeenth year.
It had been I whom she had called on to keep her company following the sudden passing of her first husband and I who had served as one of her maids in her wedding to Lord Danvers. I heartily approved of her choice in Lord Danvers. He had as easy a temperament as Millie as well as a shrewd intelligence that was celebrated among those he worked most closely with. He was large and barrel chested but handsome - most notable, though, was his unsurpassing love for his dear little Millie; she had only but to ask and it was granted her. Her yearly sojourns to Sweden to visit her godchild were among those wishes he happily obliged - even though his only connection with the country was through her association with the child. It was a sorry thing Millie yet had no children of her own for those children would be the envy of all others for their doting parents.
"I suspect you will find the son, Quentin, to be agreeable to you as well," Lord Danvers winked.
"Ah, so that is your game!" I concluded, looking to Millie for confirmation.
"Well," she spoke with an innocent smile, though those large, sly eyes revealed all. "We may have suggested that the family would make for excellent company."
"I am half tempted to make myself reprehensible to the man just to spite you!"
"Then you should be forced to keep company with the Martins for the remainder of the evening," she replied.
"I suspect no amount of self-righteous malice could mitigate the deplorableness of their company. Very well, I shall behave. Only you could trap me this way, Millie," I surrendered with a laugh.
"Then, my dear Edgar, I believe we have her permission to make the introduction."
The sound of hoofbeats and clattering wheels against the stones announced the arrival of the next party. A few moments later the door was opened to reveal a very severe looking elderly man bedecked in black excepting the white of his collar.
"The Reverend Underhill." Millie whispered to me.
My Uncle greeted the man, pulling him aside to reveal a fine featured, if serious looking young man behind. The latter man was dressed as soberly as his father, he regarded the room with little interest - as though such activity were beneath his regard. I found I could not decide whether I liked this man or despised his haughty nature.
"Am I to guess that is Mr. Underhill?" I whispered to Millie.
"Yes, but do not worry, he is not nearly so imperious as he might lead one to believe. Merely he has never been so comfortable with people as he is with mechanical devices and literature," she answered tugging my sleeve towards the man who at that moment seemed more interested in Uncle Richard.
It was only then that I noticed the man who stood beside Mr. Underhill. His dark hair accentuated his well-formed, vaguely delineated, features. He was tall and slim; he should have been striking if he did not make such an effort to be invisible, veritably shrinking against the doorframe. I searched my memory for the missing name on the list Sarah had rattled off only an hour ago.
"Is that Lord Norbert?" I hissed to Millie.
"He's a bit of a shrinking violet isn't he?" observed I.
"Yes, and I daresay he doesn't improve upon the acquaintance - he's a regular milk-toast man if ever there were one."
"Oh," I answered, mildly disappointed. Yet something in those watchful, dark eyes made me question if that were an entirely accurate evaluation of the man.
"Mr. Underhill, allow me to introduce my close acquaintance, Miss Philomena Moore," Lord Danvers declared, drawing me forward to face the man.
Mr. Underhill bowed stiffly, just barely pressing my hand. From his detached demeanor I could guess that this was one in a long line of introductions foisted upon him. I sympathized with his plight. "And this is Lord Norbert." the other man took my hand and bowed. My thumb brushed the side of his hand and in that instant his dark eyes locked on mine with such intensity it seemed as though lightening had flashed between us. For a moment I was struck dumb as I had never been before.
"Philomena, Mr. Underhill was just mentioning a new book he's been reading, have you ever heard of Culture and Anarchy?" Millie asked from what seemed far away, although I could feel her next to me.
"Yes," I replied abstractly, still unable to fully tear myself from those eyes despite Millie's guiding hand on my arm pulling me back to Mr. Underhill. "Yes, I believe I have."
An announcement from my Uncle broke my trance. I glanced down, almost surprised to see my hand still in Lord Norbert's - I quickly slid it from his light grasp.
"My dear friends, I regret to inform you that after dinner we shall be gathering in the Library as our parlor required immediate attention to the walls. We do apologize. If you would like to make your way to the Dining Room I believe we may begin."
"Such a pity. It was such a lovely shade of green." my Aunt whimpered to herself.
That antiquated tradition of allowing the men to choose which woman to lead, and in doing so accompany for the course of the meal, into the dining room is one I have never particularly enjoyed for it has rarely worked to my advantage. It was Darby who quickly stole my arm from more amenable company when the order to Dine was called and he who nattered into my ear the entire meal. It was no wonder he should remain so slender for he concerned himself almost exclusively with what came forth from his mouth rather than what was to go into it. To my other side I was granted no reprieve for there sat the eternally designing Nicholas Martin, rarely speaking yet always observing every movement so closely I could not help but be unnerved - what was of so great interest about reaching for a fork, I wondered. I found myself longing to retire to the Library where I could take up a novel on any subject (the topic was only accessory to the main goal, anyhow) and make a recluse of myself for the evening.
"And what do you think of the war, Nicholas?" My Uncle's question, so closely directed, caught my attention.
"To be perfectly honest, I feel it is less a necessity than a needless military exercise designed to intimidate the Russians into doing what they would have likely done anyway but now at significantly greater expense to us." the saturnine Martin brother tersely answered.
"You believe the Russians were never a threat then?" Uncle Richard followed.
"No, their military is scarcely what one would call modern, and no match for our own - they would not be foolhardy enough to risk such a crushing defeat when they are scarcely holding onto internal stability." There were few in the Empire who even considered holding an unfavorable opinion of the war; to offer one so openly was certainly bold of this young man. And not only a dissenting voice, but one that was based upon reason (whether accurate or not) as opposed to some visceral fear of personal loss or pacifist philosophy! I felt a new respect for my neighbor - at the very least, he seemed to have his own mind.
"What say you, Mr. Underhill?" my Uncle asked seeking support for his cause.
"It is a complicated issue. To say the Russians are embroiled in their own troubles is true - but it is remarkable how many of those troubles disappear in times of war."
"So, you are suggesting Russia might wage a war in order to stabilize itself?" Nicholas accused - still waters ran deep in this man, it seemed.
"Not exactly, merely that such an outcome might have entered into their consideration. There can be no question that to take India would have numerous benefits to them that would likely outweigh the costs involved. If we did not make such a show of force they might see it for the invitation such inaction is and roll into the country - thus increasing their prospects in the world while decimating our own. National pride would merely be a grand added benefit."
"And what say you, Lord Norbert? You have been quite quiet on the topic." Uncle Richard asked.
"Oh yes, well..." Lord Norbert stuttered, dabbing the corners of his mouth nervously with his napkin. "I suppose whatever Parliament thinks is best is what we should do." he simpered pathetically. Uncle Richard laughed heartily at the pitiful man's paltry offering to the conversation. Millie shot a look at me from the end of the table as if to emphasize that her earlier point had been proved. Contempt for the man rose within me instantly at the sight of that fool smile, so incongruent with those eyes!
"It is no man indeed who does not think for himself!" Nicholas growled at Lord Norbert.
"Well, it just doesn't seem all that important to me." Lord Norbert whimpered defensively, as though wounded. Nicholas jumped to his feet, leaning heavily on the table. Alarmed, I looked to my Uncle but finding him watching the exchange with great glee, I could not help but think he had orchestrated the whole exchange. In my other ear Darby prattled on about I had no idea what at this point.
"The future of your country does not seem that important to you? Of the British Empire?!"
"I suppose it is, but Afghanistan is so far from here and its people so backward I can hardly be asked to think seriously about it. It's not as though we know anyone over there. And really, what does it have to do with the market value of my cows?" Nicholas looked as though he might burst with fury burning hot enough to incinerate his insipid opponent to ash.
"Nicky!" Mrs. Martin chastised. She had only to fix her son with the sternest look and he retreated to his seat, his dark eyes flashing impotent rage. I could not deny that I felt sympathy for the man who had watched his fine thoughts laid waste by those most puerile and ignorant quality, as pearls cast before swine. It seemed my Uncle's plan had worked, or perhaps, noticing the victorious gleam in Lord Danver's eye, the blame should more appropriately be laid elsewhere - regardless of the villain behind the conspiracy the intent was without question: Nicholas Martin and Quentin Underhill had displayed those qualities most intriguing to me; those of intelligence, independent thought, and strong will. This was done, of course, at the expense of Lord Norbert but he did not seem perturbed in the least by it, continuing to sip his tea with his twitching smile as though nothing had occurred. Perhaps I might forgo the companionship of yellowing pages this evening, afterall.
"If it is of any consolation," I whispered to my dejected neighbor. "I thought you made an excellent argument." He looked to me, astonished, as though he had entirely forgotten my presence at his side.
"Thank you." he allowed with a slight smile.
Following supper we adjourned to the Library. When compared with those I had been accustomed to - the grand libraries of Crawford Hall and the vast estates of the Wyndham family - this library, though certainly sizable in its own right and spectacularly garbed in polished honey maple, seemed wonderfully cozy. I instantly envisioned myself curled in the love seat corner by the fire wiling away many hours of the rainy English Spring with a book. I scanned the room when my eyes fell upon two very unusual sentinels watching us from their high perch on the shelves opposite the fire. I had neglected them on first entering but now I could not turn my eyes away from their hollow stares. Without tearing myself from their gaze I could tell Millie had noticed them as well from her sudden gasp.
"Oh! How very ghastly!" Mrs. Martin exclaimed.
"I see you've noticed the pride of my collection." my Uncle beamed, sweeping his hand as though to introduce us to our eternally grinning companions. "Yes, they are Etruscan in origin. Supposedly a man and wife: he a soldier, killed in battle" he indicated the sun-bleached white skull. "and she a simple farm wife." he said with a flourish toward the brown skull. "Both wonderfully preserved."
"Why would you keep such things?" Mrs. Martin protested.
"To gaze upon the faces of antiquity." he replied magnanimously.
"He may like to gaze upon the faces of antiquity, but they give me goose flesh." Millie whispered in my ear. I smiled. "How would you like to be displayed for all to see like some oriental vase?"
"I doubt I would have much opinion one way or the other being that my mind and tongue would be elsewhere."
"And the latter organ often has an opinion before the former has even pondered the subject a moment." Millie teased.
"Well, were I on a shelf, I should likely have sufficient time to exercise both in my examination of preference."
"On the subject of preferences..." she inclined her head toward the young men in our party who were examining the specimens.
"It seems I may have underestimated your judgement, they are not nearly so dreadful as I had anticipated - well... excepting that one." I answered nodding towards Darby who had still not ceased talking. "It is utterly remarkable how much that one man can talk! How does he find so many insignificant subjects to remark on? I cannot help but stand in awe of his stamina." My dear friend giggled.
"Only that one? I thought certain you would have some cutting critique of Lord Norbert to offer. I will give that he is handsome, but I have never known you to turn a blind eye to a man's deficiencies based only on an agreeable visage." Millie pouted.
"Is that all you see me as? The grand critic of men?" I laughed. Millie raised her eyebrows coquettishly making her already large brown eyes appear all the larger,
"Do you protest your Title? But you have worked so diligently to obtain it!"
"I do concede that my talents in that arena are unsurpassed - or at least I have not met the person, woman or man, who surpasses them - but alas I cannot offer any judgement on the Lord. It would be a waste of my abilities to articulate deficiencies so blatantly displayed." I said pointing my nose to the ceiling, a positive prig! We both melted into tittering laughter.
"Alright," she acquiesced, fighting for composure. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself, "What do you think of Mr. Underhill?"
"I have had very little chance to observe him but he seems to be respectably intelligent; if generally indifferent."
"And Nicholas Martin - what is your opinion of him?" Millie pressed.
"He is... intriguing." I allowed. My companion arched her eyebrow.
"Oh, intriguing? My dear Mina! I don't think I have ever heard you allow such a glowing report to pass from your lips." I could feel my face flush from embarrassment. "Though given his performance at supper, I suppose, you would hardly think otherwise. But it is a pity he so outshone our favorite - though I am certain Mr. Underhill will win out."
"Millie." I scolded. "It is not some competition; I merely said he was intriguing and that is the end of it. The Etruscan skulls are intriguing as well and I daresay they are much better company."
"Oh Mina," Millie sighed. "You are impossible."
"Only mostly." I smiled wryly at my friend.
The evening passed pleasantly enough. Lord Danvers proposed a game of whist with Millie, myself, and Mr. Underhill who declined in order to keep company with Lord Norbert - thus Nicholas Martin joined our ranks. The Danvers, always in such perfect sympathy, had us easily outmatched.
"I believe our doom is nigh." Nicholas chuckled softly as Lord Danvers took yet another trick.
"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no ill..." I said, placing my play on the table. Nicholas winced. He followed with a Queen of Spades - the suit was Hearts and neither were the Trump. From the look on his face I could guess that none of those Trump cards he held were of noteworthy rank. My King took the trick but the game was clearly lost - my own hand being a hodgepodge of worthlessness and dreck excepting that one King. I gave a gallow's smile to my partner.
"Should I call the Undertaker then?" he asked.
"It would likely be prudent." I answered. "Two caskets, if you please."
"Oh, it can't be all that bad." Lord Danvers laughed playing a three on my Jack.
"Oh, I believe it can." I replied as Millie took the trick with a long reserved Queen. "I wonder, what business does Mr. Underhill have with Lord Norbert?" I mused aloud vaguely observing the two talking over an open book.
"Are you disappointed he wouldn't join us?" Millie suggested mischief gleaming in her eyes.
"Not especially, the present company is quite agreeable - it is merely a passing curiosity."
"I couldn't guess except to say I believe the two have been associates for some time." Lord Danvers answered. "Their friendship does seem a bit of an oddity."
"Perhaps." Nicholas said. "But they are both of the retiring sort, not inclined to societal pleasures."
"One could argue the same of you." I interjected provokingly.
"It could be said by those I am not known to. I enjoy company in small settings where conversation and thought are more the order of the day than pleasantries and dancing." I saw Millie attempt to stifle a laugh with her hand. I could read her thoughts without her even speaking them: There he is Mina - you could not have constructed a man more fitting to your desires. I smiled in spite of myself.
"You are very different from your brother, then." I joked.
"Yes." he sighed. "Yes, Darby certainly has an ease with manners and niceties. He is perfectly content to while away the hours with dozens of tales about his adventures - and to be sure, they are all quite grand. He is very popular with the young ladies who desire nothing more than entertainment and attention from a member of well esteemed family. He preens and laughs and flirts without ceasing for hours but at the day's end he is always happiest when he is finally alone. But even then, I suspect he is not happy."
"How do you mean?" I prodded. I had supposed the affable chatter to be more for show than sincerity, but this seemed a rather tragic assertion.
"It is not my place, I'm sorry, I have already said far more than was prudent." he hemmed quickly, carelessly throwing a card I suspected was his highest trump which was easily beaten by Millie's lead card. He noticed his error as Millie scooped the trick towards her. "Blast!" he cursed under his breath.
"I heard you recently were returned from America?" Lord Danvers led. Nicholas seemed relieved of the change in topic.
"Yes, we were examining the new textile facilities." he answered. Thus the discussion turned toward industry. I tried to avoid Millie's knowing glances: her little suggestive smiles, her glowing eyes - such a piquing little pixie was she. And every time she caught my eye I could not help but blush for her unspoken accusations. The matter was not helped by Nicholas's occasional shy glances. He and I were easily trounced the following two rounds by Lord and Lady Danvers until finally Uncle Richard suggested the men retire to the smoking room for the remainder of evening. I could not say whether I was glad or sorrowful to see my partner go.
"War?" Millie held the deck up, I nodded in assent.
"War." This was our little game used since childhood to extract information. After ten tricks the person who had taken the most was allowed to ask a question and the other must answer it honestly. I took six of the first ten.
"Was the questioning on the war Edgar's plot?" I veritably demanded.
"My Edgar?" she looked at me with those great innocent eyes. A conspiratorial smile spread across her face. "I don't know what you mean. He may have suggested something to that effect but the topic of choice was entirely your Uncle's."
"I suspected as much." Ten more hands, Millie's victory.
"Are you enjoying the evening?"
"Yes, surprisingly. I had expected it to be far more dreadful."
"I suspect it would have been had you and Mr. Martin not taken such a shine to each other." It was infuriating to blush so often in one evening. Rather than answer her I threw a King - it would be the only trick I took this round.
"Tell me the truth, how do you feel about him?" She leveled her eyes with mine, her smile now replaced with a very serious expression.
"Millie, I've only just met him!" I cried. "I hardly know what to think!"
"Mina, you know my only concern is for your happiness, you have never taken to any man and... well... even if it is almost nothing, I have never seen you this way."
"And what way is that?" I retorted indignantly.
"Flustered, glowing - it's hard to characterize it exactly." she attempted. I sighed,
"I'll concede, I would not object to seeing him again. But that is all you will get from me for now." Ten more rounds, my win. "How are you and Mr. Underhill acquainted? You favor him as a suitor yet he has barely spoken a full sentence to you or Lord Danvers."
"I am not especially familiar with him, perse - it is his sister I am closer to. Dinah and I came out together and I suppose the combination of general nerves and outright terror cemented our bond despite our differences. She is far more serious than I, more studious - much of the time I don't understand one whit of what she is talking about! She has always spoken very highly of her brother; it seemed a sensible match."
"Don't think it outright dismissal of your favorite, Millie! From what little I have seen he appears to be an interesting man, it's just-"
"Just that Nicholas Martin is more "intriguing"." she interrupted with a laugh. "It's your turn." I picked up my tricks and folded them into the stack.
"How are you and Edgar doing, really?" I asked hesitantly.
"He is a wonderful man, he truly is. I won't deny my good fortune in having him as my life companion. But we have been married for three years now and it can be hard to hear the other women talk - I know they mean well! But there are no words of consolation they can offer when they have scads of children playing about them and I still have none. We've been to all the Doctors and there is nothing wrong with either of us. Edgar has been wonderful, of course, he has even suggested taking in one of the local orphans but it's just not the same. I try not to let on to him that it troubles me so though I am certain he knows. I think that is why he indulges my long stays in Sweden. He'd make such a wonderful father! You should see him with Ingrid - how he dotes on her!" her eyes welled with unbidden tears as she spoke. I took her hands in mine,
"I am sorry for you both, I wish I could do more but all I can do is offer my prayers."
"Prayers will do the most good, I believe, for if God can give a child to a virgin surely He can grant me one as well; if it is His plan." she managed a smile. "It looks like I've won the next question: How are things at home?"
"Honestly? Father spends much of his time away, tending to the trade business in South Africa. Chet and Arthur seem to be intent on carefully tending all the seeds of depravity they can plant in themselves. It would concern me less were they not so close with Elizabeth - I fear they will corrupt her. With Mother spending most of her days in bed they have taken the lion's share of Elizabeth's attention."
"When is the child due to arrive?" Millie inquired.
"July, I believe."
"What do you think it will be?"
"I hope it will be a boy - I worry that at his current rate of self-destruction we may find need of a second inheritor." I answered in as jocular a tone as I might manage. For all my attempts at jest, Millie knew I feared for my brother terribly. He no longer took great pains to conceal his ever growing laudanum use and with another child soon to be born the tincture was always readily available to him. I hadn't noticed it when we were younger - a spoonful here and there shared with his friend - but now it was a few spoons daily mixed with his wine. Any attempts to discuss it with him met with denial. I shudder to think of what other habits he has developed unchecked by our parents. Millie nodded her understanding.
"Oh my, it's getting late!" Mrs. Martin exclaimed with a yawn as the clock chimed the hour. "I suppose we really must be getting on."
"Yes, it does seem to be that time." My aunt agreed. Millie and I compared our piles,
"I believe you won this game. You always did have more luck at cards." I conceded. She smiled,
"I will try to see you again before we leave for home."
"Please do - I hate that we have so little time together!" and with that we embraced. As we walked to the foyer to meet the men my eyes were once again arrested by the pair of skulls staring sightlessly at the occupants of the room. What secrets lay behind those toothy grins? I wondered.
It would not be until the following Sunday that I would be able to venture into the Library again. My Aunt had made it her sole mission to exhibit me to all the families of note in London like some type of prizewinning show pony. In my recollection those days seem a blur of scrutinizing ladies, weak teas, and being subjected to all the finest gossip London had to offer while I visibly chafed in my chair for any excuse that might allow me to temporarily escape my captors, if only for a moment.
The worst, of course, was my Aunt's calling day for it seemed we had a never ending parade of gawkers come to see the exotic creature newly arrived from the wilds of N-shire. And for each it was the same conversation repeated ad nauseam throughout the afternoon with so little variation I found I did not even have to listen to the words so much as wait for the speaking to stop and then supply the answer. I did employ this technique but after the second woman had left my Aunt chastened me for staring out the window instead of maintaining proper eye contact - it was rude to appear bored by the guests. I protested I was bored but apparently that was no excuse for appearing so. Once services had ended I found myself without scheduled occupation and, before my relatives could find me one, I had disappeared into that quiet sanctuary of letters and pages. Certainly a novel would assuage the tiresome activity of the past week.
I walked my fingers slowly across the shelves below the titles. I was in a mood that could only be satisfied by the copious ingestion of French literature. No Dickens nor Austen could, today, sate my cravings - only that substantial yet airy taste of Dumas would suffice. Preferably not in its original language, though - I had suffered far too many headaches this week to focus on translation. My French, though fairly fluent in speech, still did not come effortlessly at my bidding.
I carelessly watched the titles slip by above my finger, my eyes trained to recognize only one and thus disregarded all others. The sudden shock of empty space followed by a toothy chin caused me to start. In all the bustle I had completely forgotten my ancient friends who grinned their gladness at my presence! "Now is the perfect time to have a proper look at you both." I said to no one in particular. The bleached white skull of the man, being the most immediately striking in all ways, caught my attention first. I had noticed a strange marking over the eye on my last visit, but with the men gathered about I had been prevented a proper look - not now! I pulled a stool over and, careful not to fall, I stepped upon it so as to be able to look my subject squarely in his hollow eye. There, on the brow, was a long narrow notch - as though someone had taken a sword and sliced it straight through the height of his eyebrow. On the pate of his brow were other, lighter scratches, but they were scarcely worthy of note. I stood on the tips of my toes, squinting into that unnatural line. It seemed smooth, even at the deepest part of the wound. That deep a cut would have reached the sponge-looking inner bone had it occurred close to the time of his death; but none of it was visible to my eyes - probably he had survived the injury. I wondered what had led to his demise.
This question I did not need to ponder long for on the right side of his head was a sizable hole. The edges of the hole seemed deformed, as if they had been sheered unevenly along the natural circular line - to my mind it brought the recollection of the pattern rats left from gnawing hard wood. The cause of this grievous injury mystified me as I sought to get a closer look. My feet, screaming complaint from being strained so long, finally demanded I either stand on them properly or else they should deposit me on the floor. Disappointed, I sunk down. It was then I was able to see what my higher viewpoint had obscured - at the base of the hole was the unmistakable shape of a crescent smiling out at me. "Ah!" I cried, hurrying from my perch to a shelf in the corner I had passed by only minutes before. I deftly removed a book from the shelf and began quickly leafing through it until I found my prize. I hopped back onto the stool and held the book to the skull, comparing the illustration with the unusual notch. "This is it!" I exalted, victorious. There could be no doubt what instrument had made the wound that had felled this ancient soldier - on the page was a drawing of an ancient battle axe, its curved blade a near perfect match to the indentation at the base of the hollow.
I turned my attention to the other skull, eagerly searching out its secrets. This skull was markedly different from the first in that it appeared somewhat broader, the lines less sharply defined, the nose narrower, the forehead less pronounced. It struck me as quite unusual that the pair should be so dissimilar even were they from different sexes. There were no obvious signs of injury on the skull like the first had shown. However, there was a very strange, knotty looking growth on the base of the back where the neck attached. The growth had a rim around it. I reached back to press my own neck in that location. I felt the long, thick rope of a muscle that smoothly attached to the very spot. "I wonder..." I mumbled aloud. Could a torn muscle have caused such damage? It would have been quite the muscle for the rimmed area was sizable. I rose again to the tips of my toes, stretching my neck to see the top of the skull. The surface appeared smooth as a bowl, a fine brown patina stain uniformly covering it. Then something caught my eye. It was just a little white chip come loose from the crown of the skull. I stretched closer to obtain a better view. It looked to be a piece of plaster still attached by a thread of the patina that now revealed its true nature as not the work of the soil but of human hands. Below it, I could easily discern a thick craggy line, pale from the plaster which filled it. But why go to the trouble to plaster over the line and stain it; particularly when the other had been left untouched? Suddenly the loud click of the door handle being turned startled me from my inquiries. Fearful of being discovered, I snatched a book from the shelf and hurriedly descended to the floor. The door opened and through it walked Mr. Underhill and Lord Norbert embroiled in hushed conversation.
"Oh, Miss Moore!" Lord Norbert exclaimed upon noticing me. "My apologies for interrupting you. We did not expect this room to be occupied."
"I was just reading." I said, attempting to turn the page nonchalantly, as though I had completed it as opposed to having just opened to it at random.
Mr. Underhill raised an eyebrow.
"Titus Andronicus?" he inquired, sardonically.
I looked down at the page to see a very well-drawn illustration of a man being murdered, his blood pouring forth into a large bowl.
"Oh! Oh God no!" I exclaimed, hurriedly flinging the book onto the shelf as though it were aflame. "No wonder that play enjoys such a dreadful reputation."
"It is fortunate you didn't actually read it." Lord Norbert observed.
"Oh yes, I am grateful for that." I answered with a hand upon my heart, still overcome by the shock of such an image. I winced at the realization that my attempt at deception had been so readily confessed by my own lips. I felt my face grow hot.
"Don't worry, there is no shame in examining historical artifacts." Quentin said with a reassuring smile.
"I'm sorry, Mother has always scolded me for my interest in those things she deems to be far too morbid for a young lady." I responded, my eyes cast downward in shame.
"Well, you are in the company of a kindred spirit. I have always enjoyed perusing the galleries at the British Museum, myself. I imagine some of the displays there would give your mother cause to faint."
"I am certain of that for she becomes positively light-headed when confronted with the marble gods. I can only imagine how she might react to a sarcophagus."
"I admit, even I find those somewhat unnerving - as though we are gazing upon something that should have been left undisturbed." he replied.
"I regret that it is unlikely I shall be able to visit them to investigate your claim for myself - my Aunt seems determined that I should have no employment other than securing a husband for myself." I gasped, covering my mouth. "Oh dear, I'm sorry! I have spoken far too freely." Quentin placed a comforting hand on mine.
"You need not worry." he smiled. "Once again, I believe we are of the same mind. My father has been intent on my marrying before I am to be given the parsonage - I daresay he will continue living until he is one hundred, and I in my grave, sheerly out of spite for me, were I to remain a bachelor all of my days. There is scarcely an event I am brought to where I am not introduced to some eligible young lady of such great accomplishments; who, while she may possess grand talents, is often no more than the sum of those very things. She can paint, and play, and recite all the most impressive poems but those accomplishments are merely gilding on paper moldings - there is no true substance to them. They bend and deform at the slightest pressure and at their core are worthless."
"You are very harsh on the ladies of society, Mr. Underhill." Lord Norbert interjected plaintively. Yet despite his whimpering objection; in his eyes I thought I read, for a moment, cutting sarcasm.
"No, I believe I do those women justice, Roger. They recite poetry but any they write themselves is merely a pale copy of what they have read - the only originality is from their arrangement of the pilfered lines. The same is true of their art: there is no deviation but that which is blatantly plagiarized from another source. Any thought of their own has long been trained out of them until they are little more than pretty machines unable to hold any conversation beyond the mere practice of manners. And that is when they aim to impress. I am certain Miss Moore could inform you of their unobserved personas."
"I will not defend all those members of my sex - for many of your charges against them might even be called generous - but I will defend there are a number who, if unoriginal in thought, are good at heart. And certainly I have had the pleasure of knowing a few who have managed to be all of those things you prize."
"To be sure, I have as well - my sister among them - but exceptions do not disprove a rule by their existence. Though, I do concede that perhaps I am too harsh - it is merely as a result of my own weariness due to overexposure."
"I can forgive you of that; I have been guilty of it myself as of late. Society has never agreed with me and the constant barrage of all its offerings has left me veritably desperate to run for the lonely crags of the moors where a person may be left to their own devices for days at a time."
"Perhaps a fine house near the edge of a cliff where one might look out the window and see before them the whole expanse of creation." Quentin replied with a soft chuckle.
"So, the other night I saw you with Lady Danvers - are the two of you well acquainted?" Lord Norbert interjected absently, poking about the shelves.
"Yes, we have been the closest of friends from my youth."
"My dear, you are still a youth." Lord Norbert taunted.
"Well, for many years then, if that will satisfy you. We live in the same region of N-shire. Have you ever been?" I asked.
"No, never." he answered, seemingly more concerned with the dimensions of the fireplace than maintaining a conversation.
"Nor have I, but I have heard there are a number of fine Roman ruins still standing in that region. Have you chanced upon any?" Quentin asked.
"Yes, there was a small settlement not terribly far from Greenmoor Commons - it is not unusual to come upon the remains of an ancient villa wall long reclaimed by the forest."
"Do you know much of the Roman occupation of the area?" he asked with scarce suppressed eagerness.
"Some. But not very much." I replied, almost embarrassed for my deficiency in knowledge regarding a subject I had been exposed to the whole of my life and yet had never allowed myself to be bothered about. Still, I had not wholly neglected it, were it required I should be apply to supply a satisfactory account.
"Please do tell me what you do know. I would be quite interested to hear." he entreated.
And in this pleasant manner we wiled away the time until the approach of Tea Time. The clock chimed the hour, startling us, so absorbed were Mr. Underhill and I in conversation. I had been greatly impressed by the man for he matched me almost point for point - and those areas I was unfamiliar with he readily elucidated for me and, likewise, I him. It was stunning, to me, to have my opinion and knowledge so well regarded, even sought after, by a man; particularly one who was proving himself to be equal to my own respect. I felt an ever more intoxicating sense of elation brought about by finally being able to have a true discussion with one who could comprehend every word I said. Lord Norbert, having found nothing of interest in his solitary foray about the room, surrendered himself to observing us from a nearby chair. His dark eyes conveyed the irritation with the ever growing length of our visit that his lips refused to acknowledge even when pressed by I or Mr. Underhill.
"Has it really grown so late?" Quentin exclaimed, standing to gain a better view of the clock. "Oh, Dinah must be desperate to be delivered from your Aunt by now!"
"Your sister is here?" I asked.
"Do you think we normally just go about visiting the Libraries of local gentlemen unaccompanied? Of course his sister is with us." Lord Norbert snapped harshly.
My eyebrows flew up in shock - this was quite a deviation from the meek, mild-mannered milk-toast man I had been accustomed to.
"Roger!" Quentin started.
"I'm sorry Quentin. My apologies, Miss Moore, for my outburst. Sometimes, I suffer from acute indigestion and it rather inflames my temper unpredictably. I do beg your forgiveness," he pleaded in that almost pitiful, imploring whine of his.
"You are forgiven. Miss Moore?"
"I suppose I must forgive you this time." I relented. "Would you gentlemen care to join us for tea?" I added, hopefully, as I dearly wished for a greater share of their company if only that it would distract my Aunt – though I could not honestly claim that as my only motivation for the request.
"No, not this time I think." Quentin replied. "We really must be getting home; but perhaps soon." he continued taking my hand and pressing it gently. "Come now, Roger." Quentin motioned for his friend. "Good Day to you Miss Moore." he said with a slight bow.
"Yes, Good Day." Lord Norbert echoed, not even condescending to look at me before making his way out.
Three days following was a sad day for me as it was the day Millie would be leaving for Greenmoor Commons. I should not see her again until the season had ended. She arrived early that morning.
"Oh Millie!" I cried, embracing her. "How shall I ever get on without you here?"
"We will write. Perhaps you shall find other things to occupy your time, other people." she suggested slyly.
"Yes, but none will be as agreeable a companion to me as you!" I proclaimed.
"You can't know that until you have spent more time among them. I have already requested Miss Underhill have you over for Tea one of these days and she has agreed."
"Oh Millie!" I dropped my voice to a low whisper. "I must tell you, I encountered Mr. Underhill and Lord Norbert in the Library just three days past."
"Oh?" she replied sotto voce, her brow raised.
"Yes." I hissed.
"What brought them here, I wonder?" she mused in that coy manner of hers.
"Oh Millie, don't be like that. They were merely accompanying Mr. Underhill's sister." I insisted.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Then you have already met Dinah?"
"No, I was not even aware she was visiting until they told me so as they were leaving. Unfortunately, I did not even have so much as the chance to be introduced."
"Ah, I see." Millie smiled. "They accompanied their sister, abandoned her, and then occupied their time with you. It appears to me there is nothing 'mere' about their accompaniment. You must tell me all that transpired." she urged.
Deciding it prudent to omit the portion of the tale which was spent examining the skulls - for their mysteries would hold no true interest to her (though she would feign it for my sake, I knew she found such things beyond tedious - no matter how enthusiastic and enigmatic I might be, were I to detail my discoveries I could veritably see her fighting to retain consciousness) and I was not ready to tell of the strangeness of the brown skull just yet – not until I had more time to examine it, at least.
"So they interrupted you while you were reading?" Millie repeated what I had said.
"Well yes, in a manner of speaking. I wasn't especially attending to the content of the book." That was certain! I was sure that horrible image would haunt my nights the rest of my life.
"What happened then?" she pressed, pulling me gently, by the arm, further down the hall and away from the group.
"Mr. Underhill, by way of making pleasant conversation, mentioned the skulls - the two Etruscan ones - you recall them don't you?"
"How could I not? The mere idea of them watching me read alone in that room makes my skin crawl. What did he have to say about them?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. But he mentioned similar items he had seen at the London Museum and that followed to a discussion of the Roman Ruins of Greenmoor Commons and then, I suppose time slipped away from us for it was past time for him to leave before we knew it." Millie laughed with delight,
"I take it then, our favorite made a good showing!"
"Millie, he's not a show horse!" I protested with a laugh. "And I was given the distinct sense that he was not especially interested in making a good showing - I don't believe he wishes to marry."
"And what causes you to make such a claim?"
"Well, he all but said it - I believe he dislikes the concept of being pushed into matrimony even more than I."
"I did not think such a thing possible!" Millie gasped mockingly. "Still - 'all but' is not definitive proof. More likely he simply has not been steered to a woman who would be a match for his taciturn temperament."
"But you believe me such a match." I raised an eyebrow at my Lady's suggestion.
"My belief on the subject is hardly important - you have already proven it fact. Losing track of time... deep in conversation..."
"I don't believe I like your insinuation."
"Like it or not, I think you fancy him." she smiled impishly.
"I never said anything to imply that." I protested. I could feel the blush rising to my cheeks.
"You're blushing! You fancy him!" she taunted swiping my bonnet from my head. Millie was such a strange creature, changing from a proper lady to a mischievous pixie with no warning at all. This childishness though!
"Now, who does Miss Moore fancy?" Edgar asked, walking over.
"I fancy no one!" I exclaimed snatching my bonnet back. Millie sidled up to her husband,
"Mr. Underhill." she whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, into his ear.
"Oh ho!" Edger laughed. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise."
"I swear if the pair of you do not cease in tormenting me I shall never speak to him or any of his kin again so long as I live." I declared.
"But you so enjoyed talking to him!" Millie teased.
I fixed her with a hard look, "Do not tempt me, Millie."
Her grin dropped instantly to a disappointed pout.
"Oh don't pout so - you make me question which of us is the elder."
At this complaint the corners of her mouth twitched until they finally could be contained no longer and returned to their usual high places.
"You win then, I shan't torment you further." she surrendered.
I held my chin high and smirked imperiously, "Don't I always."
"But if you and he end up walking down the aisle..."
"Then you may torture me to your heart's content," I said.
"Mina! I will miss you terribly!" she declared passionately.
"Well, you will not miss me just yet; there is still some time before Tea - I was hoping we might take a turn about the garden."
Millie and I strolled through the garden in silence. I knew, even without her saying so, the cause of it all.
"Millie, was there never a time when we could speak to each other without the interloping of the subject of gentlemen in our conversations?"
Millie gave me a smile, "I suppose there was, years ago."
"I believe it was only so long ago as last year and there is so much more to discuss in the world. Nature, the weather, literature, foreign lands! Here we are in the midst of a war and all that seems to be of import is who danced with whom and who encountered the other while walking."
"I know it is frustrating for you."
"Frustrating? Endlessly tedious is more apt! I feel like unto Sisyphus, constantly pushing the boulder of propriety up the grand hill of society. What sin have I committed to deserve this fate?"
"The sin of being born into a good house, I'm afraid." she offered.
"Had I fully understood how dreadful the penalty I should have fled from it years ago. But enough of this talk! Let us move on to pleasanter things."
We continued down the path in silence, unsure of what to say.
"Oh! I have a riddle for you - I spent all last evening on it." Millie brightened, she knew I had a weakness for riddles as much as I knew she enjoyed trying to stump me with new ones. "It's far from my best work but I doubt you will get it straight away."
"I would be offended if I did. You would not think so low of me to offer something so instantly apparent. I accept your challenge."
"I begin like magic but end in a trap - what am I?"
"Sounds like "love"" I laughed.
"Oh you are jaded!" she exclaimed. "Now be serious."
"Hmmm..." I hummed, mulling over the clues in my head. "I begin like magic but end in a trap..." I stopped walking as I raised my hand to my chin; the other hand resting just below the elbow of the first, supporting it - a posture I tended to assume whenever deep thought was required. I could not say what power or sorcery the stance held, but the mere assumption of it seemed to clear my mind. Again I replayed the clues. There was the most literal translation - that the thing would begin with either an 'ma' or 'mag' and end in either 'inatrap', 'atrap', or 'trap' alone. However, little evaluation was needed to find no such combination yielded a sensical result. Thus the answer lay in the more abstract interpretation of the lines. I decided to examine the second clue for it had the fewest possible items in relation to it - between wands and wizards the first clue could leave me stymied for days. Millie appeared pleased that her riddle had held me so long. "Let's see..." I murmured. "traps... snare... pit... net... Net! You are a Magnet!" I declared triumphantly.
"That is it!" she said, clapping her hands together.
"You are right, it's not your best work. But it's very good for something constructed on an evening's whim."
"So, what do you intend to do when you return to The Commons?"
"Well, it's difficult to say. There are many people I will need to call upon, and, of course, Edgar will want to host a ball at the house - he'll likely invite the whole town and half the next over!"
"And you the other half!" I added with a laugh.
"Do not doubt me, for I have been so long delinquent in my correspondences a ball seems the only way I will be able to recompense for my extended neglect of those friendships."
"I am sure they will readily forgive you with such an enticement. I have never been one for balls but yours are an exception - I shall be sorry to miss the festivities."
"I'll be glad when Ingrid is able to finally join us - she'll look so lovely with those pretty little flaxen plaits all about her head. Oh, I wish you could meet her!" Millie sighed.
"Your little goddaughter is never far from your mind." I laughed.
"As she should be, for she is the closest thing to a child I have in the world. And when she comes of age her father has entreated my aid in her debut." She puffed herself up proudly.
"Will her mother not accompany her?" I asked, somewhat perplexed. It seemed strange that the responsibility would not rest upon the slender shoulders of the Countess Mason. I only just could recall the exotically handsome Swedish bride of Count Mason - poised, confident, with features as fine as if they had been chiseled in marble: she had been the envy of all who saw her.
"No." Millie replied succinctly. "No, she will not be traveling to England at that time due to health reasons."
"I thought the child was only eight years old?"
"She is." Millie did not elaborate, for there was no need to - lengthy convalescence was a mere euphemism for divorce among those whose position could not condone the practice.
"I am certain she will be in the very best hands with you as her guide. I only wish I had such good fortune."
"Am I to understand it does not go well with your Aunt?" I shook my head.
"No. She hardly knows me and she seems more concerned with showing me around like a new feather in her hat than actually speaking to me. All we do is visit her friends and I am introduced and then they talk - sometimes for near an hour - about the most insipid things! Just local gossip really; regarding players I have never met - though to be sure, if my Aunt's friends are to be believed, they are all the most scandalous villains the world ever birthed. How dare Mrs. Draper wear anything but black only two years after her beloved husband's death! Or Mrs. Kildeer speak to Mrs. Wentworth when she is fully aware that the latter and Mrs. Johnson are having a spat! So there I must sit staring into space watching the wallpaper blur and return to focus."
"That does sound tedious."
"Tedious! Millie it is intolerable. I give my oath that before the season is over I shall die of boredom!"
"That shall be most unfortunate. But do not forget, Miss Underhill will soon call - perhaps that may turn the tide in your sea of misery."
"If her brother is any indication of her qualities, I would not doubt it." I said.
"He certainly must have made quite an impression on you - I have never heard you give such high praise."
"It was quite a pleasant conversation. Millie, we matched each other so well in intellect and opinion - I have never met a man who I felt on equal footing with; most merely regurgitate facts in order that they might sound accomplished, but he was impressively well versed in a multitude of topics - not just those of his profession or those studied to make him appear an intellectual. Did you know he speaks Irish, Millie?"
"Irish? For what reason would any Englishman want to learn such a language?" Millie seemed quite stunned by this information.
"I asked the very same. He answered that as a man of the cloth he was to welcome all his parishioners regardless of wealth or origin (a rather refreshing view from a man whose living would be made more comfortable by selectively discouraging some) and with the growing influx of Irish into the region he wishes to be able to better serve them by learning their language."
"That certainly is admirable."
"But then he went on to tell that he had been quite fascinated to note a number of words were either in-whole or derived from the Romantic languages which, in turn is derived from the Latin. For instance horse, or pony, is 'capall' in Irish, which is quite close to the Spanish 'cabello', and both are unmistakably similar to the Latin: Caballus or Caballio. And in all the word 'pasta' is the same!"
"Meaning...?" By the dull look in her eye I could discern Millie's attention to the subject to be wavering - but, God love her, she was trying to humor my passion.
"Meaning the existence of Latin-esque words in the common vernacular of the language shows the influence of the Roman occupation on even that part of the Isles which is all the more interesting when you consider that those of us from England have not kept the same words." I enthused.
She laughed. "Are you finished?"
"Quite," I answered. "I suppose I got a bit carried away; only I found it terrifically fascinating."
"As you would, and few others beside you. With every word I see more and more my favorite confirmed."
"But you would prefer, perhaps, less esoteric words?"
"Perhaps. Though I cannot confirm it with certainty for I can only conjecture on the meaning of 'esoteric'," she spoke with a laugh.
"He was very interesting. He is a good man if ever there were one."
"Mina! Are you already conceding victory to me?" Millie exclaimed, triumphantly.
"Not yet; but I should not regret it were your instincts to prove correct."
"I imagine with the presence of Lord Norbert, Mr. Underhill could only have shined greater by comparison." she suggested.
Instantly Lord Norbert's dark, enigmatic eyes filled my mind; blackened windows with curtains drawn tight behind ever concealing their secrets, in all ways so incongruent with those simpering lips.
"Oh yes." I muttered, distracted. "Yes, he was as wishy-washy as ever. As unremarkable a man as ever there was." I managed to collect my thoughts enough to falsify a laugh. I looked to the sky- "Oh dear! Millie, I'm afraid time has slipped away from us! We had better turn back or you may miss your train!"
We hurried back to the house to find Lord Danvers already receiving his coat onto those broad shoulders.
"Did the pair of you have a pleasant visit?" he inquired, tapping his top hat with his cane knowingly.
"Oh yes!" Millie answered. "It was quite as pleasant as I could have hoped."
Lord Danvers let loose a hearty laugh, "Mina, I hope that we may soon see you again at Reis Hall."
"I am counting the days." I answered, not without truth. "I will miss you terribly, both of you!" Lord Danvers enveloped me in an embrace. "Please," I entreated as he released me, I looked him squarely in the eye - "Please watch over Chet while I am gone."
"I will, I know you worry for him," was his solemn answer.
"I do. Thank you, and take good care of my Millie."
"You may be certain of that!" He grinned broadly.
"Oh! I will miss you terribly, Mina!" Millie proclaimed as we clasped each other tightly.
"Not half so much as I you!" I replied.
We parted still holding onto each other's hands.
"Do remember to write." she entreated.
"I will. Goodbye Millie!"
"Until we meet again." we embraced once more. Then Lord Danvers helped her into the coach, disappeared into it himself, and they were gone.
Although I had been promised that Miss Underhill would call in the near future, it was rather I who was destined to visit her. Only four days following Millie's departure I received a letter from Dinah Underhill inviting me to join her for tea that Friday. I quickly penned my acceptance and was ferrying the miniature epistle to Dale, the Butler, when my Aunt intercepted me.
"My dear what is that you have in your hand?" she entreated.
"It is only a letter to Miss Underhill, Aunt Mabel. She has requested my presence for tea on Friday." I said.
Aunt Mabel appeared horrified at my presumption, "You haven't already consented without consulting me?" I had honestly never even considered that I should consult her in the matter - perhaps this oversight was merely from my lax upbringing; my parents had never once objected to my accepting any invitation extended my way (likely as a result of the extreme rarity of such events) and as such I had become quite accustomed to doing as I pleased insofar as my social obligations.
"I did intend to - is there a reason I should decline her?"
"I had planned to introduce you to Lady Brightmore that day - she was very impressed by you at church on Sunday and implored that I should bring you along to visit." (Ah yes, the infamous Lady Brightmore who was so very concerned with the whims of fashion she made herself to look ridiculous with her heavily feathered turbans and narrow skirts - at least this is what was said about her amongst her most intimate friends) I suppose my countenance must have unconsciously revealed my disappointment for my Aunt seemed to waiver. She sighed heavily, "Perhaps we might call on her on Tuesday instead, though I shall have to miss my weekly card game with Mrs. Harrowfield." It is my guess that she wished for me to object that she should not alter her plans on my account, but I remained silent. "Then it shall be done. But in the future please advise me of any invitation you receive before you accept."
"Yes, Aunt Mabel, I will endeavor to be more conscientious of your generous efforts toward me in the future." I apologized though I felt no compunction for my crime - to be certain I was filled with delightful satisfaction in knowing that I should be putting my Aunt out. It was wrong to take joy from such a thing, I was sure, yet I could not help myself. I handed the missal to Dale with a glorious sense of triumph, regardless how small the scope of my victory.
I arrived at the parsonage just before tea. It was a quaint, well-appointed and fastidiously maintained abode, if diminutive in size, situated just two miles North of my Uncle's house beside the river. I could not help but note that nary a spider nor dust mote dared inhabit even the outermost crevices of the home - a condition I attributed to the severe nature of its master for all things about the facade stood in a state of such order they recalled those soldiers who stand at attention before an especially harsh general who might just as soon cast them out than correct them. The walls were scrubbed, the paint smooth and fresh gleamed brightly in the sun - it brought to my mind the white-washed tomb.
I rapped at the door delicately, not wishing to risk disturbing the paint. 'What must it be like to grow up in such a place!' I marveled. A portly old maid with jolly face and a mop of silver curls under her bonnet answered the door - her demeanor was so in contrast with the exterior of the house I scarce knew what to make of her - it was as though she had simply appeared from the air for no cross house could produce such a pleasing little provincial as she!
"You must be Miss Moore." she said, her face wreathed with a warm smile. I blinked twice, far too stunned to formulate a polite response. "Well, come in, Miss Underhill is in the parlor - please, follow me." She waived that I should accompany her through the portal into whatever realm she had been born from.
I followed and stood in wonder at the interior - certainly it was just as tidy yet it had an open, friendly air about it. Golden oaks gleamed all about from the casements to the high polished floors. The servant led me to the nearest shining doorway. Peering through I saw, standing, staring longingly out a window at the river, what I could only describe as the most lovely woman I have ever beheld. Her porcelain skin, only just hinting pink on the cheeks, was beautifully framed by long ebony hair. Her frame was slender, graceful in its form and length (for she was near as tall as I yet she had none of my ill-proportioned gauntness). Her dress was an airy pale blue that flowed from her as water. Yet it was her forlorn eyes which most arrested my attention. Those great dark eyes that gazed so sadly at the outside world yet without truly seeing it.
"Miss, Miss Moore is come to see you." the servant announced timidly, as though she hated to tear her mistress from her haunted vigil.
"Oh yes," the apparition spoke softly without turning. "Please show her in."
"I am sorry, if I have come at a bad time..." I offered, not eager to pull her from her reverie.
"No," she answered, turning from the river, a gentle smile upon her face. "I am glad you have come. Millie speaks so highly of you." She motioned to the table. "Mrs. Stuart, if you would be so kind as to bring us tea."
The plump woman nodded and bustled off toward what I expected was the kitchen.
"I apologize, I did not mean to be rude, I intended to call earlier but I have lately been ill and I am sorry to say that it has left me rather easily tired." she said, sinking into her seat.
"Not at all, my Aunt has kept me so preoccupied these past weeks I doubt there would have been any time until just now." I replied with a forced smile. "Millie tells me that you two came out together?"
"Yes, we met the night before we were presented. I was far too agitated to sleep and so I contented myself by walking the corridors of the hotel when I came upon a young woman, as visibly nervous as I was feeling, practicing her bow again and again and each time losing her balance causing her to topple over onto the rug until finally she surrendered to her fate, beating down the delicate folds of her dress to the carpet impotently with her fists. I suppose I thought if I could help her (and that help I was certain I could accomplish for the bow was about the only thing I held any confidence in) I might be able to conquer my own nerves; so I offered her my hand and we practiced bowing before the queen until the wee hours of the night, laughing and chatting as though we had known each other all our lives. I suppose she was my first real friend outside of my own family." she recalled wistfully.
"That would be my Millie - she could make a friend of even St. Anthony of Egypt if she had a mind to."
"That poor man would be unequal to her perseverance." Miss Underhill laughed - it was a strange sound, as though unused to being employed.
By this time Mrs. Stuart had returned with the tea service and was merrily doling out plates of sweet cakes and sandwiches. Miss Underhill raised her hand declining the sugar offered her - this seemed to discomfit the servant but Mrs. Stuart made no protest, gladly she added a spoonful of sugar to my own cup. I supposed she must be a grandmother for they are never more glad than to see their grandchildren spoilt, in my experience, from the way she fussed about Miss Underhill I expect she considered the ebony haired woman as a part of her brood. As Mrs. Stuart left the room we lapsed into silence.
Finally, Miss Underhill cleared her throat.
"Quentin tells me you are interested in Roman history."
"Yes, yes I am. Though I daresay I am not nearly so well versed in it as he. Is he your older brother?" I asked.
She took a sip of tea before answering, "No, I am the elder but only by a handful of minutes."
"Then you are twins!" I smiled, guessing her meaning.
"Yes, we were something of a sensation when we were small - we were quite inseparable; even now Quentin is my closest confidante."
In my mind I imagined the small featured brown haired boy clasping hands with his snowy skinned, dark haired sister as they stood with their father near the door of the church. The image appeared at once so natural that it seemed it had always been so.
"He seems to be a very devoted brother." I observed.
"Yes, he is." she answered abstractly, her attention once again being drawn toward the window.
I attempted to glance covertly to see what was the thing that held her mesmerized by its power, but all I saw was the river with only a few small boats floating upon it - nothing so special as to demand the gaze. As she stared her right hand was drawn to the left, rolling an object across the base of the third finger. I had not noticed it before, the gold band embracing her ring finger - I watched as her fingers obfuscated, then, by turns, revealed each stone. The second was clear, squarish - a beryl, I guessed. The fourth was one I did not recognize; a glittering green of such otherworldly quality I found it hard to tear my eyes from it. The first was also green but of that opaque foggy shade characteristic of Jade and the third I knew as a Diamond. Two clear white stones encased by green: a very unique setting that could only be by special intent. While it was possible the colors were meaningful, in their way, the fact that none of the stones were of a kind led me to suspect that the symmetry was more or less incidental. More likely, as with the common regard rings, the name of the stone was more significant than its shade. I sat, trying to puzzle out their meaning but found the missing piece of the identity of the fourth stone to be quite troublesome. Jade, Beryl, Diamond - JBD - it could not be a word or an explicit name (I cannot even imagine how such an arrangement would be pronounced) but perhaps a phrase or initials.
Finally, I could bear my curiosity no longer: "I'm sorry, I was just noticing the green stone on your ring - I've never seen anything quite like it! What is it called?"
Surprised, Dinah looked down at her hands as though she had forgotten she was even wearing the ring - so long it must have been a part of her wardrobe - self-conscious, she covered it with her hand, fully obscuring the thing from my view.
"It is called Uvarovite, and it is quite rare." she replied.
And that was it: U! JBDU! Now there could be no doubt of the intentionality in the choice of stones - something so rare would not be sought without reason. DU must be Dinah Underhill and, while I could not begin to guess at their exact meaning, there was not a doubt in my mind that JB stood as the first and last initials of the man who gave her the ring. It was sensible that such a woman should have a suitor… yet none had been mentioned by either Millie or Quentin.
"I was unaware you were engaged." I prattled on. "When will the wedding be?"
Only stony silence answered me. She stared at me with a mixture of hurt and contempt - it was as if she were accusing me of intentionally wounding her. Abruptly putting her napkin on the table she stood and strode from the room without a further word. I sat immobile, staring at the doorway, stunned.
I quickly abandoned the parlor and was just about to see myself to the door when a familiar voice called to me from across the main room, "Miss Moore, I was unaware you would be calling on us today." Quentin smiled at me, still on one knee before the bookshelf adjacent to the window.
"Yes," I said, still terribly disconcerted by my host's sudden exit. "Your sister invited me for tea, but..." I hesitated. Quentin raised his eyebrows as if to signify that I should continue. I felt the words tumble from my lips, "I don't know what I said wrong but it must have been something unforgivably offensive because she left me without warning or word." Tears of frustration stung my eyes, "I had hoped so much to make a good impression! Oh, how shall I ever tell Millie!" I confessed, my tears now flowing freely down my face carrying with them every pent up frustration of the past few weeks. My cheeks burned with shame under their cool streams - how could I allow such an outburst in front of this man, a veritable stranger!
"Now, it can't be as bad as all that. Dinah is a good woman but she can be somewhat difficult with those people whom she is not well acquainted. Tell me what you said and I'll see if we can get it sorted." His voice was gentle, consoling.
I choked back a sob, my humiliation in no great way assuaged by his assuring smile.
"I inquired about her ring and when I asked her about the wedding she- she left without a word." I ejaculated more than spoke the words.
Quentin's smile fell.
"That is serious." he said. "But I do understand, there was no way you could have known."
"Has the man passed?" I asked.
"I cannot say with any certainty. No one has heard from him or seen him in over three months. It's not that he's not prone to lengthy absences due to his profession, but he has never been away for this long without some form of contact. But this last time he said he was coming home to stay - he promised my sister that they would be married before May."
I looked at my feet, May was already near past.
"Did he..." I started, unable to form the final words of that most unforgivable question.
"Jilt her?" he finished as though he had read my thoughts. "I doubt it, no man was ever more ardent in his love than James. He has adored Dinah from the first moment he beheld her in church three years ago - since then there has never been another."
"Did you know him well?"
"Yes, we were quite good friends - in many ways he was like a brother to me. I am worried for him, though not nearly so much as Dinah is." Quentin explained. "I fear some harm may have befallen him."
Poor Dinah! I felt dreadful for what I had said - even if it was done in ignorance.
"I am so sorry, please beg my apologies to your sister."
"I will talk to her; do not be too disheartened, I am certain she will forgive you."
"Thank you." I said, dabbing the last bit of moisture from my cheeks. "... and thank you." I repeated.
"You are not accustomed to London society or its demands; add to that the separation from your loved ones and familiar surroundings and it is only surprising you managed to keep your composure for this long. I am not the curate of this parish yet but do not hesitate to come to me if you should ever need to seek solace." he smiled that gentle smile at me.
I felt my face redden and took some comfort in knowing that my tears had likely rouged my cheeks enough that the blush would not be distinguishable. I managed to return his smile and we bid goodbye as friends.
At the house I flung myself onto the sofa in the Library, desperately seeking refuge from my humiliation and the regret of having so deeply wounded Miss Underhill - regret which seemed to have congealed from an ephemeral emotion into a heavy leaden ball in my gut. I had thought myself so very clever in deciphering the riddle of her ring, like a child I had sought her praise for my prowess without any care for discretion, and in my reckless seeking I had done her harm. I buried my face against the course fabric of the sofa but found no peace for my troubled mind. It felt as though the shame had diseased my brain: it burned with sudden thoughts just as quickly lost and ever returning to Miss Underhill's face, softness made steel by the concealment of long-bourne pain. I tossed and turned restlessly; unable to find any comfort. My eyes flew open of their own accord, staring blankly at the shelves before me until they found their desired goal, those wide grinning pale visages beckoning me to join them. 'The house is empty.' they seem to whisper. 'There is no one to discover you. Come look at us, we have so much more to tell.'
My gaze followed the craggy line along the crown of the white skull. I knew my Uncle would be infuriated were he to find me about this macabre activity but such thoughts were only just barely able to permeate my consciousness in my excitement. I had never handled a skull before this time, I had only seen them in books or at a distance. It felt dry, smooth in my hands, as I gingerly turned it this way and that; careful to avoid the hole in the side. The line was thin as a thread; it faded and vanished at points, only to reappear again. I traced the long line that traversed the entire skull from the bridge of the nose to the very tip of the back where it branched off into two lines leading to the hole in the base. I was only scarcely able to make out a faded round curving line around each ear. I took the skull and looked at it straight on - its empty sockets staring into my own hazel eyes. I turned it over, the teeth were wide and straight, well-formed, the tops worn but otherwise enviable to any Britain. I carefully replaced the skull on its stand, gently fitting the jaw under it.
Eagerly, I reached for the brown skull. This one would require more care for any further chipping of the plaster would reveal me. I gently placed my fingers around it as one might a ball and instantly drew back. It felt slick, as though someone had greased it! I stared at it: I hadn't noticed how the light glistened off of it where it just fell upon the other. Perhaps it was merely a result of the stain used... yet this explanation struck me as mere wishful thinking - I could not wholly ignore the nagging sense that the grease was seeping through from the bone. I steeled myself, repeating the phrase that the grease was only from the stain to ease the lurch in my stomach as I felt the oily substance beneath my fingers, (I had never known myself to suffer from a weak constitution when confronted with bodily fluids but something about the idea of bone grease settled poorly with me) and lifted the skull from its perch.
Instantly, I saw the reason for the high setting - the plaster coating was thin, uneven, and poorly applied - to anyone observing the skull at eye level the alterations would have been unmistakable. I supposed my Uncle must have been so greatly seduced by the romance of the skulls' tale and the impressive wounds on the one that he neglected the quality of the other. Turning the piece so as to face the forehead to myself I felt the uneven roughness of the muscle tear at the rear on my fingers. A shiver shot down my spine - to think this had once been a person! Someone who had lay on the grass and felt the sunlight upon their face, who had loved and been loved, a person who had once had a family around them; was its near companion the only family it now knew? Was all that was left to record the events in its life the leavings of an injury? Even obfuscated by the staining and plaster I was able to discern the lines. They seemed thicker, deeper than those of its neighbor; each was clearly visible from crown to crest with no breaks or fading.
"What does this mean?" I mused aloud.
Perhaps the plaster had been applied merely as a protective measure for a fragile artifact, stained to cover the shoddy workmanship; yet it seemed solid in my hands with no sense of weakness.
I recalled the work of Cheselden, that dear forbidden book eventually stolen from me entirely at my Mother's urging and shut up in Father's bedroom. The thick, open lines of the child's skull when compared with the adult's. I wondered... perhaps this skull was not, in fact, from someone in late middle age but a younger person? But what would possess someone to alter the skull to appear as though it were older? Was the tale of a husband and wife separated by death but reunited at last so very profitable a prospect as to compel the seller to alter the skull?
The sound of hoofbeats on stone broke my concentration. I hurried to return the relic to its proper resting place and in doing so accidentally knocked the jaw, which had until now sat loose on the shelf, from the ledge. The world before me went black a moment as my heart stopped. I heard it hit the rug below my feet with a dull thud. Taking a deep breath I forced myself to look down to the floor where I was certain the shattered remains of the ancient bone lay.
"Praise the good Lord in Heaven!" I mouthed.
It had not been damaged by the fall in the slightest! Quickly, I plucked it from the carpet and was placing it underneath the head when I noticed it - a tooth was missing in the back. Panic began to set in: I had not seen the tooth on the floor! Could it have rolled beneath something? I heard the steps of the Butler traverse the Foyer. I held the jaw, looking at the blank space when I noticed something - there was a gap but no hole where the tooth would have nested. Whatever tooth had once been there it had been long gone well before death. Looking closely at the horseshoe shaped bone revealed a number of cavities in the teeth though little wear when compared with the other skull. The door opened and the sound of the Butler greeting my Uncle met my ears.
"Has Philomena returned from the Parsonage yet?" the muffled voice of my Uncle inquired.
"Yes, I believe she is in the Library." Dale answered.
I hurriedly replaced the jaw and rushed to the sofa just before the doorknob turned to admit the broad, mustachioed face of my Uncle Richard. He hefted his portly girth through the portal with an air of grand importance.
"Ah, Philomena! I must speak with you."
"Yes, Uncle?" I replied innocently.
"I have been to see Mr. Martin today - you recall he and his wife from the dinner party a fortnight ago?"
"His son, Nicholas, has requested permission to call on you next week - assuming your duties do not prevent it."
"Not as far as I am aware, though Aunt Mabel would be the one to consult regarding my responsibilities."
Uncle Richard allowed the right corner of his mouth to twitch ever so slightly upward at this.
"However, I am not certain I wish to be called upon."
He released a deep sigh.
"Philomena," he said, taking his place in the easy chair at angle from me. "I am not blind to your reticence to participate in the London season. It was at your Father's insistence that we agreed to have you. He has long labored under the delusion that you might be coaxed into becoming a woman of high society were you merely to see it in all its grandeur; but I have known you from your youth and though the seeds of your class were oft sown the field itself was fallow." I opened my mouth to object to these insults but he held a hand to stop me. "Do not think me unkind in my assessment; but I know you do not wish to be here and I cannot fault you for it - balls and supper parties and calls were never in your nature."
"This is true." I allowed.
He leaned forward, leveling his eyes with mine.
"As I recall you enjoyed your time with Nicholas Martin, and he is a fine young man if a bit passionate in his opinions - but that is a fault a young man might be forgiven."
"I have no objection to the man."
"Philomena," his mein was serious now. "Don't reject this man just to spite your father."
"It is not only that."
"Than what more is there?"
"I... I do not wish to lead him on. I do not desire to marry and it would be cruel to pretend I might alter my wishes and thus waste the time he could be spending with more amenable company."
"It is a greater cruelty not to at least grant him the chance. It is his time and if he wishes to waste it - as you say - on your company then there is no need for you to try to protect him from his decision. I ask that you allow him to call this one time; then you may refuse him all you wish."
"It would only distract him from more suitable women!" I objected again, clinging to my final argument as though it were a life raft on shifting seas.
"Philomena, there are no other women! Nicholas has never once showed interest in any other. You have impressed him and that is a high compliment. I ask again that you simply allow him to call." he implored.
I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I had never considered myself to be in any manner impressive to anyone, let alone so much so that I, alone, might be sought after. My chest tightened with the thought of being so chosen by that intriguing young firebrand.
I swallowed a sizable lump which has risen in my throat.
"He may call."
I know I shall never send this letter, but I simply must write in an attempt to sort out these things which seem unable to settle within my head but rather force me into a state of general agitation. I cannot but sit down before I find myself up once again pacing for want of some activity to occupy me and, when one is found, I just as soon abandon it to walk the floor yet again. The reason for this? Oh, you would laugh at me! I should have no peace were I to ever confess it to you! My Uncle surely is to blame for it! It was his doing after all. I should have been happy to shut myself up in my room for the remainder of the season but he implored me to merely allow Mr. Nicholas Martin to call and now I find myself in such a state I am not sure whether I regret allowing my Uncle to sway me or if I am glad of it; though I am certain you will be less enthusiastic of what has come of it. But I suppose if I am to unravel the thing I must start at the beginning.
Four days past Uncle Richard reported to me that Mr. Martin wished to call on me. I cannot even begin to convey my surprise on the subject, for I hardly possess any qualities to entice a man's attentions - I can already hear you objecting to my assessment but you know it to be true… beyond my family's fortune and connection, that is. Despite my Uncle's protestations to the contrary I could not help but believe the man to simply be a common fortune hunter. And were my suspicions to prove true (as I was certain they would) I could readily extricate myself from this silly practice for at least the next week or two claiming a broken heart. I will admit to you - and only to you, Millie - that I was somewhat disappointed that it was Mr. Martin and not Mr. Underhill who requested to call. While I know he stood staunchly against the prospect of marrying I suppose I had hoped... Well what did I hope? That it was all for show? That I had somehow impressed him enough to change that ever-whirring mind? I suspect I allowed your own optimism to get the better of my senses. But that is neither here nor there for it was Mr. Martin who called and I confess now that I am glad it was he who did. I have spent every hour of the evening replaying each moment, every snippet of conversation. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The meeting began rather poorly by any standard. I arrived well past the appointed time. This I am entirely to blame for as I had found a patch of blackberries growing fat and dark in the copse by the giant oak and - well, you are well aware of my weakness for blackberries - I could not be sated until I had picked and consumed every last ripe morsel. This alone would not have caused me to be terribly late, only then, when I had finished and the exultation of my triumph had diminished, did I realize my hands were not only stained by the berries' juice but that they had been terrifically scratched by the bush's thorns leaving unnumbered small red trails across my skin. To make the matter all the more ridiculous the thorns snagging my gloves was the very reason I opted to pick bare-handed. I don't know what I thought would happen to my flesh if my gloves could not even stand up to those briers but apparently my logic had failed me. Of course the full extent of the disgrace I had made of myself would not be revealed until I met Sarah at my doorway.
"My word!" she exclaimed. "What a fright you are!"
"Is it really all that bad?" I had asked. She didn't say another word but led me to the mirror where I saw myself: my lips were stained a deep purple hue with further smudges spotting my cheeks, nose, and even one that I could not begin to account for across my forehead. Sarah left me for quite a few minutes staring at the overgrown child in the mirror but returned with a bowl of cold water and a strange citrus smelling paste. "What is that?" I asked.
"It's lemon juice and salt - it's an old remedy my mother used to use. Now hold still, Mr. Martin is already waiting for you in the Library."
"Well, I suppose, at least he has something to occupy his time." I tried to laugh but Sarah's look warned me that such was not the time for levity. I daresay I think she enjoyed putting that horrible concoction on my poor tortured hands. Never have I felt such a concentrated amount of pain! I winced and tried to pull away but she held me fast, washing as best she could around my wounds. I watched much of the light purple liquid slough off into the bowl. Then she went for my face, scrubbing every inch raw. She stepped back to admire her handiwork - I was afraid to look in the mirror to see the reddened, raw creature she had wrought.
"A little powder should hide the redness until it fades, but I'm afraid there is nothing more I can do for your hands without making the cuts worse."
I looked down at those spindly appendages: the cuts glowed brightly from the pale skin splotched with faded purple.
"You'll just have to wear gloves until it disappears."
I can't even begin to convey to you how foolish I felt as Sarah powdered me and slipped on the opaque gloves we hoped to hide my condition with.
Finally, Sarah threw up her hands exasperated, "It will just have to do." I braved a glance in the mirror.
She had once again worked her magic: I looked almost good though something in my countenance suggested the disheveled state I had arrived in, though what I could not exactly pinpoint. My Uncle, near fuming at the rudeness with which my guest had been treated, veritably shoved me through the Library door. There I stood, lanky and awkward. Nicholas looked up from the book he had lain on the low table in front of him.
"Ah, so you made it." he observed with a disarming smile.
I don't think I have given enough credit to the man's looks for at the party he seemed a rather dark character, but seeing him with the sun gleaming on that dark chestnut hair and lighting that open face smiling at me as though there were nothing amiss in the world (and this despite my being an hour late) - I must admit when my eyes were caught by his, soft and deep brown, my heart fluttered a moment.
"Will you join me?" he gestured to the chair across the table.
I tried to smile but only half of my mouth would obey my directives. Fortunately, Uncle Richard, impatient for the meeting to begin, pushed me forward into the room as he made to light the candle. I managed to catch myself before I lost all balance and fell to the floor. Nicholas rose to assist me (though he was far too distant to provide any substantive aide.
"Here, let me help you." he said, taking my hand as I sat.
I was never so thankful to be powdered as I was then for it hid the blush that rose as soon as his hand made contact with mine.
"Thank you." I managed to murmur, staring at my knees.
"If you need me, I will be in the study." my Uncle announced, jolly now that the plot was in motion. So certain was he of its success I was tempted to feign a fainting spell right at that moment and thus put an end to it just for spite - but my own wish to not yet abandon that hopeful, handsome face managed to subdue my desire for revenge on my Uncle for putting me in this situation.
He closed the book - I suppose he expected that I should create conversation as a matter of course but I remained silent, tugging absently at my gloves. My hands itched terribly from the course fabric against my wounds. Mr. Martin shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"So, how are you finding London?" he tried.
I scarcely looked up from my manual occupation. "I find it quite well." I lied politely - for if one must lie at least one should be proper about it, Mother was always fond of admonishing me.
"Have you had a chance to be acquainted with any of the sights?"
"Only from the view of the carriage."
"Your Aunt has not taken you out to the parks or to the Art Museum?"
"No, we have only had time to visit her friends thus far." And, I suspect, that is all we will ever have time for - Millie it is remarkable how many friends a woman may have and how many times she can see them! Could we not go one week without seeing Mrs. Grey who will only talk of who spoke to whom at church on Sunday? I never dreamed how very imperative a nod of the head could be! All that a simple greeting can say to those who know how to interpret its language! Or over-interpret it, as the case may be. But I do digress.
"Are you finding them agreeable?
"In their way." I replied.
He seemed lost at what to follow this with and we fell into silence. I glanced from my hands a few times to see him examining me closely – in much the same way he had been the room that day we met. Even so, there was a friendliness in that gaze that made it feel less invasive - simply it was inquiring: attempting to search out what I would not easily provide.
"Your Uncle tells me your Father is in South Africa, then?"
I certainly could not fault him for lack of persistence.
"Yes, he has business there."
"Shipping if I recall correctly."
Clearly my Uncle had been busy attempting to sell Mr. Martin on the merits of my family.
"That is correct. I'm sorry, you find me at a disadvantage for I do not know what business your family is in."
"Clothing, my Father owns a mill in London and a textile mill in Yorkshire as well."
"We have lately branched into cotton as well," he supplied. "It was scarce due to the war in the States but the supply seems to have stabilized now."
Ah yes, a clothing manufacturer looking to expand into importing cotton from the Americas and the daughter of a shipping baron; I could now see very clearly the economic enticement of such an advantageous union as clearly as the young man in front of me must have when he asked permission to call.
"I wish I could say more about it but, to be frank, my trip to the Americas has greatly soured me to the subject," he continued.
"Oh? And how is that?" I dug.
His demeanor instantly blackened, his eyes and mouth hardened, he looked away from me as though ashamed. "Slavery." he spat.
"I thought that savage practice had been abolished after the war?" I responded. I was quite surprised to hear such a thing might still exist.
"You know American politics then?"
"Only that it is a brutish sport practiced by so-called gentlemen and generals that often results in grave misfortune for all involved."
"Aye," He replied sheepishly. "You are not one to hide your opinion, are you?"
"Not when it is so asked for."
"Well, it is Generals who are to blame for this grave misfortune. Slavery is dead and yet it lives on. They call it 'sharecropping' and 'apprenticeships' - where the people are forced to toil and pay more for their labor than they could ever earn; thus they live in perpetual debt to their 'employers'."
"I don't understand, they cannot leave and find another position? Or buy their own property?"
"No, that is the supposed beauty of the system. The law states that they must have an employer at all times or they are considered vagrants, they cannot own unincorporated land (which is already owned and thus must be rented from an employer), and were they to try and leave they could be forcibly hauled back to their employer and docked a year's wages and still will owe rent. Now they charge the slaves money to be slaves. Slavery was never so profitable as this!"
"That is horrifying!"
Millie I had never heard of such a thing before - even serfs had a better lot than what he was describing!
"It was even worse than that for in the town we visited they enjoyed terrorizing these people by riding out at night and swooping down to punish those who had broken any of their codes, whether it was written or unwritten. I saw it once: we were in town late one evening when a group of men rode down screaming and hollering as though to wake the dead and they drug a negro man from a shack and whipped him before everybody - for what reason they never told us. It was an unabashadly barbaric display but my father found it so very amusing - particularly the man with the white sheet over his face who led the party - he still laughs when he tells of it." His eyes darkened with burning hatred - for which I could not be sure: the nightmarish happening or his father's enjoyment of it. I listened in silence.
"Following that we journeyed to New York City to see the textile factories as father believed it might be cheaper to have the cloth manufactured there and then transport the finished product rather than making them in England. Philomena," the sound of my name on his lips sent a shock through me. "it is horrible in a way I could never have dreamed; not even in my worst nightmares. Yes, I know the factory towns of England - I am almost ashamed of my part in them - but New York is every sin of the factory on an infinite scale. The stench of human and animal, of slaughterhouse and burning fat, of waste and decay permeated to the very soul of a person choking the humanity out of them. To know that there are people who live in die in that never knowing a breath of fresh air! They boast about the 'great advances' made to improve the conditions for the workers - what great advances! I could barely breathe for the cotton dust; I saw children - tiny children! - working the shuttles from when I arrived in the morning until I left that night with no sign of an end; their mothers and fathers not far from them. Not that England is without blame in this but at least they do not practically rob the infant from the pram! The sound of wheezing was like a continuous death rattle, no place on the floor was without it. The overseers had no sympathy for the plight of their workers. When I questioned the owner about the children's schooling he laughed as though I had said the funniest thing he had heard in months. My father questioned him about the stability of the operation - was it insured against strikes? And once again the owner laughed for it seemed any person even breathing a word about unionizing would find themselves and any of their family without employ and unable find a position at any other factory. Such control delighted my father but thankfully the quality of the product did not for I do not think I could bear to work under my father knowing the practices I was supporting. Philomena, the people are treated as less than the machines - a machine, were it to break, would be repaired; but a broken man is merely tossed aside like so much garbage!"
"But that is the way of things, is it not? I do not mean to sound cruel but factories do need workers and strikes may be ruinous to employers - what good is a factory with no workers to work it and no owner to oversee it?"
"But they should feel no need to strike to begin with!" he returned passionately. "A strike is only the working man asserting his need to survive. If they were provided for adequately, paid a fair wage for their work and given a safe place to labor in, then they would see no reason to strike. Unions are merely the voice of the worker and that is a voice that, as the owner, I should want to hear; not silence."
"But would that not increase the expense?"
"Perhaps, but well-off workers tend to be more productive and less often absent. Not only that but they can afford to buy the products themselves which increases sales. Instead of a weary, ill, starving workforce I would possess one that was the envy of all others. It would come at some cost but the gains would be substantial. But I'm sorry, you probably do not want to discuss such matters do you? I suppose once I begin on the subject I tend to become carried away." There was that boyish smile.
"No, I find it fascinating. I don't believe I've ever heard a man of business speak of such things. Please do continue." I urged him.
And it was true: not only was I eager to hear more for the content but also I desired to feel the conviction with which he spoke it. All disappointment that may have remained melted away - banished forever - by the quick motions of his hands as he elaborated upon his hopes for the future of industry. My belief in his desire for an advantageous marriage to improve his own holdings assuredly was my own unwarranted cynicism. His passion for the plight of the worker was intoxicating. It was everything about him when he spoke: the way his eyes flashed, the strength of his voice, the flush of his cheeks - I could have listened to him rhapsodize for hours about it and never been bored a moment! Finding a willing audience he continued; outlining the need for the working man to work together towards better wages and conditions, the need for the current system of exploitative factories to be abandoned and the need for employers to change their focus from merely production to those who produce. I believe at some point Uncle Richard came in to check the candle and, finding us thus deeply embroiled in conversation, adjusted it and left beaming with the assurance of success.
"So then, what do you intend to do about your own holdings - I am correct that you are the elder brother, am I not?"
"No, Darby has three years on me," he answered, much to my surprise for Darby is such a skinny, smallish thing who scarcely looks in his twentieth year. Certainly you recall him (how could anyone forget his nattering!); he's barely a slip of a man. Nicholas must have read the shock on my face, for he continued. "I know it is hard to believe but he is the elder of us two and thus he will inherit the company. However, he has no taste for business - as father has noted on many occasions - so while the holdings may go to him the running of the company will fall to me."
"So what is the answer to my question?" I pressed him. He made to answer but then withdrew into the chair, hand to his chin, formulating his response.
"I suppose cotton, by its very nature, is exploitative. Even if I could improve the lives of my own workers I could never rest easily knowing the abuses of my suppliers. To be perfectly honest, if I cannot find a better alternative, I believe I would refuse the position. I would rather live out the rest of my days as a pauper whose labor is honest and harms none but himself than have all the wealth of a prince borne to me on the broken backs of the lower classes."
"But for all the nobility of that statement, in truth, would it not be better to improve the working conditions of your own employees even if it meant continuing to support cruel suppliers? Is not half a victory worth anything at all?" I felt less like I was arguing than that I was attempting to determine his sincerity. Lovely words they were, but few men would consign themselves to poverty for any cause let alone that which he proposed; particularly when wealth and comfort were assured.
"It is not half a victory if a man may be beaten for the crime of existing! Darby can run it on my recommendations. He has not seen that which I have; his conscience will not scream for justice at every received shipment. I am sorry Miss Moore, I hope I have not distressed you too greatly with my words but I would rather speak the plain truth and lose your favor for it than attempt to conceal my feelings."
"No!" I said. "I find them fascinating."
"Regardless, I believe it is time we find a topic of less weight for there is so little of the evening left." At his cue I glanced away from his visage to the window - when had it become so dark? "And you still owe me an explanation for your tardiness." He spoke the words with a half-smile that gave me to know the teasing was good-natured in intent.
"A lady need never to explain her comings and goings. Besides, you said you wished to away from weighty matters," I laughed.
"Well, if it is truly as serious as all that than I shan't press you to reveal." The lone upward curl of his lips was now met with its mirror on the opposite side.
"It is very serious indeed, but to you I shall reveal it." I answered tenderly tugging my glove off. I displayed for him the violet mottled, ruined hand, "There was a patch of blackberries in the garden and, I confess, I may have gotten carried away."
He broke into laughter, I felt his finger under my hand as he guided it towards himself for closer examination. His touch was light and soft, almost as if his hand were not there at all. My stomach seemed to clench and flutter up into my very chest, my head swirled to the risk of faint as though in illness though what sickness could cause such a sensation I could not dare to say. Oh Millie! I cannot even begin to convey how much I ached for him to press those lips against my hand cradled so gently in his! And how very shocked I was by the sudden onrushing tide of that desire the like of which I had never known until that very moment! I cannot even begin to confess my embarrassment that such thoughts even exist in my head and yet the imagined kiss keeps replaying, though he is long gone, and each time I am afflicted by the same delicious fog clouding all other things from my brain but those things which are his. My mind is swimming even as I write about it.
But he did not kiss me as I so desperately wished. Perhaps he might have had my Uncle not arrived to snuff out the candle. "I am sorry to interrupt you two but it is getting quite late." It was humiliating the knowing grin he sent us - I instantly withdrew my hand, mortified that he had witnessed me in such an unguarded moment. "It is time for Mr. Martin to be getting home now, do you not agree Philomena?" I nodded, unable to force myself to face him, I stared at the ungloved hand folded beneath the other in my lap. "Mr. Martin, I hope your visit was a pleasant one."
I glanced at Mr. Martin who had not moved his gaze from me the entire time. I ducked my eyes; I felt my face to the very tips of my ears, the very back of my neck, reddening - I am certain no amount of powder could conceal so deep a blush - but, almost as quickly I found them drawn back to his, clear and brown and open.
"Yes, it was very pleasant. If I may be so bold to request but another moment of your niece's time?" he asked never breaking our connection.
"Certainly, but only a moment." My Uncle disappeared behind the door as jolly as could be. Mr. Martin leaned forward, those orbs taking on a new intensity,
"Miss Moore, if I may be so bold to ask, Darby and I intend to go riding on Saturday. I know you may have other plans, but if you would find it agreeable, I would like it very much if you would accompany us. Would you join our party?"
Millie, I swear to you it was as though I were a woman possessed at that moment! My mouth moved but the words did not seem my own!
"Yes. Yes, I would like to very much."
Millie, I don't know what to make of all of thi-
At that moment Sarah knocked on the door causing my startled hand to slip and ruining the "s" - when had I come to recognize that soft, timid knock as her own? Had I been in exile so long that even the comings and goings of the staff were now familiar to me? I turned the letter over so the writing could not be seen. "Yes, come in." I called.
Opening the door, Sarah slipped in so carefully one would think she were afraid her mere presence might cause offense - like a dog who had found himself on the receiving end of his master's boot once too often. It was my fault, of course, I felt a great deal of guilt for the way I had treated her those first weeks. Afterall, none of my discomforts had been her doing, she was only doing her job to the best of her abilities - and certainly she excelled at it despite my constant stubborn protestations. I resolved that I should be more gracious to her from this time forward.
"Good Evening Miss. I've come to get you ready for bed." she whispered.
"Yes, thank you Sarah." I said with what I hoped was a disarmingly warm smile.
She affixed me with a curious look - I guessed perhaps I failed to properly execute that expression. She settled down to undo the endless trail of buttons that ran down my back. For once I was grateful for her assistance - my fingers were still sore from where the blackberry thorns had pricked them. I stared at myself in the mirror, a young woman stared back: blackberry picking? Really? Was this the behavior of an eighteen year old woman? Why had I been so content to pick blackberries at the expense of everything else? Even had my appearance no been so unsightly I would have been late. Yet, I had seemed positively determined to make a complete mess of myself - a blackberry smear across my forehead! Had I merely been careless? No! I had done everything in my power to assure the visit would fail before it even began even if I did it without being fully aware of my intention. And because of my own stubbornness I had almost missed him! That passionate, enigmatic man who knew his own mind and did not fear to live by or defend its determinations! In my mind I replayed the encounter - the way his lips moved when he spoke, the way his eyes burned with conviction, the strength of his voice, that moment when he drew my hand towards him - Oh that moment! And my own personal prejudices had almost kept me from him! Suddenly, I became aware of Sarah's face peering over my shoulder, a gentle smile across her lips.
"No doubt about it Miss, you are in love."
"What do you mean?" I cried out in shock; she quailed.
"I'm sorry, Miss, I didn't mean to speak out of turn."
"No, no, it's not that." I attempted to ameliorate my chastisement, though she was far beyond merely out of turn - she had been positively impudent! Yet I was so much more interested in the words she had spoken that I was willing to overlook this behavior. "But how do you know?" I hissed urgently. I must know! Was this love? I had never even been vaguely acquainted with that most famous of emotions. In my youth I may have held a childish fancy for a boy but as soon as Arthur began spreading the rumor of my madness I quickly found the only reason a boy might lavish any interest on me was a dare - I learned early to guard myself against any such attentions. I now wondered how often had I rebuffed the sincere mistaking it for the sinister? Had I not, only today, attempted such sabotage? Was this roiling inside of me truly love? Does it really come on so very fast? I had to know!
"Well Miss, it's really very simple: anyone who has ever truly been in love knows the look of it," she explained.
"So then, you can tell I am in love because you have been in love?"
"Yes Miss, only once, but it was the grandest time of my life."
"What became of the man?"
"Oh Miss, I don't want to waste your time with my prattling on," she hemmed, pulling off my dress she focused her attention on unlacing my bodice. The fast, forceful pull of her fingers gave me to know this was something she very much wished to discuss but felt she must conceal.
"Please waste my time, in fact, I command you to do so," I ordered with the first real smile she had ever seen grace my mouth.
She laughed,"I will tell you but..." her voice dropped, "But you must promise to never tell another soul what I say here. I don't want to get sacked."
"I shan't tell a soul, you have my word as a Lady." Sarah regarded me dubiously; the incident with the blackberries only hours before clearly fresh in her mind. "Then my word as a woman, if you prefer." We both laughed at this. I was glad she was finally able to overcome her terror of me enough to laugh some - it made the house seem worlds friendlier to hear the sound of another young woman's laugh.
"I met him only just six months ago when he called on your Uncle for tea."
"I see, so he was a gentleman. That is why you swore me to secrecy."
"Oh Miss, I know it was terrible of me to even think such things but he was so goodly handsome I could not help but wish that he might look twice at me! I thought I caught a glance while I was serving the tea, but I could never believe such a thing possible. Still, he came twice more and on that third time he managed to corner me in the hall. He told me he had seen me serving the tea and that he was in love with me."
I raised my eyebrows, such a blunt confession! I scanned Sarah for any trace of the type of beauty that might inspire a gentleman to make such an unrestrained claim but none presented itself - she was a simple, plain-faced woman with hair the color of sand.
She seemed to guess my thinking for she continued: "I know there are many gentlemen who view maids as objects to serve their every whim - no matter what that might be - and at first that is what I thought he must be about for there are far handsomer maids, even in this household. I asked that he not trouble himself on my account but he begged me that he might see me again and finally I gave in. We came up with a plan that he would hang an old fishhook over the garden gate when he was able to call and, when I took the laundry out to dry if I saw the hook I would leave the gate unlocked when I collected the clothes in the evening. Then he would come in and wait on the bench near the back wall under the great weeping willow until I was able to sneak off after all my work was done and bed checks completed. It was such a bold plan! I thought for sure he would see sense and never come. I don't know what compelled me to check the gate every day but I swear to you that very next week I saw the rusted hook hanging from the door. Oh! I can't even begin to tell you how very nervous I was that first time we were to meet! I was afraid to eat because my stomach felt like I had swallowed a whole nest of bees."
At the moment I could entirely relate.
"I could barely do my work - I kept forgetting what I was doing and looking over at that willow tree from every window I came by. I tried to tell myself he would not be there, that this was only his way of amusing himself, that when I snuck out during bed checks I would find the hollow under the tree's leafy cascade empty and he would be having a good laugh at my expense. I told myself this even as I crept down the hall in the pitch dark to our meeting place. And even then as I approached the tree - I told myself 'You foolish girl! Eee, it's empty and you have made a joke of yourself.' And then he stood up from the bench as glorious tall and handsome as ever a man was. My heart just about stopped! I don't know what carried me to him - it was like I must have floated for I don't recall walking. He embraced me - should I never feel the embrace of a man from this time until my dying day his would have been enough."
I blushed at the thought of what words might be next to come.
"Oh, now don't you worry Miss, he was a true gentleman. All we did that night was sit and talk on the bench until the moon was disappearing from the sky. And then he bid me go that I would not be discovered and he kissed me and I left. And it went on in just that way for the next three months. He told me how much he loved me; how he wanted to marry me - oh don't think me the type of fool girl who would believe such a thing, but it felt so wonderful to hear him say the words! He was such a good man: I would have given him my everything by the end, but he was too good a man to take it. And then one day I saw the hook at the door but when I came to our place under the tree that night he wasn't there. I waited for hours believing he might have somehow been delayed but he never came. Weeks went by and still there was no hook hung from the gate."
"Did you ever see him again?" I asked.
"Oh Sarah!" I cried. "I am so sorry!" I cannot say why for certain but I felt a peculiar kinship for this maid who had lost her love - perhaps it sprung from my own fear of being likewise injured or else some deep well of those most ancient relations that connected us all, through the condition of humanity, back to the very first man and woman who ever knew love and heartache.
"It is no matter Miss," Sarah answered calmly, fluffing my nightgown and pulling it over my head.
"No-no matter!" I exclaimed as my head emerged from the hole in the gown. "It is of great matter indeed! Does it truly not trouble you?"
"I suppose it does a little, but then I knew from the beginning it could never survive. The brightest blooms were never meant to last, only to be enjoyed and remembered. I prefer to think he found a woman more properly suited to him. The image of them going to balls in all their finery and dancing till the dawn gives me some consoling happiness."
"I truly admire your equanimity; were I in your position I cannot believe I would be so generous."
Sarah's eyes flew open and she grasped my hands, "Oh, don't say that Miss! You tempt the evil one!"
I could not help but smile at the sincerity of her fear for me.
"Don't be afraid. We will both pray that my words will fall silent before they might reach his awful horned brow." I answered.
With that, Sarah pulled aside the covers and tucked me into bed.
"May God bless and protect you." she whispered from the door just before the thin band of light from the hall disappeared.
"May God bless you as well." I answered to the lonesome darkness.
I felt the slow, jarring lunge of the horse as it plodded down the path. He was a large-boned chestnut who seemed to show no interest in the gamboling trots of those younger members of his kind. Others in the stable had been recommended to me, prettier, clean-limbed little things with legs no thicker than twigs - Darby practically tried to force a quick looking Arabian on me but I refused (a man can never understand the pains of sidesaddle riding!), instead insisting on the steady old Don that Darby argued was barely more than a cart horse. Finally, Nicholas took a stand for the old hunter, stating unequivocally that if this was the horse I had set my heart on, it would be mine.
Now, sitting across the horse's broad back after half an hour of riding, I was never more thankful for my choice: it is not that I lack skill in remaining on the saddle, but the added girth of a wide ribbed horse made me felt infinitely more secure - like sitting on a gently sloping hill as opposed to the edge of a cliff. Nicholas rode his own bay by my side; occasionally clucking lightly at the young animal easily distracted by the other members of his kingdom who frolicked about in the warm sunshine soaking the meadow. Before us, rode Darby on his little dapple-grey Arabian chatting blissfully away with my Aunt Mabel. 'Never was there a more well suited pair!' - the thought forced me to stifle a laugh.
"God bless you." Nicholas offered. "Are you feeling well?"
"Oh, quite well. I didn't mean to give you any alarm. I was only just thinking that my Aunt and your brother seem to be quite well matched in temperament."
A snippet of their conversation drifted back to us:
"But then I told them 'No! You cannot plant oak trees in the garden! The acorns would be so unsightly come Autumn. Cherry trees have far more pleasing blossoms.'"
"Oh, I agree completely! How anyone could dare to think of planting oak trees in a garden is beyond my reasoning!" Aunt Mabel trilled rapturously.
Nicholas turned to me with a smile, "Yes, truly kindred spirits."
"For the life of me I cannot make sense of your relation. He is not at all like you!"
"It is true, there is something about the eyes that speaks to our relation but little else. Still, he is my brother and alike or not I do love him - even if I am thankful to surrender to another his conversation. He has been on about the landscaping of the garden for weeks now; I have since begun to regret the undertaking."
"I understand, I have a brother myself." I said.
"Is he elder or younger?"
"He is younger by two years."
"Are you close to him?"
"Sometimes; I daresay we were much closer in our youth. When he was only an infant I used to call him my 'Little Doll' and lavish attention on him. Of course he was too large for me to carry at my young age but mother tells me I valiantly attempted to drag him about the nursery with me."
At this Nicholas chuckled.
"I imagine under such diligent care he grew quite attached to you."
"Oh yes, extraordinarily so! Until he was four he toddled after me around the house as if, instead of a boy, he were a little yellow-headed duckling." I continued wistfully, fully enveloped in my nostalgia. "But then Father decided it was not good for him to spend so much time in the company of women and thus I was moved out of the nursery and Chet was encouraged in his friendship with Artie and some of the other local youths."
"Are you sorry for it?"
I started - I had become so lost in my memories I had completely forgotten I was actually speaking them to another. Embarrassed, I fumbled for a response.
"Not entirely. Of course, I was utterly devastated when it happened. I recall weeping myself to sleep every night for a week without the chubby fingers of my little doll to console me. Father scolded me fiercely for my 'hysterical theatrics' as he called them and threatened that he might whip me with a switch if I could not find a way to contain myself."
This was all terribly humiliating and yet I could not seem to stop myself from relating it. Not since I had broken down in tears in front of Quentin had I lost so much control over my words - and yet, this felt quite different. It was not out of a bursting need to expel that which had been festering within to whatever ear might be sympathetic to hear; but rather something not unlike a close kinship, as if I had been familiar with Nicholas all my life. There was a great comfort within the dismissal of my guards. I felt, not judgement, but the embrace of acceptance. His eyes never wavered from me; rapt in their attention to my silly tale of willful youth.
"I suppose that is what broke me from my melancholy for the fear of my Father's switch far outweighed any sorrow I might feel at my loss. But I do admit, I often felt pangs of jealousy when I would witness Chet and Artie playing about the house. I wish I could dismiss it as being for the best, but... well, but I suppose the habits of young gentlemen may be somewhat off-putting to a lady." As much as I might consider Nicholas an intimate, my fears for my brother were to stay a fastidiously kept secret.
"Of course. I was once that young myself. I am certain I threw my mother into veritable fits with my wild ways."
"I cannot see you as wild!" I laughed.
"Not much more than the average young man, I am certain. I did tend to scrap more often and I was quite prone to coming home well after dark after imbibing too much with my friends at the pub. But I grew out of it as most men do when their responsibilities begin to loom over them."
"I confess that does ease my mind a great deal. I pray he will grow out of it soon."
"I take it he occupies your thoughts a great deal?"
"Yes, moreso as he has lately taken ill."
"Do they know with what?"
"The doctor said it is pneumonia."
Nicholas shook his head. "That is very serious, I can understand why it troubles you."
"If he must be ill I am glad it is in the summer, when there is no risk of a chill to endanger him further. But still..." I trailed off.
"But still he is your brother and no logic or sense can ease the worry when a loved one is seriously ill." Nicholas finished.
It felt as though my heart had grown to bursting within my chest at his sympathy for my fears. He did not condemn or criticize me for my anxiety but instead understood it. Had I not loved him before, now I certainly did.
"Do you have any other siblings aside from Darby?" I asked, changing the subject.
"No, we had a little sister, but she passed from Scarlet Fever in her infancy. She was a dear little thing, too - always smiling and chattering up a storm." his brown eyes filled with sadness as he spoke - he was no longer looking at me: though his eyes had never departed from my face I could see the shadows of the past clouding the brown halos of those orbs. It was no longer I in their focus but the image of a small girl never to be seen again. Then, he was back as suddenly as if he had never wandered. "And you? Are there anymore aside from you and your brother?"
"Yes, I have a sister, Elizabeth, she is eight years my junior; and only just last week I received the announcement of the birth of my new brother, Avery Christopher Kepler Moore."
"Kepler?" he furrowed his brows quizzically.
"It was my mother's maiden name."
"So you are in part German?"
"Only a very small part, but then so is the Queen," I defended.
"Your Majesty!" he exclaimed with a slight bow of his head and flourish of hand. "Shall my princess grant me the honor of escorting you about the grounds?"
I felt my face afire, sticking my nose in the air I turned from him in indignation (and so he would not see the high color blooming over my cheeks),
"If you continue in that vein of jest you shall have to catch up to me before you could dream of escorting me."
"On the old Don? I should scarcely have to break into a trot!"
"He still has some fire in him, don't you?" I addressed the aging stallion directly, he acknowledged my comment by continuing to plod on at his slow pace. He sneezed, shaking his head.
"If my princess says so," Nicholas teased, eyeing the creature dubiously.
"C'mon Justin!" I urged, letting the reigns fall slack I made a gentle brush against my horse's flank with the riding crop. I instantly regretted my decision. In my impulsiveness I had completely forgotten my mount's profession. We raced ahead of the group as though the fox were well in sight. No sooner did I see the creek then we had cleared it. It took all my skill to simply hold on - that I did with full consciousness of my own mortality. From behind I heard the galloping hoofbeats of another,
"You have made your point!" Nicholas called out. "You may slow down now!"
"I will slow at my own leisure!" I cried back, doing my utmost to sound as though I were in complete control of the situation - which, at the moment, I in no way was.
"Come on now!" Nicholas entreated, catching hold of the slackened reigns slapping along the horse's neck well beyond my reach. He pulled them back ever so gently until both horses were trotting side-by-side. "He does tend to get away from you if you don't know him," he offered, generously.
"Thank you," I said, relieved. Looking back I saw only trees lining the vast green fields. "How far did we travel?" I could not conceal the concerned waiver in my voice.
Nicholas surveyed the distance with his arm extended and thumb up.
"About a mile, a mile and a quarter." He answered. "You are fortunate I chose to ride Buck today or you would still be running. He's the only one who can catch that old Don when he starts."
"If you knew that then why did you challenge me?"
"Well, to be fair, I never thought you'd actually make good on your threat. Most women wouldn't dare."
"Then may it serve as a lesson to you: I am not like most women."
"I will be sure to take note of it," he replied with a smile.
I was just beginning to be lulled by the bucolic beauty of the fields when an urgent thought snatched me from it: "We should ride back, my Aunt will be in a panic! She'll believe it some scandalous conspiracy to be rid of her!" I exclaimed.
Unexpectedly, Nicholas broke into a laugh,
"I only wish you could have seen the shock on she and Darby's faces as you raced past them." The image easily manifested in my mind of Aunt Mabel and Darby - for once in their lives mute - staring, stunned, at each other. I could not help laughing as well.
"I-I suppose it must have been quite hilarious."
"Without doubt! Do not worry, I shall return you to your chaperone with all due haste."
"Well, perhaps we might spare some haste; I would rather not trot any longer than is absolutely necessary."
We returned to Aunt Mabel not twenty minutes later. She had been as frantic and suspicious as I had anticipated. For the rest of the ride I was to remain dutifully by her side while Nicholas was consigned to keep company with Darby. I attempted to look cowed but I could not help casting a pleading glance to Nicholas who returned it with a sorry nod - he had already rescued me once today; a second attempt, under these circumstances, would be impossible. I sighed, resigning myself to my odious fate.
"You cannot run off like that!" My Aunt lectured. "You might have been hurt or killed! It is only by the grace of God that Mr. Martin is a man of good character. Another man might have taken the opportunity to steal your virtue and leave you in ruin. Then what would you do? You are too proud, you know! And, as the Bible says: Pride cometh before the fall..." Her admonishments continued, unabated, until we had arrived at the stable.
Nicholas dismounted his horse swiftly and strode over first to aid my Aunt in her descent; once he had that accomplished he came to my aid. I was astonished by how easily he was able to lift me from the saddle. Concealed by the horse's flank he leaned in close to my ear and whispered, "Thank you for the race, my princess." Before I had time enough to even recognize the words I felt the soft pressure of his lips upon mine. In that instant it was as if the whole of my body burst into a stardust (for I have no other words to describe it than that is how I imagine stardust must feel) like fire and shimmering and exploding all at the same moment. And just as quickly they were gone - how I instantly ached for their return! As though there were meant to be nothing more in this world than the sensation of his kiss on my lips. Opening my eyes I witnessed the same yearning reflected in his.
"May I call on you next week?" he asked.
"Yes, please." 'Please, I have never wanted anything more in my entire life than to see you again!' I silently added. Then I mentally amended, 'Except that you might kiss me once more.' But my Aunt was already upon us.
"Mr. Martin was asking if he might call next week?" My Aunt looked Nicholas over dubiously - for a moment I feared she had caught us... but no, she was only witness to the afterglow from the theft. "He may call if he wishes, but not on Monday as I am expecting company for Tea, nor Tuesday for that is our visiting day."
"Then I shall call Wednesday," he said with a tip of his hat.
I less listened than floated through services on Sunday. I know I spoke with Quentin after church had ended but I could not recall a word of it - mere pleasantries, fluff of no consequence I am certain. I was quick to bed that evening, eager to indulge my thoughts of Nicholas without interruption and then to pray that I might dream of him. Monday found me restlessly traipsing about the grounds.
"Why must Wednesday be so far away!" I lamented to the weeping willow in the garden. "Can not my Aunt see that her fondest wish has been realized? That a man of good family and breeding wished for my company? And that I might desire his in return?" I plopped onto the cement bench underneath the tree's cascading boughs "Of course she can." I answered myself, tracing the patterns pressed into the bench's edge with my fingers. "That is the trouble of it - she can see it."
This was less trial by fire than trial by time - a forced separation in order to test the flames of love. Was it of such a substantial kind that it would lie in red embers waiting for the next meeting to kindle it ever higher, or would it burn bright but just as quickly turn to cold black char like a handful of dried grass? I burned. I smoldered in agony for when next we would meet. I could only hope he was burning as well. "My princess" he had called me! I leaned my head back rapturously recalling the feeling of his warm breath as he whispered the words in my ear, the touch of his lips on mine. Surely he must know the cruelty he has wrought upon me!
I stared up into the hollow of my leafy fortress, guarded from all sides by the hanging tendrils. 'Wait!' the thought rudely cast aside my musings. 'The bench under the weeping willow in the corner of the garden!'
"This is Sarah's tree!" I cried out, jumping from the bench. It was, without doubt, that very tree where she and the gentleman had spent so many late night hours. It had been far enough from the path I had only ever glanced at it before but now I saw it: that haven where their love had been born... and where it had died. I surveyed the place: the branches sat high creating a cathedral ceiling for the lovers to hide under, the bench, Romanesque in mold and scarcely large enough for a single person, where they had sat nestled together. Absently, I ran my fingers across its smooth, well-worn surface when something in the corner caught my eye. It had been etched, not by a writing implement, but from the simple process of running a stick of wood across the surface repeatedly in the same pattern until the white of the dust scraped from the wood had formed a shape. I wondered that the rain had not yet erased it entirely; I supposed it owed the willow for its continued existence. I imagined Sarah sitting on that final night, waiting, her nimble fingers tracing again and again the shape. I traced the pale form from just above with my finger, careful not to touch it: a small, rough heart and inside the letters "S + J".
I rushed about the house looking for Sarah but she was nowhere to be found.
"Dale, have you seen Sarah?" I asked the stately middle-aged Butler.
"She has gone to town for the day, Miss. Is there something you require?"
I quailed in embarrassment.
"No, Dale, it is nothing urgent," I said hurriedly, eager to be away from him. "I will be in the Library if she should return early."
"Very good, Miss," he answered impassively.
I trotted off as quickly as I could hoping not to draw any further attention to myself from the Butler. I had never been wholly comfortable with staff; most treated them as little more than negligible automatons and cared not for what they revealed to these inconsequential members of the household. But under those dispassionate eyes I could not help but feel self-conscious, as though I were being examined and judged. I pushed open the Library door and immediately concealed myself behind it, breathing a sigh of relief to be out of his sight. The loud sound of books hitting the floor brought my attention back to the room. There, in the corner, a small pile of books at his feet and staring with eyes as large as saucers, was Lord Norbert!
"I'm sorry, I didn't expect anyone to be here," he sniveled. "Miss Underhill is visiting your Aunt and required an escort as Mr. Underhill and his father were called away to visit an ill parishioner. So I was merely reading to pass the time." I raised my eyebrows and pointed toward the bookshelf below the skulls,
"Titus Andronicus is on the other shelf."
"I don't know what you can mean by that." His face seemed an unfortunately constructed mask mixed of hurt and confusion.
I narrowed my eyes, "You are perfectly aware of my meaning."
"No, I honestly cannot account for it at all."
There, he had chosen: confusion had won out. It was the safer choice of the two aspects. Surely, I would drop my accusation in a moment. But he was not so fortunate to be able to deceive me as he had the others, for I had grown weary of this game.
"Tell me why you are skulking about my Uncle's house! What is so very interesting to you?" I demanded.
"My dear lady, I do not know what you could possibly be implying! I am merely a Lord from Cumberland visiting this house today only as a favor to a dear friend."
"You may cease acting, you do it poorly. I know what you are: Spy."
The syllable had scarce left my lips before he had me pinned to the bookshelves, his hands firmly planted on either side just next to my shoulders. He was tall! Taller than he had seemed as that cowering and simpering fellow he played to the world. He stared down at me, the fire in those dark orbs burning into the very heart of me - I shrunk uncomfortably under their glare.
"How do you know? Who told you?" he hissed in barely a whisper though he could not have shouted it to greater effect. I did not expect I should be so terrified at this moment, yet I had never known fear such as this before - there was a hardness in his features, a blackness shone through those eyes that warned me of grave danger. "Does your Uncle know?" he demanded, pounding his hands against the shelf.
I winced, "No, he does not."
"Who sent you?"
"I find that hard to believe. Then how do you know who I am?"
"Tha-that scar on your hand," I stuttered. "I'm the one who stitched it."
His arms slackened, a slight smile played on his lips as he turned away, his right hand brushed across the jagged scar centered on the left.
"And a bloody bang-up job you did on it too."
"I was eight!" I protested.
"Yes, you were - though most girls I've known at that age could sew a straight line. I would have thought you would have grown up prettier."
My fear was now wholly gone, in its place righteous indignation.
"Tell me what you have been searching my Uncle's house for?"
"Go back to your tea parties, little girl. This business is far too dangerous for you," he spat.
"If you don't tell straight away I will... I will tell my Uncle what you have been about!" As quickly as the last word of the threat was spoken he had pinned me back against the bookshelf.
"Do you think this is some kind of game?" he barked fiercely. "That we all get to go home to our safe beds after a fine day's lark? Little girl go back to your room and forget everything you saw! You have no place here!" He turned again to saunter away.
"I will not," I said, my voice barely audible from terror.
He stopped dead.
"What did you say?" he asked without turning to face me.
"I will not," I said again, this time louder. I pulled myself up to my full height (still abysmally shorter than he), "Not until you tell me what you have been searching for."
I watched his back slacken, his arms drooped limply at his side in surrender; he turned back toward me.
"You win. But, if I tell you, you must tell no one else what you know."
"Swear it!" His eyes blazed intensely.
"Because if you do tell," he smiled wryly, "it could be the last confidence you ever break."
"No you don't; and let's hope you never do." Lord Norbert replied.
I couldn't puzzle out what he could mean by that - certainly I understood that there was some degree of danger, some risk of life to this business! How could he say I did not understand?
"An old friend and longtime associate of mine, a Lord James Bond by name, disappeared about three months back. After a thorough investigation we were able to trace his last known whereabouts to this house but what he was doing here and what became of him we have been unable to determine."
"Perhaps he left the country," I suggested.
"We had considered that possibility; but there is no record of any man fitting his description booking passage at any port nor would he be so long delayed in contacting us. No, wherever he is the clue is in this house. We merely have to find it."
"So you enlisted the aid of the Underhills in this plot? Are they spies as well?" I asked eagerly, picturing the taciturn twins sneaking about uncovering secret plots.
"No, it was they who turned to me for assistance. Dinah was Lord Bond's fiance-"
"JB- James Bond! I knew it!"
Lord Norbert shot me a sour glare.
"Don't interrupt. Anyhow, she would never admit to him she knew of his profession, but she was far too astute to fail in recognizing it. When she did not hear from James she turned to me. She had seen my name on a number of correspondences in James's study and believed I might be of some aid. I came as soon as I heard. Quentin was a close friend of James as well; James often consulted with him on larger investigations. The man has a gift for planning and invention, not to mention a thorough understanding of the history and culture of a variety of countries. As a clergyman he is able to unlock doors even my title cannot. He has proven rather invaluable to me in seeking out further clues as to the last known whereabouts of Lord Bond."
"Have you found anything in the Library?"
"No," he answered with a sigh of frustration. "Nor in any of the other rooms - excepting the parlor which has been stripped bare and your Uncle's Study which he is always fastidiously careful to lock."
"Even my room?" I turned beet red at the prospect.
"Relax, there is nothing a child might have that would be of interest me. It really is your own fault for leaving the door unlocked."
"I don't exactly expect strange men to come in and rifle through my delicates!" I fumed.
"Perhaps you should not be so trusting of others. From this day hence you should lock your door at all times."
"I will make a point of it," I answered through gritted teeth.
"Good. Now, since you are so intent to help, find me a way into that study."
"You cannot just pick the lock?" I said vengefully.
"Not in the time I would have before my activities were noted by the staff. The area has far too much traffic during the day and the window is too high to reach without the aid of a ladder."
"And if my Uncle proves to be innocent of any wrong doing as I suspect he is...?"
"If he is innocent I will find nothing to incriminate him; but ask yourself this: why would an innocent man have a locked door?"
"Perhaps he has important documents!" I protested, but his words had left a sinking feeling in my gut.
"You know he deals in nothing which would require concealment."
I could not believe it, not of my kindly old Uncle - not this man I had known from my infancy. But then why would an innocent man have a locked door? The indictment rang loudly in my head. I felt tears sting my eyes.
"Oh, never mind. Forget your heard any of this."
"You are far too young for this business," he muttered making his way to the door.
"I am not, I'll prove it to you!" I cried out, grabbing his wrist.
In an instant he had flipped it so that it was my wrist he held.
"And this is precisely why I say you are too young: there is no "proving it to me". If you are to do it, do it as an adult who works for a cause he believes in. Not as a child seeking some adult's approval. In this business you have to sacrifice everything: family, friends, any hope of a normal life - it is no game. Go back to your family you silly little girl and forget this."
"They think I'm mad, you know," I murmured.
He dropped my wrist.
"Who thinks you are mad?"
"Everyone. Artie told them how he saw me talking to the moon. The other children called me "Mad Mina" and told all kinds of tales about me around town until even my own parents believed it - they despise me for it I know; I see it in the fear in Mother's eyes, in Father's long sojourns abroad. I suppose it doesn't bother me much - nobody ever questions what I do or why. But as it stands I have nothing to sacrifice for I have nothing. Mr. Underhill has done me such kindnesses without asking anything in return; please let me help him in any way I might."
Lord Norbert raised his eyes to the ceiling as though pleading for some divine guidance.
"You'll need to learn to be quicker." he said, finally. "Find a way into that Study and then we'll see."
That night, as I passed down the hallway to my bedroom, I tarried briefly by the door to Uncle's Study. I truly did not want to belief Lord Norbert. Certainly he must be mistaken! A simple turn of the knob would prove his thesis wrong and thus place the whole argument into question. That is all that was required: a simple turn of the knob. I reached out my quavering hand but then drew it back - what if it did not yield when pulled? What if it was locked as he had said? Was I ready to face the implications that mere failure in motion would raise? The idea made me feel ill. The lock itself was big, ancient - requiring a heavy iron key to be turned. No. I was not ready to test that knob. I was not ready to surrender my faith in my Uncle just yet, I decided, taking a deep breath - surely tomorrow. I took two steps before I was back at the door, my hand firmly on the knob. A quick twist of my wrist and I received my answer: the door did not budge.
I sat on my bed that night cleaning under my nails with a brush - it was a nervous habit (Mother would call it a filthy one, getting dirt on my clean covers that I was then to sleep under) that I found, under the circumstances, necessary to indulge. Sarah rapped on the door. "Come in," I called. I heard the knob turn and the door click hard against the lock. I jumped up quickly. "Oh dear, I'm sorry Sarah! I forgot I had locked it," I apologized turning the key.
"It's fine, Miss," Sarah said pushing the door in with her behind, her hands otherwise occupied by a large basin of steaming water. "Though I can't see why you'd bother to lock your door."
"It's an old habit," I lied. "Growing up among a younger brother and his troublesome friends leads a girl to be more cautious."
"Oh yes, I understand, I have three younger brothers, myself, and one older (not that age was in any way a help). Had we had locks to lock I am sure I would have been spared a great deal of embarrassment in my youth. Anyhow, let's get you ready for bed."
In a short time I was scrubbed and changed while nary a word passed between us. Finally, the silence grew too much for me to bear.
"Sarah, I have a question for you."
"Dale did mention you had been looking for me earlier; what is it you need?"
"Well, and I don't mean to pry, and you do not have to tell me if it's too much: but it's about that man you told me about the other day."
I noticed her smile waver for a moment.
"I was just wondering, what was his name?"
"Oh Miss, even if I knew his family name I wouldn't tell you. I should hate to bring any trace of scandal on him."
"You don't know his name?"
"No, Miss. I didn't pay any mind to it when I first met him - I mean what is the name of a Lord to a maid? I only knew him by his Christian name."
"I'm sorry, I know I'm being unfair by asking all this."
"Not at all Miss, I'm a bit flattered that you thought enough of the story to ask."
"So what did you call him then? I shouldn't be able to identify him by his Christian name so it should be safe to sate my curiosity without exposing him."
She thought for a moment, weighing the merits of my argument.
I spent the better part of the night staring at the ceiling above my bed, unable to sleep. My thoughts circled around one theme as water down a drain, the name of Sarah's suitor. In my mind I heard her whisper it over and over, "James." It must be mere coincidence. No. It had to be mere coincidence - James was such a very common name! Her suitor had disappeared as she said: because he was a gentleman who must marry a lady, not a lowly maid - it was only the final dalliance of a besotted man before the irresistible gravity of obligation stole him from her orbit.
And yet I knew, in my heart, this was a lie. But the alternative was so much beyond worse I desperately sought to convince myself of the falsehood. A coincidence - that was all. A coincidence that a spy had disappeared in my Uncle's house. That the very spy in question bore the same name as Sarah's suitor. That both had vanished with nary a trace three months ago. Coincidence that my Uncle locked the door of his Study!
I sat bolt upright in my bed. Throwing aside the covers I sprang to the cool floor and set to pacing, hand to my chin, its neighbor supporting on the opposite's elbow. If it were no coincidence - and no power on heaven or earth could convince me that coincidence were all it was - then what did it mean? James had begun his relationship with Sarah six months past; by this time he had been engaged to Miss Underhill and those who knew the pair attested to James's fidelity. Equally, Sarah attested the man had pursued no improper relations with her beyond what would be scarcely scandal if happened upon - and such scandalous relations were the only reasonable explanation why a gentleman would confess his love for a maid while engaged to another. Since infidelity could not be the reason for his meetings there must have existed another. But what could that reason possibly be?
I paced across the room and back again for quite some time. What use could a simple maid have? If it were information on the household he sought would not it have been more profitable to seek the friendship of Dale who could be found at the pub without fail on his day off? His fondness for spirits approached legend in town, overshadowed only by his famed propensity for imbibing copious amounts in a single evening. He was no lush but he took his personal days quite seriously in his desire to empty as many bottles as possible before the evening was ended. No one knew the workings of the house as he! Or he might even have sought to captivate the attentions of Clara, the head housekeeper. She was older but still had not lost a trace of the formidable beauty of her youth. She was not so far gone that the notice of a gentleman would not turn her head. Or would it? Sarah was, unquestionably, young, naive - and pliable of will. But she also held no information that could be of use to a spy. So what could such a young woman give him that would be of such import?
I stopped dead in the middle of the floor; my fist dropped to my open hand: "Access!" I whispered aloud. It had never been about what secrets might be opened to him by careless tongues - only what doors! In the morning he would hang the fishhook over the door - a sign noticed only by Sarah who would see it when she took the laundry out to be washed. In the evening, she would be the last to pass through the garden when she took up the dry laundry from the lines. She would then leave the garden gate unlocked to allow her paramour to pass into the garden unnoticed; presumably he would then wait on the bench under the willow until late into the night for Sarah to come join him. But, he had not been content to wait for her! Rather he had used that time to conduct his investigation in the house! Three months' time! What must he have uncovered in all those weeks! And what was so very important that he felt the need to continue it so terribly long?
He had not met Sarah that last night; instead he had vanished leaving no trace and abandoning his fiancé. Was what he discovered so urgent it required he immediately remove himself from all acquaintance with not even so much as a word of explanation? Or so perilous? The latter thought arrived unbidden but from its very inception it dominated all others. Had he found himself in such great danger it required he flee town for his own safety and the safety of those around him? I could not imagine my Uncle posing any threat to him, but perhaps there were those in Uncle Richard's circle who might. Nicholas had mentioned his father's own cruel propensities - perhaps Mr. Martin and others like him were Lord Bond's true target and, as Sarah had been, Uncle Richard was but a means to an end.
I could readily envision this man, Lord Bond (whoever he was, for in my mind he appeared as a tall shadowy figure possessing no distinguishable feature), crouched before a keyhole watching a party of older men with pipes held aloft in one hand, brandy in the other, and generally crowing boisterously of the intricacies of their professions. Even as I entertained this notion I knew it to be wishful thinking - but he was my Uncle and one of the few people who showed any manner of true kindness to me; I could not bear to suspect him so long as it was possible the truth might prove otherwise. I had to get into that Study just as soon as I could manage! Better I than Lord Norbert, who had already judged Uncle Richard guilty by the mere virtue of there being no evidence to the contrary. Now, firmly decided on a plan of action, I returned to my bed with intent to surrender myself to the void the moment my eyes closed. I slept little that night.
The following morning I was awakened by the pensive knock of Sarah at my door. Bright sunlight streamed in through my bedroom window - had not the sky just been turning to pale pink a moment ago? I groaned, throwing an arm over my eyes to block those hateful rays, I called out, "Come in. Just leave the tray." I intended to return to blissful unconsciousness the moment she had left. The doorknob shook but refused to allow admittance.
"I'm sorry, Miss, it's locked."
I winced behind my arm. This locking of the door would prove the death of me yet!
"Just a moment," I grumbled, ruefully throwing the sheets from my form.
"It's ok, Miss, I can ask Dale to bring the key," she said from behind the oaken barrier.
'Ok? What did that even mean again?' my sleep addled brain attempted to decipher - I'd heard the word, some piece of low quarter slang Chet slurred when drunk, but I could not place the meaning. I began to suspect they must have been rather desperate for staff when they took on this girl for she lacked greatly in social graces - even in their most rudimentary forms - and displayed a startling lack of judgment... even for a maid. But then, she did own the rare ability to make one such as I appear presentable and she possessed a pleasing temperament... perhaps this was the charm that induced my Aunt to bring her on. Any maid could be taught propriety but cosmetologie was a dark art one must be born to.
"It is no matter, Sarah, I am up. There is no reason to bother Dale about it."
Certainly, I would prefer he have no knowledge of my new habits and most assuredly I did not wish for him to see me in my bedclothes! Regardless, I was already standing by the time the suggestion had been made and there was no realistic possibility that sleep might again find me now that my mind had begun its incessant whirring - though what had set it about its activities I could not yet guess, for, while it might be working, my consciousness was not yet able to acknowledge the fruits of its labor. I unlocked the door on the second attempt (locks were an impossibility this early in the morning!) and Sarah entered with the tray. Setting it to rest she bowed slightly.
"Thank you, Sarah, that will be all for now."
"Miss, we received a letter from Mr. Martin that he will be calling after lunch. Would you prefer to dress for his arrival before or after the meal?" she inquired innocently. Nicholas! In the blur of yesterday's events I had entirely forgotten him!
"Before lunch. Yes, definitely before."
"As you wish, Miss," she demurred, leaving the room.
As soon as she had disappeared I fell backwards onto the stool that stood before the vanity. Gathering my courage I peered at my reflection. 'Perhaps it is not too late to cancel' thought I, pressing gingerly on a swollen eyelid. No, best to soldier on. Were I to cancel there would be no telling when I might see him again and I must see him! If only just to escape the horrible thoughts which swirled about my tormented mind.
Nicholas was punctual, arriving just after the meal had been cleared. I wondered; had he waited for this hour with as much eagerness as I? But today there was to be no intimate tete-a-tete; no, the thing had been forcibly pried from my Uncle's lackadaisical grasp and was now firmly held in Aunt Mabel's steely grip. Taking my seat across from him I felt less a lady being called on than a mouse trying to avoid the ever vigilant gaze of the hawk. I saw Nicholas shift in his chair, visibly discomfited by my Aunt glaring at him from across the room; preemptively accusing him of bringing shame upon the house of Moore. There should be no hint of scandal so long as she might prevent it! I cannot say what we managed to discuss for, at all times, I was only aware of the vengeful stare which bore into the very heart of me. I was not forgiven for my antics on the trail and now I must reap the scattered grain I had sown so irresponsibly with such regimented diligence that it might all still come to a proper harvest.
Well before it seemed the proper time, Nicholas took up his top hat, bowed, and, taking my hand with a gentle press, left. "Now that, my dear, is as a call from a gentleman should occur." my Aunt intoned imperiously. I could have wept for the injustice of it all! What good was it to merely sit with a man across a table and idly discuss the simple business of the day - things of so little consequence they were forgotten as soon as said! And Nicholas Martin held so much promise for greater, higher thoughts! Were it his brother, I might be able to tolerate senseless prattle - I had come to expect it of him - but to deny me the nourishing meat and substitute it instead with thin milk when I knew the former to be there for the giving was just about more than I could bear. Yet this was to be the new way of things. I had proven myself unequal to my Aunt's trust and prone to ruination so far as she was to be concerned and now I must rue my headstrong ways. However, such punishment did not produce the desired penitence but rather a burning disdain for my vindictive relation.
The following week I determined to defy my Aunt. This time, when Nicholas took my hand in farewell a small slip of paper fell from the tips of my fingers into the cradle of his palm. The paper was of little note excepting that upon it was written a day, a time, and a place.
That Sunday I only just happened to pass Nicholas on my sojourn into the south wood just beyond the garden gate.
"Your Aunt would be furious to know what you have been about," Nicholas chided gently.
"Do you intend to reveal me?" I inquired, a mischievous grin spread across my lips.
"How might I without revealing myself and bringing us both to shame?"
"Perhaps you might show the missive but falsely claim you did not heed it."
"No, my princess, I strive to be an honest man. I will not claim that which I have not done, nor vice-versa as the situation may require."
"Then, I believe, there is no way that you might expose me without casting that same light upon yourself."
"I suppose we must be sworn to secrecy then."
"But you are an honest man," I taunted.
"And, were anyone to ask if, while walking by the spring in the glade, I encountered you then I must affirm it. And were they to ask if said encounter had been orchestrated by either party then that I would be honor bound to affirm as well. But were no one to ask such questions... then it is not my obligation to provide unsolicited answers to all potential queries," he responded, smiling in that conspiratorial manner.
"I cannot fault you in that."
The sharp crack of a twig breaking startled me. I quickly scanned the glade for whatever interloper may have happened upon us. There, only a short distance from the spring, my eyes met with the great dark stare of a deer. Nicholas and I glanced at each other with a laugh of relief.
"It would probably be best if I go, we may not be so lucky the next time."
"That is certain! But when might I chance to meet with you again?"
"I'll call next week," he caught my sour expression. "No, that won't do - not with your Aunt... there is a ball at the Keeting's estate in Farningham, just to the south, in a fortnight. It is a private affair but I shall request the host extend an invitation to you and your relations."
He turned to go, but I caught his arm.
"Will you still call?" I inquired anxiously.
"Yes," he chuckled. "Otherwise they might become suspicious, or worse."
"They may believe I have lost interest and thus may attempt to replace me with another - and I shall not allow my position to be usurped."
"Yes, as my princess's humble servant," he answered crouching to take my hand in mock submission. The electricity of his touch thrilled through my arm to my brain where its flash blinded all ability to do anything more than grin dumbly, my face aflame. A wink of his eye and he had departed leaving me still standing, not yet able to comprehend how to move my legs in similar fashion.
The following two weeks proceeded in just the way we had discussed. Nicholas called each Wednesday just following lunch, and, as with the first time, Aunt Mabel never once allowed her stare to wander from us even a moment lest she turn back to find us engaged in unforgivable sin: which I imagine to be something as terrifically shocking as touching hands or holding the other's gaze for too long. Temptation to spite her under the guise of a sudden fit of madness boiled within me - how I longed to hold Nicholas in a sudden furtive embrace "Oh dear Aunt Mabel! I'm so sorry, but the cat told me I must protect him from an attack by the Devil, himself." or some such rot. I don't pretend to have any skill in my excuses - but for one who has already indulged in the belief of my madness even the most transparent tale becomes plausible. Nicholas would know it to be all in pretense – almost unforgivably willful, perhaps; but not mad. He would forgive it - I daresay he might enjoy it - I can readily envision him laughing as he played along, assuring me that now that he was aware of the Devil's plot he would be more vigilant in resisting it. My Aunt would be in a panic, believing all was lost and the suitor would now flee. What would she think when he returned the next Wednesday at his appointed time?
But this I did not dare for such theatrics would certainly leave me banned from any social activity for the remainder of the season and I could not tolerate missing the Keeting's Ball. "When have balls become something I anticipate rather than loathe?" I asked myself while lying in bed, the night before the event, unable to sleep from the excitement pulsing through my nerves. "It seems love is more of a madness than all my sense is equal to. I don't know whether I should despise or indulge it!"
I saw again the moment he took my hand in the glade; his face, still young for he had not long passed the age of thirty, dappled by the rays of sunlight breaking through the canopy of leaves. And those eyes! Pure and honest pools and yet always dancing with a hint of mischief - I could watch that light dance upon them all day and never grow weary of it. "There will be no watching at all if you cannot sleep," I reprimanded myself sternly. Still, he and I danced about the ballroom in my mind heedless of my warning. 'How do people ever sleep in such a state!' I wondered. 'I am in desperate need of that which tears me from my ruminations which I equally have no desire to depart from. Yet, if I do not cease in entertaining those thoughts how may they ever come to fruition!' I lay my head on the pillow willing the memories from my mind; but every time I thought I had them beaten back within minutes they had rallied and reasserted their dominance once more over my consciousness assuring that it might remain.
Finally, frustrated, I sprung from under the covers. Perhaps a walk through the house would satisfy my senses enough to allow them to yield. I padded down the darkened hallway, pitch black but for the light from the windows adorning either end. But then, no! There was a small slice of amber escaping from under one of the doors further down the way.
"Now that is a curious thing," I whispered to none but myself. Ever so carefully I treaded the hall, mindful that not even a creak should be produced underfoot. Slowly, I approached the portal. It was now I recognized the room it emanated from: my Uncle's study! With the greatest caution I knelt before the lock, peering in through the keyhole. Within, my Uncle sat at his desk clad in his bedclothes, a letter held before him. He seemed to read the missive with great interest, pausing only to scribble in a nearby book. I watched him for I cannot say how long - no more than a quarter of an hour - suddenly the clang of a gong pierced the silence, sounded twice, and faded into the darkness. Two in the morning! That left no more than four hours before the sun rose bringing with it those accursed birds! Thinking of nothing but my foul luck I allowed my weight to shift to my left foot - I heard the scream of the wood protesting before I even realized the cause of it. My Uncle started from his writing and stared at the door. For what seemed the longest moment of my life I dared not even breathe as I watched, rooted to my place.
He listened carefully for further sounds but none came. Seemingly satisfied, he folded the piece of parchment, tucked it in the small brown book, and placed it high on the shelf. Letting out a loud "Harumph!" he looked to the mantle where sat a sizable marble clock. "Two o' clock already," he mumbled. He turned toward the door. Immediately, I fled my position at the lock dashing as fast as I silently could to the foyer; turning the corner I flattened myself against the wall. His heavy footfalls came ever closer. I heard the knob turn, harsh as the aging metal shifted. I held my breath as the door opened, the footsteps stalled for a moment, then continued in a staccato pattern that gave me to know he was moving to shut the door. The key turned in the lock. Summoning my courage I peeked around the wall's edge - Uncle Richard slipped the key into his pocket and turned down the hall toward his room. I waited until I heard the door of the room shut before I abandoned my hiding place, I followed his path to the door and peered inside. I observed as Uncle Richard took the key from his robe pocket and slipped it under the pillow.
"Rats," I hissed. The sound of my own voice startled me - I clapped my hand over my mouth, eyes wide. Uncle Richard made no stirring to indicate he had heard my utterance but continued in his late night routine. Finally, climbing under the covers, he blew the candle out obscuring the scene in instant blackness. I breathed a sigh of relief and hurried back to my room; any thoughts of my Uncle's innocence dying with every step until I heard the metallic shift of my own lock. I fell backward against the door, key still in hand, and slid to the floor. What could my Uncle be about that would require such secrecy? What could that letter have contained that it must only be read when the whole of the house had gone to bed and then be hidden away? And what might his involvement be with the disappearance of Lord Bond?
I awoke late the following afternoon slumped against the door, my key still in hand. It was a few moments before I recognized the hollow sound of something knocking on wood and quite a few more before I was able to connect it with the door pushing at my back. "Miss?" Sarah's voice called. I scrambled to my feet.
"Miss Moore?" another voice boomed. The doorknob shook as from someone repeatedly turning it. I felt a hard push against my back from the sharp wooden edge.
"Y- yes!" I cried, scrambling to my feet. The door burst open revealing Dale flanked by a terrified Sarah. Relief washed over the whole of her form.
"Oh! Thank the Lord!" she ejaculated. "I was so worried! When you didn't answer the door for breakfast I thought you must be dead to the world, but when you didn't come down for lunch - and then we couldn't open the door..." the poor girl seemed on the verge of tears.
"I didn't mean to worry you; I was so eager for the ball I wasn't able to sleep until an obscenely late hour - I suppose I was so deep in my dreams I could not hear you calling me. It is a singular thing the door getting stuck so soundly." I attempted a smile to conceal my guilt.
"We shall have Mr. Jones examine it," Dale assured me.
"See that you do. I should not want to find myself trapped in my own room," I answered haughtily, wakefulness allowing me to more fully commit to the deception. "That will be all, thank you Dale." The Butler bowed, taking his leave of the entryway.
"Oh Miss, I was afraid something had happened to you," Sarah said, bustling into the room.
"Fortunately, it was nothing of the sort," I answered. I became aware of the cold metal clasped against my palm - a thought occurred to me, "How were you able to unlock the door?"
"Dale has a skeleton key; it opens any door in the house," she replied absently, pushing through the fabrics of the wardrobe; at once drawing out one fine silky thing and then another and another.
"Any as far as I know, Miss. Here, let's see how the green one looks." She held an emerald gown up to me.
I stepped nervously from the carriage, pulling my gown from my feet so as to keep it from catching. The dress was a fine pale blue dress with six fat white roses arranged across the front of the skirt not unlike a naval officer's buttons. The house before me was enormous! It was near as large as the Duke's mansion in the Commons though much darker in coloration. I could not help but stare at the facade as the footman guided me to the ground. My Aunt whispered in my ear, "Sir Keeting's fortune springs from his family's long involvement in the East India Company." She continued to list the man's various associations and financial holdings as though these were of paramount interest to me. I could scarce feign attention, my head spinning from attempting to view the paintings adorning the ceiling as we passed underneath. I lurched suddenly to the side before my Aunt caught my arm to steady me. "Pay attention to where you are walking Philomena! A lady does not gawk like a common child when entering a house." These heels would be the end of me!
"Yes, Aunt Mabel."
People milled about the exterior rooms talking; there seemed so many it was difficult to identify any one of them from their knot. We passed a room from which music emanated, peeking inside I saw a woman singing at the Harpsichord while another accompanied her on the guitar in front of a small audience of chatting onlookers. How I should ever find Nicholas amongst this crowd I could not even begin to fathom. The path through the sea of people seemed to open up into a vast, cavernous room, with no less than four lines of reeling couples.
"Is this your niece?" I turned to see a portly older man with a prodigious red nose addressing my Aunt.
"Yes, Mr. Longrin. This is my niece, Miss Philomena Moore."
"Well, isn't she a lovely girl!" The man was either blind or a liar. "Perhaps I shall have the pleasure of accompanying her to the floor this evening?"
"I'm sorry sir, but I believe I will be monopolizing the lady's attention this evening." A familiar face swooped to my rescue. "I am certain you understand."
"Ah!" the older gentleman chuckled. "I see then, my apologies." He returned his attention to my Aunt.
"Thank you, Nicholas," I sighed.
"Do not thank me yet, for you have not been subjected to my dancing - you may yet come to rue it."
"That is doubtful," I said, turning to watch my Aunt whom, for all her manners, could not keep her nose from wrinkling under the vile stench of whiskey that seemed to compose Mr. Longrin's breath.
Nicholas did not suffer from false modesty where his dancing was concerned. He led well with his arms but his feet seemed unable to form the tri-step pattern tasked to them. My own lack of grace only compounded the trouble, for, while I might be equal to performing the steps, I was less able to accommodate my partner's errors. I tripped, falling against his chest. Embarrassed, I fought to extricate myself.
He laughed. "I did warn you."
"Yes, you did," was my red-faced reply.
"Do you regret my rescue?"
"No." I glanced down at the fat roses.
"Perhaps we might take it down to a simple two-step."
"That would be best. I thought the host was supposed to only invite those who possessed the ability to dance," I teased provokingly.
"They are, and they did." He indicated with a nod to the center of the floor where Darby was lightly sweeping a young lady across the room in wide, graceful steps. "But it would have been rude to invite my entire family sans myself."
"Oh quite rude, though perhaps more merciful." I smiled.
"Whatever will I do with you, my princess?" There was a softness in his eye that caused me to color yet again.
"Nicholas," the name sounded strange on my tongue. "I cannot begin to fathom what attracts you to me over all these others who would suit a gentleman far better."
"I suppose it was that you were the first woman to not appear horrified that I might abandon my position for my principles."
"Perhaps I merely was too indifferent to you to regard the information as important."
"No, even in the eyes of the most indifferent woman I have seen the disappointment - as though I am guilty of defying the most sacred and honored traditions of our kind."
"It is a shocking proposition. The idea that a gentleman might leave society for a life of poverty based on conscious alone would certainly give most the impression that you were a radical."
"And perhaps I am." He grinned rakishly as he carelessly spun us across the floor. He slowed to a stop near the room's edge, "I don't believe you were indifferent; you would not have done me the disservice of suffering me so long had you been. My princess, I do not believe you would feel any sorrow surrendering your crown any more than I my wealth - don't take me to mean that I might lead you into a life of poverty: I would never shirk my responsibility to provide for my family - but the trappings society holds so very essential simply have no hold on you. You are a free woman in thought and spirit, unencumbered by those silken chains. It is only this which I can respect in a woman; that she might be able to think and speak for herself. I do not wish for a mute companion or helpmate (for what good is that sort of woman to me!) but an equal unafraid to offer her counsel and opinion. A woman of high mind and powerful conscience, of intelligence. I promise you those things I would nurture in you - I would never bring you to shame for them... If you would allow me the privilege to," he finished, his eyes cast downward.
I gaped in astonishment, unable to form a proper response for this I had never expected. Should I have? What had I believed all his attentions had been leading to? Certainly three months was not so short a time -
"My Uncle..." I managed.
"He has already granted his consent; though if you should wish to wait until your father has been consulted before you give your answer I do understand."
"Then you are asking..." I sought for clarification though his intent had been unmistakable.
"I am asking for your hand in marriage Miss Philomena Helen Moore, if you will have me."
"Yes!" The word flew from my mouth before reason had time to check it. What I had just done? I faltered, attempting to find my senses, "That is to say... I mean... well, yes."
It still seems like a dream! At any moment I expect that I might wake to find myself wrapped in my bed covers; the ball fast approaching. When I awoke this afternoon I was certain it had merely been the wild imaginings of an excited mind, carrying on as normal until Sarah offered her congratulations and wishes for a "blessed" future with Mr. Martin. Today I am no longer Miss Philomena Moore but the future Mrs. Nicholas Martin. I can scarcely contain myself for all my happiness. It is such a strange thing: for I feel a traitor to myself for so easily abandoning my independence yet I cannot force myself to regard it a loss for he treasures those things about myself no man or woman has ever before valued. I should be free to pursue the passions which form the core of my being without having to live the life of an outcast for he has sworn to ever be my greatest supporter.
I traced the straight line of the nose with my pencil again and again, defining it. In times of great agitation I had always found some peculiar peace in drawing. The act itself required such a great amount of immediate attention as to render all others beyond it a fog of vague shapes and emotions. Time vanished within the dark lines, the paler shades, and order imposed itself upon the void. Years of solitary practice had rendered me well skilled in the art; yet the knowledge that I possessed such a talent was mine and mine alone. Those wonders which flowed from my mind were never to be culled into what might be most valued by my peers and exploited by my parents I would never show for the delight of others - tables, landscapes, fine little portraits to be exhibited in some country gallery holding no soul nor substance beyond that they might procure the smiles of the observer.
To obfuscate my true works I drew, in the front of every book I had ever filled, crude attempts at trees, misshapen people and animals, landscapes that might very well be the sea for how well they were detailed. My personal favorite was a castle with windows of every possible four-sided shape but a square and not a proper straight line to be seen. I daresay my feints might actually require more of my talent than my truths! This particular portrait was quite my favorite type to indulge in - the fitting of flesh and feature onto bone. Before they had taken my Cheselden away I had occupied hours at this pastime; piecing together animals and humans only from drawings of their barest elements.
It struck me that perhaps this portrait should be dark of complexion, as a southern Italian, though the features did not bear out that lineage. The nose was narrow, straight, heroic in form. The jaw had proven strong and square, the chin pronounced though not greatly so, with no hint of Italian roundness about any. I traced the eyebrows. The way they sat, straight with little curvature, lent the sketch a striking appearance. I darkened them, filling in the hairs only hinted in the earlier portrait of her neighbor. There was an intensity in the manner those brows just brushed over the inner corners of the eyes, abandoning their covering halfway across. And those eyes! So perfectly shaped in their orbits! Neither too close nor too far from the bridge, nor too wide or round. I brushed the tip of the pencil across the top lid rapidly, darkening it. The brow, too, different from its companion. The latter had been tall, embossed near the center with two slightly protruding lobes, but this one was far more regular, sloping properly away from the eyes.
Holding the portrait at an arm's length I could scarce believe the face to be that of a female - no! It was a handsome man who stared back at me from the thick parchment. The shape was too distinct, too square in the jaw, with nothing to suggest the fairness – delicate, sharp and yet rounded - of the female form. I did not doubt my translation, I had been about such diversions from my youth: the countenance was accurate to its model. More likely it was a mere case of mistaken identity; or else an intentional fraud upon my Uncle The romance of a married couple separated in life but reunited in death was far more enticing to the collector than that of two men who at best might be sold as brothers-at-arms. To be entirely fair, turning the page from one to the other and back again, I doubted the two to be of the same race at all for there was little the pair held in common beyond their masculine form. Perhaps one might be an ancient Etruscan but the other clearly was not! Closing my sketch book, I lay it on the table and took to the shelves in the hopes of locating a book containing pictures of Etruscan statues I might use for comparison to determine which, if either, was the impostor.
It was quite a while before I was (at last!) able to find an ancient looking book on the subject of size large enough as to promise copious illustrations. I flipped through the pages eagerly but found inside little encouragement that what I sought was contained within. The heavy sound of the door knob turning caused me to look from my studies to that portal.
"Lord Norbert!" I cried upon recognizing the tall, dark haired man who slipped in. Despite his prior abuse I was glad to see him; eager to reveal what I had uncovered thus far.
"Hush girl!" was his harshly whispered reply. "I have no desire that we should be chaperoned today."
I colored. I had not even thought of the appearance of our meeting: a lone woman speaking with a single man appeared more an assignation than an innocent coincidence.
"I am sorry. I have so much to tell-"
He held up his hand to signal that I was to cease speaking. He scanned the hallway quickly before closing the door behind, "Have you found a way into the Study yet?"
"That is what I was about to tell you before you shushed me," I retorted.
"Then I recommend you learn some proper discretion - anyone could have been passing and overheard." I shot him a sour glance. "Well?" he probed irritably, unfazed. "I have little time to mince words, you are fortunate your Uncle requested a visit from Quentin today and I was able to accompany."
"I have not found a way into the Study yet, perse..." I hemmed. "But I have learned where I might procure a key to the room."
"But you haven't yet procured it. Am I correct in that assumption?"
"Not as such, no." I hung my head.
"Good God! What have you been doing this whole time! It has been a month since you begged me to allow you to prove your worth! I give you one simple task and you squander your time on being called upon and attending balls like any of those dewy eyed frivolous flirts. You are one in a kind with them and utterly worthless to me!"
"Oh how terrible that I might have other pressing matters in my life beyond acquiring a key! What must you think of me?" I shot back.
"I think you're eighteen and you're an idiot. This is a missing man we are discussing, not a misplaced book! There may be more lives at stake than just his and you concern yourself with gaining the favors of men? I should wash my hands of you here and now!"
"But then you would never know what else I have discovered."
"And what mere trifle of interest is that? That your beau is better in the saddle than on the dance floor?" The salacious tone he spoke this with caused my rage to boil over. He turned his back toward me.
"I have found out how Lord Bond gained access to the house," I fumed, pleased I at least had some clue to prove myself not a total imbecile.
"Mhmm, and how is that?" he replied absently, seemingly distracted by something on the table. I heard pages turning.
"He deceived one of the maids into believing he was in love with her in order that she might allow him to enter the house through the garden gate."
"Hmm. Not a bad plan," he mumbled, still turning the pages.
"It is despicable that he would use a woman in such a way!" I protested.
"She allowed herself to be used; it really is her own fault."
"But he is engaged to be married!"
"That is beside the point; he required access to the house and he procured it - Dinah would understand."
"I would not be so forgiving were it I in her position."
He turned his head to regard me for a moment. "Then it is fortunate that it is not you in her position," he quipped as he returned to whatever book he was flipping through.
"But it is wrong to trick a young lady in such a cruel way!"
"Ugh!" he groaned. "You women are far too tender-hearted to see anything beyond your emotions. Now tell me, when did this affair begin?"
I was taken aback by his rudeness - he was certainly far more a brute than a gentleman! It was no small wonder why he had not wed for I could not imagine a woman tolerating him in either of his forms.
"Seven months ago, I believe."
"And when did she last see Lord Bond?
"Three months from June… so four in total, by her own testimony. She said he had left a signal that they should meet that night but he never came."
"Was he in the habit of failing to appear at their assignations?"
"I did not ask specifically, however, she gave the impression that this was quite the aberration."
"That is very troubling. It means that whatever happened to him occurred between the time he left the signal and when she was scheduled to meet him - unless, of course, she is attempting to cover for him or herself if something untoward occurred between the two."
"I know the girl and she is quite incapable of guile."
"I shall take you at your word for that as I know few maids to have the capacity to organize such a deception. So we must then assume that he was not anticipating whatever it was that prevented him from attending his encounter with the maid and that it was of such a serious magnitude that he was unable to return. He would not easily abandon three months of work without cause."
"Perhaps he found what he was searching for," I suggested, hopefully, though there was sinking sensation in my heart that only fell deeper with every passing beat.
"It is reasonable that he might have; were the thing of a particularly urgent nature he may not have had the luxury of time to contact anyone before he left. But that does not account for his continued silence. By now he would know we were searching for him." Lord Norbert was still having his conversation with the book rather than the person behind him, to my great chagrin. "It would be quite simple to-" he stopped short. "Is this your sketchbook?"
My sketchbook! He was looking through my sketchbook! In his rudeness I had forgotten that I had left it unguarded on the table. I suddenly felt more exposed than if I had instantly been made naked in front of him for he must be well past the false drawings by now and into my private works. My whole body was ablaze in the deepest crimson.
"Well, is it?" His question was terse though I could not guess as to why.
"Y-yes," I stuttered, far too humiliated for any attempt at something greater than a monosyllable.
"Have you seen this man, then?" he pointed to the portrait of the dark haired man I had only just finished. "When?"
"I-I-I-" I floundered.
"Answer me!" he barked.
"N-no. I have never seen him before."
"You're certain? Not even in passing at a ball or on the street?" Still holding the picture, his eyes burning with that same intensity as when I had revealed his true identity, he stepped toward me.
"No, never," I answered shakily, instinctively backing up until my legs hit the seat of a chair. My hands searched behind me for the firm back to brace myself against. What was he on about?
"Think hard!" he ordered.
"No, I am certain I have never seen the man before. It is only a sketch of one of the skulls!"
"One of the skulls?" he stared, bewildered, not quite able to comprehend this information.
"Yes! Well, at least how it might appear in the flesh. It is a hobby of mine, albeit a strange one I admit."
Lord Norbert's entire body seemed to slacken at this revelation.
"And you believe the likeness to be accurate."
"Yes, as far as my abilities allow. Why?"
"Because, my dear, this drawing is a near exact likeness to Lord Bond."
My hands flew to cover a gasp.
"Did he - did he ever have a bad injury to his neck or right shoulder?" I asked.
"Yes, when he was on call in Bombay he tore the muscle so severely in a fight with a rather shady businessman's Niar bodyguards that he had to leave the field for the remainder of the year. I know it still bothers him when the weather is foul. But how did you know to ask that?"
"Hell's bells," I cursed softly. Unbidden, a scene from my childhood played out in front of me:
I had consigned myself to the kitchen for the afternoon in the hope that my mere presence might merit me a tasty morsel of food from Miss Gretchen, our old cook, who, despite her often scolding tongue, was secretly fond of me. She had just received an order of soup bones from the butcher and had taken one out for inspection. Her aspect changed entirely as she examined the bone. "Charlie, you tell that no account cheat of a butcher that he can take these bones and put 'em back in the tomb whence he got 'em! If he thinks he can pull a fast one on Ol' Gretchen he has another thing comin' I swear to you on all that is holy!" She shoved the crate back in poor Charlie O'Dell's arms with force enough to push him out the door. "Dirty cheat. Who does he think he's dealing with?" she grumbled, bustling about the stove top, pots clattering, victims of her ire.
"Miss Gretchen?" I offered.
"Yes, love?" she spoke as sweetly as one deeply peeved might.
"What was wrong with the soup bones?" I had inquired innocently.
"They were too old! Good for nothin' but to be fed to the dogs," she griped. I stared at her as though she were some form of wizard.
"How could you tell? They only looked like bones to me."
"They were dry as a desert! A good soup bone is so slick with grease you can scarce hold it in your hand without it threatnin' to slide away. That's how you know it's fresh."
I unconsciously began wiping my palms on my dress again and again; desperate to remove what was already long washed away. "That's how you know it's fresh." My stomach lurched. "Oh God." I cried, rushing to the window. My palms hit the glass, slamming the window open just in time for my lunch to decorate the rose bushes below.
"What is it?" Lord Norbert sounded truly concerned for once in his life - though whether that concern was for me or for the meaning of my sudden display as it might pertain to Lord Bond I could only guess.
"The skull-" my stomach lurched again; I fought it back down. "The skull is Lord Bond," I choked before rushing back to my post at the windowsill.
"No." I heard Lord Norbert whisper from somewhere behind me. "No, it can't be." But I knew from the defeat, the sorrow of resignation in his voice he knew it to be the truth. "Are you certain?" The question was less one of investigation and more the final death plea of hope before it was smote for all time.
"Yes," I managed before going over the edge again. Finally, after a few minutes I was able to bring my heaving under control enough to speak, "Yes, I am certain. Beyond the sketch he has healed damage to the back of his skull that was most likely the result of a very serious injury. It matches what you say occurred in India. And then there is the gr- the gr-" the grease! No, I could not even pronounce it for its horrors. "It's been plastered and painted to make it appear older than it is; but there is no mistake - it is Lord Bond."
"My God, James! What have they done to you?" Lord Norbert whispered staring desperately into those sockets that would never again stare back. "What kind of monster could do this!" He turned to me, his visage now one comparable only to a demon from hell, such was his fury. "It is beyond the comprehension of humanity! And then to display him for all to see as though some sort of secret conquest! To set him to gaze upon his unwitting fiancé and friends as they indulge in a game of whist all the while the villain laughs at his monstrous joke!" He returned his gaze to his friend, a tear traced the inside of his cheek, leaving a glistening path where it had crossed. I knew not how to comfort him - what comfort could be offered? Finally, taking a place at his side I lay my hand on his shoulder. The tips of his fingers found mine and squeezed them. "Go home." he murmured, his tone as black as his expression.
"But I am home."
"No, go home to N-shire."
"No, no excuses!" his voice had taken on an edge. "Go home! I don't care how you do it - feign illness, an ill turn of the mind, run away - but go home now!"
"But you may need me-"
"I have no use for you any further. Now GO HOME MISS MOORE!" he shouted, no longer seeming to care who might overhear. I fled from the library and his raging as quickly as I could.
I did not cease in fleeing until I had securely locked the door to my room and stood braced against it. How could my Uncle have done something so very barbarous? No, that was not even the word for it, even barbarians had some sense of civility - this horror was something that might only be named as complete savagery! A man, alive not but four months ago, had been murdered, decapitated, his flesh removed, skull plastered and painted to disguise its true history, and then placed on a shelf to be displayed for guests. My Lord! Uncle Richard was no man but a ghoul!
I shuddered to recall him declaring his pride in his pair of Etruscan skulls, enjoying the attention they received, all the while knowing the one to be a fraud - his own special museum piece! Had there been anything left for my stomach to regurgitate I am certain it would have revealed itself as I played over and over his paternalistic admonitions - twisted, now and forever entwined with his evil brutality. If any doubt of my Uncle's guilt lingered before it had died in that Library with any affection I might have for the man.
But what must I do now? Perhaps Aunt Mabel- No, she might very well be involved herself! Such a silly biddy seemed an unlikely accomplice for murder yet I had not suspected my Uncle either and was now facing the terrible truth of my own willful blindness. It was beyond imagining. Surely, I could never have conceived any civilized Englishman, much less any gentleman, capable of such a thing - so why not a Lady as well? What assured me of my Aunt's innocence in the matter beyond my own desire to believe it? Whatever had been done (and such things I could not entertain specifically in my mind for the mere imaginings threatened my sanity) must have required a great deal of time and effort so how might I expect that she was able to remain wholly ignorant of his doings. Or any of the staff?
Take an ill turn of the mind he had suggested! I doubted my mind should ever be well again! How easy it might be to slip into insanity at this moment! I felt it knocking in my brain, promising to assuage it from those disturbing images of the day. To sink comfortably into the black madness below never to return, never to know those things I now knew which infected it with their poison. No! I jolted myself back from the siren song of the brink. But what should I do? How could I remain knowing what sat staring vacantly in that room?
Perhaps I should do as Lord Norbert commanded and return to N-shire. Certainly the task was accomplished: I was engaged now and that was the only motivation they had owned for sending me to town. Lord Norbert possessed, at the very least, a decade of experience in his business of which I was a mere interloper. He could readily procure the key. The key! I had not had the opportunity to tell him of the key before our gruesome discovery, nor of the book in my Uncle's Study! Even were he to gain entrance to the room he would be long delayed in locating his quarry... perhaps long enough that he, to, might be discovered and... I involuntarily shuddered as I considered the possibility of his fate matching that of his predecessor. That the next time I was forced to visit there might be three Etruscan skulls on the shelf bearing silent witness.
I planted my fist firmly in my palm.
I would get the key, I decided, and then I would acquire the book which I would then leave with the Underhills before I left for the train station with my relatives none the wiser. It made perfect sense! Even were I discovered, certainly Uncle Richard would do me no harm. I would claim it was only my curiosity gotten the better of me; that I had found the key on the floor outside the study and had to test it and then... well so many wonderful books! How could I be blamed for wishing to indulge? But then, how might I procure the key from Dale? An errant late July zephyr wafted through the window bringing with it the lusty odor of the roses which twined about the window. I had never given much thought to Dale's habits beyond his impassive demeanor - Sarah had suggested he carried the key with him at all times, but perhaps, at night... if I followed him I might discover where the object lay when its master slept.
That night, after my Uncle and Aunt had retired to bed, I carefully unlocked my door and crept into the hall. The moon was in sympathy with my plot, obscuring the larger part of its pale face in darkness allowing for only the slightest sliver of light to fall on those objects it wished to just scarcely delineate for my benefit. "I owe you a debt," I whispered to the old orb. I pressed a hand to my forehead in frustration, "I'm talking to the moon..." I muttered. And now to myself - an ill turn of the mind, indeed! Slinking through the shadowy corridors I managed to arrive at the stair leading to the servant's quarters unnoticed. Halfway up the stair a door at the top of the landing swung open. I fell to kneeling in a heartbeat, hoping the shadows might cover me. A woman emerged - I breathed a sigh of relief, 'Oh, it's only Sarah.'
"Marcy! May I borrow a pair of stockings? Mine are full of holes," she called.
"Here!" the voice from a door further down the hall returned. I saw the vague outline of what were likely stockings fly into Sarah's grasp. "Bring me your old ones tomorrow and I'll mend them for you for a pence."
"Thank you but I think they may be beyond mending at this stage."
"Two pence then. I'm certain I can save them."
"You really have to teach me how to mend... or at least sew."
"Then how would I pay for the Fair?" Marcy teased back. Sarah shrugged; satisfied in her lot she returned to her room and shut the door.
I waited a few minutes before rising again to mount the remainder of the stair. I plunged down the dark corridor softly padding down the wooden hall on stocking-feet until I arrived just short of Dale's apartment: a room situated at the very end of the hall across from the footman and valet's quarters. It was my good fortune that my Aunt and Uncle kept only a small staff on retainer or else my task might have been more difficult to accomplish. Dale would not yet occupy his quarters having duties which stretched well beyond those of his understaff. I slowly turned the door knob, which gave way easily, and slipped inside.
"Ouch!" I stifled a cry of pain by furiously sucking in air. No doubt there would be a large bruise on my thigh come morning. I heard the hollow sound of glass bottles shifting about, having been rudely disturbed from their peaceful slumber. My hands searched about me until they found the villain - the sharp edge of an end table jutted out before me, just askance from the door. Following the shape of the table I found its companion, a rough wooden chair, sitting behind. Further on, I saw a sliver of light shining through what was likely the window, the curtains ruffled and swayed softly around it causing it to dance in the breeze. My eyes finally adjusted to the blackness enough that I was able to distinguish the scant furniture littered about the room. Beyond the end table (the glinting of the moonlight on the bottles gave me to know this was where he enjoyed his libations without interference) and chair there was a large, old fashioned wardrobe and a rather sizable, unmade post bed. Next to the chair a closet stood, its gaping maw allowing its contents to be seen by all the world. There would be no hiding there - judging by the piles about it the door to that small room was seldom, if ever, closed. Left with only one option I tiptoed over to the bed and ran my hand underneath - as I suspected, no trundle was stowed beneath. I slid my whole form under, disturbing a disgraceful film of dust as I went, and waited.
And wait I did! I could not conjecture for how long I was under that bed before the seemingly loud crashing of the door against its frame followed by Dale's heavy boots clomping upon the floor awoke me from my slumber. The strike of a match was soon accompanied by the faint whiff of smoke and then light! My eyes, having become adjusted to the dark, were painfully stung by the blinding light of the candle. Dale positioned the pale wax soldier on the end table, revealing a collection of spent bottles and filthy glasses. Seeing them perched so precariously on that small surface it was a wonder none had crashed to the floor when I had disturbed them. Procuring a fresh bottle of brandy from under a coat in the closet, he proceeded to pop off the cork and pour the contents into the nearest glass.
"Here's to you Mr. Hurst." He toasted my Uncle before downing the contents. "You devil," he muttered, pouring himself another and downing it as well. He drank as a man might breathe until the contents of the bottle were spent. Returning to the closet he took another from underneath the coat and opened it draining half straight from the bottle before slamming it down on the table. A few drops splashed from the top. "Aye, time to get some shut eye." He took a small ring of three keys from his pocket and dropped them on what I assumed to be the bedside table. Then, divesting himself of his coat and trousers he blew out the candle (after how much alcohol he had consumed I was almost surprised the flame did not come back on him) and fell heavily onto the bed, momentarily pressing me to the floor - the loud scream of the springs managed to cover my cry of shock at being swiftly crushed.
Dale wasted no time in falling into heavy snoring. What an unappealing man he was in every manner! I waited sometime before I moved, slithering silently from under the bed to the end table. I could see the object of my search glistening - but something obstructed it from my view. I gently poked the dark object - it was soft, the surface gave way and… it was his hand! His hand had fallen over the keys as he slept. He snorted loudly, no doubt roused by my touch. I ducked below the side of the bed. The hand grasped the keys and drug them close to his chest as though a stuffed toy. I silently cursed my luck. Tomorrow then. I would think of a way to keep this horrid man asleep long enough that I might be able to gain use of the key. I silently withdrew from the room, careful to shut the door without making the slightest sound.
Once free of the confines of the room, I considered: perhaps it was fortunate I had not gained the key tonight. I had given no thought to a proper plan, instead relying on serendipitous happenstance to deposit the key into my possession. Thinking clearly, I could readily see my errors. What had I intended to do with the key once I possessed it? If I kept it without replacement, it would surely be missed. I could replace it with my own key but then the culprit would be immediately evident once all the locks in the house were tried. Perhaps I could have a copy made of it... I had heard of such things being made from moulds. 'And certainly a mould would be easier for it would allow me to access the Study at my leisure.' I thought, descending the stairs. 'Otherwise, if my Uncle decided to tarry late at his desk on my chosen night, I would be forced to abandon the plan.' But there was another complication to be considered: Dale, the key's keeper.
In order to make the mould I would first need to borrow the key, which was a difficult enough prospect in and of itself, but even more difficult, I would then need to return it - and do both without waking him! By now I had reached my own quarters. I locked the door behind and fell into bed cocooning myself in the covers, relieved to be out of danger of discovery for the moment.
I had not even realized my own exhaustion. The world around me shifted, darkened - I was back in Dale's room. Wait. Hadn't I left it? I thought I could distinctly recall walking down the hall and descending the stairs. No, I was under the bed. It must be near morning! I had to leave before I was discovered! But there was Dale at his post guarding the door still draining glass after glass of liqueur. He raised a glass, "Here's to you Mr. Hurst... you devil." Devil? My Uncle? But there must be some mistake! I had to find a way out. I scrambled underneath the bed (which seemed much more spacious than before) but whichever way I looked seemed twisted, bent. I was trapped! I felt a steely grip on my ankle - I was too frightened to even scream. I felt the thing pulling me from under the bed - but there was Dale in front of me! Bottle and glass still in hand; unperturbed by the events only a few feet from him. Instinctively, I clawed at the floor with my nails, kicking fiercely at the hand with my free leg. I heard maniacal laughter from behind me! And still I was being drug closer to it! I turned, terrified, to face the demon only to see my Uncle's face, red and twisted in a terrifying grin, cackling as he pulled me toward him. Now the screaming began.
I awoke still not able to comprehend my predicament, promptly attempting to escape my captor by falling from the bed. "Oooough," I groaned as I untwisted my body from its improperly sided position to one more suitable to the human frame - lying face-down on the floor. "Ugh... what a frightful nightmare," I said, more in an attempt to dispel the final remaining vestiges than for any communicative purpose. Still, it felt as though a spectre of horror were watching from above, biding its time before it would pounce and tear me to ribbons. And then the first squawk of a bird greeting the morning sun assaulted my ears - never had there been such a welcome sound as that! Assured all was as it should be (in my room, at least) I pulled myself up into a sitting position against the bed. My slender fingers searched the top of the mattress and finally, finding their quarry, pulled the covers upon my head and shoulders like a fat, white cloak. There would be no more sleep for me this morning - of that I was certain - but perhaps more pressing matters might now be meditated on more clearly in the light of day.
I still had not yet determined how I might obtain the keys from Dale without waking him. If I could only ensure that he would sleep... But how might that be accomplished? The answer seemed so obvious I was embarrassed it had not been an assumed part of my plan - I would only have to drug his drink! I had already been able to enter the room without his noticing, I knew where he kept his liqueur and I knew his habit of imbibing before bed - I even knew there was a half-full bottle left on the end table that he would not have the opportunity to indulge in until tonight. The only complication was what might be used - I did not wish to accidentally kill him, afterall. Medicines were never my strong suit, 'I wonder if there might be any books on the subject in the Library?' My stomach lurched at the thought. The very idea of being under the hollow gaze of Lord Bond made my insides clench and shudder. "No, I cannot go in there again - I just can't!" I argued to myself. "There is no way I shall ever be able to be in that room again." My stomach, still not fully recovered from my discovery, gave another lurch. I rushed to the lavatory.
"This cannot go on," I muttered, wiping my hand across my lips as I sat, spent, on the floor next to the toilet. "If I am to solve this crime I really must get control of my own functions first. Perhaps Aunt Mabel has some tincture of Belladonna..." not laudanum - that they would offer first - no, not after watching Chet... I should like to never see that vile substance again in my life! But tincture of Belladonna would work easily as well though the flavor left something to be desired... It always tried to warn you of its deadly nature by its awful taste - not unlike burning which could be felt even as it entered the stomach though the draught itself was cool. But its effect was instantaneous: calming the stomach, the nerves, the mind - no matter how pressing a trouble might be, it was becalmed by the drug and the soundest sleep I had ever known soon followed. But sound sleep and pleasant feelings were not what I needed - or more precisely they were! They were precisely what I needed!
That night found me again creeping up the stairs to Dale's room, small brown bottle concealed in my palm. Three teaspoons full would be more than enough to induce a full night's slumber. Even if, by chance, he noted the alteration in flavor - which I doubted for he had not seemed too concerned with the taste of his brew but rather the speed at which he might transfer it from glass to gullet - any amount imbibed should deepen his slumber. I easily traversed the hall and was in Dale's room without delay.
The room was much the same as I had left it the night before - I had forgotten how very dark it was! Or how much the end table hurt when I walked into it. I could hear the bottles and glasses shift perilously. Instinctively (and I cannot begin to fathom how I did it in the pitch blackness) my hand shot out and caught the neck just before the bottle tipped over the edge. I felt the liquid inside shift back and forth. I ran my finger across the top; still open! The lush had not even bothered to cork it. I gave it a quick sniff, crinkling my nose at the bitter scent - whisky! No doubt that would hide the burn of the tincture.
I pushed the whisky into the crook of my arm, squeezing it against my side while I uncorked the medicine bottle. My fingers felt for the opening again and, holding both near their lips so as to make sure I did not spill, I tilted the diminutive medicine bottle against the edge of the other, beginning to pour. Only now did I recognize the error of my plan - I could not see the liquid to be sure I would administer the proper dose! If I lit a candle, even were my presence not noted by a passerby, the smell of a spent flame would be unmistakable. But if I were to pour without measure I could easily over dose the man and risk his life.
I stood stock still, bottles still in their acute position before me. A light breeze tickled my nose. I looked to see the window, still open in an attempt to somehow mitigate the attic's heat. Dancing through the curtains was that sliver of golden moon. Not moving my arms from their position I walked stiffly to the window. Tilting the medicine bottle so the liquid perched precipitously on the lip I saw that which I had hoped for - the miniature reflection of the moon in the medicine. Slowly I poured the liquid in three short doses, watching the light carefully each time to gauge how much I had added. 'It should be close enough to three teaspoons.' I concluded. 'I dare not add more.' I quickly replaced the liqueur bottle on the small table, corked the medicine bottle, slid under the bed, and waited.
The following morning I trotted to the blacksmith's foundry. The small paraffin molding I had made of the key wrapped securely in ribbon and protected by a small cedar box. The black bearded smith was already hard at work at the anvil, pounding out a ringing melody on a glowing orange piece of metal with his hammer.
"Hello Blacksmith!" I hailed with a shout.
The man ceased his labor and raised his hammer in salutation.
"Ho, Miss Moore, is it?"
"It is. But how did you know me?"
"Saw you in church with the Hursts. Gossip around town is that you are their niece. Congratulations on your engagement - though we had hoped it'd be the preacher's son," he replied, pounding now resumed. "Sorry about the noise, but I want to get this shoe shaped while it's still hot."
I was taken aback by his forwardness - I hadn't noticed this man at all, nor any of the other people of the town and yet they had noticed me and showed no compunction against casting about regarding my future. I was not certain whether I should feel humiliated, enraged, or flattered. I gritted my teeth,
"Thank you. But I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage Mr..."
"Mallory, ma'am. Greg Mallory. At your service," he replied, drowning the horseshoe in a vat of water. Hissing steam rushed from it.
"Mr. Mallory, I have an unusual request. The key to my chest broke and I was wondering if you could make me a new one. The chest has been in my family for generations and I should hate to have to damage it." I spoke the lie just as I had rehearsed on the way.
"Do you have the key?"
"Umm, no, I'm afraid not. But I did make a mould of it," I said struggling to pull the box from my satchel and extracting the ribbon wrapped paraffin square. I handed it to him. He unwrapped it dubiously.
"A paraffin mould," he scowled. "Well, at least you made an imprint of both sides. I should have this ready for you by tomorrow."
"Oh, so long?" I could not disguise the disappointment in my voice.
He heaved a heavy sigh, "Sorry ma'am, but before I can cast it I'll have to make a proper mould from sand - any hot metal would melt this wax in a heartbeat - and that means I'll have to create a dummy key from this in order to make that mould. Not only that but I'll have to craft the bow and shank from naught. With a ward this complicated it takes time if you want it done right."
I stared at the man blankly - I recognized the words but not in the order and context they had been placed in.
Mr. Mallory smiled as though he were, by some clairvoyance, able to discern the source of my silence. "Anyhow, I will have the task completed by tomorrow."
"Do you know what time?"
"I can bring it by the house sometime midday if you like, I need to visit the market anyhow."
"No, thank you but I would rather pick it up here," I stumbled, not wishing to be discovered when the plan was going so well. "I... I..." fumbling for an excuse I found one that sounded the most plausible: "I don't want my Aunt to know I broke it, she might be upset for it was her mother's chest."
The bearded man nodded sympathetically.
"It's not your fault if it broke, just an impurity in the metal. But I understand. You may pick it up here tomorrow morning."
I fumbled around in my bag, producing a handful of coins.
"How much do I owe you?"
"I'd like to tell you it's free of charge for a Lady such as yourself, but I do need to make a living - one pound sound fair?"
"For the work you described it sounds entirely reasonable." I made to hand him the coin, but he pushed it away. "Payment on delivery ma'am. No sense paying before you've seen the result."
"Thank you Mr. Mallory. I will return tomorrow to pick it up. Good day."
"Good day to you ma'am," he said with a wave of his hand, still clutching the paraffin.
I walked back toward the house.
"Why must everything take so very long!" I moaned aloud, my only audience the birds chirping overhead as I walked. "It is already August! Oh, why can't you be my harbingers of the morning?" I cried out accusingly to the little songbirds; venting my frustrations upon them. "I want to go home!"
It was the first I had said it and, once spoken, it was all I could desire. My home with my bed and my books, Chet and Artie making mischief somewhere on the Hall grounds, my little sister - that tiny angel: all blond curls and blue eyes - stitching clothes for her dolly by the evening firelight, my little brother, just born - I had not yet even seen him! "Oh God I want to go home!" I howled. "I want to be far away from this horrible house and its secrets and the accusing stares of Lord Bond's empty eyes!" Nothing had I ever wanted more in my entire life than to turn left at the crossroad and board the train back to Greenmoor Commons and never ever return. To forget everything.
"My princess." the memory of Nicholas's clear brown eyes as he said those words, the way his lips moved to form them; and there was Dinah, staring out the window at the river, waiting for her lost love who would never return; the sadness in Quentin's mien as he told the tale of his missing friend - no I could not just abandon them! And then there was Lord Norbert (that intolerable, arrogant man!) - were I to leave no doubt he would attempt to uncover my Uncle's activities on his own and would be in grave danger of meeting the same fate as Lord Bond. The unbidden image of three skulls on the library shelf caused me to shudder. I had to complete my mission - then I could return home to my soft chair in the household library with a warm cat and my greatest concern being what I might next read. 'I suppose that would not long be my lot.' I thought, my desperation melting to a bemused smile. No, I was soon to be a bride with my own library to furnish - 'I wonder how Nicholas will take to my choice in literature.'
I continued in that manner of thought (for it soothed my mind enough that I did not feel the compulsion to flee quite so keenly) until I had reached the house. It was still early enough that I might slip in before breakfast; with any luck the walk would have given my cheeks the ruddy complexion that would help to prevent my relations from noticing the exhaustion marking my face with its dark circles and deepening lines. I managed to arrive just before my Aunt at the breakfast table.
"Ah, Philomena – you are up early," she observed.
"Yes, Aunt Mabel," I answered, feigning preoccupation with my tea.
The staff was just setting out breakfast when Uncle Richard bumbled heavily into the room. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.
"Good morning, darling," Aunt Mabel said to her husband.
"Good Morning," my Uncle responded, placing an obligatory kiss upon her crown. Setting down to breakfast he cleared his throat "hrumph - My dear I will be calling on the Martin's tomorrow. They have a horse I wish to look at."
"Is there something wrong with our horses?"
"I'm sorry to say the bay's gone lame. It's sinking. There's nothing to be done for it."
Aunt Mabel stared sadly at her toast, "Oh, that is a pity."
"I'm sorry darling, I know you were fond of that one. We did all that we could."
"So you will be at Mr. Martin's house the whole of the morning?" I inquired eagerly. I could not have asked for a better opportunity! Uncle Richard laughed jovially,
"Yes, my dear - might you like to accompany me?" He had misinterpreted my enthusiasm to be for Nicholas rather than his own impending absence. How might I refuse?
"That is out of the question!" Aunt Mabel interrupted my thoughts before they were even half-formed. "Rely on you to supervise a young woman while you are otherwise engaged with a horse? The very idea! They'll run off the moment you turn your head."
I had to admit I thoroughly enjoyed my Aunt's low opinion of my morals. Knowing that it was impossible I decided to prod the pair into the believing of their suspicions.
"But Aunt Mabel, please allow me to go!" I wheedled. "It has been so long since I have seen the Martin's."
"You mean to say it has been so long since you have seen Nicholas Martin and it has not even been a week since his last visit, you impatient child."
"But we are soon to be married!" I cried.
"Yes, darling, let her come along. There is no harm in them seeing each other," my Uncle enjoined.
"They may see each other as much as they like when they are wed, but until such time as that, they will abide by my rules," Aunt Mabel said firmly.
I puffed out my lip in a childish pout, imploring my Uncle to continue to plead my case, but he only allowed a slight shrug to indicate his surrender.
"I'm sorry, my dear, perhaps next time."
Inwardly I sighed with relief - not only did they fully believe my desire to accompany Uncle Richard to the Martin's; now I had no reason to fear any suspicion from them as to my intentions for tomorrow.
The following morning I awoke with the sunrise owing once more to the cursed birds whose sole purpose seemed to be to drag me from slumber. This morning I was grateful for their interference. I popped from bed and threw on my traveling dress and cloak as though in a single motion, long fingers handily fastening buttons and ties. Within minutes, I had escaped the confines of the yard and was off to the smith's.
"Good Morning Mr. Mallory," I hailed.
"Good Mornin' to you Miss!" the bearded man veritably bellowed from his place at the forge. "You're early this mornin'!"
"Oh, is it not finished yet?"
"Aye, not quite. I just poured it two hours ago. It'll be a little time yet to clean it."
"To clean it?"
"To take the rough edges off, or it won't fit proper in the lock."
"How long will that take?" I huffed.
"'Bout an hour."
I could not conceal my disappointment.
"Sorry Miss, I didn't expect you at this hour."
I plopped down, in a most unladylike fashion, on a rock near the mossy shelter. For some time we sat in silence - I watched as he broke open the mould and from it pulled an ugly looking item that, in aspect, was not unlike a key. He easily broke off a set of spindly metal spider legs and a thick line connected to the bow, then, taking a file, he leaned against a tree near my roost and began filing away the misshapen edges.
I could tolerate the silence no longer.
"What did you mean you hoped I would marry the minister's son?" I ventured.
"Just what I said. Rev. Underhill is gettin' on in years – he can't do as much as he once did - and we'd like to see him comfortably retired and Mr. Underhill well married to a woman who could support him in the Parish work."
"Then you should be glad I am not his choice in bride."
"You are too harsh on yourself ma'am."
"No, I am just in my evaluation, I think. I would make a fine wife for a scholar but I could not carry out the duties of a Minister's wife."
"Still, I had wished Rev. Underhill might soon have grandchildren and what with all that unpleasantness with his daughter..." I winced. "I was a bit surprised ta hear it was the younger Mr. Martin you chose."
"He is a good man."
"Aye, you'll have no disagreement from me, I've ne'er had a better employer."
I was perplexed a moment - Ah yes, Mr. Mallory would be under Mr. Martin's employ what with all their horses.
"Generous to a fault that one. But..."
"But what?" I demanded.
"Oh, it's nothin'."
"You started it so now you must tell me or I will suspect the worst of him."
"I'm sorry ma'am, it's nothing like that. He just tends to be a little more on the side of the common man - if you get my meaning."
"No, I'm sure I don't." I was getting irritated by this man's implications.
"Well ma'am, just between you and me - and I don't mean to cause any contention between the two of ya - but he's been secretly meetin' with the leaders at his factory. Word is he's tryin' to convince 'em to form a Union."
"A Union!" I replied, shocked. Of all the things Mr. Mallory could have said, this I expected the least! "Are you certain?"
"Yes ma'am, quite certain. I've never seen the like that a businessman might act so against his own father and brother, not to mention his own personal interest. I'm sorry if it troubles you to know ma'am - but it wouldn't be right not to tell ya."
"No... No it doesn't trouble me in the least." My face burned, I felt hot tears brimming on the rims of my eyes, threatening to fall at the slightest provocation. "No, I should say it doesn't at all - rather, I do not think I could be more proud of the man than at this moment!" I choked, the tears now falling from their perch onto my wide smile. So he was not a man of mere passionate words at all! What a man of principle! My heart felt as though it might swell to bursting. How fortunate had I been to find such a man!
Mr. Mallory stared dumbfounded at me. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"I'm not upset, no, there is nothing better you might have told me. Thank you Mr. Mallory." I stood, taking his hand sincerely in my own, teardrops spotting their union. "I know now, more than ever what a good, good man I have found, thank you." I turned to leave.
"Ma'am, your key!" Mr. Mallory called, holding up the item.
"Oh yes, sorry, will it be much longer?"
"Only a quarter hour more. So where do you hail from Miss?"
"Greenmoor Commons, in N-shire." And in this manner of banal conversation we managed to while away the time until the key was finished. The blacksmith held the finished product up to the sunlight, examining it.
"There you are Miss," he said, passing the metal piece to my hands. "Couldn't find a better replacement were the original new."
"Thank you, Mr. Mallory. Here is your payment, plus a few for your children." I dropped double the price into the man's blackened palm.
"God bless you, Miss," he replied with a sheepish bow of his filthy, bearded head.
'May He do so indeed.' I thought as I relieved myself from the glen.
Uncle Richard was true to his word, leaving just after Breakfast for Mr. Martin's estate. Aunt Mabel spent the better part of the early morning fussing after me, convinced I was surely coming down with a terrible illness - what with my puffy, reddened eyes and skin made clammy from my early morning sojourn. I assured her repeatedly that it was only a result of sleeping with the window open on a damp night and nothing more. I finally managed to slip away just before lunch when she stopped to chastise one of the maids who, apparently, was not dusting the glassware properly.
It was only a moment before I was at the study door - now Mr. Mallory's work would truly have its test - I gingerly twisted the key half anticipating failure but then clink the tumbler turned and the lock was sprung! The door easily swung open at turn of the knob revealing that long secreted away room. I was at the bookshelf where I had seen my Uncle place the small brown book before in a heartbeat.
Standing on a small footstool I procured from beside the fireplace I quickly located the text between two similarly sized books - innocuous to the world but for me. I cradled the little leather bound volume in my hand. It was well worn, a simple journal from which protruded a number of letters still encased in their opened envelopes. Placing a finger on the final protrusion I pulled the cover and pages before aside to reveal its home, a sepia edged page of words without context or partner. I open the envelope, unfolding the contents on the open journal page. The text was singular, such that I could not decipher it - a number of the characters appeared familiar - here there was an A, there a B, a C and a T and something not unlike an upside-down P - but the order was nonsensical! It was not any code nor language I was familiar with. I turned the letter this way and that hoping the answer might reveal itself, to no avail - whatever secrets the page held they were thus to remain. I folded the letter roughly and, holding it between my arm and side, returned my attention to the page. There were words; exotic sounding names I did not know: Kandahar, Phayre, Quetta, and a date: July 27th. It was now August 10th - two weeks exactly from the date on the page! I flipped to the other spent pages, each only containing a few cryptic words, numbers, and dates; a few were marked with penned drawings of lines with dots, triangles, squares and X's about them. The letters marking the pages were as indecipherable as the first!
"What are you doing?"
My heart plummeted in my chest - for a moment the world before me disappeared.
"I asked: What are you doing? Answer me Philomena!" the harsh voice commanded. I turned slowly on the stool to face my Uncle.
"One of the maids must have left the door open while cleaning and I saw the bookshelf so I just had to have a look-"
"The maids have been instructed never to enter this room." His face grew redder with each word.
"Dale, then." I tried, my lies utterly transparent before his withering glare. He made for me, his heavy gait fast, I was only just able to alight from the stool before he had gripped me by the hair and twisted my head painfully down. I gasped.
"What have you been about Philomena?" He demanded, jerking my head back - his eyes, burning with rage, boring into my own forced wide open from position. My mouth, agape from my head being pulled so far back, struggled to form words like a fish attempting to breathe in open air. "How did you get in here? Tell me now!" He forced my head sideways at such an unnatural angle I was veritably blinded by the pain. The book and all its contents fell to the floor. Uncle Richard looked down. "I see. So you have been reading. I trust you learned very little from it."
"I've learned enough!" I managed to sputter. "Enough to name you as the villain you are."
"You call me a villain," he said with a snort. "No, I am merely a businessman." He released his grasp on me. Still, I was trapped in the corner - the desk impeding any hope I had of quick escape.
"You are a murderer!" My accusation rang out through the room - or perhaps only so in my mind for having finally given voice to the thing.
"A murderer!" He actually laughed -laughed! "My dear I have never killed a man in my life! Who filled your head with such nonsense?"
"You are a liar and a scoundrel! And I know what you are about - I will... I will go to the police!"
"As though they will believe the hysterical ravings of a madwoman! They'll lock you up for certain my dear," my Uncle laughed.
"They will be less inclined to think me mad when I show them this!" I cried, clutching the first letter, which I had managed to hold securely through the abuse, against my chest.
"Mere correspondence with a friend," he attempted. "Please give it back to me Philomena."
"Will they read it that way?"
"Give the letter back," he growled, a coldness I had never before seen sprung to his eyes. For a moment he looked as though he might try to take the letter by force, then he seemed to think better of it, "I would much prefer you did not cause a scene. It could be dangerous for you," he said icily. The chill in his eyes made me shiver - still my blood ran hot.
"Am I to suppose that is a threat?"
"Only an observation," he answered. "You would not want to create a scandal. It might impede your upcoming nuptials."
"What of them? If a scandal were to be had and Nicholas abandoned me then he would not be the man I thought him and I should be glad to be rid of him."
My Uncle laughed heartily at this pronouncement.
"You may choose to laugh if you wish but you will find I care not a whit for my own life nor anything else but justice and thus such things cannot be wielded against me."
He chuckled coldly. "I do believe you may mean that. Perhaps such resolve requires some testing." He cracked his knuckles dangerously and shifted towards me.
Oh, praise the good Lord in Heaven!
"Pardon the intrusion Mr. Hurst, but I thought I heard the voice of my- oh there she is! Good Afternoon, Miss Moore." Nicholas smiled brightly at me from the doorway. "Or should I say: the future Mrs. Martin?"
I nervously smiled back, my eyes pleading for rescue.
"No intrusion at all, Mr. Martin - I was only giving Philomena some ahem fatherly advice regarding her wedding. You may stay and listen if you wish."
Oh yes, please please stay, I silently begged.
"No, I should hate to interrupt such a moment." Nicholas smiled, turning to leave he paused, then turned (salvation!). "I'm sorry, I meant to ask: how is your brother faring? Has he recovered from his illness?"
"He is through the worst of it. He should be fully recovered by the end of the month," I answered through a plastered on smile.
"Very good! I'll await you in the foyer."
And just as suddenly as it had appeared, my hopes for rescue were banished.
My Uncle rounded on me. "You care not a whit for your own life nor anything else, or so you claim - but I do believe I know of one thing you do care for very dearly, more dearly than you hold anything else in the world." The haughty expression of triumph on his face caused my stomach to sicken.
"If you mean Nicholas then I am sorry to disappoint you," I retorted.
"Oh, no, not Nicholas. It is to another young man I refer: a Chester Jenkins Moore III, by name."
My horror could only be matched by my rage. "You would not dare!"
"Ah, yes, the shame of the Moore family - your darling brother. I should not feel the least bit of guilt outing that black spot."
"But he is blood!"
"Not my blood! My blood has never produced such a disgrace!" he roared furiously, allowing years of what appeared to be repressed rage to finally find their outlet. "There have been whispers about the Clubs regarding his activities. Laudanum! Drunkeness! The whoring and the opium dens! And let us not forget that incident with Lord William's son. I believe it was your brother and his comrade beat him near to death on the roadside, then abandoned him to the tender mercy of the winter snows. It is a miracle he was found before he succumbed."
"No," I whispered shaking my head.
"And over what, I ask? Some simple dishonest card playing? No one would impeach the son of Wyndham - but a Lord's son is more vulnerable. I believe the police are still searching for the assailant; if someone were to possibly suggest to them a name..."
"No please, I'll do anything." Tears flowed down my cheeks.
"I see we have an understanding, then. Now, hand me the letter."
Utterly defeated, I held the letter before me limply.
"There's a good girl." He snatched it from my hand. "If you even so much as think to speak of this to anyone; I do not need to tell you what will happen," he said gathering together the letters and book still lying on the carpet. I stared at the floor,
He walked over to the fireplace and threw the papers, book and all, onto the wood. Lighting a match he held it to the pile until all was being consumed by the ravenous flames.
"Now then, no more of this unpleasantness," his tone turned positively jolly. "Go wash up, you would not want your fiancé to see you in such a state."
"Yes, sir," I answered, turning from his horrible, corpulent form and leaving the room. I did not dare wipe the tears, newly formed, from my cheeks until I had turned the corner; no longer within his sight.
The wave of cool water broke against my face again and again, each time failing to wash away the memory of what had happened in that room. My Uncle's cruel threat announced itself to my mind yet again. My eyes burned with fresh tears. I had to stop weeping! I must collect myself or Nicholas would know and he must not know! My brother's life and mine were already at risk - I dared not add his as well. But then every time I attempted to leave the washroom my feelings betrayed me and I was relegated, once more, to the wash basin. What could I do? I could contact Lord Norbert - but what would I tell him? Letters in gibberish, a few strange words scrawled on a page - I could scarce remember them! And if I were discovered… and there was yet another life at stake for my recklessness.
The world was as if a fog. Was this truly real? Could this possibly be reality? It seemed to have become distorted, tainted by some unknown poison. It had bent in on itself and blackened until I could no longer recognize it. To acknowledge what it had become seemed, to me, to be accepting insanity. Was I still an occupant of the real world or was this a fiction created by an excited mind? Perhaps I was in bed still and this a fever dream? I stared at my reflection in the mirror; the glowing red eyes, pallid complexion, and disheveled hair of a banshee stared back. My eyes seemed to have finally cried themselves out of tears - at least, I hoped they had.
Dividing my mane of sand blonde hair down the center as best I could I braided the remainder twisting it into a low chignon resting just at the nape of my neck - the process was not long nor laborious but it required just enough of my focus that I was able to distract myself from the trouble at hand. A liberal dash of powder turned the redness into a pale pink. Now if only my mind could be quite so collected as my features!
My peace still permanently dashed on the floor of the Study, I wafted down the hallway to where Nicholas sat, wholly unperturbed by the world. At the sound of my approaching step he looked up, "My princess!" His open smile faltered into a look of concern. "What's wrong, my dear one?"
And that was it. I had failed even this simple task and now the banished tears were once again threatening to break. How could I think I could hide my state from him who seemed to know me so well?
"I'm sorry, I d-did not mean to trouble you. It is a family matter."
"Did your Uncle have news of your brother? Has he taken a bad turn?"
"Yes, that might be the best way to say it. He has taken a bad turn. I was unaware how terrible of a turn it was until Uncle Richard informed me after you left," my voice choked.
"Do they think he will recover?"
"I don't know." I shook my head, tears escaping their boundaries, blinding me. I felt the firmness of his arms around me, the warmth of his embrace, though I could not see him. I buried my face in his shoulder, "I just don't know."
The coming days in the house were the darkest of my life. It no longer felt a home to me but a place alien and sinister - waiting to devour me with its darkness. Daily I haunted the halls as though a ghost, unable to focus my mind on anything but what was incomprehensible to me. My Uncle, once a source of comfort - now one of terror. My conscience warred within me: I could not keep silent when a man had been killed; but then, by breaking my silence, the very same fate might befall my brother. I did not doubt my Uncle's sincerity in that threat, though, how he could even think to do such a thing was beyond my comprehension.
I desperately wanted to write to Millie, to somehow convey to her the depth of my distress, but I had come to suspect that since the incident in the Study my mail was no longer reaching its intended destinations. Any freedom I might have once enjoyed to come and go as I pleased had been effectively eliminated. Now, at every turn I felt a presence at my heel - always either Uncle Richard, Aunt Mabel, or Dale lurked nearby; one eye perpetually trained on my movements. Even when I thought myself unsupervised I would then catch the suspicious glance of a maid in the mirror or from around the corner. What had my Uncle told them?
Only Sarah seemed to be unaffected. Perhaps this was because they did not feel she was bright enough to be surreptitious. Or she may have been given the knowledge but had chosen not to believe it; for she was as guileless and pleasant as ever.
"Come now, Miss, you don't wish to spend the whole of this glorious day locked up in your room?" Sarah entreated bustling about the lunch tray she had brought.
I turned, now laying upon my side in the bed I hadn't left for more than a few moments in two days, to face her. "I should say I do, and what business is it of yours anyhow?"
"I'm sorry Miss, I meant no offense. Only it is a rather pleasant day and I thought you might enjoy a walk in the garden. If you are feeling well enough, that is." The expression of wounded shame on her face was enough to coax me from my feathery exile.
"If you insist," I sighed, throwing off the covers.
I walked down the hall toward the Garden. Having been resigned to my bed so long it seemed no one anticipated I would be about and thus I was spared the prying eyes of the staff, all now well about their own business of the day. With any luck my presence would not be marked at all - though there is no crime in aiding luck in its endeavors - I hurried to the garden door and slipped out. The day was quite as fine an August day as one might hope for. The air, cooled by an early morning rain, danced with zephyrs portending that the dawn burst might be followed by another by evening if not sooner - but for the moment the sun declared its dominion over creation even as dark clouds threatened.
I strolled along the cobblestone with little conscious thought to my path, only glad for my temporary reprieve. I had not been walking long when I realized the direction my unconscious had taken me, for there, not far off, stood the tall cascade of leaves that marked the old willow tree. Upon recognition of the spot I turned on my heel, causing that I should nearly collide with Lord Norbert.
"How long have you been following me?" I demanded, straightening my dress.
"Must you always fidget so? Only a few minutes - I noticed you from across the garden."
"Am I to assume the Underhills are visiting, then, and you are in tow?" My brusque manner appeared to have caught him off guard.
"That would be an accurate portrayal of the situation, yes." He glanced from side to side, and, satisfied of our solitude, waved me closer. "Why are you still here? I told you to go home," he hissed in a conspiratorial whisper.
"You did tell me, but they would not have me for any reason other than that I required burying lest my intended's passions might cool in my absence. Even to save my own life they would not have me return." This was, sadly, entirely true; though it pained me greatly to acknowledge it.
Even had I attempted to go home to N-shire I should have found myself restored to the house of my Uncle and Aunt by the very next train regardless of ailment. The marriage was of chief import to my parents above all else. This I had known from the first moment I stepped aboard the train and it had been my fondest wish to spite them for it by returning with no prospects whatsoever – a wish I had failed to fulfill.
Lord Norbert shook his head, disgust etched into his features.
"I am sorry to hear that. Have you discovered anything since we last spoke?" he inquired, dark eyes probing my own.
Discomfited, I shifted my gaze to just above his right shoulder. "No, I'm sorry, but I have found out nothing at all."
"I suspect you are not telling me the whole truth."
"I am telling you all I know."
"No, you are not." He grasped me by my arms, "What has happened?"
"Nothing has happened!" I shook off his grip defiantly. "I have been otherwise engaged - I am to be married soon, or have you not heard?"
"So that is it, is it? You dare not risk your engagement?"
I stared at the ash tree beyond his shoulder.
"No, there's something else. Look at me when I speak to you Miss Moore," he commanded.
"There is nothing else!" I proclaimed staring him directly in the eye. I felt something small and wet fall upon my nose, about me the patter of rain disturbing the brush began to gain strength. "Now if you will please excuse me, it is starting to rain." I turned on my heel intent to march away when I felt my arm snag back, caught by Lord Norbert's own.
"I do not know what has happened, but I intend to find out. Your silence will not protect you and your loved ones long, Miss Moore."
I shuddered, but did not turn to look at him, though I could somehow readily envision his face: those oft haughty eyes now imploring for information that might reveal Lord Bond's killer. He was desperate… however, his friend was dead and my brother was still very much alive.
"If you would kindly unhand me, sir," I ordered.
"I am sorry if I have offended you," his voice had returned to that of a proper gentleman in address to a lady. "Good day to you."
"Good day, sir."
I heard his heavy steps take the opposite direction as my own, then they ceased, the long sound of gravel crushed underfoot told me he had turned.
"Take care, Philomena, and think on what I have said." He may have spoken more but I was unaware of it, already having mounted the stair I tore open the door and shut myself inside.
I trotted quickly down the hall heedless that my presence might be noted; my only thought to put as much distance as I might between myself and Lord Norbert. "Oh, Philomena!" the high pitched voice of my Aunt arrested me, halting my escape at the wide open door of the Library. "I did not know you were up. Come, come; please join us for tea."
I approached the doorway, still unable to force myself to cross its threshold.
"Well, my dear, do come in, you do not want to be rude to our guests." She indicated to Quentin and Dinah, the former standing on my appearance in the portal, the latter favored me with a wan smile.
"Oh yes, do join us Miss Moore - it has been ages since we last spoke," Dinah entreated so genuinely I could almost have believed our last conversation had not ended on such infelicitous terms. Quentin nodded in agreement. If only they knew who stared longingly upon them from the shelf they would not stay one more moment in that horrible room.
"I'm sorry, I wish I could." I feigned a cough. "But I was only getting some air. I fear I am still ill and I do not wish to pass on my malady to you. I do hope you understand." I managed a run of sneezes of such authenticity it might earn me a place on the London stage. "I beg your pardon."
"There is no pardon to beg, Miss Moore." Quentin smiled amicably. "Please rest, and when you recover, you are welcome to call on Miss Underhill and I at the parsonage for tea."
"Yes," Aunt Mabel affirmed. "And please do avoid going out again until you are well - the dampness in the air has clearly worsened your lungs. Do not forget we will be hosting the Martin's for a luncheon Sunday; it would be a shame if you could not attend."
"Yes, Aunt Mabel," I cracked my voice on the last syllable. Years of avoiding social events had moulded me into a singular paragon of false symptoms.
"I'll have Sarah bring you some honey-lemon tea."
"Thank you, Aunt Mabel," I replied with feigned gratitude whilst stifling another cough.
With a nod of her head I turned to leave, once again being instantly accosted by the sight of Lord Norbert. He simpered in that horrid way I had forgotten - the transformation from the man in the garden to the pathetic worm before me was nothing short of miraculous - part of me questioned whether they were two in the same at all.
"Ah, Miss Moore - will you be joining us for tea?"
"No, I should say she will not! She is far too ill and must go directly to bed. Now, off with you my dear."
"Thank you, Aunt Mabel," I croaked.
"Yes, do feel better soon," Lord Norbert added in his unsteady voice; no longer in sight of my Aunt I shot him a fiery glare to which he meekly returned a servile smile. How I hated that man!
The day of the luncheon arrived and I had still not quit my bedchamber. It seemed lethargy had become my dearest companion, sleep my truest love; for should my dreams bode ill, they were, at least, dreams - cobwebs to be swept aside in waking. But what new nightmare waited for me in the realm of the waking world? I was a bird trapped in a cage: having come to the realization any attempts at escape would prove unfruitful, I had surrendered myself to pining for days past, making only the scantest effort to preserve my life by picking at my meals though even the finest food lacked any appeal. As Sarah dressed me my condition became apparent.
"Oh dear! You seem to have lost a good deal of weight. Look at these sleeves!" She pulled my arm into view. I could clearly see what distressed her: the sleeve, already narrow, hung loosely from my wrist. Lifting both arms I observed the sleeves looked more like the wings of a bat than a dress. The trunk was no better. I had never been shapely but now it seemed there was nothing left to attempt at emphasizing. The fabric hung about like a great silky tube that had been cinched somewhat in the center.
"Perhaps if we tie it..." Sarah wrapped a thick piece of ribbon around the waist but it only made the situation appear all the worse. We both stared at the unfortunate figure in the mirror. "No, this won't do at all." Sarah frowned.
"I suppose there is nothing for it," I agreed.
Sarah pulled up on a fold cascading from my arm and bunched her mouth to the side as if in thought. Her visage brightened and she dropped the sleeve.
"One moment Miss!" She bustled out of the room only to return a few minutes later, a dress draped over her arms. "I know it's a little out of fashion," she said, holding the brown trimmed tan dress up for display. "It was your Aunt Mabel's when she first came out. It has an accompanying jacket," she added helpfully.
"My word, was Aunt Mabel ever so thin?" I exclaimed, examining the small waist.
"I apologize we don't have the hoops for it," she prattled on, holding the item against me for comparison. "But that may be a blessing with consideration to your height." She continued pulling the skirt straight until it brushed my ankle. "At least the extra fabric will give you something of a waist." She was already undoing the buttons on my back.
"Do you think any of the gentlemen will notice?" As much as I cared little for fashion I truly did not wish to look a fool.
"Oh no, Miss! Men have no regard for women's fashion - for all they will recognize it you might as well be wearing the newest trend. I swear to you, a woman could wear the same gown to every ball and no man would even note it. Only women care for these things and I doubt your Aunt would object."
"Then I will entrust myself into your capable hands."
For the next half hour Sarah chattered on about all manner of things from the virtues of this particular dress style to its excellent fit and so forth and so on; clearly the young woman was in her element. Finally, she released me to the mirror - she was a miracle worker in how she did such things! The dress was a near perfect fit but for the jacket sleeves that came up short on my wrists. She had been correct in the extra fabric covering my height and I was quite pleased with the range of motion it allowed me even with the petticoats. For a moment there, with Sarah merrily fussing about this and that, I actually felt somewhat myself again. But it was only a fleeting moment.
"Sarah, I don't think I can go down there - I don't feel at all well," I muttered, falling back to sit upon the bed.
Sarah rushed forward placing her hands on my face. "Well, Miss, you don't seem to have a fever."
"Yes, but all the same..." I lay down, curling the blankets about me.
"Miss! You'll rumple your dress!"
"No one will see it anyhow," I murmured into the pillow.
"Now come on Miss, you don't want to miss seeing your fiancé twice in one week! He looked so sad on Wednesday." She pouted.
I mumbled something unintelligible.
"Come on Miss!" she cried grabbing my hands and tugging as one might an obstinate sibling, "Staying in bed all the time is not good for you."
"Oh fine!" I finally relented, allowing her to pull me out of bed. "I would never hear the end of it if mother found out I had missed two meetings in a week, anyhow."
"How fine you look, my dear Philomena," my Uncle crowed as I entered the dining room, underneath my skirt my legs trembled terribly. I was relieved when Darby pulled out a chair for me to sit in, even though it were between he and my Aunt.
"Thank you Darby," I demurred.
"I do apologize, father was unable to join us this evening - he has taken ill with a cold," Darby said.
"But we are glad you are feeling well enough to join us," Nicholas added. "I should hate to have counted this another wasted trip."
Despite all that had transpired, all the horror I had known, I found I still was able to blush.
"So, Nicholas, what do you think of our man, Gladstone? Quite a stirring debut for the Liberal party." Uncle Richard laughed.
"I am loathe to agree with you but on this point we are in accord - though I suspect for differing reasons."
"The man is an imbecile. If only they had respected the Queen's first choice we would not be staring down the barrel of his incompetence a second go 'round."
"Darling, Mr. Martin, please! Let us not discuss politics at the dining table!" Aunt Mabel cried, scandalized. "I do apologize for my husband's rude behavior, Mrs. Martin."
"Oh, it is no matter," the old matriarch replied. "If this is their bend, let them speak as they wish - we shall discuss more important matters."
"Then it is settled, my dear Mabel, that we may proceed. Even the good Rev. Underhill would concur with us on this matter," Uncle Richard teased.
Aunt Mabel sighed in defeat.
"Further Irish unrest is yet another trouble we do not need, and that is neglecting his disastrous turn in the Afghan war and already I am hearing rumbles from South Africa," Nicholas said.
"Another war before we have finished the first! Liberalism is a fine thing to play at during times of peace and prosperity, but in times of unrest and war it is a conservative voice who will win the day. Makes a man long for the days of Disraeli."
"I cannot wholly disagree with that."
The conversation continued on but I had no appetite for it today, nor for my own meal which I pushed about the plate aimlessly. If Nicholas knew, if he truly knew my Uncle's nature he should never agree to break bread with him again. I wished more than anything to tell him, to gain an ally in this horrible place - but what if I were to tell him and he did not believe me? Or, worse still, he thought it a grand joke and told my Uncle what thing he had heard? I looked over to my near companion's plate. Darby was silently consuming the pheasant, chewing each bite thoroughly as though ensuring he did not choke on the soft flesh. To my other side, Mrs. Martin was discussing the minutia of maintaining a proper English household with my Aunt.
"Has the work on the Parlor been completed?"
"No, though we anticipate it should be finished in a fortnight. As they were replacing the walls, Richard decided they might as well replace the floors and tile the ceiling which was far too plain, in my opinion."
"Oh yes, a bare Parlor ceiling is quite the shame in a modern house."
"I though the very same. And, of course we shall have new mouldings as well."
"Certainly! Will you be using the same furnishings?"
"No, and I shall be glad to be rid of the old Eastlake designs for they lacked the character of their predecessors."
"I always marveled at what possessed you to buy those horrid things."
"It must have been Cupid for they were Richard's favorite. I suppose he grew weary of them as well for it was he who entreated that I be solely responsible for the refurnishing of the room. The old ones were a fine match for the wall coverings, I suppose, but I am eager to decorate now in the style of my choice."
"Will you return to the Rococo?"
"No, I don't believe so. As we removed that set to the Library, I should rather not have the rooms match in style - it is a bit too redundant."
"What style will you be using then?"
"I was quite fond of the new Art Furniture designs..." and on the pair continued, blathering on about topics of no import whatsoever. Slowly, I took a bite of pheasant but it held no pleasure for me; my taste depressed, only the texture gave interest to my palate (and it provided little of that).
After some time Uncle Richard dabbed his mouth with a napkin, then threw the squared cloth onto his plate. "Well that was a magnificent meal! What do you gentlemen say to having a smoke?"
"That seems a fine idea," Nicholas concurred. "Darby?"
"Thank you, but I believe I will take a turn about the garden. I would enjoy the fresh air."
"Feeling a bit under the weather? You've scare touched your meal," Nicholas probed, concern evident in his voice.
"Somewhat, but I believe it will pass," Darby answered, his smile strained.
"Well, you are welcome to join us after your constitutional." Uncle Richard said.
"Ladies, let us retreat to the Library for a game of three's," Aunt Mabel declared.
"That sounds wonderful, I do so love a game of three's." Mrs. Martin answered.
No. I could not fathom going into the Library – no, I could not do so!
"Aunt Mabel, perhaps a walk in the garden would be an idea more well suited for such a lovely day?" I suggested.
"Nonsense dear, your lungs are still far too weak - think if it were to rain! Now do come along, I'll have Marcy stoke the fire for you."
A fire. As though it were not already a fine picture of Hell.
I sat in the Library attempting to avoid the accusing glare from the shelf though I could feel it boring into me, begging its pain be acknowledged. I stared at my cards without registering their meanings. Mrs. Martin was laying down another play - even though they were before me I could not see them for what they were. I picked up a card and threw it down.
"Philomena! That six is wild this round! Oh! I do wish you would pay closer attention!" my Aunt admonished. Picking up the card she thrust it into my hand, "Now do try again, properly."
"Oh, I'm sorry," I mumbled, throwing a ten on the discard pile. The point was irrelevant, anyhow, for Mrs. Martin went out at the end of the round.
"Philomena! You had a set of fours with the wild card in your hand!" Aunt Mabel seemed quite put out by my lackluster playing.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Mabel, it must have concealed itself behind another card."
Exasperated, she declared: "Really dear, I don't know what is wrong with you today." The tirade continued but I did not comprehend a word of it. It felt as though the words existed in a distant fog which enveloped me. "And furthermore-"
"Excuse me, Aunt Mabel," I interrupted. "I need to use the washroom." I quit the room, careful not to look to the shelf where the skull sat. I was free! At least for the moment.
"Oh, Darby! Pardon me," I said, sidestepping the young man who stood before me.
"It is I who must beg your pardon, Miss Moore," he replied, his voice languid.
"No, it was my fault, I was not watching where I was going." I attempted a laugh.
"Miss Moore, I am sorry I have done you a great wrong. But I do intend to rectify it."
I had not looked at him properly: but now, my attention fixed, I saw the sorrowful eyes, the darkened circles - there was no dancing in his features today, no mirth was reflected in those eyes.
"How can you mean?" I eyed him suspiciously.
"I have known things which I held from you of which it was your right to be made aware. I wish I had told you outright but I truly had hoped it was a passing fancy - I know now I was wrong and I cannot leave you ignorant to it."
"I'm sorry, but I do not understand what you are saying."
"If you would please come with me..." his voice trailed off.
What could he be about? I felt a chill of dread travel down my spine - I turned to go back to the Library but he grasped my hand. His grip was so very light, like a small child's.
"Please." he repeated. I peered into those grey eyes, they held such a troubled heart behind them...
"Show me." my hollow voice answered.
Darby led me, my hand still held gently in his, to the Smoking room. The bifold door was open only an inch - Darby indicated toward the gap. I approached close enough to hear the voices of the two men within:
"It's a messy business," Uncle Richard grumbled. "A messy business indeed."
"Mr. Hurst, I do believe the situation is not nearly so dire as our source makes it out to be. Though I should have anticipated Roberts might prove troublesome," Nicholas answered. He sat in the brown leather armchair across a table from my Uncle who stood, a letter – identical to those which had met their fiery demise in the Study - waving in hand.
"No one could have known he would move so quickly with a force of ten thousand!"
"He has always been of the type to strive for another man's glory. And what news of Phayre, anyhow?"
"Slow go of it, might as well be marching through a desert of molasses as sand - the bandits have proven as effective as you thought in further hindering their efforts."
"At least there is some good news in that. When did Roberts leave Kabul?"
"The 8th. Intelligence indicates he was marching toward the Logar Valley."
Nicholas leaned over to look at something on the table, as he adjusted it I saw it was a map. "Not by Maidan, then. One would think he would take the shorter path, but I can guess his intention to avoid trouble from Kabul. Assuming then, that he is still moving at the same speed..." Nicholas traced a line on the map with his finger. "He should be entering the Zamburak Kotel by now. Damnation! If only we had received this intelligence sooner we could have stopped him at the pass!"
"So what shall I tell them?"
"A moment." Nicholas raised a hand, the other traced the route. "Ah, there it is. We will cut them off in Ghazni. The troops will be exhausted from the long march, no match for an attack from the populace. We'll dispatch some men to stir up the town against them - you know the usual stories of, ahem, abused hospitality. Reinforcements from Kabul could not arrive until it was far too late. Truly, this was a stroke of good fortune for we shall be able to decimate the British forces in Kabul without having to wear our own people out with an attack from Kandahar - they will come to us! We'll alert Ayub to send a battalion from Maiwand to finish off the survivors. By the time Phayre reaches Kandahar it will be in the hands of our allies - as will the fate of Afghanistan be."
I gasped silently. This was what Bond had been investigating! Uncle Richard and Nicholas were in league with the enemy! They were intending to betray our soldiers in Afghanistan! But what could possess them to do such a thing?
"Anyhow, the matter should be decided in time for Christmas." Nicholas lolled back in his chair taking a leisurely sip of brandy.
"I must give you credit, it is a masterful bit of strategy."
"Well, credit really must be given to our man in the Secret Service - without him I should be planning without eyes. It is no great challenge to consolidate the information from he and Khan's men into something actionable."
A spy in the Secret Service! So that was how they were getting their information. I had to tell Lord Norbert immediately! Unconsciously, I shifted my weight to make my escape. The creak of the floorboard seemed deafening. Nicholas snapped his head to face the source of the sound. My heart stopped as his eyes met my own still peering through the crack in the door - the once warm brown irises were now cold and heartless as steel.
I hadn't run five feet before I felt my shoulders jerk backward, pulled by unseen hands. I tried to cry out but found my mouth covered as I was drug back into the room, thrashing violently. It did me little good for he was much stronger than I.
"I'll uncover your mouth if you promise not to scream," Nicholas whispered into my ear. I nodded in assent. "Now don't scream," he repeated sliding his palm from my mouth.
"You couldn't just leave well enough alone, could you Philomena?" my Uncle blustered furiously in front of the door, blocking it. "She knows far too much; we need to be rid of her now."
"Hold for a moment, Mr. Hurst. Princess, what did you hear?"
"Don't you ever call me that again!" I spat. "I have heard enough to know of your treachery!"
"Nicholas!" Uncle Richard implored.
"No, Richard," Nicholas answered firmly. "It was inevitable that she would come to know of it someday."
"How could you? How could you betray your own country? Your own countrymen? Ten thousand men - many of them our peers! You would knowingly murder them! How could you even begin to do such a thing?" I cried.
Nicholas sighed. "If it could be avoided I would certainly rather no one perish… but this is war and there are greater things at stake than the lives of a few soldiers."
"A few! You would call ten thousand men and more a few?"
"Relatively speaking they are almost a negligible number in the larger scheme of things. An unfortunate but acceptable loss to achieve a far superior gain."
"How can you call it an acceptable loss? These are people's sons, brothers, fathers - I have known Gen. Roberts from my youth!" My voice was reaching a fever pitch.
"Calm down, dearest." How dare he still address me so familiarly!
"What gain could be so superior as to make you believe the deaths of so many is an acceptable loss?" My volume may have gone but the intensity of my words still had their affect.
"In short, it is for the good of the world."
"Then you should put it in long form for that answer is nonsensical."
"It is really quite simple. England has little desire to change from its ways of exploiting the worker and crushing the poverty stricken; it poisons its children with its venom until they are twice as fit for hell as they - look at the Americas, the Indians, Africa, the people of Hong Kong. What horrors we have wrought on mankind merely so that we may consume more of those things we find pleasurable! Britannia has done its damage, it is time for us to heal it."
"Oh? And how do you propose that be done?" I interjected caustically.
"Let us take it logically. If England were to lose the war with Afghanistan, Russia would be in a position to take not only it but India as well. The loss of India would cripple the British economic and military interests in the region. The rising power of Russia would entice other countries into alliance creating an ever greater world power."
"And how would Russian rule be any better? Would not the countries be trading one devil for another by your logic? What makes you believe the Czar should be any kinder than Parliament?"
"Ah, but you see, it will not be the Czar who leads this new world."
"The people. Even now there is a group of like-minded men in Russia who are planning the overthrow of the Czar. We shall take the country and establish rule by the people instead of by the pound."
It was madness! I rounded to my Uncle, "And I assume you are also of this mind, Uncle Richard?"
"Oh no!" Uncle Richard laughed heartily at the prospect. "Like I have told you before, I am a businessman. By the time they have sorted out their politics I shall have made quite a fine fortune for myself in St. Petersburg. What with my business contacts in India and all."
"And what is Aunt Mabel's opinion regarding all of this?"
"She is unaware of it, but she will be glad so long as she gets to spend the remainder of her days in luxury."
"So this is the plot for which Lord Bond lost his life?"
"Oh yes, I suppose that was his name," my Uncle said, thoughtfully.
"You did not even know the name of the man whose life you took?" I fumed.
"As I told you before, I did not kill anyone. I am a businessman, not a murderer."
"Then who? You cannot expect me to believe it was an accident."
"I did." the voice from beside me intoned.
I stood astonished. The world seemed to be falling in around me and I with it. I fell backward onto the arm of a chair, sliding into the seat from above.
"You?" I whispered.
"I had no choice in the matter. Your Uncle came upon him in the Parlor by chance after he had excused himself at the start of one of our meetings. Richard confronted the man who threatened to expose the plan and have our dear Mr. Hurst hung for treason. I suppose Bond (did you say his name was?) must have believed I had left with my family after supper for he did not even seem to consider another might be present until the moment I ran my knife across his throat." A perversity I had never seen before glowed in his eyes as he spoke the last few words.
"A damnably bloody mess it was too," Uncle Richard added. "Blood everywhere. The floor, the walls, the furniture - even the ceiling - took ages for Dale to get it clean enough for the workmen to come in and renovate."
"Dale is in on this plot as well?"
"Only so far as he is able to keep a secret. Unlike some people he values his living situation." Uncle Richard snorted pointedly. "It wouldn't do to have an employer charged for murder - at his age and with no letter of recommendation he would be fortunate to dig ditches for the remainder of his days. It is unfortunate the incident has had such a negative effect on his habits. Used to be more temperate. Incurable lush now, he is."
Poor Dale! I could not even begin to fathom the horror of having to clean another man's blood from the furnishings, day in and day out for who knows how long.
"Why did you keep his skull? Why go through the effort to disguise it? Do you take pleasure in seeing his face every day when you enter the Library?"
I saw the corner of Nicholas's mouth twitch ever so slightly upwards at my accusation.
"To be honest, I am indifferent to it. It does pair nicely with the Etruscan, though."
"How can you even claim humanity and speak in such a manner?"
"Have you ever attempted to dispose of a skull? Anything else might be passed off as the bones of a deer or sheep in the refuse pile but no matter what you do a skull cannot be disguised as anything other than what it is. Even in pieces," Uncle Richard offered as his defense.
"You're a monster!"
"Dearest," I felt Nicholas place a warm hand on my shoulder and shuddered. "It was only one man, think of all those who will be saved. The poor farmers in India who will never again know what it is to be enslaved to poverty. Their children will fill their bellies from their parents' labors. If you had seen the world as I have you would understand why I have done the dark deeds I have. It is for the good of the people. For them and their children and their children's children. We have this one chance to change the course of the world! All that is required is that we stop Gen. Roberts's march. That is it – only such a simple thing as that and everything else will be set in motion. I know you cannot fully comprehend it now but I ask that you would please trust me." His other hand fell upon my opposite shoulder. He leaned down so that his mouth was almost against my ear, I felt his warm breath as he whispered, "I love you, I want you to help change the world with me as my wife." He pressed his lips to my cheek.
"No!" I cried, throwing him off from me. I now stood before him, livid. "He was a man, even were he only one! How dare you suggest I should put aside even one life, let alone thousands, and trample upon a path of bones to your brave new world! No world built on such a foundation should ever stand! I shall never help you. Nor shall you ever call me your wife!" I declared, tearing the ring from my finger and hurling it to the ground. Nicholas walked over to the window, staring out, he fingered the heavy velvet draping.
"I am sorry you feel that way - perhaps, had you been older and more experienced in the ways of the world..."
"Then I should still refuse you!" I answered.
"That is a pity, I did truly love you, Philomena."
"Let me put an end to the business once and for all, Nicholas," my Uncle growled from the doorway.
"No, Richard, this is my responsibility," he replied, still staring out the window, his fingers skimming along the golden cord that held the drapes fast. "There is already blood on my hands, I should hate for you to have to carry the same burden. I am sorry Philomena," he said, carefully unlooping the cord from its hooks he wrapped it once around his hand. "Hold her Richard."
My Uncle grabbed my hands and pulled them roughly behind my back before I realized what was occurring.
"I suppose she hung herself from grief after I cancelled our engagement. It was dishonest of you to conceal her madness from me." He wrapped the loose end of cordage around his other hand and pulled it tight.
"No- you can't!" I cried, struggling against my Uncle's grip.
"I do apologize for the deception," Uncle Richard supplied.
"Please!" I begged. "Don't do this!"
Nicholas was next to me now, the cord mere inches from my face. I strained away from it.
"It really is a tragedy."
"Perhaps you may need to travel abroad to forget this unpleasantness," my Uncle suggested.
"Perhaps so." Nicholas responded, nonchalantly.
"I thought you loved me!" it was my final desperate plea.
Nicholas's eyes narrowed, he drew his face near mine. "I do," he whispered. "But I love them more."
He snapped the cord tight and made to loop it over my head, my Uncle's grip slackened almost imperceptibly - I saw my moment. Thrusting all my weight to the right I broke free of my Uncle, my elbow slamming into Nicholas's ribcage knocking him to the floor. Uncle Richard made to regain control of me but he was too late - I slammed the heel of my boot into his shin causing him to cry out in pain. Before either man could recover I was at the windowsill. Without a moment's thought my boot contacted the ledge, propelling me out into the open air. I landed on the slope below on all fours as a cat, but momentum forced me forward in a series of tumbles. When I had finally stopped I sprung to my feet, quickly checking my body - nothing seemed to be amiss. I was thankful for the looseness of the dress, for such a landing could not have been accomplished otherwise. Looking back I saw the stunned faces of Nicholas and Uncle Richard peering from the window.
"Let that be a lesson," I said to myself as I ran for the woods. "Espionage is best accomplished in the summer."
Thorns and branches assaulted me, tearing at my skin and clothing as I ran through the woods with little attention to direction; only with the intention that I might put as much distance between myself and Nicholas as possible. How could I have ever loved him? How had I not seen his terrible bend? Now it all revealed itself so clearly: his radical views, his willingness to surrender all worldly pleasures in their pursuit, his surreptitious betrayal of his own family - who was I to think I was somehow immune? That the worst he might do was merely provide for his workers better than other foremen? What a fool I had been! I leapt over a thick branch that lay in my path not realizing it marked a steep drop. Finding no footing upon what I had thought to be solid ground, I rolled through the carpet of decayed leaves and mud, my body buffeted and bruised by craggy rocks and knobby roots not content to remain underground. Finally, I came to a halt at the bottom of the hill. There I lay face down, slowly sinking into a soft bed of mud.
I peered up from my mouldy resting place, my whole form heavily caked in mud and dirt. Pushing myself up; I watched as my battered hands, streaked red from where the flesh had been ripped by thorns, sunk deep into the earth until they had disappeared entirely under the mud. With great effort I managed to free them and rear onto my legs. I pulled up one and then the other, a boot stolen, forever to lie within the ground. I took a laborious step forward, then another - my foot slid from under me and I fell again. The filthy water splashed up and seeped deep into my clothing. "I give up!" I moaned, tears creating valleys through the mud on my cheeks. "Let them find me here."
I rolled to my side, feeling the cooling waters pool around me as they continued on their way. In my despondent state I did not immediately recognize the water urging me forward; pushing me, little by little, further along with the current. It was only when a branch gently brushed against my back that I realized something was amiss. I struggled to my hands and knees and, looked about me. I had not fallen into a ravine, as I had thought, but instead onto the bank of a wide, fast moving stream! I pulled myself to my feet. If this were such a sizable stream then it followed... I hobbled along the rocky stream bed only a few minutes before I heard the rush of the river. Invigorated by the sound I redoubled my pace, turning the bend I saw it: the river Darent! I was not so lost as I had supposed! The Darent ran within sight of the parsonage - I could vividly recall Dinah staring at it through the window - I had only to follow it and I should find my deliverance.
The journey, though not lengthy in distance, was great in time and difficulty. I attempted to walk along the shore but quickly found the sucking mud made each step an ordeal in itself. Abandoning the shore, I found easier passage walking in the river just along the shoreline; but it was only just easier. The chalky bed kept me from sinking but the moss coated stones made travel treacherous. After a quarter of an hour (by my best guess for it seemed an eternity) of near constant falls I finally decided to abandon my remaining boot on the shore; shortly after my stockings followed.
Now, my feet bare, I found walking much easier though far more painful when I trod heavy on a stone or brushed the craggy edge of a rock. The cold water that flowed around my ankles soon numbed them to the worst of the pain. Now I only registered the brushing of something against my foot or ankle. Looking down I could see my toes shone bright pink from the cold while the rest of skin appeared a pale blue in hue. Thick lines of scratches crisscrossed my shins.
"It is still far less painful than a ball," I joked, attempting to cheer myself. "And with far better company, I might add." The memory appeared in my mind as vividly as if it were happening before me: Nicholas clumsily guiding me along the dance floor, his hand resting gently on my waist. I saw his eyes tenderly gazing upon me, his rakish smile when I suggested he might be thought a radical - "Perhaps I am," he had suggested. The pain radiated from my chest, causing me to double over in the riverbed. "No!" I cried out. "No, you have to keep going! Put him from your mind!"
"And how am I to do that?" I argued to that sensible part of myself.
"Think of the Underhills, of Quentin. Think of his kind face. Think of Dinah! Of Lord Norbert!" The image of Lord Norbert, his dark eyes intensely watching, but almost as soon as it had formed I had returned to the Smoking Room, to Nicholas, hands resting on my shoulders - the sensation of that final, cold kiss. It felt as though I were being torn apart from the inside. I slowly crumpled into the icy water. My clothes eagerly engorged themselves with the cool liquid. 'But long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death' I recalled as the weight of my own garments pulled me closer to their desired rest.
"You must get up!" my mind screamed.
"I do not wish to."
"Recall yourself, Mina! Three months past you could stand on your own the equal to any man. Do you now let a man lay you low? And not even a man, but the mere thought of him? You took on a mission, you gave your word that you would complete it! If you must fall to pieces then do it once the message is delivered. But for now you have to finish."
"And you swear you will cease pestering me if I do?"
"As God is my witness."
"God requires that you not swear by Him."
"I am certain He shall forgive my lapse."
I don't know how, but a smile managed to twitch at the corner of my mouth.
"Then I suppose I should get up if it will quiet you," I said, laboriously pulling myself from the waters. My dress, soaked through, clung tightly to my skin as I continued my trek. On either side, field and forest rose about me and then, before me, I saw the Station road bridge! Never before had I beheld such a welcome sight! I clamored up the shore heedless of the singular sight I must present, this strange ragged creature emerging from the depths - had this been another century I have little doubt I would have been hung for a witch then and there. From the road it was an easy walk to the parsonage. I welcomed the solid feel of the road beneath my ragged feet.
As I approached to knock at the door I noticed something was amiss - tied just to the side of the house, unattended, stood Nicholas's bay and beside that my Uncle's grey horse. They were here! Hurriedly, I looked for a place to hide and, spotting the large rain barrel, I quickly sunk myself within the staves with such haste water spilled over the edge. I instantly regretted this hiding place for the recent rain had left the barrel more than half full and as it settled from my displacement, I found the frigid water had risen to the point where it was at level with my throat. I felt my body shivering uncontrollably. Still, I could not leave the barrel without leaving a trail of water to my new location, but then, I could not remain here long or I should freeze! Taking a deep breath, I took the lid and covered the top of the barrel.
It was not more than ten minutes before I heard voices outside the house heading toward my direction. "I am sorry we were unable to help you find your niece Mr. Hurst. If she comes by I will be sure to inform you immediately."
"Thank you, Mr. Underhill. Once again, I do apologize for the bother, we are just terribly worried for her. In her current state there is no telling what might become of her."
"We will keep a lookout for her." I heard Lord Norbert reply. His voice lacked the typical quaver he reserved for acquaintances - he must be quite concerned. I had to admit, I felt a bit of perverse joy for having disrupted his imperturbable facade. I heard hoofbeats as the horses went on their way.
"Do you believe Mr. Hurst? That she has lost her mind and run off?"
"Not for a moment," came the ready answer.
"What do you suppose has become of Miss Moore, Roger?" Quentin asked.
"Nothing good, I imagine."
"Are you worried for her?" Quentin's voice grew louder as they approached my hiding place again. I desperately wanted to reveal myself but it seemed the lid would not budge under my sapped strength. I could not even manage enough force to make a dull thud from hitting it with my palms.
"Help." My voice was scarcely a whisper.
"I would be lying if I said I was not, if my guess is right she may be in terrible danger or possibly worse. What's this?"
"It appears to be spillage, quite recent."
Sunlight poured in from the top of the barrel. The silhouettes of two men stood above me.
"Please help me," I managed almost inaudibly.
"Roger, get her arm!" Quentin ordered. The pair grabbed my arms and pulled me from the watery grave that almost was. "My word, she's freezing! Let's get her inside."
I less walked than was carried into the house, my arms wrapped about my saviors' shoulders.
"He- he tried to kill me!" I attempted to explain as we passed the entryway, my words almost muted by now.
"Don't try to speak. You'll need your energy."
"Dinah!" Roger called. "Dinah, bring some blankets!"
"What is the matter, Roger?" I heard Dinah call from the back room. "Is someone- oh!" she exclaimed upon seeing me. "Oh dear! Roger, she's blue!" She ran back to the room returning moments later with an armful of thick woolens.
"Here, take her to my room," Quentin ordered. "Roger can you light the fire? I'll dismiss Mrs. Stuart for the day. Praise the Lord father is in town until tomorrow. The fewer people who know she is here the better."
Quentin and Lord Norbert lay me, still sopping, on the bed. In a minute Lord Norbert was gone and returned with wood for the fire.
"Do hurry, Roger!" Dinah exclaimed, reaching under the bed and tearing the trundle from beneath. "The longer she remains in those wet clothes the worse off she'll be and I cannot undress her with you present."
"It's nothing I have not seen before," Lord Norbert answered from the fireplace from whence a small trail of smoke was emanating.
"Roger." Dinah's look was warning.
"Alright, it's lit." He rose to his feet and approached the bed, examining my prone form. "I leave her in your capable hands. Take good care of her." I could not tell if it were merely a delusion brought on by my exhaustion or whether there seemed a touch of regard in his voice.
"Roger, if you could draw a hot bath?"
He nodded and quit the room.
No sooner had he left than Dinah went about the task of stripping my ruined garments from me and, wrapping me in blankets, she helped me to the little trundle in front of the fire.
"Thank you," I mouthed, falling asleep.
My dreams were filled with horrific visions of golden cord nooses, brandished knives, and grinning skulls. I heard Nicholas's voice speaking, opening my eyes I saw him standing in the doorway with Lord Norbert and Quentin.
"Don't worry, we'll take her home and get her warmed through," he was saying, gesturing toward me.
"He tried to murder me!" I cried, pawing at Dinah's arm. "Don't send me back with him! He tried to kill me!"
"It's alright, Philomena, he'll take good care of you," she replied soothingly.
"Please don't send me back with him, he'll kill me!" I begged.
"I'm sorry, she seems to be delirious," Lord Norbert apologized.
"It is we who should be sorry that she has troubled you so greatly," my Uncle appeared from nowhere to Nicholas's side. "I'm afraid it is the madness finally taken hold."
"No! They'll kill me! Please!" I grasped at Dinah's sleeve, imploring her to listen. "Nicholas! He tried to kill me! He tried to kill me! He tried to kill me. He tried to kill me..." I kept repeating even as the villains came for me and the color of the world washed away. "He tried to kill me. He tried to kill me. He tried to kill me…" my eyelids fluttered open.
"She's coming around," Dinah's calm voice announced.
"Philomena?" I saw Quentin appear over me; I sat bolt upright in bed.
"He tried to kill me! He tried to kill me! Don't send me back! He'll kill me!" I cried out still not fully cognizant of my surroundings.
"Yes, we heard all that, now if you are quite through babbling incessantly-" Lord Norbert stood gazing out the window, his trim figure well set by the gold of the dying sun.
"Roger!" the twins reprimanded in unison.
"Do excuse Roger, he would never admit to it, but he has refused to leave your bedside these past hours," Dinah intimated.
"Hours? How long have I been asleep?"
"Only three hours, I daresay you will need a good deal more before you are recovered."
"I'm not certain she'll have the time for that." Lord Norbert turned his head toward me. "Did anyone see you coming here?"
I thought for a moment, "No. Wait, yes. There was a man with a cart crossing the bridge when I came up from the river."
"You went by the river?" Dinah asked.
"Yes, I got out at the bridge on Station Road."
"Well, at least the hounds shouldn't be able to track you from the Hurst's house - but I'd imagine looking the sight you did you will be recalled readily when the police start asking about. What happened anyhow? You said he tried to kill you?"
"Yes, Nicholas and Uncle Richard - I uncovered their plot, what happened to Lord Bond," Dinah gasped. "Everything."
Lord Norbert took a seat on the corner of Quentin's bed, "Tell me all."
I spent the next half hour telling everything that had transpired. We opted to move into the breakfast room where we might all gather about the table. It was only a short time later Dinah quit her chair for her room as the fate of Lord Bond was revealed.
"What did the writing on the letters look like? Can you remember any specific set?" Quentin prodded.
I pulled the woolen blanket that served as a shawl to a tighter embrace of my shoulders. "No, but if you gave me a piece of paper I might be able to copy a few symbols."
Quentin quickly supplied the parchment and pen and I wrote down the few I recalled. Quentin examined the characters carefully.
"It appears to be Cyrillic. I would wager the author Russian," he concluded, handing the paper to Lord Norbert who nodded.
"Do you recall anything you overheard about the plan?" Lord Norbert inquired.
"It concerned Gen. Roberts..." I closed my eyes, focusing on the image of Nicholas reclined in the dark leather chair, replaying the words in my mind. "It was something regarding a march from Kabul to Candle-har - I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with the name but that is what it sounded like -"
"Kandahar," Quentin supplied. "Don't worry, I've heard of it. Continue."
"Yes! They said that they had been able to slow Gen. Phayre who was coming there from Ketta but that Gen. Roberts was moving very fast through... a coatell, I cannot recall the name, I'm sorry. Nicholas said that they should send a message to their source to tell the people of Ghaznee lies about the troops so that they might attack the soldiers. Then they would send a battalion from Kandahar to eliminate the survivors."
"Did he say anything beyond that?"
"I believe he said that if they were able to stop Roberts they would overtake the troops and Kandahar and when Gen. Phayre arrived..."
"He would be a sitting duck, as it were," Lord Norbert finished. "And you said they had a contact in the Secret Service?"
"Did they give a name?"
"No, not that I heard."
"That is troubling. My mission may already be compromised. I will have to go immediately," he said grabbing his coat and hat from their hanger.
"To London, to the India Office. We need to warn our Allies in Afghanistan about the plot before it is too late. I hope you'll pardon me if I take your horse? He is fresher than my own." He directed this question to Quentin.
"Of course." Quentin nodded.
"Thank you, now, if you'll excuse me." He opened the door, instantly he shut it again. "Philomena, get away from the windows!" he barked. I ducked beside the table.
"What is it?" Quentin inquired.
"Mr. Hurst and Mr. Martin have returned with a policeman and his hound. They were just across the road speaking to an elderly man."
"What do we do?" I asked.
"She cannot remain here, she'll be discovered," Quentin stated.
"I know that. She'll have to come with me. We can't use the roads with the police searching for her."
"You'll have to go by way of the river. The dog will not be able to track you if you travel by water," Dinah suggested, descending the staircase that led to the room. "They're coming this way. We'll distract them, you can leave through the back."
"Yes, but there is still the hound. If he scents us or comes upon our trail to the river we shall be overtaken."
"We'll have to confuse his sense of smell. It would need to be with something especially odoriferous…" Quentin thought aloud. "Something like a perfume, but not so obviously floral that it would be detectable by the men. Ah, Dinah, do you remember that vial of deer musk father received as a gift from that Indian man?"
"Yes!" she cried running back up the stair and returning only a moment later with a small vial of dark liquid.
"Q, if you can distract the officer, I'll dose the hound's nose."
"My thought's exactly, Dee." Quentin went over to a cabinet in the main room and began rifling through one of the lower drawers. A loud knock could be heard from the front door. "Just a moment," Quentin called in response. He grabbed a few items and brought them over. "Here, a pair of smoke bombs if you need to make a quick escape. This… " he said, handing a wax paper pamphlet to Lord Norbert, "is a cloth steeped in chloroform – you need only to tear it open to use it. And this," he continued, handing me a small object, "is a derringer. You'll only have one shot, so use it well." I nodded. The impatient knock sounded again. "Coming!" he answered, leisurely making his way to the door.
"Are you certain you're up to this?" Dinah whispered, "It's a long and difficult walk, near five miles. We still have time to conceal you in the attic."
"No, I can do it," I answered. "There is far too great a risk I would be found."
"Go with God then," she whispered, ushering Lord Norbert and I to the back door. "Now don't go out until I have done with the dog."
"Good luck, Dinah," Lord Norbert replied. I heard the door in the other room open, instantly the hound began barking, Dinah rushed from the room to her brother's side.
"Good evening officer," Quentin greeted the man. "How may we assist you today?"
"Oh! What a wonderful dog!" Dinah exclaimed. "Is it a bloodhound?"
"I'm sorry ma'am, if you would please refrain from petting the dog."
And so she must have dosed it for the creature had ceased baying.
"Oh, I'm sorry officer. Do come in."
"Thank you ma'am, but we are here investigating a report of a missing woman: a Miss Philomena Moore. We have intelligence that she is known to you. Have you seen her?"
"No, not since I visited her Aunt for tea a few days ago. Quentin?"
"Did you see anything out of the ordinary in her aspect at that time?"
Lord Norbert nodded to indicate it was time to leave. Opening the door, I quickly was out on the back lawn, the river only a short distance away.
"I suspected Mr. Underhill might orchestrate a trick like this." Nicholas stepped from against the doorframe, catching my arm. My makeshift cloak was cast to the ground by the sudden jerk of my body as its course was forcibly arrested.
"Let go of me!" I demanded, struggling against his powerful grip.
"I am sorry, but you know I can't do that."
"I'm warning you," I said, pulling the miniature gun, "I will use this."
He smiled. "I daresay you don't even know how to use a toy like that. Nor would you."
"Don't test me," I cautioned.
"You don't have it in you to commit murder, I-" a white cloth covered his mouth and nose, causing his speech to cease. In a moment he was lying limp in Lord Norbert's arms.
"Save your shot, Miss Moore. Come now!" he ordered, letting down Nicholas's still form.
We made for the river.
"Is he dead?" I asked, as we ran through the water.
"No, only sleeping. We shall have an hour before he wakes and informs them you are not traveling alone. Until then it will appear as though you knocked him out… if he is found before he regains consciousness. Dinah and Quentin will do all in their power to ensure us a good lead on them – I have no doubt they will hide the scent trail to the river as best they can before any other dogs might be mustered."
"Will they be alright?"
"Yes, if we can reveal the treasonous plot Mr. Martin and Mr. Hurst have created. Regardless, they'll only suffer in detainment a short while for aiding in an elopement – they'll be glad to do so."
I stopped short, "An elopement?"
Lord Norbert looked to me, exasperated, "Well, what do you suppose this would be taken for: a young woman running off with a man without the knowledge of her guardians?"
"I hadn't thought of it, I suppose you are correct."
"Of course I am, now hurry up," He urged. "We're wasting time we don't have."
After only a handful of minutes our speed of egress slowed considerably. I was far too weary to continue a running path through the daunting terrain of the riverbed. I believe Lord Norbert quickly recognized I was flagging for he held up his hand to halt us, "We had best cease running now that we are out of easy sight of the parsonage; we'll only attract attention if we continue." I nodded, scarcely concealing my relief. He looked to the horizon, the sun sat just above it. "The sun will soon be set and then we should be able to take full advantage of the darkness." We walked through the water in silence as the sun sunk lower.
The sun set brilliantly painting the sky in soft lilacs and pinks and finally turned to the color of steeped tea before only a glowing blue line on the horizon marked it. With the darkness our progress was less noticeable but it brought with it its own troubles. The air cooled quickly without the warming influence of the sun. The water, before only chilling, became like ice. I had not yet even fully recovered from my shock this very afternoon and soon found myself shivering uncontrollably in the light night gown Dinah had dressed me in (the woolen blanket tragically left where it had fallen, on the ground beside Nicholas), my numbed legs no longer able to maintain their careful step.
I slipped on a patch of moss and fell to my knees in the river water - the shock of cold caused me to gasp.
"You really must be more careful where you step," Lord Norbert chided.
I nodded, tears escaping my eyes from the pain. Hearing no sound to indicate my continued motion he turned to look back.
"Are you alright?" he inquired, approaching my crouched form.
I shook my head, my teeth chattering too hard and fast to form an answer. I heard the sound of water splashing loudly as he cut through it, I felt his hands upon my quivering shoulders. I looked up into his dark eyes.
"Blast! You're freezing! Why did you not tell me sooner?" He crouched down in front of me. "Come now, put your arms around my neck, I'll carry you a while."
I shook my head in response.
"I-I ca-ca-ca-can walk," I managed through the clicking of my teeth. In the distance I saw a light, the barking of dogs in the distance filled me with dread.
"They won't stop just because it is dark," Lord Norbert said in answer to my unspoken question. "Either get on or get up, but we need to move now. We cannot be far from the Prince's Road Bridge, once we are there we can rest."
The promise of rest gave me a renewed strength. I struggled to my feet - I was not yet so far gone to condescend to being carried.
Lord Norbert wrapped his coat around me and nodded, "Then let's be off."
It was only a few minutes more of slow, torturous walking before we saw the gaping black maw of the bridge swallowing up the river.
"Oh thank God!" I sighed heavily.
"Thank Him when we're safe," he said. I tried to hurry towards the bridge but my legs refused further strain and I tottered, only to be caught around the waist by Lord Norbert's arm. I looked up to him who still held the bridge in his gaze. "Let's take it slow."
Together we walked, his arm still around my waist, my pride too exhausted to even object for I did not trust I could stand another moment without his aid.
"There we are," he said, his voice strained, as he helped lower me onto the dry rocky edge under the bridge. "Ugh, my trousers are soaked through!" he exclaimed, taking a seat beside me. "I doubt the shoes might be saved either."
I wasn't sure if this were a complaint or an ill-timed attempt at humor. I shuttered continuously. The bridge blocked the worst of the wind but what little there was penetrated my little cotton gown, bringing the chill of the water with it. I clutched Lord Norbert's coat tighter.
"Here, sit next to me." Lord Norbert motioned me in with his hand.
I shook my head.
"Now is not the time for your pride; you'll freeze to death if we don't get you warmed up. I promise, there's nothing untoward in it. But if you die here then all this will be for naught. And if I can't get you warmed you will die here, Miss Moore." The grave way he said those last words - I knew it to be the truth even before he said them - but hearing them now outside of my own mind... I nodded in assent. Lord Norbert wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to his body - he was so warm! Instinctively, I curled in closer to him until I was in the same way as my sister, Elizabeth, when she would sit on Chet's lap during the cold winter storms.
"Thank you," I mumbled into his waistcoat.
"It is no matter. Get some rest."
"Do you have any family?"
"I have an older sister, she has a daughter."
"Do you ever worry about them? Putting them in danger, I mean?"
"I do. But she has been so long married now and so rarely associated with the Norbert name I don't believe I have any reasonable fear for her life."
"But you still are afraid?"
"Then why do you do it?"
"Because, if I didn't they would be at far greater risk and I would be powerless to stop it. My father felt the same way."
"Your father was a spy?"
"What happened to him?" I could feel myself growing drowsy wrapped in his arms. For the first time in weeks I felt safe.
"He was in Australia, on the trail of a murderer by the name of Chapman. He had tracked him all the way from Blackpool to Norwich to London to Melbourne. They said it was a spider bite; that he likely did not even know he had been bitten until it was too late."
"You doubt it?"
"Chapman was an unusually brutal killer but intelligent; he knew my father was on his trail."
"Did they ever capture him?"
"No, he disappeared into the outback twelve years ago. There's been no word of him since."
"Are you still cold?"
"No, it was just... it's frightful that such a man might still be out there."
"The world of a spy is a dangerous one; it is never a game like in the novels. I had wished to spare you from finding out what it was; to know how it felt to face your own mortality. Hush a moment."
From our hiding place I saw the sheets of light from a lantern casting shadows from the road above, I heard the snuffling complaints of a dog as it scented the chilled air. Drawing myself closer to Lord Norbert, I willed that I might somehow disappear. A few minutes later the sound of a horse's heavy step met the pair on the bridge.
"Any sign of her?" the one man inquired.
"No trace as of yet." the other answered.
"It's getting cold, perhaps it would be best to call the search until tomorrow. They've likely found some place to stay for the night."
"Which should make them all the easier to search out now."
I heard every hoofbeat echoing in the tunnel as the horse crossed the bridge. In the water I could see the reflection of a small orange dot surrounded by the darker form of what I assumed to be the man. The shadow of another joined him, I heard the dog whimper.
"I know you're cold, boy. Won't be much longer and we can go home. I'm half tempted to go now and be done with the mess. What business is it of mine if some loony rich girl wants to run off with whoever? Serves him right, I says." I saw the small orange light fall in an arc to the water below, the acrid smell of tobacco caused my nose to wrinkle. "Come on, boy." The figure and lantern light were soon gone from their perch. Still, Lord Norbert and I sat in stony silence for a number of minutes.
"I am sorry for the trouble I've caused you," I murmured, finally.
"No, don't apologize, if not for you we might not have discovered Mr. Martin's plot before the damage had been done. If we are able to get out of this alive, England will owe you a great debt and be none the wiser of its existence. Now get some sleep, we still have many miles to go before we're through."
I awoke without realizing I had even fallen asleep. The early morning sun shone pleasantly through the round portal of the bridge. Turning slightly, I felt a weight upon my shoulders - there on rested Lord Norbert's arms, hands hung loosely before me. During the night I had slipped down to the cool stony ground between his knees. Behind me, he dozed. I turned to see his face, causing him to rouse.
"Good morning," he snuffed, blinking in the bright sunlight. "I suppose we had better be moving before too much of the morning has passed. We should be able to walk by the road for a piece, we'll not be noticed this early. Are you ready?"
"Then let us be off," he said disentangling himself from me and climbing up the river bank. "Well, come on," he urged, holding out his hand.
I grasped it and he pulled me up the steep portion of the embankment.
"How far do we have to go?" My legs still screamed their complaint from yesterday.
"A little more than three miles by my estimate, we should have it cleared within the hour."
"What of the police dogs?"
"I would not give them much thought. By the time they are about, the business of the day should have obfuscated our scent so completely that it would require a great deal of luck to track us and we should be well across the Thames by then. Now, let us go before any further time is wasted. I have no desire to walk the Darent any further than I must."
After a day of river walking the solid, even road seemed a glorious reprieve. My aching legs quieted as they soon realized their objections would not be heeded no matter how they insisted. Roger walked apace with me; I believe he was afraid I might, at any moment, collapse from exhaustion. I was glad when Dartford was finally behind us and bucolic farmland took its place. Lord Norbert had been correct - as of yet we had not met a single person on the road and only now was I beginning to see the first stirrings of farmers leaving their cottages for the fields. I yawned.
"Still tired?" he asked, I nodded in reply. "You slept soundly enough."
"I'm not used to quite so much activity."
"There will be more of it today. We may obtain a cab in Purfleet - they will not expect us to make landing there - but it will still be near a twenty mile drive."
"I could tolerate two hundred miles so long as I did not have to walk even two of them."
"I have an apartment in Whitechapel where you will be safe."
"You mean to say I am not going with you?" I asked, indignant at this slight.
"I do not need to remind you that it is dangerous, and far more so if you are out in the open.
"You mean you don't wish to have to worry about me. I am not a child, you know, nor a helpless waif. I do not require being taken care of."
"I wish you could understand how much of a child you are," his voice was pregnant with frustration. "You need to trust me, Miss Moore. Even were I to take you along with me the guards at the India Office might recognize you and arrest us both - you are still a wanted woman, if you haven't forgotten. By now, I am certain your description has reached most of the London police force."
"And what if I am discovered?"
"As you have so eloquently insisted, you are not a child nor a helpless waif; but there is no need for anxiety. When we arrive at the apartment then you should finally be able to have a proper meal and rest."
I could not argue, as much as I desperately wanted to see this matter through to the end, the idea of a full plate of food and a bed was far too enticing to protest. We walked on in silence for a time until finally I could bear it no more.
"What do you suppose will happen to Nicholas?"
"I would guess if they catch him they may hang him for treason assuming they can make a case - I suspect you would be required to testify against him." His words shot a bolt of lightning to my heart.
"You still have feelings for him despite all he has done?"
How did this man have the ability to read me so well?
"I cannot help how I feel. He was the first man to ever treat me as though I were of some true value. He made me feel wanted. He was the first man outside of family to ever even kiss me."
Lord Norbert smiled wryly and, before I knew what he was doing, he planted a kiss firmly on my lips.
"And now I am the second. I am certain I will not be the last. A kiss should not be the defense for a murderer to walk free." I am certain I was red, though whether from anger or embarrassment I could not even fathom. "But they will have to catch him and I suspect he has already seen the writing on the wall and, if he has any sense at all, has already booked passage on the next ship abroad. Ah, there is the Thames!"
Before us the waters of the Darent emptied into the massive brown snake that was the Thames. I scanned the shore for a boat of some form but none presented itself.
"How shall we get across?" I asked.
"We shall swim," he said, setting himself on the ground and removing his shoes.
"But I cannot swim! At least not nearly so far," I protested.
He took a deep breath. "The tide is low, you should be able to walk much of the way without great difficulty."
"But what about where it is deeper?"
"Then I will pull you. But do try to help out a bit. And remove your slippers, they will only slow us down." He divested his coat from my shoulders and pulled off his waistcoat. "I won't ask you to remove your dress but if you would please tie it about your waist I would appreciate it. He stood before me now, completely barechested. I turned my face away instantly, blushing profusely.
"W-what will you do with the clothes?" I stammered.
"You will hold onto them," he answered wrapping all the items in his coat. "Keep them above water if you can - the smoke bombs will be worthless if they get wet. Here." He handed the bundle to me. "We don't want to forget the derringer either. And do stop fidgeting! Come along." I followed him to the water's edge where he stepped into the water. His face distorted into a grimace a moment and then returned to its usual nonchalance. He walked out a distance until the water lapped about his waist. "Well?" he raised an eyebrow.
"A moment!" I answered, steeling myself. I gritted my teeth and took a step in - it was as cold as I had feared.
"It is easier if you don't dawdle."
Taking a deep breath I plunged ahead. The frigid water stabbed at my skin as though it were composed of infinite knives for a minute and then no more - my body had numbed to it until the pain was more a dull throb existing outside myself.
The journey across the Thames seemed the longest of my life. The water felt thin as air yet it seemed to require three steps to cover the same distance as on land. The bottom slowly fell away until it teased my neckline while my toes struggled to find the muddy ground; at which point Lord Norbert suggested it was necessary to begin swimming. He managed the river in long sideways strokes, cradling me in the crook of his other arm. My sheer vexation at this scandalous arrangement held me mute and immobile. "If you would not mind kicking a little it would be a great boon," he said through gritted teeth. I did my best to force my benumbed extremities to comply with his request though I doubt it was of much use. After an eternity of near submersion I saw the shoreline growing closer and closer. "I believe you should be able to stand now," he said, releasing me.
"Thank you," I managed.
The sun fell warm upon my frozen shoulders. I rushed to the shore as though I was not afflicted by weariness in the least – oh! to be on dry ground again! I lay upon the sun warmed soil greedily soaking up its heat. Lord Norbert allowed a smile at my enthusiasm as he walked onto shore.
"You may want to wring out that dress so it will dry faster," he suggested.
I flushed at the thought.
"I will, I just need to find a good place that will conceal me."
"Why? I have no interest in you. But if you insist I can look away while you do it."
"Why? It's not proper!" I exclaimed, my blood hot from such an ineloquent dismissal of my femininity. "Whether or not you have interest in me you are still a man and I will not disrobe in your presence!"
"If you insist, I will go over the rise; you may call me when you are ready. I have my own trousers to attend to and I will not stand here debating the need for propriety."
"I do insist."
And with that he nodded, strolled over the hillock, and disappeared to the other side. I was relieved to see him go for I was desperate for solitude at this moment. Being so familiarly treated by a man not my own relation left me singularly discomfited; that he openly professed no romantic interest in me was both a comfort and at the same moment an unbearable insult. Still, for the moment, he was out of my presence and I was glad for it.
I stripped off the ruined gown, no longer even remotely snowy white in color, and began to wring it out; putting all of my frustrations into each of those twists until the water was near emptied from it. It still retained enough moisture that is was cold to the touch. For a moment I considered wringing out my undergarments as well but my open location on the river bank gave me reason against it. I pulled the gown over my head - the remaining damp made the task a herculean struggle, for it cling at every contact with my skin, but it was soon accomplished. I lay back on the shore exposed to the gentle kindnesses of the sun.
I was not yet ready to call Lord Norbert back; no, he could wait - he had earned some length of exile. For the first time in days I allowed myself to indulge in a smile at the image of him waiting on my call on the other side of the hill. Ten minutes passed before I finally entertained the idea of calling him back - while I might wish to wait until my clothing had dried and the day warmed to the full, time was short and growing shorter. I pulled my exhausted form up from the soil, "Lord Norbert, you may return."
In a moment he reappeared.
"I was beginning to wonder if you had fallen asleep," he remarked, adjusting his cufflinks. He looked me over, "We really must find you a new dress."
"You'll have no argument from me."
Without any further prompting we began the brief journey to Purfleet.
"Wait here," Lord Norbert ordered as we approached the facade of a large, white building; a sign reading The Royal Hotel hung outside announcing it. It had the appearance of an old provincial opera house and I suspected it had been not long renovated into a hotel.
Standing on the corner, disheveled as I was, I elicited a number of stares from passing men - one lady slapped her husband as he leered in my direction. My word! They must think me a fallen woman! My degradation was now complete.
A group of three young laborers stood alternately gawking at me and whispering amongst themselves. Finally, one split off from the trio and approached me. He seemed unable to make eye contact but shifted his gaze from me to the ground to the group and then myself again continually.
"How much?" he mumbled to the dirt road. I was aghast!
"I'm sorry?!" I exclaimed unsure of what I had just heard.
The lithe, blonde man (if he might be called that for, by his look, his age could easily have been the same as my brother's) seemed to gain some courage for he did not mumble on the repetition of his question, "I asked, how much? I won't pay more than a half pound."
"A half pound!" Rage coursed through my body. How dare he presume so! I looked toward the door hoping to see Lord Norbert at any moment but it seemed he was delayed.
"So do we have a deal?" he asked, oblivious to my ire.
"We most certainly do not!" I replied, furious.
"Oh come off it, you can't tell me that's not a generous offer," he argued, fondling the dingy, rough-dried fabric covering my shoulder between his two fingers. "I'll even get us a room." The suggestion brought what little contents were in my stomach to my throat. "Or wherever, if you prefer." Or wherever! Wherever as in 'in the street'? 'Down the alley'? At that moment Lord Norbert finally appeared at the doorway, to my great relief.
"I'm sorry sir, I'm spoken for," I said walking toward the Lord.
"Oh you can't honestly expect he'd go for a twiggy little strumpet like you," the young man shot after me. He grabbed my hand.
"Unhand me sir, I'll not warn you again."
"Come on now, a half-pound and five shillings. You'll be lucky to make more than that in a week." I saw Lord Norbert turn towards me.
"Come along now, dear," he addressed me with that aloof smile accomplished only by those gentlemen secure in their superiority over other men. The young man stared, mouth agape, his grip loosened.
Throwing his hand off with a sharp turn of my wrist, I haughtily dismissed my molester, "If you'll pardon me." I made certain to accidentally kick his shin whilst walking away.
Lord Norbert placed a protective arm around me, "Your coach awaits."
"You certainly took your time in acquiring it," I whispered.
"Had I known you were making such delightful acquaintances I would have ordered a drink."
"You might have taken me in with you."
"Looking as you do I should not have gotten through the door, no less obtained a cab."
"So better to leave me to the wolves?"
"Those? They're mere pups. The wolves come out at night," he answered, opening the coach door for me, then following me inside. "I have no doubt you could have dispatched him yourself had it been required of you."
"Thankfully it was not. May I have my derringer back please?"
"Ah, yes," he said, reaching into his pocket and retrieving the weapon. "I forgot I had not returned it."
"Thank you." I took it gladly and returned it to its secure home in my waistband.
The ride to Whitechapel was long; the heat of the day permeated the black vehicle causing it to become almost stifling in its warmth. Finally, my body being permitted to rest and aided by the heat, sleep overtook me. When I awoke the expanse of farms passing by the coach window had been replaced by tightly crowded buildings.
"Did you sleep well?" my companion inquired.
"Yes. How long have I been out?"
"Four hours give or take."
"I believe you were in need of it."
"Were you able to get some sleep?" I ventured.
"Nelson Street!" The coachman yelled as we turned the corner.
In short order the cab slowed to a stop and the driver opened the door. I descended from the vehicle trailed by my companion.
"Thank you, my good man." Lord Norbert nodded his head, discreetly handing the man a number of coins.
"Good day to you, sir." The man tipped his hat and, in a moment, was gone.
"Here we are," Lord Norbert announced, unlocking the front door of a three story brick building. I had not fully realized my exhaustion until I attempted to mount the stairs: moving each leg on its own felt more like pulling heavy stones and neither accepted my weight without threatening to give way. After a near heroic climb, I managed to reach the third floor landing. Lord Norbert was already about the kitchen area, pulling out a sizable loaf bread and cheese.
"Well, come in. It's not much but for our purposes it will do," he said, spreading butter on the bread. "Would you care for a cheese sandwich?"
As though the question required asking! I ravenously devoured the pair of sandwiches he presented me with.
"I'll leave two more if you are hungry later." He sat down to consume a sandwich himself in a manner far more dignified than I had done.
I looked around the room. The white walled main room seemed much larger than its actual area due to the spare furnishings - not even a proper bookshelf to lend an air of home - only the end table set next to a wingback chair had a book, which sat upon it next to a cigar box.
"Locofocos from America," he supplied following my gaze. "The less offensive kind." I guessed he meant a joke of it as he followed the comment with a chuckle but the meaning was beyond my ken. "They light when you strike them against a rough surface. Does make the things a bit more convenient though I much prefer scotch to cigars."
"So this is where you live?" I asked.
"In a manner of speaking. You may make yourself comfortable. If you'll excuse me I need to put on some fresher clothes." He moved off to a back room. I strolled over to the end table to glance at the worn novel: Far From the Maddening Crowd. I stifled a laugh.
"I'm sorry, I do not own any dresses," the male voice called from the back. "I will try to pick one up for you on the way back. Until then, if you feel you must change, you are welcome to whatever I have." He reappeared, affixing his cufflinks. "If you absolutely must contact me I will be at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street." He threw his coat on. "Now if you will pardon me. Oh, a moment..." he reached into his pocket and procured the two small smoke bombs and placed them on the end table. "They won't allow me in with these. Anyhow, I shall return in a few hours, until then."
I heard the lock turn on the door.
Finally, I was alone! I was desperate to consign this tattered night gown to the rubbish bin even more than I desired to sleep. I crossed to the back room; its furnishings were only slightly less spartan than the main portion of the apartment save for a sizable bed and a small fire escape, of the weighted chest and rungs design, which sat by the window. I opened the closet, revealing a number of fine men's clothes. Disrobing, I took a pair of trousers and a shirt from the collection - how nice it felt to be in clean clothing again, even if it were a man's! There was a knock at the door,
"Did you forget something?" I answered, opening the door.
There, in the doorway, stood Nicholas. I tried to slam the door but he easily forced his way inside.
"No, I should say I didn't," he said, menacingly approaching me.
I retreated until my legs bumped against the end table. "How did you find me?"
"Lord Norbert is not nearly so clever as he believes himself to be. Our source in the Secret Service knew precisely where he lived. He was eager to help. You two are quite the troublesome pair for all of us. Your Uncle has already taken the first boat to the continent."
"Should- shouldn't you have gone as well? If they find you they will hang you for what you've done," I stammered.
"So very kind of you to worry for me. But let us not pretend you still have some regard for my life. You ended it the moment you threw my ring to the floor."
"You were about to murder me!"
"Only because you left me with no choice!"
"You could have put an end to your terrible plot." Blindly, my hands searched the table surface behind me.
"Don't you see why I could not do that? Can you not see the good that will come of it?" he pleaded as though he might still believe my mind could be changed on the matter.
"You are mad!"
He smiled at my declaration, tilting his head slightly. "No, I believe it is you who are the mad one. But that is of little matter now. You may either come with me to the Continent or you may die here - I would prefer you do the former, but it is your decision."
"I... I..." My eyes darted back and forth. I smiled, feeling the heat from the fire finally struck, "I am sorry Nicholas, but I really must refuse you on both options." The room filled with sound and smoke as the first bomb exploded in front of him. I darted into the bedroom, throwing the other behind me. Another flash and a bang, smoke filled the bedroom, pushed into the small hallway by the air from the window. I could hear Nicholas coughing in the other room. Taking hold of the weighted chest I threw it out the window, the rungs instantly forming a ladder down the side of the wall. I was about to mount the sill when a pair of hands roughly threw me to the floor. I lay crumpled next to my similarly situated gown.
"How I wish you had chosen differently," he said, approaching my fallen form. I scrambled, hands searching the dress, the floor - and there it was, my fingers embraced the cold metal.
"Stay back!" I warned, pointing the miniature weapon at Nicholas.
His expression became strange, then suddenly he laughed, "Again? Do you even know how to use that?"
"Do not test me!" I warned, my hands shaking violently. He took a step towards me. "I will shoot you!"
"No you won't." He made toward me. There was a loud sound as the gun fired. Nicholas stood, shocked, a red line appeared across his cheek. He touched the spot tenderly, examining the blood on his forefingers he smiled, "Apparently, I was mistaken; I didn't think you had it in you."
He rushed me. I managed to gain my feet before he reached me and, pivoting, avoided his charge, instead slamming the weapon into the back of his head. He fell to the floor.
"You little witch," he muttered, his voice still bemused. He sprang to his feet but I was ready. I slammed my fist, gun butt first, into his temple. He fell backward onto the bed, momentarily unconscious. In an instant I had descended the fire escape to the street below where a number of onlookers stood gawking at the smoke still billowing from the windows.
"Sir, is it a fire?" a young child asked. It took a moment to realize he was addressing me - I had forgotten I was still wearing Roger's clothes! Thin as I was I would be easily mistaken for a man!
"There was a fire, but it is out now. Just a lot of smoke," I answered.
"Miss Moore, are you hurt?" A pair of hands grabbed me, turning me to face their owner.
"Yes, Roger, I am fine."
"What happened up there?" His eyes searched me worriedly. "I saw the smoke from the cab."
"It was Nicholas. He must been waiting for you to leave."
"How did he know to find us there?"
"Apparently, his man in the Secret Service was rather eager to have me dispatched."
"It would be reasonable to assume so; but to know where I reside... is troubling. Is Nicholas still up there?"
"See for yourself," I answered looking to the window where Nicholas could be seen staring at us from above. I waved to him. He scowled in disgust and disappeared back into the room.
"Much as I should like to dispatch him myself there are far too many people about. Let's make our exit before there is any further excitement. Here," Roger said, stealing the child's flat cap and tossing the exasperated boy a coin. "If you are going to dress as a man you'll need a proper hat. Now, let's go, I have the cab waiting only a block away."
We quickly departed from the coach and ran up the stairs to the India Office. On entering the office we encountered a rather disinterested middle aged man. He barely raised his eyes above his spectacles to address us.
"How may I assist you?"
"We must speak with the Ambassador at once."
"Do you have an appointment?"
"No, but it is of the utmost urgency that we speak with him, it is a matter of national security."
"And who may I say is calling?" The man eyed the two guards standing by the door who seemed suddenly a good deal more interested in the answer to that question.
"Bond." I interrupted.
"Yes, James Bond, Secret Service International Division. Thank you, Mr. Moore, but I can answer for myself. And this is my valet, Mr. Phillip Moore." The tension in the room seemed to dissipate with his answer. "I believe the ambassador will know of me."
The little man disappeared into the office behind his desk; after a few moments he returned. "The ambassador will see you now. But you will have to leave your valet to wait here."
I scowled slightly.
"As you wish," Roger agreed, following the man inside the office.
I waited for what seemed an eternity with no other occupation than to watch the little man at the desk as his pen scratched notes into his ledger, a telegraph sat off to his side tapping out a quiet rhythm I could not wholly understand for its speed. The guards stood at the door in quiet attention, eyeing me - I wondered if they could discern my secret. I managed to catch my reflection in the shining wood of the desk. I was not sure whether to laugh or weep for it seemed I was looking directly into the visage of my father as he appeared in the portrait above the mantle at home. I sighed: no, my secret was safe; no one would guess me a woman at this moment. Finally, the door opened and the two men exited chatting merrily.
"We are in your debt," the man I assumed to be the ambassador said. "I believe the Amir will be very grateful for this intelligence. You can rest assured he will personally see to it that any trouble in Ghazni is put down before it begins. He is quite eager to see Khan's army in ruins, even more so than we are, I think."
"I am glad to hear of it," Roger replied.
"I am honored to finally meet you Mr. Bond. I have heard a great deal of your exploits in our country: particularly your encounter with Mr. Desai - quite a piece of work that was." He smiled, extending a hand which Roger took. "I must say, I am glad it was you who came; we had been warned there was a rogue agent about who might attempt to infiltrate the office."
"Ah, so you have heard. Do you recall who gave you this information?"
"A man by the name of Willis, I believe."
"Ah yes, Agent Willis, he's always on top of these matters." Roger smiled. "Best be wary. Though it seems we have averted the worst of the trouble - nothing a rogue agent could do now to prevent our victory in Kandahar."
"Yes. Thank you once again, Lord Bond."
The two men clasped hands once more and parted.
"Mr. Moore." Roger nodded to me. I was grateful to finally be free of that office.
"I take it things went well?" I inquired as we descended the stairs.
"Yes, that was quick thinking on your part. If our traitor in the Secret Service knew I was the one protecting you he would, no doubt, do everything within his power to compromise our mission including naming myself as the villain. I believe I shall have to have a discussion with Agent Willis about the company he has been keeping. We were fortunate the Ambassador had never met James and physically he and I are similar enough for the claim to be believed."
"I am glad for it," I answered.
We walked in silence for a time,
"Is there something on your mind?" Roger probed, "You appear troubled."
"What do I do?" I ejaculated. "I cannot return to my Uncle's house! And my parents will be furious for the loss of the engagement. That is not even to mention the ruin that will be brought on the family from rumors of my going mad and eloping with you."
"Ah yes. Well, I imagine the Underhills would be more than willing to take you in for as long as you wish to remain in London - I should say you will need some time to recuperate after this adventure. As for the engagement, they may take it less poorly if you reveal to them that Nicholas was a Socialist. While I do not know your father personally, based upon his reputation, I imagine he will be quite glad the matter was put to an end."
"And my reputation?"
"Well, you were already thought mad," he said offhandedly. I glowered at him causing him to smile. "You needn't worry. Our agency will clear the matter with police - a simple case of a young woman fleeing an abusive Uncle. As for the elopement, it is merely a rumor started by your jilted fiancé to besmirch your reputation - no one could testify you and I were ever seen in each other's company."
"But the man in Purfleet? The cab driver?"
"They never saw you, only a guttersnipe in the company of a gentleman. Once you are cleaned and dressed you could stand before them and they would not know they had ever seen you. To that end, let us take you back to Quentin and Dinah - they will be anxious to see you."
It has been far too long since I last wrote - can it really have been a month? I have been so terribly busy time seems to have flown by. I am certain by now you have heard of the... unpleasantness with my Uncle. I do not wish to dwell on it except to say he and my Aunt have decided it would be best if they permanently relocated to the continent. I will not say I am sorry to see them go - particularly not my Uncle whose cruelty was so terribly shocking that I cannot begin to convey it.
There was a knock at the door. "Yes, come in," I called from the desk.
Sarah, arms loaded to overflowing with clothing, pushed her way in. "The rest of your things, Miss. I am sorry for the delay in getting them to you, the house has been in quite the uproar since the Master and Missus left."
"I would imagine. I have done my best to provide letters of recommend for all of them - they should not be penalized for the poor behavior of their employer."
"Oh yes, and we are grateful for it! Dale has already found a position in Scotland. Seemed strange he would not stay closer to home but he says he is sick at the sight of it."
I should not wonder why! The poor man likely would be glad to never see London again in his life after all he had been forced to endure.
"Many of the maids have left, whether to family or new positions," Sarah continued, her voice seemed a bit off as she spoke. Her face, normally pleasant, was downcast.
"And what of you? What will you do?"
She fussed with the bundle of clothing seeming to intentionally avoid my gaze.
"Well, I don't have any family nearby to speak of; but I am hopeful a position will become available soon."
"I wonder… my sister is near old enough to require the specific attentions of a Lady's Maid and I fear that three women to care for might stretch Mrs. Leech beyond her breaking point. If you could bear to part with London, I would very much appreciate if you would come to N-shire with me as my personal Lady's Maid, Miss..."
"Moneypenny, Miss." Her eyes glowed with excitement.
"Miss Moneypenny. Anyhow, the position is yours if you want it."
"Yes!" she shouted almost too eagerly. "Yes, Miss! Thank you!" She clasped both my hands in hers, her eyes nearly in tears.
"We're leaving tomorrow - will that allow you enough time to gather your things?"
"Well you had best be getting along then. I will see you tomorrow."
"Yes Miss." She bowed frenetically, as though not sure what to do in her eagerness and hurried from the room.
"Well, she shall certainly liven up the place some." I smiled.
Tomorrow we depart for N-shire. I dearly hope to see you sooner rather than later though I do not believe I will be up for any balls for a while. I thank you for your sympathy in the loss of my engagement. I will not pretend it has been an easy time for me though I do take comfort in the fact he was not the man I thought him to be and the union would have been a very unhappy one in time. Still, I wish I had noticed his proclivities before I had engaged myself to him and thus avoided the entire mess. I daresay it will be quite some time before I am willing to trust my own judgement in matters of men. I know what you are thinking - that this is merely a convenient excuse to further delay matrimony but I do swear my sincerity in it - delaying matrimony is merely a pleasing side effect. But, in truth, I am just not in a mind to entertain such notions at this time. I have done my duty by my family in the attempt and should I not attempt it again they cannot wholly fault me for they gave their blessing on it.
I am looking forward to seeing my little brother, Avery, for the first time. I cannot tolerate that you have had all these months to lavish him with your attention and I have not yet even seen him! You said he looks just alike to Chet; but forgive me if I pray they have very different temperaments. I shall be glad to be among my siblings again (troublesome as one of them may be) I miss them terribly and, at this time, would take great comfort in having them near me. I have spent the past week in the parsonage with the Underhills who have been quite attentive to all my needs; the few of them that there are. I could not ask for more gracious hosts. I know I will miss them greatly when I have gone.
There was another knock on the door. "That must be Roger," Quentin said, crossing the room to answer it. "Roger! It is good to see you!" the two clapped each other on the back in an embrace.
"Likewise Quentin, Dinah. So how is our ward?"
"I am well, Roger, or is it James now?" I said, pushing myself from the desk to face him. "I heard you are leaving today."
"Yes, the agency has decided that I should continue on in my impersonation of Lord Bond indefinitely. There were a great many cases he was in the midst of and his death might cause us to lose all the work he has done - simply put, we can more easily afford the loss of Lord Norbert than Lord Bond."
"Then you shall be moving into international espionage?"
"Yes. Though I hate to leave Britain, I do agree I will be of more use to the Empire on the world stage."
"Is there any word of..." my voice trailed off.
"We know he caught a boat to France and we traced him as far as Saltzburg but we lost track of him in the Alps. We believe his destination to be St. Petersburg."
"It does not surprise me. What became of Agent Willis?"
"A rather unfortunate accident, apparently his oven had a gas leak. It is a grim reality of our lives," he answered somberly.
I looked to shift the subject. "So, there will be a vacancy in the national division then? Perhaps I should put in an application."
Roger laughed at my suggestion.
I fixed him with a hard glare, "I am serious."
"So you are, but I doubt they are looking for women to fill out the ranks."
"Perhaps I shall change their minds," I answered haughtily.
He looked as though he might reply but thought better of it, instead choosing to look at his watch. He frowned. "Miss Moore, take care of yourself," he said with a slight bow.
"You as well, Roger," I returned, offering him my hand. He stared at it a moment, then smiled and gripped it firmly. We shook hands. "Until we meet again."
As I shall find myself home tomorrow I will not write much more, rather I will save further conversation for when we are once again together. I look forward to introducing you to my new Lady's Maid - I am certain you will take to her quite well. With Autumn near upon us we must plan a trip to Sherwood forest for I do love to see it when the leaves are at their most colorful. Please give my love to your family and Lord Danvers.
All my Love,