Love Suffers Long and Is Kind, Volume IV
The gentlemen had said nothing of a personal nature since coming to the gates of Bramford. They had busied themselves combing the clumps of beech and tall weeds. To their consternation they had found the gates locked. Abernathy had proven himself a bit more mysterious when he pulled out his black medical bag and, removing an oddly shaped instrument, took the lock in hand and almost instantly clicked it open.
The Captain smiled, but did not question this most useful, though suspicious, ability. Taking the bridle of the horse, he brought she and the curricle through as the Doctor replaced his bag. They continued up the drive, taking their time to looking closely for anything that might indicate Louisa had ever made her way past the gates.
Standing before the house, the Doctor said, "I am amazed at the cleanness of the area. It is as if someone had swept the surroundings. Drive and all."
"I doubt that," said Wentworth. "You said that the servants left the house as soon as the news of Levant's death spread."
"Yes, the fellow that came from Shrewsbury said the house was empty; that was Wednesday when he came to the rectory. I don't suppose anyone was too concerned with sweeping up as they left."
"No. More likely to snatch as much as could be put in a sack and bolt the premises," he said as he approached the door. "It's sealed."
Abernathy joined him. "Ah, yeah. The Magistrate's representative no doubt. Should we break in?"
The Captain was surprised. He did not take the doctor to be one who would, blatantly, flout authority. He touched the wax seal. It disturbed him, a very little, that he had no question of doing such.
"What if she's in there?"
They looked at one another. The house had been searched, or so the representative had said, how could she be inside?
"Let's go round to a less conspicuous place." The Captain began to go around to the side of the house.
Abernathy wrapped the reins around a railing near the stairs and followed the Captain. "I've not been here often, but I believe there is a terrace -- "
He came around a large clump of yews to find the Captain stopped. Beyond him there was indeed a terrace, complete with a table laid for tea, two gentlemen seated with a serving man nearby.
One of the seated men rose and hailed them. "Gentlemen, come. You took your time walking the drive. It gave Clarke more than ample time to prepare everything out here. With the sun and good weather, I thought it much more inviting than remaining indoors. Come, come and be comfortable."
Wentworth had, of course, seen midgets in his travels. They were the perennial favourite of street circuses, and now and then one would be taken aboard a ship on which he crewed. But in all his travels he had never seen one dressed as richly and with such a polished air about him.
Abernathy caught Wentworth by the arm, propelled him forward and said, "Mr Batts. What a pleasure to meet with you again. I was under the impression you had gone back to Shrewsbury." To the Captain he whispered, "This is the Magistrate's representative -- Montague Batts. His brother is the very large fellow -- Pitney Batts." They shook hands all round and took the proffered seats.
" ... so Captain, I hope you do not think me impertinent, but was surprised, to read in the Gazette, that you have been reassigned the Laconia; that is a very rare occurrence."
"Yes, Mr Batts. For a man to captain the same ship twice in his career is, indeed, rare." He took a sherry from Clarke's tray. "You seem to know something of the Navy and her ways."
Batts smiled. "My younger brother and I were avid pond sailors as children." He held up his all ready emptied cup, which Clarke was prompt to fill. "Our mother was a wreck with worry. Poor thing, it was clear, early on, that neither of her boys was ... " he hesitated, "normal. And on her death-bed she did ask that we give up any notions of the sea." He chuckled as he took a drink.
The two gentlemen were puzzled by Batts's laughter. The Doctor finally said, "It was generous of you to grant her dying wish. At least I assume you did; not go to sea, I mean."
Batts put down his cup. "Oh I granted the request. It was not hard considering my ... " again he hesitated, "physicality. Anywise, my mother is still very much alive -- and still employing her death-bed as required."
Wentworth smiled at this. After a short period of time, he was convinced that no one, his mother on her death-bed included, would coerce Montague Batts into an opinion of which he was not fully persuaded. The unexpected company surprised, and by Abernathy's looks, delighted them both. It was hard to believe that they had come to Bramford for such a grim purpose. Looking past his hosts, his gaze swept the grounds of the Hall. It was not an extraordinary piece of real estate. Other than a fenced area, which looked perfect for an intimate ramble, there was only open grass and unexceptional planting of common English trees and bushes. He looked again at the fenced area and wonder if Louisa had --
"Uh, Doctor, my brother chooses not speak with strangers -- " As Wentworth had been studying the grounds, Abernathy had asked a question of Mr Pitney Batts. The looks between the servant, Clarke, and Mr Montague were unsubtle.
"Lovely," said Pitney. A shadow of a smile crossed his lips which then disappeared into his teacup.
Another look passed between the smaller Batts and the manservant. "But," Batts declared, "there is a first time for every new occurrence, is there not?" He set down his cup. "Doctor, as a man of medicine, I am sure you have noticed that my brother and I are rather an odd couple. My brother is obviously large, and that frame houses many talents not immediately discernible to the layman." He turned towards Pitney. "Brother, we first spoke with the Doctor where and when?"
"Where: The Rectory of Crown Hill Parish. When: March twenty-second -- Wednesday -- 1815."
The Captain and the Doctor looked at one another. "Mr Batts, I'm sure that Mr Pitney is indeed talented as you say, but reciting the date we spoke is hardly remarkable -- "
"Begin my conversation, from that date, with the Doctor. After all the introductions, please."
"No doubt you know I am here to discuss the untimely death of Mr Levant. I have been told by the Squire the it was you who found him? Yes, I and the Rector. Yes, I will be speaking to the Rector as soon as he returns. Now please tell me where you found Mr Levant and in what condition. The Rector and I were returning from along the Cider Press road -- Excuse me, doctor, what time was that? Oh, after dark. Around six I suppose. It was getting colder very quickly. Go on. I was the first one to hear noise in an old abandoned house along there. We stopped -- "
The Doctor leant forward in his seat and gaped at Pitney Batts. The Captain was astonished. The man was obviously reciting, perfectly, their conversation from several days earlier. Mr Pitney did not differentiate the voices in any way. To identify the speaker, a smiling Montague wagged a finger, pointing at himself then to the Doctor. Looking at the speaker's face, there was nothing but passivity; no comprehension of the content of the conversation; no movement save his fingers rhythmically furling and unfurling. Pitney Batts might just as well have been reciting a typical catechism; the words were in perfect order, but there was little or no understanding. All-in-all, it was a singular demonstration.
Montague held up his hand and gently said, "That is enough, Pitney. Thank you." His brother ceased speaking and took a drink of his tea. The elder Batts smiled broadly as he looked from face to face. "Well, now you see my brother is quite useful to have about. Though," he mused, "I've often thought it sad he is not my size. One could almost slip him into a pocket and no one would be the wiser, eh?"
"I have heard about this sort of thing," the doctor said. His eyes had not yet left Pitney. "People of less than normal function with remarkable genius in an area. Mathematics mostly. Able to calculate problems out scores of places without paper -- in their heads. Amazing," he murmured.
"And you, Captain, what do you think of my brother?"
"I was just thinking about courts, and court martials." Batts brightened. "Your brother could nearly eliminate lying in the box."
Batts quickly moved forward in his seat and sharply clapped his hands. "That is the point. With Pitney, I never have to worry about remembering things correctly. I do take some notes but, for the most part, Pitney is all I need. This does have it's draw-backs though. I can never make an off-handed promise. He will recite to me place time and the very words," he shrugged and opened his hands, "he is, most definitely, a two-edged sword."
The conversation continued to flow and those drinking tea saw the miraculous. With the aide of Clarke, it turned into sherry. The light was beginning to fade when Montague took the party in hand.
"Captain. Doctor," said Batts, rising, "I have enjoyed our impromptu meeting exceedingly, but I know you did not come to hear about the domestic doings of the Batts family." Clarke opened the door to the house and it was clear they were to follow. "I have some thing inside that I believe will interest the two of you." He made a sweeping gesture and entered.
" ... so you see, the Magistrate, with such a horrible criminal abroad, has little choice but to stay in Shrewsbury and try to bring order to chaos." As they had passed through the house on the way to the servant's stairway leading to the kitchen, the Doctor had asked Batts why the Magistrate himself had not come to Crown Hill. When considering the importance of Bramford's seats in Parliament, it was a curious point.
"So, he cannot come because someone is stealing the crests from coaches? That seems a very petty crime."
Batts laugh rang in the bare stairwell. "Ah, but Doctor, you must remember that one, any man in his position is motivated by politics, and two, these are custom carved crests -- the wealthy are particularly annoyed when such unique items are stolen from them." They entered the kitchen area. It looked as though life in Bramford Hall had not changed a wit; except for the newspaper which covered the preparation tables; and that if it were ordered, a banquet could be produced in the wink of an eye. Batts nodded to Clarke who began to remove the papers. "You might be interested Doctor," he said, taking a paper or two, "I have done a bit of asking around, and I think it will be my sad duty to tell the Magistrate that the thief is the carver himself. The victim soon wants a replacement and -- "
" -- the carver sells him the original," exclaimed Abernathy. "Well, quite a man. Gets paid twice for the same work. Mm."
Wentworth pondered Abernathy's quickness of mind for only a moment and turned his attention to the tables. When the papers were removed, the tables showed why the outer area, approaching the house, had been so clean. On pristine white linen which had last served up food, there were odd scraps of paper, bits of wood, a tattered copy of Fanny Hill, several buttons, a buckle, a smashed lantern and what looked to be a broken strap.
"Yes," Batts smiled. "Very Clever. Gentlemen, do you know what all this is?"
Abernathy was primed to answer, but Wentworth beat him by half. "This would be all the ordinary debris you have found outside. Realising what a thorough man you are, Mr Batts, I would imagine this represents everything from the front of the house to the gates, if not further out."
"Good, Captain. Very good." He walked around the table, stopping now and then to examine the exhibits. "I am convinced that every activity, in which humans engage, leaves a mark. They either produce waste," he picked up the strap. "Or," he picked up the book, "they give us a clue to the those engaged in the activities." Tossing the book back on the table he continued, "While I have not come here to investigate anything but the murder of one Pollard Levant, I think I have reason to believe that our mutual purposes," he pointed to himself and then the two gentlemen, "will be served by co-operating with one another."
Taking his meaning clearly, the Captain seized upon the lantern. "She bought one the day she disappeared."
Batts smiled. "Yes Captain, she did. I was told this by a Mr Fulton. Very helpful fellow. He even drew her a map." Wentworth began to look through the paper scraps. "We did not find that. Perhaps she put it in her pocket and it is with her now." Stirring the papers until he found the one he wanted, he held it up and said, "But she also bought peppermints." Taking an identical paper laid aside, he said, "I also bought peppermints." He held the papers side-by-side. "As you can see the creasing is the same. I think we can safely say that both these papers are from the same sort of candy, bought from Mr Fulton."
"But surely," Abernathy cried, "You have to say that the one is Louisa's."
"Not necessarily, sir. Others in the household might also like peppermints. But it does strengthen the argument that she was here. As for the lantern, I think it tells us much more." He reached to take the lantern from the Captain, but looked and awaited his consent. "This is the sort of light Fulton sold her, we can see that it is new -- not much used -- or exposed to the weather, and since it was found outdoors, one might expect that -- the wick is new. But see here," he lightly rubbed the exterior and showed them a blackened finger, "it has been burnt on the outside of the slides. It obviously caught fire and perhaps that is why someone stepped on it." He handed it back to the Captain. "The question then becomes, if Mrs.. Wentworth needed the lantern enough to buy it, why did she not take it with her wherever it is she went?"
"She obviously did not need it any longer?" Abernathy ventured.
"It was taken from her forcibly, and smashed, thereby of no use to her." Wentworth hated every word of his answer.
"Both true." His hand swept over the table. "Might either of you recognise anything else belonging to Mrs.. Wentworth?"
They looked, and other than a button that was obviously feminine, nothing held a remote hope of having been Louisa's.
Batts made a signal to Clarke, who disappeared into another room. "This was found south of town, about three miles out. I was surprised it was in the ditch and not picked up by some passer-by. It is still very useable."
Clarke came back with a sheet over his arm. This he held out to Batts, who opened it to reveal a woman's cloak. Deep green in colour. Mud stained. Brown buttons and little other embellishment. He motioned for Clarke to bring it closer to the Captain. It was examined closely by he and the doctor.
The doctor was of no help, he had never seen Louisa outside the rectory and the Captain was not certain.
"There are two deep pockets, but nothing in them -- no map."
After a few more moments with the cloak, Wentworth said, "You must thing me wretched, not knowing if this is hers." He spoke quietly as he fingered the large button at the neck of the cloak."
"No," said Batts, "I doubt that most men could tell anything useful about their wives clothing. Except perhaps about a garment that catches their fancy -- or cost too much." He smiled. He motioned Clarke away. "Hopefully, a husband concentrates his energies on the woman within."
They were all quiet as the man withdrew. Abernathy again looked over the offerings of the table. Still he found nothing that he could claim as his cousin's.
"I know it might not seem like it, but this cloak gives us a hope."
"How so," Wentworth asked.
"If Mrs.. Wentworth was without an outer garment, I believe she would have been discovered by now."
Batts said nothing more, but all knew what he meant. He nodded to Clarke who began replacing the papers. "Please, gentlemen, let us go up and relax for a moment."
The gentlemen were again settle, this time before a fire expertly prepared by Clarke. Sherry was poured and passed. Batts took his seat. He looked directly at Captain Wentworth. "It pains me to say this aloud, but I really must,sir. You know your wife better than anyone here, do you believe that your wife has run away, or do you believe that there is some other explanation for her disappearance?"
All explanations seemed possible depending upon his frame of mind when he thought them. What he told Batts was his deepest belief, and desire.
"My wife is young, and with that comes a certain precariousness of mind and emotion, but I don't believe that she would do anything like this -- running away. She would not knowingly hurt me or my family like this."
"This precariousness you speak of, you are certain it is merely youth, and not something ... " he groped for a word. "Something more representative of her nature?"
"You mean is she inherently malicious and would take pleasure from scaring the daylights out of everyone?" Batts's line of questioning was beginning to provoke the Captain.
"No." His tone was unequivocal. "I misspoke. Perhaps dramatic is more the word I wanted. Some young women think that high drama is the ultimate measure of the depth of love. Running away, necessitating a lover wracked with agony to search high and low, that sort of thing appeals to some young women."
Abernathy shifted in his seat and leant forward. Wentworth would not allow him a part of this exchange. "Not Louisa," he said. "She speaks her mind and I don't think that such empty gestures would appeal to her; certainly not to the point that she would arrange such nonsense." He finished the sherry and raised the glass to Clarke.
Batts did not back down. "Do you know this for certain? Has anything you have found in your search convince of this, or are you merely saying this because you wish it so?" His dark eyes saw nothing but Wentworth's face.
Without wavering, the Captain said, "In my profession, there is only a certain amount of fundamental knowledge, after that, we all rely on our instincts. We have nothing else. I am relying on what I know of my wife. She is a good woman who would not, knowingly, hurt me or my family like this."
Batts too finished his sherry and motioned for Clarke. He smiled. "I apologize, Captain. I always take hard evidence over mere feelings, but in the absence of it I will go with well-worn instinct every time." As the man poured, Batts reached into his waistcoat and pulled out what appeared to be a document. Unfolding it, he gave it to Clarke for the Captain. "As you can see, there was an interesting business arrangement between Levant and Daniel Randwick."
Wentworth read and frowned. It was a thirty-day promissory note for the amount of five hundred pounds with Bramford Hall offered as the security. He doubted that Levant had ever intended for the clause, "In the advent of nonpayment," to refer to his death. The gentlemens' signatures and that of the witness seemed to be in order. He began to pass the note to Abernathy when something caught his eye. Another look at Randwick's signature unsettled him. Not able to say what the rub was, he passed the paper to Abernathy. "We had heard that he had disappeared the night of Levant's murder. No one has been able to tell us anything about it though."
"There is not much to tell. A carriage appeared at the door just after five in the evening. Randwick, and a woman staying with Levant, named Rosamond Couchre, ordered things packed up and they were gone by nine -- as near as anyone can remember. The servants know nothing more. The carriage was ordered from Ludlow, bound for London. I have spoken to the driver and he has confirmed the trip to London and having dropped them at the Golden Cross Inn, near Charing Cross."
Wentworth said nothing, but he knew the inn mentioned and the area, bordering St James Park, was close to the Whitehall and the beloved Admiralty.
Abernathy held out the paper. "You think Randwick -- and that he might have Louisa?"
"I hope not." That was all he said about her. "This note, the way it was written," he said, "upon Levant's death, makes him the new owner of Bramford Hall. Unless he were to allow the family to pay him off and I can't see that as being an option, can either of you?"
"He would be a fool if he did," Abernathy declared.
"Yes he would, and that is one thing that cannot be said about Daniel Randwick." He looked into his glass. He rose and spoke with Clarke. The man went to Mr Pitney and whispered to him. The younger brother nodded and left the room with the servant.
"Sherry?" Batts raised the decanter, offering to refill any glass offered. The sudden shift in the company of the room disturbed the Captain and he looked over to Abernathy. The Doctor saw the glance and shrugged. After all the glasses were full and Batts reseated, he began, "Captain, Doctor, I had no intentions of telling you any of what I am about to. Not for any reasons of virtue -- in my line of work, I tread a fine line between gossip mongering and gathering information -- "
"Just what might your line of work be, Mr Batts?" Overall, the Captain had been willing to hear Batts as he spoke of physical evidence gathered around the Hall, but now that Batts was sharing, what seemed to be, more ominous confidences, it was time to know more about him and his motives.
Batts let himself down from his seat. He rubbed his chin as he walked to the fire. "Ha," he said, "I am not quite sure what my line of work really is, Captain. I have no title, of rank or occupation. Might we just call me a scrutineer? I examine things -- people, situations," he motioned towards the document in Abernathy's hands, "documents. I am sometimes paid for this function, most times not, but I do it for the enjoyment and stimulation, nothing more."
"And that is why you are here, to examine the Levant murder?"
He dipped his head. "As I said. But, as I also said, now that I have examined the facts -- and evidence -- I believe that there is more than a simple case of murder. Not that murder is ever very simple."
The Captain looked hard at Batts. The man could barely reach the mantelshelf, one hard shove and he would fit nicely in the firebox. But just as he knew Louisa was not responsible for her own disappearance, he knew that this man could find her. "Please go on, Mr Batts. You were saying about your line of work."
"I know a great many things about a great many people," he said, "but intimate knowledge of a man's personal evils is quite useful, but only if few others share it. When things of that nature are generally known, they are practically useless."
Neither the Doctor nor the Captain moved and Batts seemed to be hesitating. As though he had changed his mind about telling them anything.
"Batts, you have begun this. Finish it," Wentworth said.
"Daniel Randwick presents himself as a foppish young man with little purpose in life. In actuality, he is very intelligent. His ability to estimate a person's character and their usefulness to himself is startling. Levant was not the first that he brilliantly manipulated -- though he is the first one that has died."
Abernathy was growing impatient with the character study of Daniel Randwick. He hitched forward on his seat. Wentworth's raised hand stopped him from saying anything.
"I think it is safe to say that Mrs.. Wentworth is with him -- he is a very charming man -- "
"No!" shouted Abernathy.
"Doctor!" countered Wentworth.
" ... either willingly, or un -- "
"No! It is not true." He stood and turned on Wentworth. "Are you going to let him say such things? If she is with him, he is keeping her from us -- she is your wife and you let him malign -- "
The Captain continued to watch Batts. He then looked at Abernathy. The Doctor shook with rage and looked as though his jaw would snap, so hard was it set. If only he could give himself over to the rage he was feeling, but his was a different part in this odd theatric. He looked back at Batts. "Michael, hear him. I am sure he means nothing disrespectful to my wife's character. At the moment he is examining the possibilities. I think he has made no real decisions about anything. Am I right, Batts?"
"You are right, Captain." He looked at the Doctor. "I am sorry I have upset you. I am not accusing Mrs.. Wentworth of anything. I am merely, as the Captain said, examining the facts. Doctor, you know that the facts only tell us how things stand at the present, not how they got to be that way. We have to look at this from all angles."
"Go on, Mr Batts."
"I am waiting for word that Randwick has filed anything against the estate, having to do with the mortgage. This puts him at the top of a long list of people that would have liked Pollard Levant dead. If there has been legal action to make his claim, that means that he might still be in the country, if not, he is in contact with his lawyers and they might know his whereabouts."
Not that the vultures would tell you -- without inducement, thought the Captain. It was not hard to see that Batts had changed his tack out of deference to Abernathy. Wentworth was undecided whether he too was comforted by this. He was usually anxious to know every particular to do with his enemy. In this case, he wondered if it were better to stay ignorant as to Mr Ranwick's "personal evils". Now that he knew more about his new confederate, Wentworth decided it was time for him impart some knowledge.
Reaching into his breast pocket, he removed the note that had been delivered on Monday night. Looking at it again, he read it once more. Things fell into place. He stood and held it out to Batts. "This was brought to the rectory on the night she disappeared. A friend received it from what looked to be a postillion. I know it to be a forgery."
Batts read the note and smiled. Waving it gently, he said, "So you were not relying entirely on your instincts, Captain, when you said what you did about your wife. You had some proof that mischief was afoot." He again read the letter.
"True. But the letter has nothing of her about it. Her writing is different and she would never use some of those words."
"Of course the source of this note is obvious," Batts murmured. "Yes, I now see that the ink is the same. And the slant of the writing."
The Doctor looked puzzled. "What do you mean?" he asked.
He looked up and handed the note to the Doctor. "Compare the writing in the note to Randwick's signature. A postillion delivered this you said?"
"Yes," said Abernathy. "I see. He probably has one of those pens with it's own inkwell, the colour in the signature is the same as the entire note. And there is the same -- " He was at a loss.
"Elegance," suggested Wentworth.
"Yes, that elegant sweep in both."
"How did the note come, did you say?" Batts asked.
"As I was told, a family friend answered the door. It was very late and the household was in a shambles due to an illness. He said the fellow had very thick boots, like a rider. And he was very big, but still a boy."
Batts handed the note back to the Captain. "Well, it would seem that I need to examine some other things a bit more carefully."
"What do you mean?"
"I went to Ludlow and spoke with the manager of the coaching yard -- he showed me the manifest for the coach. And I spoke with the driver. He swore that the trip ended with Randwick and the woman, and no one else, being dropped in London." He dipped his head a bit. "The post boy was not available. Gone on an errand somewhere."
"Then what is the use? The manager and driver have said they went to London. The post boy would only confirm the driver, wouldn't he?" said Abernathy.
"Not necessarily. The manager only knows the coach was hired for a particular destination. Once it leaves the yard, it comes under the control of the driver. What sort of arrangements transpire between the driver and the passenger, as long as the coach returns in the prescribed time limits, would be quite private. We can hope that even if the postillion were given something to be quiet about the arrangements, he would be willing to tell us what he knows. If the boy stays with the story there would be no harm done, it would confirm, independently, the driver's testimony."
"I want to go with you when you go to Ludlow." Wentworth had said nothing to this point, and his voice seemed to surprise Abernathy and Batts.
"Really, Captain, there is no need. I will take Pitney and -- "
"We will go with you." There was nothing threatening in the Captain's manner, but his tone left no doubt about his intentions.
"I understand." Batts looked from Abernathy to Wentworth. "But the two of must stay out of sight. In the carriage would be best. As I said, I will take Pitney and then you will have a full record of what is said."
"Thank you, Mr Batts. If you have no objections, might we leave at first light? As you can understand, I am quite anxious to have this connection to London confirmed."
The gentlemen arranged the time they would meet and bid their host a good evening. They were quiet as they left the grounds of Bramford. Once out on the road, heading towards the rectory, the doctor spoke. "I wonder what Batts was going to tell us about Randwick? He changed the subject rather abruptly. I'm sorry about my outburst. I seem to be allowing my emotions to run amuck."
"I understand. I hope you know that I only wanted to hear what he thought, I had no intention of allowing him to think Louisa would deliberately stay with someone like that. Whatever that is."
The Doctor sighed. "I wonder what Batts meant about personal evils?"
"Evil enough," he said, "that you notice he sent his simple-minded -- and presumably innocent -- brother from the room."
Abernathy pulled the door to Mrs. Wentworth's room gently shut. He sighed and rubbed his neck. It was days such as this which made him long for another, less taxing, occupation. Between the Captain's deep, disturbing silences and Mrs. Wentworth's diminished condition, there was not a particle of himself that was not aching and tired.
He started. "Ah, Rector. I am sorry. There was nothing else to be done."
The Rector rubbed his hands and his neck also. "I suppose she is very angry."
"Oh, yes. But do not worry. Her ire is rightly directed at me." He began to walk down the hallway. "She threatened to call Mrs. Callow. I told her if that was her wish, I would bring the lady myself. But that, as long as I was responsible for her care, your children were to have a wet-nurse and I would not debate the subject further." He stifled a yawn.
"She is not doing well." There was no question.
"Not as well as I would like, no. But, this outburst is a good sign actually."
"Your wife has a very strong sense of motherly duty; she wants to nourish her own children; a very natural desire -- no matter what the current fashions might dictate. That is being taken away from her and she is upset. She is not so weak that she is passively accepting it. Her anger is good. It shows that she is not allowing the pain and the weakness to pull her under."
"Do you still think it will be late summer before she is up?"
"Late summer, early autumn. My prognosis is rather fluid. It depends upon her body, how well it heals, and G*d forbid any illness should come through with the heat." He entered the Rector's sanctum and set down his bag. "I am afraid that the damage which I had to inflict, to bring Rose into the world, was great." No one, save Mrs. Junkins, knew the details of Rose's birth and Edward would not press Abernathy for what, he assumed, were gruesome details.
The gentlemen settled themselves in the study and each took comfort in a glass of sherry before the fire.
The Rector repeatedly shifted in his seat.
"Not able to get comfortable, eh, Rector?"
He looked at the Doctor as though he had been caught in an evil act. "Oh, I suppose it is the household -- its being in such upheaval. I was speaking to my brother and I am bothered by his attitude."
Abernathy scowled. "And what might his attitude be? The Captain was rather quiet on our ride home." He had hoped that they might discuss Montague Batts's cryptic revelations concerning Daniel Randwick, but the Captain had made it clear that he was not in the mood for conversation.
Wentworth rose and refilled his glass. "He seemed quite heartened when we spoke. He liked Batts and seems to feel that, with his aid, there will be no difficulty locating Louisa." He took his seat. "He acted as though the postillion, or some knowledge he has, will direct him to her and all this will be over by dinnertime tomorrow."
"I am surprised," the doctor said. "Perhaps he is trying to spare you, considering the household as you said." He raised his glass to be filled. "But, he is a very confident man; it comes with his rank I should think."
The Rector smiled. His brother's confidence had only added to his success in the Navy. Frederick's natural temperament was one of self-assured, to some, it was perceived as blind arrogance. "Barring one or two personal failures, I can think of no time he has not gotten his way. He will not even entertain the notion that she went of her own accord, or that she might even be de -- " He stopped suddenly. In the household distress, they all seemed to forget Abernathy and his feelings. "I am sorry, Michael. I should be more circumspect. Frederick is not the only one on pins and needles." He examined his friend, then went to the window. "We bring all our wretched complaints to you, forgetting you have a stake in this as well."
Abernathy set his glass aside. "It comes with the territory. Doctors are thought of on a par with the furniture -- only if we are missing or broken do people notice. I am quite used to hearing the complaints of my patients."
"True," he turned, "but the complaints do not, generally, touch you personally." He turned back to the window.
Abernathy fingered the glass, but put it down. "Well, I am more than concerned for Louisa, that is true. But, if I can be of service, if only by listening as others rattle on, trying to come to a solution, then that is what I shall do. Listening to Mr. Batts, I realised that talking over the situation and its facts, even numerous times, can help keep the mind clear." He picked up the glass and went to the table with the sherry decanter. "I should have realised, when I am in the presence of other of my feather we endlessly discuss our most puzzling cases."
The Rector heard him rise and joined him at the table. "We thank you for your ear," he said, as he took the Doctor's glass. He filled it with water and handed it back. "You have helped the Wentworth's in more ways than you know."
"Thank you, Edward." As he accepted the glass he smiled. "And I seem to need you," he said quietly.
"What?" the Rector asked.
Abernathy took a drink and walked back to his seat. "I need to remember that Captain is struggling. I wish to be more of a help to him."
The Rector joined him. "Yes, he is. We must pray that she is found soon. For her sake of course, but his as well."
The following day, the gentlemen met and began the drive to Ludlow. Knowing they would have more than enough society together, they were short on greetings and got straight on the road. As he looked about the coach, the Captain could see how the night had treated each man differently. The Batts brothers looked refreshed and well-rested. This was no surprise. Mr. Pitney would have no reason not to fall into a blissful sleep; his sole purpose in life seemed to be nothing more than to repeat the woes of others. As for his brother, it was not Montague's wife who had gone missing. For the most part, the whole incident of murder and intrigue was nothing more than mental stimulation; a mere diversion until the petty nabobs of Shrewsbury found themselves at the mercy of a vile another merchant with a scheme to separate them from a bit of coin. Add to that, a proper breakfast at the hand of Clarke and the two were more than prepared to take on the likes of a youthful ragabash
The Doctor had brought the Captain to Bramford Hall, the scheduled meeting place that morning. During the ride he had marvelled at the beauty of the morning, the freshness of the air and the anticipation of a productive day. He had proclaimed his sleep first-rate, his housekeeper the finest of cooks and his new horse a four-legged wonder. It was clear that with one good night's sleep it was possible for Abernathy to more than recover much of his grinding liveliness.
He himself had slept. Years of of chase and rough weather had taught him that even in desperate situations the body must be fed, clothed and rested. In this personal crisis he was doing all those things but to no avail. It was only a week since had been summoned home and a close examination that morning, as he shaved, revealled that the his troubles were doing double-duty to accomplish their work. He was wearing away from the inside out leaving his face a dull and barren landscape. When at sea, in the midst of a chase, he oft times wondered which of his men would die with his next order. The thought quickly passed as these were men who understood they were no more than fodder for the Navy. Now his concern was over one willful, silly girl. He marvelled at where his heart had brought him.
After the first hour the party fell into their places. Mr. Pitney looked out the window of the coach while the Doctor and Mr. Montague chatted about this and that. The Captain stared at the simple man. He was dressed roughly, not with the polish he had exhibited the day before. It had been explained that Pitney's size, on occasion, was called upon to give pause to anyone not intimidated by Batts's intensive questioning.
"I would never put my brother in danger. He is well able to handle the average lout," Batts had said, when asked about the wisdom of the ploy. "I do not expect that Amber Glenn, the postillion we seek, will be much of a threat -- to Pitney."
The carriage was in desperate need of springs, Batts explained with his apologies, a condition that Clark would see to upon their return to Shrewsbury. The jostling made no difference to Frederick; he welcomed the physical discomfort. Any day he would prefer it to emotional turmoil, but this was not even enough. He walked a razor's edge in his feelings. His natural self anticipated finding Louisa and bringing her home; the more pragmatic man grumbled that this was a fool's errand. Adding to the turmoil was Batts's orders that he and the Doctor were to take no part in the questioning. They were relegated to the carriage and while he could see the sense in the instructions, he chaffed at the forced passivity.
"Here we are," announced Batts, as they drove into the yard of the Poachers' Rest. "Are you ready, Pitney," he asked. The large man nodded while opening the door for himself. Batts watched him dismount. "It looks as though you are, brother." Closing the door, he said to the gentlemen, "Do not worry, Pitney will catch every word, I assure you."
So that each had a window, Abernathy took the seat facing the Captain. "I wonder which one he is. There seem to be hundreds of boys."
Wentworth pointed. "I think they've found him straight out of the gate. Look. That one is nearly the size of Mr. Pitney."
They watched as Batts, Pitney and a large young man stepped behind a broken down shed.
"Mm, I suppose you can call me a pixie, Mr. Glenn, but I assure you, that in my pocket, I do not carry faerie dust and this fellow here," indicating Pitney, "will not use a magical wand if it becomes necessary." To Pitney, he said, "Do people think that I have never heard such comments before? If people must disparage me, let them have some creativity at least."
Pitney nodded in agreement.
Turning back to the amused postillion, he said, "Mr. Glenn, I would suggest that you tell me about that night at the Hall, and the young woman I mentioned. Please do so before I have to ask my assistant to become more involved in our conversation." Batts gestured towards Pitney and shrugged his shoulders, as though he would have no choice besides violence.
Glenn looked at Batts, then Pitney. He looked around the yard, but anyone that might lend him a hand was out of sight, busy with their own duties. No one took any notice of the small group in the isolated corner. Despite the giant thug, the boy suddenly pushed himself away from the wall. He slipped but caught himself before he fell, then slid around the corner. He would run for the far horse barn and lose the big fellow by hiding in one of the hay bins. He had done it before and it would certainly work for him again.
Not yet seeing anyone pursuing, he congratulated himself and began to curve towards the barn when he was stopped mid-stride and sent sprawling.
"Excuse me," said a man's voice. A hand appeared before his nose. "Allow me to assist you, young man.
Amber shook his head to clear his vision. He looked up to the owner of the hand. The chap was tall and well-built. Nonetheless, Amber was shocked at being stopped inhis tracks. "Thanks," he muttered as he took the hand. He was hoisted to his feet and he glanced behind to see if the giant and the dwarf were pursuing. The coast was clear and he started again to run.
"Sorry to have tripped you up," the man said. A well-planted foot got his legs in a tangle, but before Glenn could protest, he was slapped up against the wall of the tack shed; the man's forearm pressing into his chest.
"Hey, whutya doin'? I got thin's to do." He struggled and the arm pressed harder.
"I believe you have been rather rude. You have not finished the conversation you started with those other gentlemen." The man nodded towards the corner. Just then, his pursuers came around the side of the building.
"Ah, Captain, I see you chose not to take my advice. I must thank you. My ruse did not work so well with this one."
"Quite all right, Mr. Batts."
Glenn looked around and now saw that he was surrounded, not by three, but by four men, counting the one pinning him to the wall. "What do ya want? I got nothin' to say." He struggled to free himself. The man released him only long enough to get a better grip and slam him against the wall again. He hit his head and was dazed. He opened his eyes and looked at the man's face. It was taut, the mouth grim. Amber Glenn felt cold deep down.
"Captain." A fellow with his captor held up Penelope's blue beads. They had fallen from his pocket when he had gone down. Were she home, instead of in the country with her sister, she'd be wearing them now.
"What is it?" He did not take his eyes from Amber Glenn.
"A necklace of blue glass -- and a wedding band."
The face grew colder and harder. "Where is she?"
"I dun know," he cried. Glenn had not known precisely from whom the jewlery had come. When he had taken the note from the gentleman, it had been bulky and he knew it contained something other than paper. He had hoped for coins but had been disappointed. He had taken the jewelry nonetheless. It was his suspicion the necklace and ring belonged to the young woman he had seen at Bramford -- the gentleman's escort looked too fine a woman for such trifling fare -- but the true owner had not concerned him enough to really puzzle out the matter. The man's arm grew heavier on his neck. It was becoming harder to breath.
"Tell me everything," he said. Amber did not think that anyone else could hear, the voice was so low. "or I swear before God's throne that I will kill you where you stand."
"Captain." The pixie touched the fellow with his walking stick. The Captain shrugged it off.
"Where did you get this necklace and ring?" He knew the man would smell it if he told a lie. The hard brown eyes could see everything he was thinking. The eyes also said that the killing of Amber glenn would not trouble this fellow in the least.
"They was in a packet I was give to deliver to the Rectory at Crown Hill."
Even at the truth, the pressure on his neck did not ease. "We know that. How did you come by this packet?" It was the voice of the pixie.
"The man what rented the rig, he give it to me. I was suppose to make the trip to London, but he give me the packet and a silver or two. Told me where to take it and that I was to be off after."
"I have been here before and I questioned your father. He said you were gone from here for days. Where were you?"
"I was in Shrewsbury. I got a ride up there, on a farm cart, next mornin'. I played around there until Charlie was due back. Caught him on the road in. He said he'd cover wif me Da."
"Now that we have established that you are both a liar and a thief, Mr. Glenn, will you please tell me about the young woman you claimed not to have seen that night at Bramford Hall?"
He was quiet for a moment. A sudden shove from the man jarred loose his tongue. "We got there a bit late. There was lots of yellin' cuz of it. We were double quick getting' the trunks on. A gentleman and a lady come out and gets settled. Before we could head out, a couple of unsavoury types made their way up the drive. The started conversin' with the man. There was some more yellin -- mostly filthy swearin' on the part of the unsavoury types. I couldn't hear anythin' the gentleman said. Then there was a ruction and the two dragged a third fella from the bushes. Pulled off his hat and be dashed if it weren't a woman -- no mor'en a girl -- "
"What did she look like?"
"Fair. Her hair'ad come loose an it was longish. She was dressed funny. She had on a smock-frock, like she was huntin' or somethin'."
"What happened next?"
"The two was really foul. They made some dirty suggestions. She said nothin', but looked scared, like a rabbit ready to die o' fright. The gentleman stopped the two and opened the door to her. I didn't hear anything after that. We took off."
"Where did she go?" The Captain was asking again.
"London. We was headed to London."
The arm got heavier. "I don't believe you. Where did you take her?"
"London," Glenn cried as loudly as he could. The arm moved from his neck only to be replaced with an elbow to the hollow of his throat. "I swear. London." he gasped.
"Captain. There is a crowd gathering. While I am sure that Mr. Glenn is not a local hero, I do think that hurting one of their own will only lead to trouble for us. Please, we know all that is knowable right now. Let him go."
Amber could have kissed the pixie's hand.
The man let him down. He took the beads from the other gent and walked away.
"Mr. Glenn," said the pixie, "if you think of anything else, it would be to your advantage to come forward. The Magistrate in Shrewsbury will be able to relay any information you might have." He turned to leave.
"Hey, Mr. Batts," Glenn called. "What's wif him? He crazy?"
Batts had taken Pitney by the arm and was escorting him back to the carriage. He stopped and turned. "Yes, Mr. Glenn, you might say that Captain Wentworth has a form of insanity."
The carriage had just passed the fingerpost declaring ten miles to Crown Hill. Other than a repetition of the entire scene, courtesy of Pitney, the occupants had been silent.
"What do you make of it, Batts? Was the boy telling the truth?" the Captain asked.
"Considering your persuasive actions, and that he is merely a postillion, and considering his limited knowledge of the schedule and such, yes. I think he has, to the best of his ability, told us the truth," said Batts. "We must remember that he was sent off before the journey really began. As far as Amber Glenn is concerned, the carriage was leased to go to London and Charlie took it there. He would be quite ignorant of the trip while he paddled about in the big pond of Shrewsbury for a few days."
"So she is in London."
"Perhaps. As I mentioned before, here is nothing saying that a private deal was not struck between Charlie and Randwick, they could be anywhere."
"Anywhere is a lot of territory."
"True, but I feel certain that they are in London. It is a wonderful place to lose oneself."
Wentworth gazed out the window. Would Louisa be so hurt or shocked by his engagement to Anne Elliot that she would try to lose herself, more to the point, to hide from him in London? It seemed a ridiculous notion, but perhaps she was of a more romantic nature, the sort to which Batts had alluded, than he imagined.
"Here is what we know," Batts continued, "Randwick left the evening of Levant's murder -- "
"Kidnapping my cousin in the process of leaving -- " Abernathy had been strangely silent up to that point.
"One must wonder," Batts drawled, "was kidnapping a part of the plan from the start and did he have the note prepared? If he did, he knew that she would be coming round to the Hall. How might that be?"
"She had the fifty pounds. Could it have been for Randwick?" The idea was ridiculous, their faces all said as much. "The money makes no sense in all this."
Batts suggested, "Ladies like to have pin money. It was hers to do with as she chose."
"Perhaps it was to pay her way to London. Perhaps she wished to be away from Crown Hill and all its -- entanglements." The Captain's voice was steady, but faraway. He looked at no one as he spoke. He continued to look at the countryside lurched by.
The carriage was quiet. Pitney had begun to dig in a sack he had earlier poked under the seat. Abernathy said, "Perhaps Randwick knew about the murder before it took place -- "
Batts brightened as he handed his brother elements of the meal packed for him. "This is what I believe. I think that Daniel Randwick, and perhaps the woman -- I don't know that I told you, but she is, or was, Levant's, er -- " he glanced at his brother, "concubine."
Pitney snickered and Batts mouth dropped. "Gad, you try to keep them innocent ... " He stared at his brother a moment longer. He turned back to the Doctor, "Anywise, one, or both of them may have been involved in murdering Levant. But, even if I am wrong and if he did not know before, it is certain that he knows now."
Seeing Pitney well provisioned, Batts went on, "London affords him an opportunity to make a claim for Bramford Hall. He has access to his attorneys, his seizable funds and while he is able to mix with the best of society, his preferred companions will do all they can to keep him safe. And the longer he is hidden, the more difficult finding him -- and perhaps your wife -- becomes. Time is the enemy when someone goes missing."
The Captain glanced at Abernathy. He was listening intently. A question must be asked that could devastate them both. "What of his preferred companions? You mentioned yesterday his 'personal evils'. What precisely did you mean?"
"Captain, I misspoke. I should not have said anything. There is not profit in knowing such things -- "
"You did speak and I wish to know." He leant forward, elbows resting on his knees. With the composition of the company, the box of the carriage was cramped to begin with, the proximity of the Captain made Batts smaller in comparison. "I am a hunter by nature, Batts. I catch the scent of my prey and I hunt it down. I begin to know the enemy by his tactics -- does he flee -- does he turn and fight? I know him by the way his men handle his ship. I may never see more than a glance of the man through a glass, but I begin to know his mind. I must know Randwick's mind. It is the only way I know how to deal with him." He did not move.
Batts considered the Captain's plea. He hesitated, then asked, "Are you sure that you do not mean how you will deal with your wife?"
His jaw flexed and his eyes burned. "My wife is my wife, no matter what he might do to her."
Batts looked away. The Captain had made it clear enough. His concern was not for any scandal that might come about; a young and virtuous wife sullied by a blackguard. Wentworth was driven to find his mate, a visceral urge that now compelled the hunter to hunt. There was no telling what might be done with the damning information he held concerning Randwick's immoral proclivities. He looked back into the man's eyes. "Captain, really, I do not think -- "
"Please, Mr. Batts," interrupted the Doctor, "we must know the worst -- to be prepared. To prepare to heal any wounds."
He looked back and forth at the gentlemen. They would not be swayed. He leant forward and looked at Pitney. The man's eyes were closed, his breathing regular. Crumbs of a pasty sent from home clung to the corners of his mouth. Batts laid a hand gently on his cheek. His brother sighed, moved a bit, but did not awaken. He leant back.
"All right. I will tell you what I know of Daniel Randwick." His face was grim as he began.
The Captain took his travelling bag from the floor of the wardrobe. When it came to packing a bag, without Michaelson's skill, his clothes would be anything but presentable after the journey to Plymouth. But, he reckoned, what he lacked in skill would be made up in speed. It was a trade-off he was willing to make. He would leave with the first available carriage in the morning. There was no use in waiting any longer for Montague Batts's return. He had left for Shrewsbury on Wednesday, immediately after their return from Ludlow. If the man found any new information concerning Randwick, or especially Louisa, he had promised to send it on to the Captain. There had been no word. In the meantime, he would have to begin putting his plan into action. Batts had said it himself, time was against them and speed was the only friend of the missing.
He randomly pulled garments from the wardrobe. As he made a half-heart attempt at neatly folding a shirt, he allowed a bit of pleasantness from earlier in the afternoon play through his mind. "'She is my friend, and I know that she loves you, and she will return to you.'" Catherine's grip had been surprisingly strong for a woman in such a frail state. Frederick had finally worked up the nerve to visit his sister-in-law. Earlier in the day his brother had informed him that she was expecting the Captain to visit her, and her children. There was no kind way to avoid the invitation.
When he had entered, he found the curtains only half-open. The Doctor was still encouraging her to sleep whenever possible. It was now the first week of April and the sun was determined to generously repay all of Crown Hill for the dreary darkness of winter. Though it was only half-light, it was harsh and not kind to Catherine.
Her skin was pale and even considering the delivery of the twins, she had lost weight. There was a transparency to her, a frailness that seemed grossly out of place. He now understood his brother's habitual expression of concern.
Catherine had greeted him warmly and plied him with tea and cakes meant to tempt her appetite. She had lamented that the nurse was being more than a little fractious that day and was unwilling to bring the babies, particularly when there were visitors. With a wave she motioned him behind the changing screen and rang for the nurse. From his hiding place, Wentworth could see the woman glance about when she had entered -- she had obviously been duped before. She had received her orders, dropped a curtsey and left. After she had gone, Catherine motioned him out. A sly smile touched her pale lips. When the babies were brought in, the nurse's glare informed the Captain that he impressed her not. She then scuttled about the room, fussing with bedding and bedside trays. It was clear she was bent on doing whatever was necessary to keep her close to her charges. The look she gave her mistress at her firm dismissal was shocking.
"'I do not think she trusts me, but we must endure her. She is Graham's older sister, but more importantly, she is my mother's eyes and ears.'" The revelation came with no rancor or bitterness; in the presence of her children Catherine's countenance changed markedly and the Captain doubted there was much could dampen her spirits. Colour flooded her cheeks and the frailty disappeared as she expertly shifted the babies so that she might reach them with ease. Taking the smaller of the bundles, she opened its coverings, touched and fondled, then rewrapped it. For a moment she coo'd and kissed the exposed fingers and face.
"'This is Phillip, Uncle Frederick. He is as fine a boy as you will ever see.'" She had held the boy up, that his uncle might hold him. He protested, but they went unacknowledged and he reluctantly took the boy. His large hands nearly swallowed up the tiny, warm packet. To satisfy Phillip's proud mama, the Captain dutifully examined the child. The red face had filled out since the night of his birth and the Wentworth features were becoming stronger with each passing day.
"'No, like this, sir.'" Catherine had corrected his grasp and showed him the proper way to hold her son. As the baby settled himself, intent upon a nap, into the crook of the Captain's arm, the longing to see himself mirror'd in flesh returned with a vengeance.
After a few moments of cosseting the other bundle, he and Catherine made an exchange. "'And this is our Rose.'" Rose had made it clear immediately that she had no intentions of following her elder brother's sedate example of napping in the crook of his arm. She crowed with gusto, turning bright and pink in the process. Her tiny hands flailed the air. She grasped an offered finger and brought it to her mouth. The babe's reddish hair was still the same halo it had been that first night. Her blue eyes seemed to examine him with a disconcerting intensity. In his heart he knew that she did not fear him or the life that was before her. He felt certain this Rose would never crumble under the press of a difficult family life.
He stayed at the altar of his niece and nephew for some time. Catherine fussing and rebundling each. She quietly held whichever he did not. It was not surprising that the quality of her care was just as loving with each, but it struck him, that for each child, her tone and touch was quite different. To their mother, though they were conceived and birthed together, they were not two copies of one being. To her each was its own person and she tended to its needs instinctively. He could not help wonder about himself as a father -- or Louisa as a mother.
The nurse's surly countenance had eventually made its appearance. He could see Catherine begin to fade at the moment of the woman's arrival. She kissed each of the children and with great reluctance gave them back over to the care of this other woman. After the nurse had gone, he had thanked her for the introduction to his neice and nephew, but said that he was afraid he had tired her and that she must rest. He had touched her hand in parting. With surprising speed and strength she had taken it in hers.
"'Please, Frederick, she is my friend, and I know that she loves you, do not give up hope. She will come home to you.'" Her tone had been strong; her voice trembled with emotion.
Again, he had told her not to worry about things and to rest. She would not relent. "'That girl loves you. I have seen it in her. Have faith, do not give up, please."
He had calmly assured her of a faith he no longer possessed. It was not faith in Louisa he lacked, but faith in himself. After much discussion with his brother, he had convinced him that Louisa was a loving girl and would not betray the family in such a way. This was something he supposed, but not enough. Never before had all his efforts proven so fruitless. They should have produced more than the string of blue beads, her wedding ring and the information that, the last anyone had seen of her, she was headed to London. Time was his enemy. He knew how to deal with an enemy and that was why he began to pack his bag.
The bag sat on the bed, his clothing stuffed awkwardly into the corners, ready to go. He took the beads from the bedside table. He had kept them there, taking them in his hands in the early morning hours, remembering the her face the night he gave them to her. They had become like a good Papist's rosary; he counted out his prayers to the All Mighty. They all began, 'I know I started off badly, but please, bring her home to me --'
He unhooked them and let the wedding ring fall into his palm. This he tucked into an inner pocket of his waistcoat. He would keep this memorial on his person. He would put it back on her finger when she was found -- if she would allow him.
He took the beads to the dresser. He watched them leisurely coil into the wooden box. Replacing the lid, he thumbed the marquetry tulips. The box had been enough for her, the beads a treasured bonus. His simple gifts had so pleased her once. Would they ever again? She was in the power of not only a charming man, but a demon by all accounts. He knew a man's mind could be turned with constant flattery and gifts. It was also possible to turn a man with relentless physical abuse. As a human creature, a woman could be no different. He took the box and stuffed it into a pocket in the satchel.
He felt tired suddenly. He must find Edward and tell him of his plans. A traitourous knot ripened in his gut. Having seen Catherine, he now understood the deep and abiding care that lined his brother's face. But to stay and support his brother was to abandon his wife. He had a vow to Louisa, he had no such promise to his brother. He would keep the vow.
He took a last look at the satchel, patted his waistcoat and felt the ring. He went to find his brother.
Frederick found Edward examining the apple trees near the back wall of the rectory. He occasionally snapped off a branch here and there. Pruning back the deadwood, he thought. That is what I have been here, deadwood. Edward looked deep in thought and so the Captain called out as he approached, so as not to startle him.
"Ah, there you are. Catherine told me you visited her -- and the children."
He stopped plucking at the trees and looked at him. "So, what do you think? Will they pass the inspection?" He smiled. A lightness was in him. Perhaps dawn was breaking over his brother.
Frederick laid a hand on his shoulder. "They more than pass muster. They are exemplary Wentworths. Especially that Rose."
The Rector nodded and turned back to the tree. "Ah, you see it too. It is a relief." He folded the knife he used and continued, "Though, the little thing is determined to be awake whenever Phillip is sleeping and vice versa. As for Catherine, I am despairing. She is in great pain, but puts off any of the medications Abernathy has left for her. She is determined to be up and about, though he has said not to hope for much before late summer."
"Determination can account for nearly miraculous results."
"I suppose. But stubbornness can account for great harm. Don't you agree?"
"Uh, yes." Louisa's pale, lifeless face as he held her on the Cobb flashed through his mind. "Stubbornness is a force to reckoned with, to be sure." He turned away and fixed his gaze across the greening field which surrounded the rectory.
"She is in great pain and refuses to relieve herself."
Both were quiet and took in the quiet of the afternoon.
"Has Batts returned?" the Rector ventured.
"Not that I am aware. I expect to hear from him at any time, he promised to send word immediately when he got back." He picked at a clump of slate coloured moss which had attached itself to the top of the wall. "I doubt that he found anything new in Shrewsbury. He will most likely seal the Hall, until the estate is settled, and be on his way. There is nothing left for him here." He made no effort to hide the disappointment in his voice. As long as anyone was actively investigating the happenings of past few weeks, he held on to hope, but as things came to a halt, he could not help falling into despair.
"I am sorry to hear that. I know you were anticipating a speedy end to this. What will you do next?"
"I shall return to Plymouth ... see the Laconia's refitting finished. I will call in several markers and work to see that Harville is installed as her captain -- "
"Resign her? -- and not go to Barbadoes?"
He glanced at his brother. "Uh, no. I mean yes, resign her. I intend to go to London myself. In the meanwhile I will hire an agent to look for Louisa. Batts, I am sure, can suggest someone trustworthy. I shall begin to look for her myself, when I am free from my responsibilities."
"Giving up a posting at sea -- that is quite a step of faith. It might, in fact, seal your fate. In the past, you would never have done that."
"No, a sailor must be at sea. But a husband has other duties. By the by, on the way to Plymouth, I shall make a stop at Uppercross and explain to the Musgroves what has happened. I must say, I do not look forward to it."
"I am sure you do not."
"I can see the scene -- I'm seated before that kindly gentleman. And I say, 'Mr Musgrove, I married Louisa, took her far from home, and while I intended to take good care of her, now it seems that I have misplaced her. Sorry.' " He took a deep breath as he smiled at the absurdity of it all.
"Frederick!" Edward said. The jest was tasteless, but to see his brother smile, even while in such pain, was better than tears.
"You will be quite lucky if Mrs. Musgrove does not pack 'em all up, encamp at the Dove and Quail and conduct searches from there."
"Frederick, please. We have more than our share of troubles."
The Captain straightened and cleared his throat.
"There is more, but," he turned and leant on the wall. "I hesitate to tell you."
The Rector frowned. "Is it so bad that you fear my opinion?"
"You will, I think, not agree with what I have decided."
"Tell me, my boy."
Frederick took comfort in Edward's affection. "As this drags on I am more and more coming to believe that even if Louisa did not leave initially, on her own, she may be staying away -- deliberately." He paused. "If I find her, and she tells me that she wishes to disassociate herself from me, I shall obtain a divorce."
"And the grounds?"
"Criminal conversation is the only charge. But I will swear it to be mine."
His brother looked away.
"It will be easily done and no one will disbelieve me," he smiled, "I am, after all, a sailor. You know what they all think: the codpiece is never firmly buttoned."
Edward took a deep breath. "That is not amusing, brother. You are not an immoral man and I cannot approve of your perjuring yourself." He looked at Frederick. "Even to save her reputation."
"Thank you for your confidence. But I see no other way that does not damage her beyond repair." He bowed his head and examined the ground. Rising, he continued, "Anne has been a part of her family for many years. The knowledge of the engagement -- the awkward position it places my wife in -- I have come to wonder if Louisa might have chosen to be rid of me and keep her family's peace."
"Perhaps, but doubtful." Edward shrugged an acknowledgment. "Would this action damage your career?"
"Not noticeably," he said. "Oh, I might be socially distasteful for a little while -- a very little while. The Navy's social palate is not as discerning as it once was. As a matter of fact, a bit of adultery might put me in good stead with some. There are men and women who have always thought me far too priggish for their tastes. Isn't that a shocking bit of irony?" He laughed. "My feigning immorality might actually work to my advantage. It has been said that I have the Midas Touch, and here is the complete proof of it." He looked away.
"It is not really a shock," the Rector sighed. "The worldly man is always ready to take to his bosom his fellow companions that travel the low road. No having to strain the neck looking up." He smiled and pointed to his own neck. He touched his brother's shoulder and gently turned him around. "Never despise yourself for being good, or doing what is right."
Frederick sighed. "None of that matters. I do not wish a divorce. And I must hear it from her own lips that she wants to be free of me."
"Well then, if that is the case, I doubt you will hear those words. She loves you."
"That is what I thought."
Frederick and Edward looked to the voice. Abernathy was approaching, waving a letter.
"This just came. It is from Batts."
He leant upon the fence as the Captain broke open the seals and read. To Edward he said, "It is lovely out here. When your wife is up and about you and she can take short walks out here."
"Yes, she always has liked this part of the property." His curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "What has he to say, Frederick?"
The Captain folded the letter and put it in his breast pocket. "Nothing. It is as I thought, he has found nothing new and is closing the Hall. He regrets he was not able to help me further."
"We press on then. Batts has connections, but we are not without our own, Captain. I suspect that there is more to Amber Glen's story. And perhaps that Charlie, the driver, knows more than he is saying." Abernathy offered.
"Perhaps," the Captain murmured. He continued staring out over the field. In the distance, the road to Glencoe was busy with traffic. Carts and carriages weaving to and fro. Closer by, an ancient cow ranged through the grass. The slow moving hulk reminded him of an inelegant collier, hauling coal up a narrow channel. An ugly procedure from start to finish. Giving up his posting to the Laconia would doom his hopes of making admiral. He should have held kinder thoughts about men and ships not in service to the crown. It was looking as though, if he wished to continue at sea, that he would become one of them. He pushed off the wall and walked away. Though he had not been listening, the amiable tone of his brother and the Doctor's chatter was fast becoming an annoyance.
Frederick stood amidst the branches of the last apple tree of its row. With great deliberation he stripped each sweet pink blossom from the twisted limbs within his reach. It was not his intention to maim the plant, it was merely his wish to lessen the happiness the flowers threatened to invoke. It was the same with the soft breeze that had kicked up and the sound of bees feeding on the blooms. These two agents conspired to lull him into a peacful state. He refused to be woo'd by them.
Deciding he was safe from the dangers of the tree, he snapped shut his clasp knife and turning, leant against a limb just shoulder high. He pulled off his hat and turned it in his hands. It was only a few months old, a gift from Abernathy and already to his liking for its fit. The Doctor had given it to him to replace his own which had been lost in a wind storm. It was that night of the storm which had given the Captain his first real glimpse into the heart of Doctor Michael Abernathy.
He looked through the branches to the two men. They were laughing at, no doubt, some foolishness one or the other had observed lately. Perhaps it was his own folly that amused them so. Frederick quickly thought better of such an unkindness. He took pleasure in that fact that, for this brief moment, his brother was able to put aside the fact that his wife was desperately ill. And that, God forbid, she could be called home, leaving him with two motherless babies. Just as Abernathy, who played the fool with such ease, but was, in fact quite the opposite, could put aside his longing for the love of a late wife who had not returned his affection.
It was then he knew that he was no different than any other man. Especially these two good friends. While it was true he made his living in a unique fashion which many found to be mysterious and dangerous and exciting -- he was certainly not trapped by the mundacity of ordinary country living -- the secret his heart was beginning to reveal was an overwhelming desire for the domestic. A home, a wife and children. A life that depended upon constancy and love, not mystery, not danger, not excitement.
The truth was, in his life he had loved two women. The first had been lost due to his own pride and arrogance. The revelations of the past days made him wonder if, perhaps, he had lost the second for the same reasons.
Mary Musgrove fairly flew out of the main door of Uppercross Cottage. With one hand she held her skirts clear of her feet, with the other she clutched a letter which had just come in the morning post. "Charles," she called out. There was no response. "Where is that man?" she muttered, as she looked about. Her husband was nowhere to be seen, but Mary did not abandon her search. She turned, skirted the house, and trotted up the gravel path to the Mansion. Charles had not taken out his gun or the dogs; where else could he be?
Although the weather had been dry for days, the pathway was muddy in places. Mary grimaced as she picked her way along it. "Charles," she called out, as she came within sight of the house. "Oh, Chaaar-ells!" Annoyance now tinged her voice; her lips compressed into a line. Now that she thought on it, she knew exactly where to find him -- with that wretched beast of Captain Wentworth's!
Mary pushed open the heavy door to the horse barn and gingerly made her way down the aisle, wincing at the dirt, the straw-covered floor, and the horsy smells. She squinted into the dimness and listened. There! Someone was humming a tune. Sure enough, it was Charles. She could just see his dark blonde head above the wooden wall of the very last box. He was brushing a horse.
"Charles!" Mary cried, and rushed forward. "I've just had a letter from Anne, and with such news!" She waved it at him. "Can you imagine? Anne is to be married, Charles! Married, to that Captain Benwick! In less than a fortnight! Even before Henrietta!"
"Is that so?" Charles smiled and continued brushing the horse. "I thought as much. Good for them."
Mary wrinkled her nose. "You like this news?"
"Well, sure. Benwick is a fine fellow. I always thought he had a soft spot for Anne -- and she for him."
Mary stared at her husband in disbelief. It was then that she got a good look at him. "Good gracious, Charles," she scolded, "you are simply covered with the hairs of that horse! Isn't brushing it supposed to be that Coney-person's job?"
"It is, but I don't mind, Mary. I like animals."
"So you say," she sniffed, "but I don't believe a word of it, since you enjoy killing them so much."
Charles shook his head and patted Belle's chestnut flank. "You don't understand the first thing about the sport of hunting," said he, "or about the peaceful quiet of the woodland, if you think that."
"Quiet? With that gun of yours and all those dogs?"
"At least the dogs don't talk," said Charles in a grumble, as he resumed his work.
Mary raised her chin. She had not caught his last remark, but she had seen the expression which went with it. "And as if this letter was not bad enough," she fretted, "now I find you out here doing farm chores! At this rate, I shouldn't wonder that you will be raking dung from the floor, or washing and polishing the gig! Coney shall have nothing at all to do, thanks to you!"
"Raking dung? Washing the ...? Of course not!" Charles frowned at his wife. "Belle is a creature, Mary. She needs to come to know me, to trust me, before I may do anything with her. My time here is far from wasted."
Mary tossed her head. "A true gentleman has a man to care for his horses," she proclaimed.
"A farrier, yes," muttered Charles, "who must be housed and fed and given a wage."
"Don't I know it! If only we had a larger income ..." This last was accompanied by a gusty sigh.
Before she could say more about money, Charles hastened to change the subject. "So," he said pleasantly, "Anne is getting married! What luck for you! We'll have another trip to Bath."
"And I've no time to have a dress made up for Anne's wedding, more's the pity," she lamented. "My gown for Henrietta's will scarcely be finished in time, as it is!"
"Oh, surely the delights of Bath will compensate for that," offered Charles. "Anne will not mind if you have no new finery."
A frown creased Mary's brow and she fell silent, thinking. "Charles," said she at last, "do you know, with this wedding being so quickly planned, and with Father in such straits, I wonder whether Anne will have a new gown, at all."
"There! You see, you'll be in good company. Besides, I doubt Anne gives a fig for such things."
"Of course she does!" cried Mary. "Every bride must have a beautiful dress! It is the most important part of the wedding!" She bit her lip and thought some more. "Perhaps I may do something for the poor dear ..."
"You?" Over the back of the horse, Charles gave his wife a frown.
"I could give her my blue gown," mused Mary, aloud. "You know, the one I wore for Louisa's wedding? Yes, and very easily, too, for I don't like it nearly as well as I did at first." Mary's enthusiasm grew as the idea took hold. "I am sure you will agree with me, Charles. It will be just the thing for Anne!"
"Not the dress she slaved to finish for you, sewing day after day!" he objected. "Benwick nearly tore me to shreds over that little incident! Not that I blame him," he added, in an undervoice.
Mary tossed his comment aside. "It is quite perfect," she gushed. "Anne will just love it, I know she will. And Elise will do the alterations, so you needn't worry about anyone ╬slaving,' Charles. Bless me, it is quite traditional to give an item like this to a bride, isn't it? ╬Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,' " she quoted.
"It is certainly borrowed. And blue," he admitted reluctantly. "But what if Anne doesn't like it?"
"Of course she will like it! What a thing to say! Besides," she added, "when one marries a common man like Benwick, one must learn to accept gifts from one's relations. I am not so proud; Father is forever sending me this or that."
Mary returned her attention to the letter and shook her head mournfully. "But I must say, this is a bad thing for Anne, and still worse for me, for I shall have to look out for her now, in so many ways! And as you know, I can ill afford to be generous."
"I don't think Anne will need your cast-off ..."
"I declare," continued Mary, warmly, "when I recall how Captain Harville lived in Lyme, a mere tenant in that horrid little hovel of a house! Such baseness! Such dependence and poverty! And to think that Benwick is of a lower rank than he!"
"Benwick is a good sort, Mary. He's no pauper; Anne won't starve."
"He's no gentleman, either," pouted Mary. "Such treatment as I was subjected to in Lyme! There he sat, poring over his book, never knowing when I spoke, or when I dropped my scissors, or anything!"
"Perhaps I should take up reading, myself," said Charles, in a grumble.
Mary gave a sigh of great sensibility and laid a hand to her breast. "Such a lowly man! My heart is simply wrung for Anne."
"Then it must be for Elizabeth to marry a duke, so that you must bow and scrape to her," muttered Charles.
"Bless me, no!" she exclaimed. "Were you completely blind at that assembly, Charles? She means to have that Rushworth fellow! He is frightfully rich, and though I know nothing of his family, he is a mere Mister all the same!" Mary attempted to conceal her glee, but without success. "What could be better?" she crowed. "For when you are become the squire ...
"... my father will be in his grave. I thank you for the reminder."
"Good gracious, Charles, I did not mean it that way!"
Charles laid down the brush. "Do you know, Mary, you think too much of precedence and rank."
"And what is wrong with that? You cannot know the degradation I suffer."
"Oh, I think I do. For you are forever telling me of it."
For once, Mary had the sense to be silent. His task finished, Charles gathered his supplies and came out of Belle's box. "Very well, my dear," he said pleasantly, as he fastened the latch, "I quite agree. You may pack up that dress for Anne."
"It will need to be sent express, mind you," Mary pointed out. "Without delay."
"Oh, it will be. It should reach Bath by tonight or tomorrow, depending on the roads and the horses. I will take it myself. After all, what are fifty miles of good road on a grand morning like this?" Having said that, Charles turned and strode down the aisle.
"Do you mean now?" Mary gasped; she began trotting to keep up with him. "Bless me!" she sputtered. "I cannot start for Bath this minute, Charles! What are you thinking? I must have time to pack and make arrangements for ..."
"I wouldn't dream of inconveniencing you," he cut in. They had now reached the barn door; Charles pulled it open. "By the time Coney and Joe have the carriage ready," he said, "you'll have that dress wrapped up and a nice little letter written to Anne, I'm sure."
Mary was struck speechless, but only for a moment. "Do you mean to say that I am not going with you?" she squeaked. "Upon my word! I shall be pretty well off, when you are gone away to be happy at Bath!"
But Charles never heard the rest of what she said (for there was more), as he swiftly crossed the yard and went into the Great House to speak to his father about the carriage. And so Mary was left out of doors, to huff and puff and stamp her feet alone.
"It is pretty," admitted Lady Russell, with a raised eyebrow to her goddaughter. "But it is not very practical, is it? And while Captain Benwick has been very kind to give you leave to choose the fabric, one must remember than a man does not take to having pink roses in his bedchamber, dear."
"I suppose you are right." Anne sighed, and let go of the beautiful sample. She turned away from the display and watched as her godmother fastened her gaze on something else. Soon Lady Russell moved to join Elizabeth and Mrs. Clay, who were in raptures over bolts of brocade at the far end of the draper's shop. Anne closed her eyes for a moment. She was extremely weary; her feet hurt and she dearly wished she could sit down. But James wanted a new duvet made up for their bed (as it could be classified as a household expense and so charged to the estate), and Anne was determined to do her best to accommodate him.
Presently she directed her attention to a stack of somber, striped patterns. One of these would be serviceable enough, but to her eyes every one was hopelessly dreary. She knew this was a ridiculous notion; it was probably because she had not made decisions of this kind for an age, and had simply forgotten how to choose.
With renewed determination, she once again applied herself to the samples. A dark green one caught her attention. She gazed at it critically.
"That one is rather nice," said a voice beside her. Anne turned to see a familiar face.
"James!" she smiled. "I didn't know you were here!"
"My appointment ended early and I took a chance. What have you found for us?"
"Oh, there are several here which will do very well," she replied, and handed him the stack of striped samples.
"But which do you prefer?" he asked quietly, with a pointed look into her eyes. "What about ... where is it? There was one you studied for quite some time." Captain Benwick began to pick through the piles on the table. "It was pink. With flowers on it, as I recall."
"Good heavens," smiled Anne. "How long have you been here, watching me? If you must know, it was this one. But it is not at all appropriate for us. I well remember your aversion to pink flowers," she added teasingly.
"Oh, I don't know about that," he said cheerfully, as he took the square of fabric and spread it out. "That ruffly handkerchief is now my favourite one. Let me have a good look at this."
"James," Anne protested, and she clutched at his arm. "It was a foolish fancy of mine; this one is not at all practical! Besides, I wouldn't dream of saddling you with such a feminine design."
"But I like roses," he murmured smilingly. "Not for the public rooms, mind, but for our bedchamber, I think they would be rather nice. Do you see," he pointed, "this is not entirely pink. These leaves are green, and this maroon colour will look very well with the woodwork. You remember, the dark bedstead and wainscoting?
This opinion stretched Anne's credulity too far and she said so. She was surprised to see a faint blush appear on his cheeks.
"Anne," he murmured, "dear one, you don't know how I've lived at sea; at times, with only the contents of my locker, an old wool blanket, and an hammock to call my own. To have a coverlet like this on my bed, womanish as it is ..." He leaned in more closely and whispered, "Whenever I would see it, it would remind me that I am no longer alone. That I have a wife with whom I share my bed. I would think of ... you."
Anne's cheeks flamed scarlet. "Good heavens, James!" she gasped.
"Shall I order it made up, then?" he grinned. "And I think it should have a ruffle along the edge, don't you?"
"A ruffle?" Anne gulped, for she could see that he was perfectly serious. "Very well, if ... if you insist," she agreed reluctantly. "And ... what do you think of ... frilly pillows to match?"
"Oh, we must have those," he smiled. "Absolutely."
When Lady Russell came over to greet Captain Benwick, Anne did not know what to say to her, for he was holding the offending sample. "Captain Benwick wants the roses," she murmured, as he went off to find the draper. "And he will brook no argument about it, either."
Lady Russell took a long look at Benwick. "I suppose he is so accommodating because he is a Romantic," she observed. "That is most considerate in a husband, Anne. But take care not to push him too far."
"Yes, ma'am," replied Anne. "We shall have a naval painting and shelves of his books in our bedchamber, as well."
"Our bedchamber?" Lady Russell repeated, in a low voice. "What is this? Shall you not have one of your own?"
Anne raised her chin. "He believes such a practice is ... ╬civilised barbarity,' ma'am," she said softly. "And as you know, I must submit to my husband's wishes, mustn't I?"
Lady Russell opened her mouth in surprise and was about to say more, but by then Anne had wisely moved out of earshot.
Charles Musgrove arched his back and stretched his aching muscles. He had been shut up inside the stifling carriage for longer than he cared to think about, but he knew it could not be helped. It would never do to arrive sitting out on the box with Coney and Joe, as he had done for most of the journey. Even so, he thought grimly, it makes no difference. His father-in-law had an unnerving way of looking him over which never failed to make him unhappily aware of every wrinkle in his shirt, every speck of dust on his coat. He could not help but recall Mary's comment about the horse hairs, and brushed at his trousers self-consciously.
At last the carriage turned onto Camden Place and came to a halt. Charles looked out at the house; his heart sank. It was quite dark now; the windows on the second floor were brightly lit. No doubt the family was still at dinner; an uncomfortable time to have an unexpected caller, no matter who he was. Joe opened the door and assisted him to climb out of the vehicle, which was no bad thing, for his limbs were stiff and awkward. This trip seemed such a good idea this morning, Charles thought wearily. Now he kicked himself for coming.
As always, Sir Walter's butler (who was nearly as finicky as the man himself) scrutinized him with a critical eye, causing Charles to feel every bit as disheveled and sunburned as he was. Nevertheless, the man could not refuse to admit him, and Charles took perverse pleasure in that. As he waited to be shown into the drawing room, he again straightened his coat and willed his empty stomach to stop growling. There was not much hope of dinner now, for according to the butler, the family had just left the dining room.
But some thirty minutes later, Charles was climbing back into the carriage, in considerably better spirits. Captain Benwick was with him; he was to lodge at Benwick's house for the night, with the promise of a hearty meal before the fire. Things were definitely looking up!
The blue gown was the biggest surprise of all; Anne had received it with a sincerity which was touching. Charles shook his head at this; could it be that Mary had been right, that Anne actually liked it? As he and Benwick were leaving, he had heard her ask the butler to summon her maid. Charles knew Anne had good manners, and was usually willing to humour Mary, but this was taking it too far!
However, Charles quickly put all thoughts of the gown aside, as he had other things to be occupied with. He was now wholly in Benwick's power, and he was most interested to see where he would sleep that night. When his father's carriage pulled to a stop before a tall stone residence, and when it became clear that no, this was not a lodging house but Benwick's own inherited property, Charles began to smile.
A hired hovel in Lyme, indeed, he scoffed cheerfully, as he climbed out and stood on the walk. Won't Mary stare to see this! And as he took in the elegant entry hall, and peeked behind Benwick into the spacious drawing room which opened from it, his smile widened into a grin. He shot a look at his future brother-in-law, who was now arranging his accommodations (which included a hot bath!) with a slim, somberly-clad servant, a man Charles decided must be the butler. His shoulders sagged in relief at the thought of the bath. It would never occur to him to ask for such a thing; Benwick was a most considerate fellow.
Soon he was following his host down a hallway, eagerly taking in the details of this most interesting house. As Benwick walked along, Charles was surprised to see him shrug off his frock coat and loosen the knot of his neckcloth.
"The library," said he, as he opened the door and motioned Charles inside. "I spend most of my time here." His discarded garments were tossed onto a small sofa. Charles grinned some more and gladly followed suit; he was liking Benwick better and better!
Presently Charles found himself to be lounging in one of two oversized leather armchairs placed before a bright fire. He stretched out his stocking feet, sighed, and took another swallow from his wineglass, which he held with both hands.
"This does beat all, Benwick," he remarked at last. "I thought I was in for it: an evening of elegant agony with The Great Man and his kin, until you rescued me." He lowered his glass. "And where was it I was supposed to sleep tonight? I felt badly for Anne and all, but honestly, I'd as lief stay with you any day.
"Ah, the newly-appointed guest quarters," murmured Benwick, with an unholy smile. "You must get a look in there sometime, Musgrove, once that cousin leaves. I cannot imagine the amount Sir Walter laid out to have that painting done. The work is first-rate, but the subject! Anne calls it ╬Elliot's Folly.' Er, you'd best not repeat that," he added, with a wary look to his companion. "Her father's uncommonly pleased with it."
"That figures," agreed Charles. "But how'd Elliot end up staying there?"
"His rooms are being painted, or some such thing," grumbled Benwick. "That mural's barely dry, but Sir Walter would extend the invitation, with the most incredible amount of patronizing condescension I've ever seen. But the man accepted. And then you show up, his own son-in-law, needing lodging." Benwick took a sip of coffee. "What a shame," he said. "And it is left for Anne to blush for him."
"That's our Papa. Behaves badly but never owns up to it," Charles quipped, and finished his wine. "He's seen this house?"
"Not yet. He knows of the location; that's enough to keep him at bay, for now."
"So he thinks I'll be sleeping on the floor of a garret tonight, eh?"
"I suppose. Elizabeth was here with Anne the other day. I don't know what she's told him."
"Good lord, you are undone, man! I don't think even the, the -- what's the name of that palace in India? Oh, yes! I remember now! -- I'll bet not even the Taj Mahal would meet with her approval!"
"Very likely not. Though, you know," said Benwick, as he lowered his cup, "it is a mausoleum, Musgrove, not a palace."
"Hah!" cried Charles. "Is it, now? Just the place for Elizabeth! And my wife could visit her upon occasion," he added maliciously.
"Er, you were telling me earlier about your horse," Benwick broke in. "And something about a business?"
"Oh. Well, it's Frederick's horse, you know," replied Charles, leaning forward as he warmed to his subject. "And he's allowing me to breed her. I've always wanted to do that, breed horses."
And as Benwick was a most attentive and encouraging listener, and even went so far as to ask specific questions (which was more than could be said for most people), Charles went on and on. He talked through his meal, around bites of beef and potatoes and pieces of carrot, about his plans to raise and train horses.
"I have a horse," offered Benwick, when at last Charles had fallen silent. "Would you like to see it?"
He then rose, unlocked a closet, and rummaged about in it. Presently he brought out a glazed pottery figure, about two feet high. It was an exquisite Chinese war-horse, dressed for battle. Benwick lowered it carefully to the floor before Charles' feet; the light of the dancing flames caused the horse's chestnut neck and flank to shine.
"Yee tells me this was made in China, during the Tang dynasty," he said, in a voice hushed with wonder. "That's the eighth century," he explained.
Charles leaned forward to touch the detailed bridle and saddle, and fingered the animal's flowing mane. "This is absolutely beautiful," he breathed. "I say, James. Shouldn't something like this be in the British Museum?"
"That's my dilemma," sighed Benwick. "Which of these pieces do I sell and which do I keep? For I do not think I could bear to part with this."
"Of course not," agreed Charles.
"But I find myself saying that about nearly all of the valuables in this house. What shall I do?"
Charles' grin spread from ear to ear. "You'll be a man who has very little money but who owns much property," he chirped cheerfully. "Like me!"
Meanwhile, in Sir Walter's house, Anne had rejoined the others in the drawing room. Elise had been able to assure her that with some slight modifications, Mary's gown would fit perfectly. Anne had always liked blue, and this particular shade, which so reminded her of springtime, was the ideal symbol of her new beginning. ╬They that sow in tears shall reap in joy,' Anne recalled. The irony of the text brought a tiny smile to her lips. She had indeed sewn this gown in tears, but she was determined to wear it with joy.
She was also determined to finish another project, a gift for James. She took a quick look about the room before she brought her sewing basket from beneath her chair. Inside it was her latest undertaking, which had been carefully concealed from everyone: the embellishment of her most feminine lace handkerchief. Anne struggled to contain a wicked smile as she pulled it out and ran her fingertips over his initials, which she had stitched in pink silk. She had copied the flamboyant style of the letters from Miss Calvine's flowery note; she smiled to think of his expression when he recognised that. James had a way of noticing details which was most gratifying.
The handkerchief was meant to be a joke, but only partly. During the past week, he had sent so many little gifts and loving letters, Anne had been overwhelmed. She had no idea how to reciprocate his kindnesses, and very little ability to do so. But she knew he would treasure this gift, and that made the chore of doing the exacting needlework as if it was nothing.
We shall grow to be a fusty, old married couple, I am sure, she thought with a smile, as she put the finishing stitches on the ╬B.' Somehow, that prospect sounded pleasant and comfortable, and not at all dull.
Meanwhile, from his post beside Elizabeth on the far side of the drawing room, someone else was occupied within the world of his thoughts. I must say, she is good. She is very good, Mr Elliot thought ruefully, as he watched Mrs. Clay from beneath lowered lids.
In the short time he has been acquainted with the family in Bath, he has seen her make considerable progress toward her object. Seldom had he seen a woman so anxious to please, so willing to stoop to nearly any level to do it. This evening, for example, Sir Walter had voiced the mildest complaint of boredom and she immediately went into action; the two of them were now playing backgammon. William Elliot had to admire her shrewdness: she had chosen a game for only two players.
Yes, there was a growing intimacy there, though he could not help but notice desperation in her pleasant manner. He raised an eyebrow as he took in the bodice of her gown. The woman certainly dressed to inflame male sensibilities, for its neckline did more than hint at what was concealed beneath. William smiled to himself. It had been his experience that the desperate women were the ones who most readily displayed their ╬wares' like this.
Nevetheless, I wonder, he mused as he watched the two together, what shall I see in the hall abovestairs, in the wee hours of the night? For Sir Walter could not be so stupid -- or such a poor specimen of a man -- as to be immune to her amorous intentions. Just now, for instance, both had reached for the same game piece; they had smiled and laughed, but their hands had touched a shade too long for William Elliot's liking. Would she dare to risk a direct encounter with the man in the night? he wondered. And then appeal to his sense of honour later on? Mr Elliot had seen this attempted at large houseparties on more than a few occasions. And he knew Sir Walter was foolish enough to succumb to such a scheme. The question was, did Penelope Clay know it, as well?
The question continue to nag at him hours later, as he lay in the sumptuous guest chamber. At last he threw back the blankets in disgust.
How very like Sir Walter, he grumbled. Here was a lavishly decorated room, yet it housed the most miserably uncomfortable bed! In addition to that, the smell of fresh paint was everywhere; he could not escape it. Even with the window open, it was maddening. William Elliot was by now at his wit's end; how could he endure it?
At last he moved to stand in the open doorway. Unless he chose to hang his head out of the window for the entire night, this was the only way he could breathe properly. William rubbed his eyes and looked up and down the dim hall. He had heard a clock strike three some time ago; other than that, the house was absolutely silent. There had been no sign of Penelope Clay; he had heard no door open or close.
William sighed and absently studied the row of doors. In the pale moonlight, he could make out shoes on the floor, one pair beside each door. He supposed that after daybreak a servant would collect, polish, and return them before the family awakened. The shoes caught his interest, for they gave a clue as to the occupant of each room. William began to make his way along the hallway, as silently as he could. When he reached a pair of large, rather worn shoes, he stopped. So, she has not yet ╬stooped to folly' in her attempt to attach him, he thought acidly. To tell the truth, William was rather disappointed. Had he been in Penelope's place, this would be exactly the manoeuvre he would attempt.
He then located Sir Walter's pumps, and Elizabeth's elegant kid slippers. And then, beside the door at the very end of the hall, he found Anne's little boots. These shoes were even more worn than Penelope Clay's. William's face hardened. She whom I would have taken to my heart, lies within, he thought. He lowered his eyes and swallowed down his disappointment. If only he could make her see how much he loved her! If only he could have her as his very own, then she would know. Then she would realise how happy she would be in his care. But she has already pledged herself to that sailor, he recalled, and there is no way to turn her back ...
... or is there? William spent some time before Anne's door, thinking, until the sound of the clock chiming the half-hour brought him to his senses.
All at once, he bent down, took up one of Anne's boots, and from his full height, dropped it to the floor. He waited expectantly, but nothing happened. The house remained silent; all were soundly asleep.
A tiny smile came to William's lips. It was then that he put his hand on the knob of the door, and turned it.
Author's Note: With Chauntecleer so full of antiquities, we've had quite a jolly time looking around for items to bring colour to the story. Benwick's 7-8th century Chinese horse, which we have been hopelessly unable to describe properly, does indeed exist. You may see it by following the link below.
Now, as for the ╬cliffhanger ending,' hold tight. We'll have the next chapter posted on Wednesday. We promise.
Continued in Part 3
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