After luncheon, Jennings led Elizabeth to his rooms, and to the drawer in the desk where he kept the slate.
Although she was smiling encouragingly at him, and he knew even from their brief acquaintance that she was neither judgmental nor skeptical, he felt his heart pounding as he slid the drawer open.
He had never shown any other person what he was now revealing to her.
Nestled snugly in the drawer was a simple piece of slate, misshapen at the edges as though it had been broken unceremoniously off the end of a larger piece. Written on it in an elegant script were the words, “Find my lost child.”
Jennings blinked at the slate in surprise. Usually he could sense when the slate was going to deliver a message to him; perhaps his nervousness at sharing the slate with Elizabeth had overshadowed his abilities.
Elizabeth was staring at the words on the slate. “You have a lost child?” she said finally, hesitating in fear that she was mentioning something delicate.
“I don’t,” Jennings replied, pulling the slate out of the drawer and holding it up in the light from the window. “This slate tells me things that have not yet occurred, or which occurred in secret. I can feel the slate speaking to me –” He put his hand to his chest and pressed his fingers against his heart. “Here, like a strange constriction.” He looked at Elizabeth, to find her steadily returning his gaze with kind curiosity and openness. Sitting down on the edge of his bed, he gave her a lop-sided smile. “You must think I’m quite mad,” he predicted. “But my family have always had this … gift.” He waited then in anxious silence for her response.
She frowned slightly and came to sit beside him. “Indeed, sir,” she said genuinely. “I cannot imagine why I would find you mad. Did you not find me hidden under a bush? – no one would ever have seen me, if they had not known where to look.” She smiled gently. “Either you were my attacker, sir,” she added. “And I know that you were not. Or you had some ability to discover me that others lack.” She looked down then at her hands folded in her lap. “I should not judge you in any event,” she said. “Since I have told you an unbelievable tale of a clawed monster abducting me from a balcony, in full view of the house!”
Jennings propped the slate on his knee and put a comforting hand on Elizabeth’s. “I am more relieved at your response than I can say,” he told her. “I had not known how to broach this subject with you in a way that would not frighten you, or cause you to doubt my sanity.” His finger tapped absently on the slate, his touch smudging part of the words. “And of course,” he went on, squeezing her hands warmly. “We are agreed then? That neither of us is mad?” He smiled genially, but inside he still feared that she would not be able to accept his dark talent.
Her eyes twinkled, and he was instantly reassured. “Mr. Jennings,” Elizabeth said, smiling back at him. “We are agreed. And shall we agree, too,” she asked. “That everyone else in the world must think we are as mad as anything?”
He laughed. “Accepting that fact will certainly make it easier to bear,” he said. He grew serious. “I have inherited this gift from my mother,” he explained. “Who gave it to me and to my sister. My mother had it from her own mother, and her grandmother, and all the women in her family before her, as far back as she could remember. I am, in fact, one of only four men in my entire family tree who are able to receive the visions.” He laughed again. “I did not know, actually, if you would be able to see the writing on the slate, if perhaps it was just another part of my visions.” He gestured to the smudged letters. “The slate has only been in our family for seven or eight generations; before that, the women of my family had to rely on the accuracy of their feelings, and of the things they saw in visions and dreams.”
Elizabeth reached out a tentative hand toward the slate and also touched the letters written there. “So you do not write these words?” she asked. “They appear of their own accord?”
Jennings nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And they disappear and rearrange themselves of their own accord as well.”
Elizabeth stared at the message and pondered its significance. “How on earth are you to act on such a scant clue? Whoever speaks to you has not even shown who he or she is.”
“I see more than the words,” Jennings said. He closed his eyes. “When I see the slate,” he began. “I also see images in my mind. They are not clear, by any means, and their meaning is often quite … challenging … to suss out. But I see enough, usually, to proceed.”
Elizabeth’s eyes were open wide. “What do you see now?” she asked, leaning expectantly toward him.
He turned to look at her. Far from criticizing or judging, or being upset by something so unusual, Elizabeth seemed instead to be interested even to the point of excitement. Rather than being one more friend from whom he felt obliged to hide the truth, she could, he thought, become an ally with him in his work of answering the slate.
“I see a house,” he said, after gazing on her for a moment. “On Curzon Street. And I see a blue dove and a green box.”
Elizabeth looked from him to the slate and back. “Is … is the one who writes these words … is it a spirit?”
“It is,” Jennings said. “The slate – that is – I would not wish to distress you. But in fact the words are always written by the spirits of the dead, by those who have some unfinished business in the living world.”
“How extraordinary!” Elizabeth breathed. This wondrous talent he showed her was beyond anything she had ever experienced, and she felt both amazed and exhilarated. “So,” she began, gesturing to the slate. “You will find this person’s ‘lost child’?”
“And you will do so by searching for a blue dove and a green box?” she asked.
He nodded again.
She tilted her head quizzically, and her eyes still twinkled. “You do not find that a daunting prospect, sir?”
He laughed. “I suppose I am used to it,” he said, giving a slight shrug and leaning forward to place the slate carefully back in its drawer.
Elizabeth sat quietly for a moment, considering all that he had just told her. “All right,” she said at last, squaring her shoulders and smiling up at him. “What do we do first?”
He looked at her in frank surprise, and then a smile spread slowly across his face. “You wish,” he said hesitantly. “To help me?”
“I do,” she responded matter-of-factly. “I am your wife, am I not? I am to help you in any way I can.” She grinned suddenly. “And it all sounds rather exciting, doesn’t it?” she said. “I do not suppose you would be able to prevent me assisting you, since I am now painfully curious to learn what your vision means.”
He gazed at her, his face suffused with a mixture of relief and admiration. “I would be very happy to share this with you,” he said softly. “But I warn you,” he went on. “That it does create some very interesting … hmmm … situations. This, for instance.” He waved a hand in the direction of the slate. “I believe that we should go to Curzon Street, and introduce ourselves where we seem to be led. As you can imagine, that might prove to be an intensely awkward task, pushing ourselves onto a pack of strangers for no good reason.”
“Nonsense,” Elizabeth said with unexpected conviction. “You said this person was a spirit with unfinished business. This suggests that the person has recently died, and so we are – I am sure they will believe – friends who have come to bid him farewell.”
Jennings’ admiration grew. “That is an excellent notion,” he allowed cheerfully. “But I do not immediately see if this spirit is a man or a woman, or what the name might be.”
Elizabeth’s shoulders slumped slightly in temporary defeat, but she quickly recovered. “No matter,” she said. “It is a skill rather foisted upon a female, I believe, to learn how to find out all manner of gossip without actually being seen to ask anything at all.” She grinned again. “You see?” she said. “I shall be ever so useful to you! – and that will make us both feel better!” She came to her feet. “So do we leave for Curzon Street this afternoon, sir?” she asked. “Or do we wait for the morrow?”
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “We wait until morning,” he said. “Perhaps I might have a dream that aids our efforts.” He also stood, holding both her hands in his. “And of course you will want to see the whole house, and grounds, and to arrange your rooms as you wish. And Cook is preparing something delightful for supper in honour of your coming.”
Elizabeth was overcome, and tears swam in her eyes. “Mr. Jennings,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “Everything is already delightful.”