The carriage swayed gently to and fro as it made its slow way toward Bedford.
“Shall we have our lunch straightaway, sir?” Elizabeth asked. “I believe it will be rather late when we arrive.”
“I had planned to do so,” Jennings replied. “Especially since we have no idea what we will find there.” He looked in curiosity at Elizabeth’s sketchbook, in which she had been drawing intently since they left the house. ”What are you drawing, my dear?”
“Oh,” she said, looking up at him. It had not occurred to her that he would want to see her drawing; she hoped now that he would not find it too disturbing. “I have been meaning to do it for some time,” she explained, turning the book so that he could see the page. “But my courage failed me until lately.”
Jennings examined the picture, his only response a sharp intake of breath as he recognized the creature Elizabeth had drawn. “The beast that attacked you,” he said finally, his fingers touching the edge of the paper.
Elizabeth had skillfully recreated what she had seen the night of Lady Morton’s party. She had never seen the beast’s face, and so she had rendered it in dark shadow, but his basic form – easily three times her size and covered with glistening grey skin – was cast in stark relief, the arms particularly seeming to leap from the page with twisting tendons and giant claws. Its feet were also shrouded in darkness, since all she could remember of them was how cruelly they had kicked her, but it stood in the stooped posture of a creature more typically accustomed to walking on four limbs than on two.
“It’s what I recall seeing,” she said. “And feeling.” She paused, staring at her drawing with her head tilted to one side. “He was so gigantic!” she went on, shuddering at the memory. “I cannot imagine how I survived at all!”
Jennings quickly reached out to take her hand. “Do not distress yourself, my dear!” he urged her, his brows coming together in a concerned frown as he saw tears swimming in her eyes. Glancing down once more at the drawing, he decided after a moment’s consideration to confess what he had himself seen. “I recognize this creature,” he told her, his free hand still touching the grotesque image. “I saw it on Lady Morton’s balcony.” He looked up at her. “In a vision,” he finished rather hurriedly. Although she had until now been remarkably accepting of his gifts, he was still secretly sure that at any moment she would become frightened by them.
Elizabeth responded to his statement with her customary curiosity. “You saw it before it attacked me?” she asked. “Is that what prompted you to come back to Lady Morton’s for me?”
“No,” he said. “The slate only showed me danger, and urgency.” He shook his head. “No, I saw it when Lady Morton took me to the balcony where you had been abducted. There was a stain – perhaps the creature’s blood, but I think more likely some sort of slime that covered its skin – on the outside of the balcony railing. When I touched it, I was …” He searched for words. “I was besieged by an image of this beast.” He gestured to the drawing. “I saw him carry you into the park, and rip the necklace from your throat – the necklace that held your ring – and all I could feel was the monster’s overwhelming desire to kill you, and to steal that ring.”
Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide. “That was my mother’s ring,” she explained. “I had thought I had lost it in the park. I – I had not realized – I did not know that this creature wanted it particularly.” She frowned, confused and irritated. “Why would it want my mother’s ring? It is almost the only thing I have from her.”
“I don’t know,” Jennings said. “I only know that he wanted it, and that his attack had been meant to kill you.”
Elizabeth blinked at him in sudden realization. “Do you believe, Mr. Jennings,” she asked him, a slight alarm creeping into her voice. “That it will return to finish what it started?”
Jennings squeezed her hand comfortingly. “I had thought of that,” he acknowledged. His eyes twinkled. “But I am governing my urge to lock you safely in a cupboard, surrounded by guards.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I suppose I am glad of that!” she said. “But of course the thought of it puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? Thank you, Mr. Jennings.” She smiled and returned the pressure of his fingers. “I will try not to worry.” She gazed at her drawing, and grew serious. “But I believe I will be on my guard, sir.”
“I have been on my guard since I found you, Mrs. Jennings,” Jennings told her with a lop-sided smile. “But I am convinced the best course is to investigate your attack as I do everything the slate shows me; if we can discover this creature’s motive, perhaps we can bring its owner to justice.”
Elizabeth squinted at him quizzically. “You think that the monster was guided by another?”
“Why would an animal such as the one you have drawn here have a wish to steal your ring?” Jennings said. “Why not simply kill you and eat you?” He shook his head again. “No, I cannot think but that some human has controlled this beast, in hopes of eliminating you and stealing your mother’s memento.”
“But why?” Elizabeth asked, her frown deepening as she mulled over the incident. “Why would anyone want me dead? I’ve never hurt anyone.”
“And, with all respect to your father,” Jennings said. “His fortune is neither grand, nor would you ever have been in the way of it. It cannot be the reason.” He leaned back and pulled Elizabeth’s sketchbook onto his lap. “And why should anyone send such a dire henchman?” he wondered. “Why not just attack you himself?”
Elizabeth considered this. “Perhaps he is someone who could not approach me without great effort,” she suggested. “Or someone who would seem suspicious.”
Jennings gazed at her in admiration. Although her experiences had deeply affected her, she seemed more interested in solving the mystery than in being brought low by it. “You are remarkable, my dear,” he said. “And I think you are likely right about this man.”
Elizabeth smiled again, unsure why Mr. Jennings found her remarkable, but pleased by the compliment. Before she could ask him about it, he went on.
“It could be more than one person,” he said. “But their purpose is still unfathomable to me.”
“And to me!” Elizabeth agreed with a chuckle. “And why my mother’s ring?”
They each sat in silent thought for some time, trying to suss out the matter with no success, until the carriage drew to a stop in front of a small inn. The groom quickly opened the door and poked his head inside.
“Bedford, sir,” he announced. “The Blue Dove.”
The groom helped Elizabeth down from the carriage; she walked around, stretching her legs and neck, as Jennings arranged for luncheon at the inn. She noticed that the Blue Dove was a very pretty sort of establishment, and that the people who came to attend to Mr. Jennings were very affable.
“I believe I rather like Bedford,” she said to herself.
Jennings offered her his arm. “Shall we go inside, my dear? I am informed that luncheon awaits us momentarily.”
“Wonderful,” Elizabeth said, smiling brightly. She took her husband’s arm, and he walked with her into the inn. The inside was equally pleasing to her, and she declared herself quite satisfied already with their little journey.
“Now if we can only determine why we have been guided here,” Jennings said drily. They followed a serving girl into a tiny salon with a table and four chairs.
“Is this to your liking, sir?” she asked.
“It is indeed,” Jennings said. “Excuse me,” he added. “Is there a Betty Cantor here?”
The serving girl looked surprised. “There is, sir,” she said. “Her father owns this inn.”
Jennings nodded. “Excellent,” he said. “We’ve come to the right place.” He exchanged glances with Elizabeth, then turned back to the serving girl. “We have sad news for Betty, I’m afraid,” he told her, growing serious. “Could we – if it is not an imposition on her time – could we perhaps speak with her?”
“Of course, sir,” the girl said, her eyes open wide. “I’ll fetch her at once.” She withdrew quickly from the room, and a moment later they could faintly hear her calling out for Betty.
They had not waited more than a minute before the serving girl returned to the salon; she held the door open for a second woman who stood behind her. “Mrs. Cantor, sir,” she introduced this person, who walked rather tentatively into the room and stood uncertainly looking from Elizabeth to Jennings and back again.
“What can I do for you, sir?” she asked. “Mimsy said you had bad tidings for me.”
Jennings stepped toward her, his expression assiduously kind. “I’m afraid we do, Betty,” he said gently. “I understand you are very close to the Bertram family?”
Betty’s eyes widened, and she looked decidedly wary. “I am, sir,” she said. “Or, rather, I was. After Mrs. Bertram was lost, I could not bear to be there anymore.” She frowned. “Is something amiss with Mr. Bertram, sir?”
Elizabeth, who had taken a seat in one of the chairs, reached forward and put a comforting hand on Betty’s arm. “Mr. Bertram has died, Betty,” she said, her voice so soft that it was scarcely audible. “I’m so sorry.”
Betty’s whole body slumped as though all the air had gone out of her. Her eyes closed for a few seconds, and when she opened them once more, they shone with tears. “Well,” she said. “Well.” She gazed down at her hands, which were clasped in front of her. “I suppose it is no surprise, since he was not a young man, but I’ve though often of him, and I’m terrible sad.” She gave a sound like a laugh mixed with a sob. “My last memory of him,” she continued, her voice choking with emotion. “I had to tell him his wife had gone, and his wee babe as well. Especially now that I have my own child, I can’t imagine Mr. Bertram’s suffering.”
“I’m very, very sorry, Betty,” Elizabeth repeated. “Miss Miranda had – well, she showed us your letter to her father upon your leaving, and it was that that prompted us to find you; since clearly you were so attached to the family, a letter filled with such unhappy news seemed frankly cruel. And so we have come here, and we are more than happy to convey you to London if you wish to pay your respects, or to take with us any message you wish to send to Miss Bertram.”
Betty perked up a bit at such a thought. “I will gladly write a letter to Miss Miranda!” she exclaimed. She turned toward the door. “I’ll just find some paper.”
Elizabeth came abruptly to her feet. “If it’s no trouble,” she said, her hand once again on Betty’s arm. “I wonder if – you said you had a child of your own.” She smiled apologetically. “It’s just that I’ve had the image of Miss Miranda’s poor little brother in my mind, and I have thought of little else these two days. I believe it would do me good to see a happy child.” Her smile broadened. “Would it be too much to ask if I might meet your child?”
If Betty thought such a request to be a strange one, she gave no sign. “Not at all, ma’am,” she replied. “I’ll bring him in.” She left the room then, and Jennings quietly shut the door behind her.
“You believe Mr. Bertram is the father of Betty’s baby,” he said, more as a statement than a question.
Elizabeth had sat once more at the table. “I thought it was a possibility,” she said. She shook her head, frowning slightly. “But it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me.”
Jennings looked at her curiously. “Why not?” he asked.
“Well, why would she leave the house if she were carrying his child?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “Even if he never claimed it, better to raise it under his protection than to return home with a child and no husband.”
“He does seem – at least through Miranda’s eyes – to have been a kind-hearted man,” Jennings allowed. “I imagine he would have been content enough to have her child in the house. But her letter indicates that she was quite horribly upset by Mrs. Bertram’s death; perhaps she wanted nothing more than to be away from London, and has told her family that her husband left her with child before he ran off.”
“But her husband had been gone so long that Miranda had never even laid eyes on him,” Elizabeth argued. “Her family would no doubt be aware of that.” She shook her head again. “It seems very silly of her to have come home under such circumstances, when she had other choices she could easily have made.”
Jennings considered her words. “But if her child is not Mr. Bertram’s,” he said. “Then why has the slate led us here?”
Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled. “That I cannot tell you, sir,” she said wryly. “It is your slate, and your vision.” Her smile faded as she looked at the closed door. “But if Betty Cantor’s child is Mr. Bertram’s child, then her actions are quite puzzling to me.”
The door opened then, and a small boy came into the room, his tousled chestnut curls complementing enormous blue eyes and a cheerful grin. “Hello!” he greeted them. “Mum said I was to come and meet you!”
Behind him, Betty pushed the door open further, bustling into the room on her son’s heels and giving him a gentle push toward Elizabeth. “Give her a smile now, William!” she directed him. “She’s been sad.”
William looked vaguely alarmed at this notion. “Why are you sad?” he asked Elizabeth, walking up to her.
“For the same reason your mother is sad,” Elizabeth said, smiling brightly back at him and taking his little hands in hers. “We have lost someone who was kind and good, and your happy face has been quite the very thing I needed!” She looked up at Jennings. “It is rather a remarkable likeness, isn’t it?” she asked him.
“It certainly is,” Jennings agreed. He closed the door to the salon and stood casually in front of it with his hands in his pockets.
Upon hearing Elizabeth’s words, Betty’s wariness returned; in fact, she grew pale, and her eyes darted nervously from one of the Jennings to the other. “What – what do you mean, ma’am?”
Elizabeth gazed at her with maddening placidity. “Why, your child looks so very much like Miss Miranda Bertram,” she answered sweetly. “Who, if I am remembering the portraits correctly, takes far more after her mother than her father.”
“What are you talking about?” Betty asked, her hands reaching out to rest protectively on the little boy’s shoulders.
Jennings decided that it was no longer time for polite circumspection. “Betty,” he said, his voice firm even though his posture remained relaxed and, with his hands still in his pockets, almost jovial. “Is William not Mr. Bertram’s son?” He was on the verge of asking her why she had not obliged Mr. Bertram to claim William, when Betty suddenly dissolved into tears and sobs.
“Don’t take him from me!” she begged, her face buried in her hands. “He’s all I got! It’s not my fault she died! I did everything I could!” Her sobs turned to wails, and William stood staring at her in absolute consternation.
“Mummy!” he pleaded. “Don’t cry, Mummy!”
“There was no midwife!” Betty cried. “I didn’t know what to do! It all went so quick, and then she was gone!”
Jennings had been taken aback by Betty’s outburst; he put his hands on her shoulders and tried to comfort her. “There’s no need to be so upset, Betty,” he said. “You’re not the first to have her master’s child, and to have nowhere to go with it.”
Betty lowered her hands and stared up at him in confusion. “What are talking about?” she asked again.
Elizabeth stood and put her own hand on one of Mr. Jennings’. “Miss Miranda takes after her mother,” she repeated, gazing at him meaningfully.
Jennings’ brow cleared. “You took Mrs. Bertram’s infant,” he breathed, understanding now what Elizabeth had already deduced. “You took him for yourself.”
Betty was rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped now around her stomach as though she were ill. “I never meant no harm,” she averred. “I left the other one. I left him there with his mother. I put him in the ground with her, and it broke my heart!”
William, his own cheeks now stained by sympathetic tears, hugged Betty around the waist. “Don’t cry, Mummy,” he said forlornly, and clutched her to him. “Don’t cry.”
Elizabeth knelt down and wrapped her arms around the little boy. “Don’t worry, dearest,” she told him. “We’ll sort it all out, and everything will be fine, I promise.”
Jennings was not half so sure as his wife seemed to be that anything would be fine at all. “I believe we should summon a constable,” he said.
Betty collapsed then, falling against Mr. Jennings. He carefully lowered her to the floor and began chafing her wrists.
“We’ll need a doctor as well,” he added.