Miranda Bertram hesitated in front of the magistrate’s offices, but, after taking a deep breath and, in that brief moment, searching her heart, she raised her gloved hand and rapped gently on the closed door.
It was quickly opened by a young man who seemed to be the magistrate’s assistant. “Miss Bertram?” he asked, swinging the door open wide and gesturing for her to enter. “Please do come in, miss.”
Miss Bertram entered the room, and saw two stern-looking men sat at on one side of a table, with a woman seated between them. This woman was clearly unhappy and a little frightened, and her eyes darted constantly from one of the men flanking her to the other.
Miss Bertram recognized her at once. “Betty,” she said, and came immediately to the table. The young man who had opened the door now pulled a chair over for her to sit in, and she took it with a murmur of thanks. “Betty,” she said again, leaning across the table and reaching her hands toward the other woman. “Will you not look at me?”
Betty was silent and immobile; then, as a strangled sort of sob escaped her throat, she forced her gaze up to meet Miss Bertram’s. “Miss Miranda,” she croaked, tears in her eyes.
Miss Bertram put a hand on Betty’s, which were clasped tightly together on the table in front of her. “Betty,” she began, her brows drawn together in a combination of confusion and concern. “Please tell me why you did this.”
Betty sobbed again, and tears fell unchecked down her cheeks. When she did not instantly speak, the man on her right grabbed her upper arm and gave it a shake. “The lady asked you a question!” he barked. “You open your gob!”
Betty cried out, startled by the man’s actions. “I don’t know!” she wailed finally. “I don’t know why I did it!” She looked beseechingly at Miss Bertram. “I know you’ll never believe it, miss, but I swear to you I never meant no harm!”
Miss Bertram still held Betty’s hands. She felt tears stinging her own eyes; she had known Betty since childhood, and had never known an unkind word to pass her lips. She had in fact been quite gentle and loving. “Was your regard for us – for me – all a lie, then?” she asked. She found that she was trembling. “Did you never really care for us?”
Betty shook her head vehemently. “The Bertrams was like my own family, miss!” she said. “When Mistress died, I was beside myself!” She hung her head in utter despondence, still moving it back and forth. “When her wee one took no breath, I chafed his arms and legs, and I held him to my own bosom! I –” She faltered, and her voice became choked with emotion. “I did everythin’ I could!” Her head sank down until it almost touched the table. “I did everythin’ I could!”
Miss Bertram, having wrestled with this dilemma since it had been brought to her two days ago, and having spoken at some length with her cousin Parrish and with Mrs. Jennings, had decided that Elizabeth was quite right: little William had known only love from Betty, and she was, in his heart, his mother; for her part, Betty seemed to be exactly the good-hearted and forthright person she had been when she worked in the Bertram home.
“Betty,” Miranda began gently. “Can you not tell me what you were thinking when you took the second baby away?”
For a moment, the room was so silent that it seemed no one even breathed. Betty raised her eyes again to Miss Bertram’s face.
“I don’t know the right words, miss,” she said, her words barely audible even in the stillness. “All I knew was that I’d married a man who left me with nothin’, no money nor no children, and here was Mistress dead before me, and p’raps I could’ve saved her if I had known how, but I didn’t.” She began weeping again, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. “And the wee one grew so cold in my arms, and I was heartsick, and I dreaded lookin’ on either of ‘em. And I just thought – ” She gave a helpless shrug. “I saw th’other one stirrin’, and I thought – I thought maybe I could save one of ‘em.” She shook her head again. “By the time I came to my senses, miss, and seen what I had done, I didn’t know how to undo it without …” She looked out of the corners of her eyes, first at the man on her left, and then at the man on her right. “I was afraid I would go to prison, miss, or worse.” She stopped speaking then, and bowed her head again, awaiting whatever condemnation Miss Bertram saw fit to heap upon her.
“I have met my brother, Betty,” Miss Bertram said softly. Suddenly she grinned. “William is the sweetest little boy I have ever seen!” she avowed. “He is still quite confused, I believe, for no one has known just how – or what – to tell him, but he seems very happy at the thought that I am his sister, and that he will come to live in a nice house in town, and go to school.”
Betty’s shoulders slumped forward. “You’ll love him, miss,” she said. “I’m glad he’ll want for nothing, and that he’ll be with you.”
Any doubt lingering in Miss Bertram’s breast was now eliminated as thoroughly as though it had never been; she squeezed Betty’s hands, and, still smiling, she informed her, “You both will be with me, Betty.”
Betty stared, confounded, at Miss Bertram, and the man on Betty’s right gave a start and slammed his hand down on the table. “Miss Bertram!” he protested loudly. “You cannot be in earnest!” The man on Betty’s left looked similarly aghast, although he checked his emotions more completely than his companion. “Miss Bertram,” he said. “Why ever would you take this woman in?”
Miss Bertram, momentarily surprised by the men’s outbursts, hastened to reassure them. “I have discussed it at length with my cousin – Mr. Parrish, who I daresay you might remember, Betty – and he has agreed – since there is an heir to my father’s estate, after all – that he will be the steward of the estate until William is of age, and he will look after my interests until such time as I am married, and he will take you in as a ward of the estate, Betty, and you will want for nothing, to use your words, and you will have an education if you wish, and you might live in the Bertram house as William’s mother for as long as you wish it!” She finished, beaming brightly at the other woman, who still sat in dumbstruck confusion.
“You cannot – ” she began, then cleared her throat and started over. “Indeed, miss, you can’t mean it! It’s not heard of!”
“I completely agree!” the loud man interjected. His face was turning an unpleasant shade of red. “This piece,” he went on, indicating Betty, “will only steal everything from you and take William again!”
“No, I won’t!” Betty objected, horrified at the notion. “I never took nothin’ from them, ever! Nor would I!”
The man glared at her in utter disbelief. “You stole the child!” he pointed out, and she shrank down into her chair, abashed.
Miss Bertram put her hand on the man’s arm. “Please, sir,” she said calmly. “Betty has raised William as her own child, and I can see very well that she has cared for him with all the affection that I remember receiving from her myself.” She gave Betty an encouraging smile. “William is so attached to you, Betty, and he has never known any other family; it would be a punishment for him – he who is blameless in this entire affair! – and neither I nor Mr. Parrish could fathom causing William any pain at all. And I believe – however wrong your actions may have been on that day – I believe I see in you here the same good heart I had known in you before you went away.”
Before Betty could respond, the man on her left spoke again. “And Mr. Parrish agrees to all this?”
“Yes,” Miss Bertram said, nodding. “Of course, now that he is not to inherit the estate, I suppose in large measure the decision is not up to him … but then again, I would not be skilled at managing the estate, or at having someone be my ‘ward’. While I might certainly learn such things over time, for now it seemed best to accept my cousin’s offer of stewardship. And, of course, he also had the opportunity to meet William, and to see how well he has been cared for, and how much he loves his mother – you, Betty – and Mr. Parrish was as inclined as I to be merciful in this matter.”
“Your cousin,” the quieter man said. He leaned forward, his hands spread out on the table before him. “I want to be very clear, Miss Bertram,” he continued sternly. “Your cousin accepts this woman as a ward?”
Miss Bertram gazed levelly at him. “That part was his own idea,” she explained. “If for no other reason than that William’s … well, his second mother … had rightly ought to be from a similar station. And truly,” she added, more to Betty than to the others. “Mr. Parrish is quite kind-hearted, and has been very understanding in the loss of my father’s estate.” She chuckled. “He had been planning to sell it, I believe,” she said. “I am sure it must certainly have been quite a blow, but his connection to my father is such that he says he is most honoured and gratified to help both me and little William. Is not that wonderful?”
Betty had given up all notion of comprehending the good fortune that seemed to be shining upon her. She looked in awe at Miss Bertram, and, raising her sleeve to her face to dry the tears from her cheeks, she said humbly, “You are as kind a girl as ever you were, miss, and your heart is so good as I never’ve seen.”
Miss Bertram patted Betty’s hand and sat back in her chair. “And so all is decided, yes?” she asked the quieter man. She turned from him to the louder man and then to the assistant that had been standing wordlessly beside the door. “Betty and William come to London with me, and all is well.” Her grin widened. “Yes?”
In the next half hour, the quieter man – who revealed himself to be the magistrate for the town – and Miss Bertram discussed the details of the entire matter; as the clock ticked past noon, Mr. Parrish, little William in tow, appeared at the door, and joined his own voice to the account, assuring all concerned that it was proceeding according to his intentions, and that he bore no ill will toward Betty. “For I cannot deny,” he said at one point. “That if I had been witness to the death of someone so dear to me, I would no doubt have been so distraught as even to be out of my wits. And then, on the morrow, if I were thus faced with the prospect of prison … well, sir, I do not mind revealing to you that I might well have made the same decision as she.” And since he had often heard from both Mr. and Mrs. Bertram a great deal in praise of Betty, and since William was so happy to see his mother – from whom he had been kept for some days – that all efforts to pry him from her side would clearly be in vain, Mr. Parrish was cheerfully committed to implement his plan, and to ensconce William and Betty into their new lives as quickly as possible.
And so, despite the deep misgivings and lingering consternation of the constabulary and the magistrate, the charges against Betty were dismissed, and she was allowed to travel from Bedford to London with the Bedfords and Mr. Parrish.
“Is that not unbelievable?” Elizabeth asked Mr. Jennings, as they sat at supper. “Is it not the happiest ending to the story?” Before he could answer, she went on excitedly, “When I called on them this afternoon, little William was already scampering all over the house as though he had always been there, and Miss Miranda looked so happy!” Her eyes glistened. “It is of all things the most wonderful, to see how all has worked out favourably.”
Jennings gazed at her with a soft smile. Silently, he wished that Elizabeth’s own father had been nearly so kind as Miss Bertram had been to Betty Cantor, but he would not dampen Elizabeth’s joy by saying so aloud. “Indeed, my dear,” he said. “It is extraordinary, and I must admit I did not expect such a pleasant outcome when we left Bedford.” He reached out and patted her hand before picking up his glass of burgundy. “But you expected nothing less,” he added. “I should never doubt you.”
She grinned. “Of course you should not!” she seconded. Through the window behind her husband she saw a bright flicker of lightning. “I believe a storm is coming, sir,” she noted, as the grumble of thunder reached them.
“Mrs. Raleigh predicted as much,” Jennings said, glancing over his shoulder. Outside, a brisk wind had come up, whipping branches to and fro; a few first tentative raindrops spattered against the window. “She has – as she phrases it – a ‘knee’ which knows more than all the almanacs ever written.”
Elizabeth laughed. “My father has a ‘shoulder’ that is equally good at prediction,” she revealed.
Jennings turned back to her. “You don’t hate him,” he noted. “Even after all that he’s done.”
Elizabeth’s smile remained. “I don’t,” she said simply. “Indeed, he did nothing to me. He has always treated me exactly as he treats everyone, and he evaluates me by the same ruler he has used his whole life to measure everything equally.” She shook her head. “No,” she went on. “In fact, I could see his heart in the letter he wrote, that Lady Morton read out to me.”
Jennings lifted his brows in surprise. “The letter I overheard?” he asked. “You saw his heart in that?”
Elizabeth gave a little chuckle. “I did,” she averred. “I know that his views on women – and many other things – seem antiquated and cold, but they are his true sentiments. He truly believes his notions, and what he viewed as my ‘indiscretion’ must have been quite alarming for him. You see, Mr. Jennings,” she added, grinning across the dining table at him. “My father is never the sort of person to be outraged by anything. Yet he was outraged at what he believes to be my actions. He would not feel that unless I had particularly disappointed him, unless he had believed before that moment that I would never be guilty of such … weakness.”
Jennings was even more baffled. “And you saw his heart in his outrage?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “It means that he had set me apart from others, that I had some significance to him beyond what he might ordinarily feel.”
“And the fact that you had this significance,” Jennings said. “You perceive that to be his regard for you?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth repeated. She shrugged slightly. “We cannot ask people to be more than they are, can we?” She took another bite of her supper. “He felt for me what he could feel for anyone, and he always treated me well, and so I feel no animosity toward him. I feel only the same that I have felt from him since my first memory.”
Jennings tilted his head in curiosity.
“He is my father,” Elizabeth explained, and shrugged again. “He’s my father.”
Jennings took a sip of burgundy. “Clearly, you have received your heart from your mother.”
Elizabeth chuckled again. “Perhaps,” she acknowledged. “I have heard endless good of her from all who knew her – even my father – but I never knew her.”
Jennings finished his burgundy and placed the empty glass on the table. “Can I – do I disturb you by asking? – how your mother died?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Not at all,” she assured him. “I do not remember it.” She paused, recalling things her father had told her. “She died of a sudden fever,” she said at last. “When I was only a few months old.” A slight frown creased her brow. “She had had a nightmare, apparently. My father said that it took him several minutes to convince her that she was awake and that it had only been a dream. But in the next few days, she became certain that it was a foreshadowing of her own death, and one morning, she did not awaken.” She gazed at Jennings, her expression reflecting a sense of epiphany. “She had dreamed that something hunted her, sir, and that it wanted to kill her. My father felt that she sapped her own strength with her irrational belief in her dream, and so allowed the fever to gain hold of her. But if you are correct, and indeed some dark personage has summoned the supernatural to achieve his own ends, then perhaps it behooves us to examine my mother’s passing.”
“My thoughts exactly!” Jennings said. “This ring that had been your mother’s – other than its having been hers, does it have any particular significance?”
Elizabeth considered this for a moment. “No,” she decided. “It’s not even particularly valuable; it’s a simple silver ring, set with a green peridot – my mother’s birthstone. It had been given her by her grandmother, whose birthstone it also was, and I’ve always assumed, since my mother was very close to her grandmother, that she then passed the ring to me as a sort of family heirloom.” She raised one eyebrow. “But I suppose now that we must assume the ring meant a great deal more.”
“Indeed,” Jennings agreed. He poured himself another glass of burgundy. “Did your mother leave you anything else? Anything that might point to some story behind the ring?”
“She left me a letter,” Elizabeth answered. “She wrote it the day before she died. She was so convinced that her dream had been prophetic, you see, that she felt some urgency in leaving me what legacy – and what sentiment – she could in the time that remained to her.” She smiled softly. “I am sure that my father thought she was being silly, but whether she brought the fever on herself, or whether it was visited upon her, she did in fact seem to know that she would die … and so I am very glad that she wrote the letter.”
“As am I,” Jennings said. He had such fond memories of his mother and sister, and of his father; he could not imagine having only a letter from them, and he wished fervently that he could give Elizabeth her mother back.
“My father gave me some other of her things,” Elizabeth continued. “Her family Bible, and a journal she had kept; a few pieces of jewelry, and portraits of her and of my grandmother, who – ” She broke off abruptly, as chills slid up her spine. “My grandmother died two days before my mother,” she revealed. “As my father prepared to send word to her about my mother, a messenger arrived on our doorstep with the tidings of Grandmother’s passing.”
Jennings leaned forward. “How did your grandmother die?” he asked, his voice taut with dawning excitement.
“She apparently died in the night,” Elizabeth said. “She was not ill; everyone considered it quite strange. I don’t know if she had had a similar dream or premonition. No one has ever told me that she did, but I suppose it is possible.” She too leaned forward, and looked rather anxiously at her husband. “Could what happened to me in fact be connected to my mother’s and grandmother’s deaths? Could they have been …” She hesitated, almost afraid to say the word aloud. “Could they have been murdered?”
Jennings sat back in his chair. Behind him, lightning flashed in the window, and a long rumble of thunder accompanied his words. “I believe, Lizzie,” he said quietly. “That your mother was murdered, and that your grandmother was murdered, and that the same entity has tried to murder you.”
Elizabeth let this information sink in. “I do not know how to feel about that,” she admitted, staring unseeing at her plate. She lifted her eyes to Jennings’ face. “Did you see this, sir?” she asked. “Did you see the truth of it?”
“You mean the way I saw the green box and the blue dove?” he asked. She nodded. “No,” he told her. He put one hand on his chest. “But I feel the truth of it.” His eyes glanced this way and that as he pondered what clues had been given him. “You said there was a journal?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied.
“You’ve read it?”
“Yes,” she said again. “But I had not done so with an eye for discovering dark mysteries, sir.” She put her hands on the edge of the table as though she would stand, and spoke resolutely. “We must start at the beginning,” she said. “And read it all with new eyes.”
Jennings nodded, and pushed his chair away from the table. “We must indeed,” he said. “But it will have to wait until morning, I’m afraid.” He came to his feet, his hand still on his chest. When Elizabeth looked at him inquiringly, he explained with an apologetic shrug, “I believe the slate has something to tell me.”