“I Am Joshua”
Elizabeth sat at the breakfast table, drinking coffee and reading over several letters that had come to her in the past two weeks. She often put the letters down to jot something onto a piece of paper that lay beside the remnants of her breakfast. When Jennings entered the room, she greeted him without looking up, but instead continued reading first one letter and then the next, her thoughts spinning as she cobbled together what clues these folded pages revealed.
“I have traced the amethyst,” she announced rather proudly. “Not one but three different cousins have been quite happy to correspond with me, even though I do not remember our ever having set eyes on one another. My cousin Elinor Dreling in Devonshire has written me some rather interesting details.”
“What does she say, my dear?” Jennings asked, sitting down across the table from her. His voice seemed subdued, and Elizabeth tore her attention away from her task and looked at her husband.
“Are you quite well, sir?” she asked. “You seem a bit out of sorts.”
“I had a particularly restless night,” he explained, giving her a reassuring smile. “Strange dreams that I don’t quite remember.” He indicated the letters. “Does Elinor in fact have the amethyst?”
“Indeed no,” Elizabeth said. “If she did, I would have told her at once to cast it as far from herself as possible! – but she did recall my great-grandmother taking the ring back after my grandmother’s death. She made rather a scene over it, sobbing that it was a reminder and a connection to her daughter. But then, not a month later, she gave the amethyst to a nephew – Elinor’s younger brother, who had been living in London but has since moved his family into the north. Elinor has not seen him these two years.”
Jennings frowned slightly. “It is strange indeed that your great-grandmother would crave the ring so desperately only to give it to a nephew. But why not give it to Elinor? What I saw in your family tree suggests that women are the targets.”
“As to that,” Elizabeth replied, taking another sip of coffee. “Elinor is the daughter of her father’s first marriage; her younger brother is in fact only a half-brother, and she is not actually related to me by blood.”
“That is very interesting,” Jennings noted, his fatigue countered somewhat by his growing curiosity. “It supports our thought that the rings mark women in your family.” He sat back in his chair and put his hands in his pockets. “But should we not contact this half-brother? It will mark him too, I believe, or the unfortunate relative to whom he gives it.”
“I wrote him three days ago,” Elizabeth said. “I have not yet received a response.” She leaned forward, her eyes gleaming. “But I have not told you the whole of it, sir,” she went on. She pointed to one of the letters. “My cousin Elliott – a more distant relative – said that my great-grandmother had given the amethyst to his mother, and that, after her untimely death, Great-grandmother came and retrieved the ring, explaining that it was a family heirloom that should ‘stay with the living’, and saying that it had only been ‘loaned’. That was thirty-eight years ago, sir,” she added meaningfully, and took another sip of coffee, waiting for Mr. Jennings’ reaction to her words.
All traces of fatigue had vanished from his face, as a dawning excitement suffused his features. “And how,” he said, “did Elliott’s mother die?”
“Well, as I explained to my great-aunt’s granddaughter Mariah Davies,” Elizabeth said. “As much as my curiosity was piqued by Cousin Elliott’s letter, I could hardly be so unfeeling as to ask him such a forward question. And so Cousin Mariah has very kindly sent a missive which arrived only this morning, in which she explained in some detail about the disturbing and much talked-about misfortune.” She folded her hands together and rested them on the table. “Apparently Mrs. Elliott had gone walking – as was her daily habit – and had been attacked by some animal – whose identity no one has ever been able to deduce – and left on the creek bank. Cousin Elliott’s father found his poor wife, her clothes bloody and torn, her life quite extinct. She was covered with deep gashes, as though from gigantic claws, but Mr. Elliott could neither imagine a creature of such size wandering about the countryside, nor track the animal. Despite its apparent size, whatever had attacked Mrs. Elliott had done so without leaving so much as a mark in the dirt.”
Jennings sat quietly, digesting all that Elizabeth had said. “It would seem,” he said at last. “That my interpretation of your family tree is correct. But how far back does your exploration trace the ring? Can we follow the amethyst to any others?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I fear not, sir,” she said. “But my mother mentioned in her journal that the amethyst – as well as the peridot – had come to my great-grandmother from her grandmother.” She closed her eyes to better recall the journal passage. “Great-grandmother had said that receiving the rings had been part of a family tradition, one that designated her as a member of a most illustrious clan.” She opened her eyes and went on wryly, “My mother felt that her receiving the ring had been part of that same tradition, but clearly this ‘illustrious clan’ is far more selective than one might ordinarily believe.”
Jennings squinted at her curiously. “What do you mean, my dear?” he asked.
Elizabeth raised one eyebrow and gazed pointedly at him. “Why, sir, only this: if giving the ring to my mother had been part of the same tradition that brought the rings to my great-grandmother, then I would imagine my great-grandmother would have been targeted as well. But she lived a long and happy, prosperous life until only three years ago, and at that time died peacefully in her bed surrounded by family.” She frowned. “No,” she continued, a slight edge to her voice. “It seems clear that my great-grandmother received the rings as an initiation into some segment of our ‘clan’ to which my mother, her mother, and myself are apparently not worthy to belong, and that part of her membership included finding new targets.”
Jennings watched her silently, as outraged as she at the apparent iniquity of her relative, but as uncertain what to do with a theory based on so little information. “Elizabeth,” he said at last. “It may be that your great-grandmother was as taken in as you have been – that someone controlled her actions as he controls the dark forces that kill the bearers of these rings. We are speaking of magic, are we not? – a creature from the netherworld summoned to murder you and poor Mrs. Elliott, an unseen entity that visits fever and death upon women in their sleep … these are not ordinary attacks. Whoever orchestrated them must possess extraordinary power; we cannot underestimate his ability to control others to do his bidding.”
Elizabeth gave him a small smile. “You’re only saying that,” she said sardonically. “Because you cannot imagine a woman being able to sacrifice her own daughter and granddaughter. This does you credit, sir, but I believe it is unlikely that my great-grandmother’s actions are unwitting. After all, sir, the transfer of these rings caused us to be suspicious in the first place! – they are central to this matter, I think.” She smiled more broadly. “And you yourself felt that we were correct, no matter how strange our deductions might seem to others!”
Jennings returned her grin. “That is true,” he said. “But it still does not follow that every participant is a willing one.” His smile faded. “I admit, however, that it does pain me to think of a woman behaving so heartlessly toward her own children.”
“And it remains a mystery why these women would be targeted,” Elizabeth complained, her brow furrowed. “Money would be the most obvious reason, I suppose, but none of those you felt were part of the nineteen-year pattern were actually in line for the family fortune of which my great-grandmother was most recently the matriarch; even my grandmother would have been excluded because of her marriage to my grandfather, since he could not claim even distant cousinship with our ‘illustrious clan’. My entire branch of the family tree, therefore, was really in no position to affect my great-grandmother in any conceivable manner, any more than could any of the others who had been given the rings. Only Elinor’s brother is an exception.”
“And men have never been the targets,” Jennings mused. “In truth, however much your great-grandmother was the family matriarch, those in our sphere are required, I believe, to transfer fortunes from father to son, from man to man. These women would have presented no particular impediment to anyone’s scheming, and since three of them were under the age of ten, I can’t imagine any harm they could possibly have posed – especially to someone who – as we’ve said – has a great deal of power.”
“Hmm,” Elizabeth murmured. “I believe I might correspond with my cousin Isabelle.”
“Isabelle?” Jennings repeated. “You believe she knows something about all this?”
“Well,” Elizabeth said. “Her grandfather is my great-grandmother’s eldest son, and his younger brother’s son Fitzhugh is engaged to Isabelle. Her marriage to Fitzhugh is seen as an excellent match, and will in effect consolidate a family fortune that had split off in various directions over the generations; it will indeed be a ‘family fortune’ again – as it was over a hundred years ago – but of course much, much larger now. I suppose, given that, that Isabelle will now replace my great-grandmother as the matriarch of our family.”
“Is it wise to contact her?” Jennings asked. “If she has indeed inherited your great-grandmother’s place in the family – rings and all – it might be rather dangerous to reveal to her what we suspect. Especially when our list of known facts is woefully tiny.”
“I would not ask her anything about it,” Elizabeth told him. “I have had the misfortune to meet my cousin Isabelle on more than one occasion. She is a very shrill and peremptory sort of person, always looking down her nose at others; it is quite difficult to spend more than a few moments with her. But I believe that she would be very capable of inadvertently revealing things to me, since it seems to please her to have secrets from those she feels are of lesser consequence.”
“Your father’s fortune is by no means inconsequential,” Jennings noted. “Did that not allow her to see you as an equal?”
“Well, in a way,” Elizabeth said. “It allowed her to give me some small measure of respect, rather than dismissing me out of hand, as she has done with so many of the rest of our family.”
“It sounds like she will make a delightful matriarch,” Jennings said drily.
“Agreed,” Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling. “I will contact her – with the pretext of trying to connect with her now that my father has put me out – and see if I can glean from her any reason why certain members of our family might wish harm on other members.” She chuckled. “My supplication to her superiority will no doubt be a welcome beginning from her point of view, and my obvious inferiority as an outcast will likely prompt her to list – in a very haughty manner – every conceivable thing that would render my life expendable.”
“Wonderful,” Jennings said, grinning.
Later in the day, he found her walking in the gardens beside the house. “I’ve had a message from the slate, my dear,” he told her. “I must go to town.”
“Might I go with you?” Elizabeth asked, her eyes lighting up. “I am very much enjoying our little adventures!”
“I would have it no other way, ma’am,” Jennings replied, offering her his arm.
Within twenty minutes they were on the road toward town, and Jennings was explaining to her what the slate had shown him. “The words were remarkably unhelpful,” he noted. “It said, ‘I am Joshua.’ What significance his name could have, I don’t know.”
“Well, I imagine he was quite attached to it,” Elizabeth said. “Did you see any images connected with it?”
“Only the house,” Jennings said. “And a letter tucked into a book.”
“What sort of book?”
Jennings shrugged. “A tiny one,” he said. “Perhaps a book of poems or some such?”
“Hmm,” Elizabeth mused. “That is indeed very little to start with.”
“Yes,” Jennings agreed. “Yet the message was delivered with a sense of some urgency. Not quite so much as the other night, but a good deal more than would be warranted by a spirit declaring his name.”
They came presently to a row of houses that Jennings recognized from his vision. Stopping the carriage, Jennings hopped down and reached up a hand for Elizabeth. “I believe we are in the right place,” he said, looking around him. “If anything, the matter seems more urgent, but I can’t imagine why. I saw absolutely nothing alarming.”
“Perhaps,” Elizabeth offered, stepping down onto the street, “our experience with the house in the woods has inflated our notion of urgency. I suppose a thing might be urgent without involving falling masonry.”
Jennings chuckled. “I suppose you are right,” he allowed.
He walked with her a little way down the street, coming at last to a door before which stood a pair of young women. One of them was clearly comforting the other, who was overcome with quiet sobbing.
“It will all be well, Caroline,” the first woman was saying. “Surely our cousin cannot be so cruel as he seems.”
“He is!” the sobbing girl wailed, her voice muffled by a handkerchief pressed desperately to her lips. “He is taking our house, and Papa’s land, and we are thrown out in the hedgerows!”
The first woman noticed the Jennings, and quickly pulled the other girl more closely into her embrace. “Yes?” she asked, one eyebrow raised rather defiantly, as though daring the Jennings to importune her.
“Forgive us, ma’am,” Jennings began, bowing and taking a small step forward. “This young lady is clearly upset; can we not assist you in some way?”
The woman shook her head. “I thank you, no,” she said. “We have received distressing news, but we are quite well.”
Behind her, through an open window on the floor above them, came the distinct sound of a woman crying, and the more subdued sounds of her maid attempting to console her. This prompted Caroline to renew her wails of despair, and to bury her head in the other woman’s shoulder.
“Please, ma’am,” Elizabeth said, her heart moved by the women’s obvious unhappiness. “Perhaps there is some design in our coming here; perhaps we are meant to help you. Will you not take us a little way into your confidence?”
The woman at first seemed disinclined to change her mind, but, after seeing the open sincerity and compassion so evident on the Jennings’ faces, her expression softened. “You may be right,” she said quietly. “I did pray for deliverance from this fate.” She guided Caroline carefully to a bench that stood along one side of the stoop. “Sit here, dearest,” she instructed, and gently deposited the woman onto the bench. Straightening up, and squaring her shoulders, she turned once more to the Jennings and folded her hands placidly in front of her. “We are all put out of our home,” she announced, in a calm voice that belied the disastrous nature of the news she imparted. “Our dear Papa has died not a week ago, and his estate is entailed on his cousin, and his cousin has arrived this morning to inform us that he wishes to sell Papa’s house and lands at once, and that we must remove ourselves immediately.” Her demeanour remained entirely passive, and would perhaps have been mistaken for coldness, except that her eyes now swam with tears, and the corners of her mouth trembled. “He has given us until the day after tomorrow.”
Caroline pulled the handkerchief from her lips long enough to deliver one quivering sentence: “And we had been so thoughtful as to send him an invitation – to welcome him!” She dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief and struggled to regain her composure.
Jennings spoke, and his voice was so cold that Elizabeth was startled by it, and cast a sidelong glance up at him. “Ma’am,” he said crisply. “May I ask if you have anywhere to go?”
The first woman shook her head. “Indeed we do not, sir,” she informed him. “We do have some money left to us by our Papa, and I suppose we could cast ourselves on the mercy of our relatives, but since Papa had assured us that his cousin was a very kind and generous man, we had not thought to seek out such alternatives.”
“I greatly sympathize,” Elizabeth said earnestly. “I found myself in a similar situation not so long ago.” She indicated Mr. Jennings. “But you see? Everything can work out perfectly well, even out of the most desperate of straits.”
The woman’s stoic façade faltered slightly in the face of Elizabeth’s genuine concern; she cleared her throat, and looked for a moment down at her feet. “I thank you,” she repeated, raising her eyes once more to gaze gratefully at the Jennings. “Forgive me; I cannot at the moment see how it could work out at all.” She glanced at Caroline, who had stopped crying but now sat with slumped shoulders and an expression of absolute dejection. “But I am sure we will manage somehow,” she added. “If our cousin is indeed amenable to our staying through tomorrow, I will have time to arrange for the storage of our belongings. I believe my friend Anne will allow us to impose upon her, and keep our things in her father’s unused stables.” Doubt and hopelessness flickered across her face. “I have already sent word to her,” she said. “And so I am sure you are correct, ma’am, and that we will manage somehow.”
Elizabeth was at a loss; no words that came to mind seemed helpful in the slightest.
“Ma’am,” Jennings said. “May I ask you – please excuse me for being forward – is your father’s name Joshua?”
The woman blinked in surprise. “It is not, sir,” she said slowly. “The name of our newly-arrived cousin is Joshua.”