“Not So Fast”
The Jennings had been shown into a sunny sitting room at the back of the house. Elizabeth had deposited herself into a chair by the window, while Jennings stood beside her, one of his hands on the back of her chair and the other in his pocket. He stared pensively out of the window, but when a knock sounded at the front door, he turned and gazed curiously out of the sitting room and across the entryway.
A maid, first setting down on a nearby table the tea tray she carried, bustled to the door and opened it. Jennings could not see who stood at the door, but assumed it must be someone delivering a letter, since the maid reached out for something that she then tucked into the pocket of her apron. Whatever it was, he noticed, did not immediately fit into the pocket, and the maid was obliged to slide it carefully in beside a thin book that had already been there. She reached into a second pocket and retrieved a small bag, out of which she pulled a coin to give to whomever stood at the door.
“Who is there, Bettina?” a woman called from the stairs that descended into the entryway. “Have our guests been shown into the sitting room?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the maid responded, quickly closing the door and picking up the tea tray again. She entered the sitting room, gently pushing the door further open with her shoulder. “Beg your pardon, ma’am,” she said to Elizabeth, and then bobbed her head toward Jennings. “Sir.” She placed the tea tray on the table beside Elizabeth’s chair. “Tea and biscuits, ma’am,” she said, pouring the tea for Elizabeth. “Would you care for tea, sir?” she asked, glancing at Jennings.
He smiled warmly at her. “Thank you, Bettina,” he replied urbanely. “That would be wonderful.” He looked again toward the door into the entryway. “Did I hear the lady of the house? Is she able to join us?”
“Mrs. Gilbraith’ll be down directly, sir,” Bettina said. “She needed to – that is – I – she’s been preoccupied, sir, with Mr. Heron. Miss Louisa and Miss Caroline have gone to her and informed her you are here.”
“Of course,” Jennings said. “Thank you.” He tilted his head to the side. “You will be going with the Gilbraiths when they leave here?” he asked.
Bettina was startled. “As for that, sir,” she said after a brief pause. “I have a new position waiting. I –” She paused again, and her cheeks turned bright red. “I had thought it might go this way, sir,” she went on. “When Mr. Gilbraith fell ill, I thought it might be best to try to make arrangements that didn’t depend on the situation here.” She stopped, her brow furrowed as though she worried that speaking at all had been improper. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir.” She bobbed a curtsey and left the room; Jennings’ eyes followed her, and his scrutiny was obvious enough that Elizabeth commented on it.
“You are taken with her, sir?” she asked teasingly.
Jennings flushed. “Not at all,” he hastened to assure her. “I –” He looked from her to the now-empty entryway and back, his consternation evident.
She laughed aloud. “I am only teasing you, sir,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “But something has captured your attention. Something Bettina has done? Someone she reminds you of?”
Jennings, still slightly flustered, cleared his throat and, keeping his voice low, said, “I am curious only about the letter that was delivered.”
Elizabeth carefully lifted her teacup to her lips and sipped from it. “She put it beside a book she carries,” she said. “And – although of course we do not know the family’s ordinary ways – it seemed strange that she did not answer her mistress’ query about who was at the door.” She took a bite from one of the biscuits and another sip of tea.
Jennings gazed down at her, a soft smile curving his lips. “I noticed that as well,” he said. He put his hand to his chest, a gesture that, as Elizabeth was learning, indicated a feeling of supernatural intuition. “I am certain,” he said. “That the book in her pocket is the one the slate showed me. And the letter seems somehow important as well.”
“I believe you are right, sir,” Elizabeth said. “But how best to get at it?”
Miss Gilbraith appeared at the door to the sitting room, on the arm of a gentleman. This gentleman seemed quite affable, not at all what Elizabeth had expected from someone she and Mr. Jennings suspected of nefarious pretense, and so she was quite surprised when Miss Gilbraith introduced the gentleman as her cousin Joshua Heron.
“He has inherited my father’s estate,” she explained in a carefully modulated voice. “He has been gracious enough to give us this opportunity to make arrangements for ourselves.” If she intended any sarcasm in this remark, it was entirely hidden by her placid demeanour. “Cousin, these are the Jennings. They have come to condole with us about our dear father.”
Mr. Heron stepped forward and bowed first to Elizabeth and then to Jennings. “Your most faithful servant, ma’am,” he said brightly. “Sir.” He smiled at his cousin and continued, “My lovely young cousins have been so kind as to accept me into the house even while they are still residing in it – I am most appreciative, Miss Gilbraith – and I am most happy – most happy – to help them find a new situation where I am assured – most decidedly assured – they will be quite contented.” He finished this with an even brighter smile, and looked rather expectantly from Elizabeth to Jennings to Miss Gilbraith.
“You are indeed all kindness, sir,” Jennings said, returning Mr. Heron’s joviality. “I understand you are selling the properties?”
“I am, sir!” Mr. Heron said cheerfully. “I already have more than one person willing to take the whole thing off my hands right away!” He chuckled and sank his hands into his pockets. “It’s all been extraordinarily easy!” he announced. “I had thought it would be much more difficult!”
“Ah, no,” Jennings said, nodding his head. “When people wish to sell, others always want to buy; one need only know who to talk to.” He paused, frowning in puzzlement. “I would rather have wanted to put my offer into it; is it all arranged, sir, or may you and I contract?”
Elizabeth stole a quick glance at her husband out of the corner of her eye. Was he planning to save everyone by purchasing their houses? She smiled softly. We will soon ourselves be in the hedgerows at this rate, she thought.
Mr. Heron raised his eyebrows, and he blinked his eyes several times. “Why, as to that, sir,” he said. “I believe it is all arranged, with a Mr. Cornwallis who contracted with me about the house even before I made the journey here, and with a Mr. Davis who will be taking the country estate and who spoke with me just yesterday. I have spoken with both of their stewards, and expect them here any time this day.”
“Unfortunate,” Jennings murmured, then grinned. “For me, at least!” he amended. He chuckled. “Mr. Cornwallis must have seen Miss Gilbraith’s letter delivered to your door, to have made his offer so quickly!”
Mr. Heron frowned in confusion. “Letter?” he asked.
“The letter inviting you here,” Jennings clarified. He turned to Miss Gilbraith. “Did you not say you had sent him a letter?”
Mr. Heron’s brow cleared. “Oh, of course!” he said. “The letter. The letter they sent me.”
“You seem upset, sir,” Elizabeth said, still quietly sipping her tea. “Is all well?”
“Of course!” Mr. Heron said again, adjusting his cravat. “I am only annoyed with myself that I had forgotten the letter; Mrs. Gilbraith had been so obliging as to send it, and indeed how else would I have known to come?” He laughed, a trifle nervously.
“Miss Gilbraith,” Elizabeth said. “I am sure you must have put a notice in the Gazette?”
“There was a notice, ma’am,” Miss Gilbraith replied. She did not know the purpose of the Jennings’ conversation with her cousin, but his responses to them so far told her that the day was on the verge of being very interesting. “We put it in three days ago.”
“Why, then,” Elizabeth said, turning to look at Mr. Heron. “I am sure anyone might know of it now. Word spreads so quickly, really.” She smiled at Mr. Heron.
Mr. Heron’s affability had entirely faded. He looked over his shoulder and into the entryway, where Bettina stood at the foot of the stairs. She stared back at him, her eyes wide. Turning back to the Jennings, Mr. Heron said hesitantly, “Well, I am sure … of course, by now … I’m sure everyone might know by now.”
Jennings leaned toward him. “Are you quite well, sir?” he asked solicitously. “You have grown pale.”
Mr. Heron forced another chuckle. “I am very well!” he assured him with a wave of his hand. “Very well! I am sure I am just affected by the passing of my dear cousin. I had not seen him in some time, you know, and I believe I regret that now.”
“That is always sad,” Elizabeth agreed. She took another bite of her biscuit. “As I’m sure Miss Gilbraith would readily understand. I believe, Miss Gilbraith,” she said, gesturing toward the entryway. “That a letter arrived. Perhaps it will offer you good news.”
At this, Bettina’s eyes opened even wider, and she took an involuntary step backward.
“Bettina?” Miss Gilbraith asked. “Did a letter come for us?”
“W-Why,” Bettina stammered. “Why, yes, miss.” Her face was flushed to the roots of her hair, but she walked forward into the sitting room and handed Miss Gilbraith the letter she had earlier tucked into her apron pocket. “Just after your guests arrived, Miss,” she said. “I was bringin’ in the tea. I must’ve forgot it.”
“Thank you, Bettina,” Miss Gilbraith said, taking the letter. “I will take it up to Mama directly.”
“I beg your pardon, Miss Gilbraith,” Jennings said. “But –” He put his hand once more to his chest. “I cannot explain why, Miss Louisa,” he went on. “But I believe that letter may contain very important news that should not be delayed even a moment.”
Miss Gilbraith looked shrewdly at Jennings for a minute, then, deciding that, since these visitors were frankly a bit odd and that therefore their coming must indeed be a sign of an answered prayer, she broke the seal on the letter and unfolded the pages. She had not read more than a few lines of its contents before her face was suffused with bewilderment, and she gazed up at Mr. Heron in absolute incomprehension. “Why, this letter is from you, sir!” she informed him. “You have written that you will journey here on the morrow.”
The room became so silent that Elizabeth imagined she could hear others’ hearts beating. Bettina’s red cheeks had turned stark white, and she appeared on the verge of panic. Jennings was as still as a statue, and only his eyes moved as he looked between Miss Gilbraith and Mr. Heron.
“How extraordinary,” he said softly. “You’ve arrived before you left, Mr. Heron. How did you manage it?”
Miss Gilbraith had returned her attention to the letter. “Good God!” she breathed, then began reading aloud. “‘My dear Papa – the elder Joshua Heron – has also left us, not three weeks ago. But having learned of your own excellent father’s passing, and being made aware that the entailment has fallen on me, I am most anxious to call upon you at once and to make whatever arrangements will help you.’” She looked up, tears falling unheeded down her cheeks. “He is worried about us!” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “He’s –” She glared darkly up at Mr. Heron, and her whole form shook with suppressed anger. “He is not you, sir!” she exclaimed. “And you are not he.”
“Cousin Joshua” did not respond, but instead stood in rigid silence, looking first at Jennings, then at Bettina, and finally at Miss Gilbraith. He opened his mouth to speak, but, discovering that nothing he could say would be likely to help explain his situation, he pivoted on one foot and bolted out of the sitting room.
In an instant, Jennings had leapt after him, catching him by the arm and dragging him backward. The erstwhile Joshua spun around and punched Jennings in the face; Jennings fell back as blood spurted from the wide cut on his cheek, but he managed to keep his grip on the other man’s sleeve. Using his own weight as leverage, he twisted the other man’s arm at the shoulder and forced him to his knees.
Desperately, the man struggled against Jennings but to no avail. Every movement seemed to twist his arm even further behind him, and finally he collapsed onto the floor, grimacing in pain.
“Please do stay, Mr. Heron,” Jennings said, a bit breathlessly. “We’ve hardly had any chance to get to know you!” He released the man’s arm and came to his feet, turning to face the ladies who still stood, gaping, in the sitting room. “Bettina,” he continued, touching the side of his face. “If you wouldn’t mind fetching some water for me.”
With some difficulty, Bettina regained her composure. “O-of course, sir,” she said. She inched her way out of the sitting room, casting her eyes briefly on the man who now sat on the entryway floor, massaging his wounded arm and looking decidedly alarmed.
“Bettina?” Jennings said. “Might you also – if you don’t mind – show us the book you have in your pocket?”
Bettina frowned, startled. “Sir?”
“Your pocket,” Jennings repeated amiably. He reached into his own pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, folded it into a small, padded square, and pressed it against the cut on his cheek. “Your book. In your pocket.”
By now Miss Gilbraith had accepted wholeheartedly that the Jennings had been sent to deliver her family from peril. Although she could not fathom why the contents of her maid’s pockets would be of any significance, she held in her hand proof that without the intervention of her unusual visitors, her family would have fallen victim to a chilling deception. “Bettina,” she said sharply. “What is Mr. Jennings talking about?”
“Miss Louisa, I don’t know!” Bettina splayed her hands to the sides in apparent confusion. “It’s only the housekeeping book, where I jot down what’s needed at the market!”
Miss Gilbraith lifted one eyebrow. “Then there can’t be any harm in showing it to us,” she pointed out.
Bettina stared helplessly at her mistress, her breathing becoming fast and shallow. After an awkward silence during which Miss Gilbraith’s unsympathetic gaze remained fixed on Bettina’s face, the unhappy maid burst into tears. “No!” she cried, and attempted to run from the house just as “Mr. Heron” had done.
But Elizabeth had predicted that if one tried to flee then so might the other; while Jennings was asking about the housekeeping book, she had edged her way out of the sitting room and along the wall toward the front door, and now, as Bettina ran toward that door, Elizabeth slid her foot out and tripped the other woman.
Bettina fell headlong, landing in an undignified heap in front of Elizabeth. Wasting no time, Elizabeth bent down and snatched the housekeeping book from Bettina’s pocket.
“What could be such a secret?” she mused aloud. She opened the small book, and, upon examining the two letters she found tucked inside, said in a voice tinged with genuine shock, “Bettina, how could you lend yourself to such a scheme?”
Bettina had pushed herself to a seated position, and was now sobbing, her hands covering her face. “I’m tired of workin’!” she wailed. “Why should they have everything?”
Miss Gilbraith stepped toward Elizabeth. “What does it say?” she asked, not sure she really wanted to know.
Elizabeth handed her one of the letters. “I believe you recognize this,” she said. “It seems to be the letter you and your mother and sister wrote to your cousin Joshua, telling him of your father’s passing. Bettina was entrusted with it, no doubt, and chose not to send it.”
Miss Gilbraith ran her fingers over the letter. “We invited him here,” she murmured. “He does not even know it.” She smiled suddenly. “But his son is coming to help us, even though we have never set eyes on him at all!”
Elizabeth put a comforting hand on Miss Gilbraith’s arm. “I am certain,” she said warmly. “That we were indeed destined to walk down your street today, Miss Louisa! I am so glad to have been of help to you.”
Jennings nodded his head toward the second letter. “What does that one say, my dear?”
Elizabeth looked at him and then at Bettina. “Why, this would be Bettina’s letter from her beau here,” she said crisply. “Saying that he will have the properties sold before anyone knows any different, and that the two of them will be away and settled within a fortnight. Apparently his name is Richard.”
Miss Gilbraith’s eyes narrowed to angry slits. “I cannot believe that anyone could be so heartless!” she cried.
Caroline Gilbraith appeared at the top of the stairs. “Whatever is all the commotion!” she asked, irritated. “Poor Mama’s nerves are shattered!” She saw Bettina and Richard sitting on the floor. “What on earth?” She frowned at her sister. “What is going on, Louisa?”
Richard took this opportunity to stagger to his feet; swinging wildly, he slammed his fist into Jennings’ stomach, but Jennings had seen it coming and had steeled himself to the blow. Ignoring the pain as best he could, he quickly lunged forward and punched Richard squarely in the jaw. Bettina screamed as Richard fell unconscious to the floor beside her.
“You’ve killed him!” she shrieked.
“No,” Jennings said gruffly. “But I imagine he will not be happy when he awakes.”