The Jennings – Chapter Twelve

More Like Me

Elizabeth had prepared herself for bed but found that she was not tired at all. She sat next to her bedroom window, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and looked out over the wide lawn that shone silver in the moonlight.

She and Mr. Jennings had spent the day helping the Gilbraiths; the imposter Richard and his equally deceptive lover Bettina had been ejected from the Gilbraith home and into the waiting hands of the constabulary. Word had been sent immediately to the real Joshua Heron, whose letter painted him as most amiable and caring man, in hopes of apprising him of all that had happened before his arrival. Word was also sent to the two men with whom Richard had contracted to sell the Gilbraith estate, and Jennings had spent some hours of the afternoon conferring with Mr. Davis, the gentleman who resided in London. When everything had been explained to him, the man was deeply appalled, not only at Richard’s deplorable scheme but at the part he himself had been about to play.

“If you have any trouble with this other fellow,” he said to Jennings, referring to Mr. Cornwalis, the second potential buyer. “You just let me know. I’ll set the fellow straight about what’s done and what’s not done!” His cheeks were flushed and puffed out, and a dreadful scowl sat determinedly on his face; he was clearly offended by Richard’s actions, and anxious to be of assistance to the Gilbraith ladies, with whom he had been already, though only slightly, acquainted. “I only hope Mrs. Gilbraith will forgive me!” he murmured gruffly.

“I am quite sure she will, sir,” Jennings assured him sincerely. “She – and the Misses Gilbraith – are simply relieved and glad to have the whole thing exposed and corrected.” He frowned. “They were as taken in as anyone,” he said darkly. “I am more shocked than I can say, frankly.”

“As indeed so am I,” Mr. Davis agreed, still scowling and shaking his head. “Most shocked.”

For her part, Elizabeth had stayed with the Misses Gilbraith and their mother, a woman who, though overcome and quite disposed to weeping, showed herself to be very capable of handling the unusual circumstances.

“What a dog!” she exclaimed more than once, quivering in anger. “To mislead us so!” At one point she owned to feeling some foolishness, but immediately dismissed this notion, since she had never laid eyes on the man in her whole life, no, nor his father either, but had only ever heard her husband speak of the Herons. “And always he was very kind toward them,” she said. “And spoke highly of them. But one never knows the truth about another, does one? And now that Mr. Gilbraith is gone, I confess I thought it was simply Mr. Heron’s revealing his true nature, as does often happen after someone has died.” She sipped gratefully at a cup of tea that her daughter Louisa had brought her. “But that Bettina!” she added, almost hissing the name out. “I cannot stomach the realization that she has been here, under my roof, for I don’t know how many years, and now to treat us so shabbily! When we have been so good to her, and pay her a very good wage!”

Mrs. Gilbraith’s rather one-sided conversation continued for nearly an hour, interrupted from time to time by some supportive comment from one of her daughters or from Elizabeth. Caroline Gilbraith had traded her earlier tears for uncontained grins of joy, and she attended her mother’s monologue with only a partial ear, her relief and gratitude drowning out, for the moment at any rate, whatever anger she might have felt. Louisa, too, was all smiles, and the tension with which she had carried herself since “Cousin Joshua” had arrived had completely left her, so that she could do little more than sit in the chair across from her mother and feel utterly exhausted. She only roused herself upon the Jennings’ departure, impulsively catching Elizabeth in a brief, tight embrace.

“I cannot thank you enough,” she said, tears shining in her eyes. “It seemed so strange for you to take such an interest in a stranger, but I see now that my prayers were answered.”

Elizabeth flushed at this praise. “We were guided here, Miss Gilbraith,” she said. “We were most happy to help in any way possible.”

Mr. Jennings would likewise take no particular credit for the day’s events, but he took Miss Gilbraith’s hand in his and bowed low over it. “I am your most humble servant, Miss Louisa,” he told her. “It has been truly an honour to assist you and your excellent family.”

He and Elizabeth had left the Gilbraith house with an air of tranquility, as though they had just stopped by for tea and were now on their way home. As heinous as Richard’s and Bettina’s actions had been, Elizabeth was so gratified to have had a hand in discovering them that she could feel only an abiding cheerfulness that lingered with her throughout supper and into the evening. Now, as she gazed out over the lawn, she still felt a buoyancy of spirit that made it almost impossible to contemplate sleep.

A soft knock sounded at her door. “Come in,” she called out.

The door opened, and Jennings poked his head into the room. “Do I disturb you, my dear?” he asked.

She turned to him. “Not at all,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “I am rather restless, in fact, no doubt from the excitement of the day.”

He returned her smile. Coming into the room, he shut the door behind him and sat in a chair opposite her. “It was not quite as exciting as the woods,” he said drily, leaning back in the chair. “But it was certainly very interesting.”

She glanced at the cut on his cheek. It was small, but surrounded by an unpleasant-looking bruise. “Are you sure,” she said, frowning a little in concern. “That you’re quite all right?”

He reached up and gingerly touched his cheek. “I’m sure,” he said, grinning ruefully. “I used to get into much worse scrapes,” he confessed. “In my school days.”

She laughed. “I admit, I cannot picture it,” she said. “You are so gentle, sir.”

He laughed too. “A couple of the lads might disagree with you,” he said. “I was forever getting in a row with some upper-classman.”

They sat quietly for a moment, looking out the window at the moonlight; then Elizabeth, giving in to her curiosity, spoke.

“Mr. Jennings,” she began. “Earlier, when you told that horrible Richard person that you would like to make an offer for the Gilbraith estate, did you in fact mean to purchase it from him?”

Jennings smiled softly. “I had entertained the notion,” he admitted. “But I could hardly afford to buy the Gilbraith estate, and if I bought only the house, why, the ladies would be in the same position – struggling to maintain a household without any money. No, I was only trying to call Richard’s bluff; I was drawn most insistently toward that letter, even before Bettina opened the door. I knew it must possess some sort of good news within it.”

Elizabeth regarded him with admiration. “Your kindness is extraordinary, sir,” she told him. “You are truly the best of men.”

Jennings stared at her, startled and embarrassed by her compliment. “I – I do what any man would do,” he said. “I do not believe my actions are particularly out of the common way.”

She lifted her eyebrows in surprise. “Then you have not spied yourself in a mirror, sir,” she said. She gestured toward her dressing table. “Please,” she went on. “Take the opportunity to do so now.” She leaned forward, and gazed steadily into his eyes. “You cared so much for me, sir, a woman you had barely met, that you offered me marriage. You have been more kind than any words can say.” Tears stung her eyelids, and she looked away from him, her fingers fumbling clumsily for the shawl that had fallen from her shoulders. “To do such a thing for a stranger,” she said, her voice now choked with emotion. “Is extraordinary. To me, at any rate.”

The room became completely silent. After a long moment, Jennings reached out his hand and touched Elizabeth’s knee with the tips of his fingers.

“Elizabeth,” he said, so softly that she barely heard him. She raised her eyes once more to his, and found something in his expression that she had never seen before, something that was not quite sadness, and not quite joy.

“Elizabeth,” he said again. “I like to think that I am the sort of man who would have married you to help you out of your predicament.” He gave her a lopsided smile. “But I will never know. The night that I met you, when I danced with you …” His fingers tapped lightly on her knee, but otherwise he was as still as a statue, and his eyes never wavered from her face. “When I heard your laughter, and saw your smile; when I held your hand, even for those few short seconds; when I stood beside you … I never wanted to leave. I was – I am – deeply honoured to have saved you from a situation that –” He paused, struggling to maintain his composure. “That you might have avoided altogether if I had been able to run faster.” He paused again, then went on in a voice hardly more than a whisper: “But I married you because I wanted to, Elizabeth. I can’t imagine life without you now, and I will spend the rest of my days trying to capture your heart, because you have had mine long since.”

Elizabeth thought to tell him that she, too, had been drawn to him from the moment he approached her at Lady Morton’s party. She thought to tell him that her heart had been entangled with his since his first visit to her sick-bed at Lady Morton’s, that, even though she had not been properly awake, she had known he was there, worrying over her. She wanted to say that, when all she could think to do that night in the park was to drag breath into her tortured lungs, she had been aware somehow that he was searching for her, that he had found her, that she would be safe. She wanted to tell him all these things, but the words stuck in her throat. She wanted to show him her most beautiful face, but, against her will, tears began streaming down her cheeks. Not knowing what else to, she leaned forward and kissed him.

She watched as a thousand expressions flitted in an instant across his face. Then, taking her by surprise, he cupped his hands on the sides of her face and pulled her toward him, and kissed her deeply. Her fingers clutched at the cloth of his shirtfront and brought him closer to her; she hoped this moment would never end.

_______________________

 

Later that night, he dreamt – as he had every night for two weeks – of a tangle of trees, beneath which he could see a dark gash in the ground that marked the entrance to a cave. As he had a dozen times before, he walked toward the cave, and with every step his heart beat faster. Something horrible waited for him in the cave, and although he could neither see nor hear it, he approached it with a mounting dread.

The entire scene was clearer this particular night than it ever had been; for the first time he could see out past the small woods where he stood, but he did not recognize the surrounding lands. He became aware, too, of a smell – the smell not only of the rotting vegetation that swam in the mud at his feet, but also of blood, and decaying flesh. More than ever, he did not want to keep walking, but something compelled him, and he soon found himself ducking into the cave entrance, into a darkness that was absolute, yet somehow he could see even blacker shadows dancing around him.

The dread was almost overwhelming, and he wanted to run away, but still he stood, encircled by darkness and the clamminess of wet earth.

As always, he sensed a presence behind him, blocking his escape. As always, he tried to turn to confront it, but his body would not listen to his urgent commands. Before, this was the moment when he would awake, breathless and shaking, but tonight was different. Tonight, he felt the presence sliding closer to him, felt its scrabbling fingers on his arms and its icy breath on the back of his neck. Tonight, he was assailed by a single thought – one even stronger than the crippling dread.

Betrayal.

Turn! he ordered his resistant limbs. Turn and face this thing!

But he remained frozen in place with the dark presence behind him, until suddenly a great bellowing shook the air, and a sharp blow to the back of his neck launched him forward onto the ground. He tasted blood in his mouth as it poured out of him into the mud.

He woke then, shouting in shock and anger.

Beside him, Elizabeth woke too, alarmed by his outburst. “What is it!” she cried.

He shouted again, startled; he was unused to someone being in the bed with him. Quickly he reached out for her hand and gripped it. “I’m all right,” he assured her. She looked at him skeptically, taking in his ragged breathing and the sheen of sweat that covered him. “I’m all right,” he said again. He turned toward her and laid his head in the hollow of her neck. “I had a nightmare.”

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around him. “Good God!” she said, amazed at the effect this nightmare had had on him. “What on earth was it about?”

His breathing was more controlled now; he held Elizabeth to him gratefully, and allowed her presence to comfort the lingering sensation of peril. “I’ve been dreaming about a cave for many days now,” he told her. “But tonight I saw violence – murder – and a knowing, in my bones, that the murderer was a close friend.”

“A friend?” Elizabeth repeated, frowning in concern. She gasped, and asked, “Was it a vision? Is it something that’s going to happen?” She hoped with all her heart that it was not a glimpse into the future. “Is it – is it something that’s going to happen to you?”

He sat up so that he could look at her. “I believe it is a vision,” he said. “But it is not a future event. I am only able to see things that have already occurred. Sometimes I have insight into something – like Mr. Heron’s letter – but I cannot see what will happen.”

She sat up as well, relief washing over her. “So you are not the one who is murdered?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head and smiling softly. “But someone was killed, someone in a cave the location of which I cannot suss out.” He shook his head again. “Usually, when the spirits have contacted me through the slate, they guide me to where I need to be; I feel …” He searched for words. “I feel a pull in some direction or other. That’s how I find these houses scattered all over London, and how I found the house in the woods. But even though I saw more of my surroundings tonight than I ever have before, I still have no idea where this cave is.” He sighed. “I have had dream-visions before,” he added. “But they were always a bit more clear than this, and I have never had a recurring dream such as this one has been.”

Elizabeth considered for a moment. “This spirit does not speak through the slate,” she noted. “But the slate usually offers a very simple message; perhaps this spirit’s needs are more … complex. Perhaps the slate is not enough for his message, and so he has entered your dreams.”

“He says very little,” Jennings complained. “Yet he is most persistent!”

“Is there a sense of urgency, as you felt with the house in the woods?” she asked.

“Not at all,” he said. “For such a persistent person, he has not impressed upon me any urgency at all!”

“If he was in fact murdered – and by a friend, as you said – it may be that he simply wants you to find him.”

“When I get the chance?” Jennings said drily.

She shrugged, her eyes twinkling. “It’s better than nobody finding him at all. Unless,” she added. “You are somehow already where you need to be.”

Jennings frowned. “I do not know how that could be,” he said. “The cave was nowhere that I have ever been. It certainly is not nearby.”

“But the spirit says very little,” Elizabeth reminded him. “Perhaps you must brave the dream again before his true intentions become clear to you.”

“An unpleasant prospect,” Jennings murmured, but he knew that she was right. Realizing suddenly that it was the middle of the night, and that he had given her as much of a fright as he himself had experienced, he reached out a hand and lovingly stroked her cheek. “I apologize, my love,” he said. “I have disturbed your sleep.”

She leaned against his hand. She opened her mouth to speak, paused, then said, “I am where I need to be.”

________________________________

The next morning, Elizabeth preceded her husband to the breakfast table; Mrs. Raleigh greeted her cheerfully, and handed her a stack of letters that had been delivered to the house for her. “Three for you, ma’am,” she announced.

“Thank you, Mrs. Raleigh,” Elizabeth said, examining the letters. One was from her stepmother Charlotte and the next from her dear friend Mariah Lansing; the third, however, was the one she opened first, since it came from her cousin Marcus Tate, Elinor Dreling’s younger brother, to whom she had sent a letter some time ago and whose response she had been rather impatiently awaiting.

“My dear Cousin Elizabeth,” it began. “I hope this letter finds you well. Forgive me for being so late in my response to you. Our family here has been obliged to suffer the most horrible calamity – my little daughter Eliza, who had just turned four this past spring, has been taken from us by a sudden fever. We are all desolate here, and Eliza’s poor mother has taken it most desperately, and is confined to her bed in her grief. I too barely know what I am about; I walk the house hoping to see my sweet girl, but all the rooms are quite empty and cold, and I fear my heart will break from this sadness.

“I am desolated to send you such wretched tidings as these, but I did not wish you to wonder why I had not answered your kind letter. To hear from you indeed lifted my spirits, and I hope perhaps someday soon to journey to London to visit you; perhaps it might soothe Mrs. Tate’s heart as well.

I had heard of your own troubles, and have been worried for you. I am greatly heartened to know that you have recovered so well, and that you have found such happiness.

With my most sincere regard for you and for Mr. Jennings,

Your obedient servant,

Marcus Tate”

“Good God,” Elizabeth breathed, putting her fingers over her mouth. “Little Eliza was the target.” Cousin Marcus must have given the amethyst ring to his young daughter – indeed, why would he not? – and the poor girl had been targeted as she herself had been, though thankfully not by a dread creature. “I cannot believe it was just a ‘fever’,” she murmured to herself. She had no doubt that the little girl had been eliminated by the same person who had wanted Elizabeth dead – a diabolical person who evidently possessed no scruples or soul, and who would steal the life of an innocent child to suit its hidden purpose.

“Christopher!” she called out, standing up abruptly and hurrying out of the room. With the letters crumpled in her hand, she flew up the stairs to her husband’s room. “Christopher!” she called again, stopping in his open doorway.

He stood, bent over the drawer where the slate lay; apparently he had found a message there, one that he was taking seriously. He turned to her, a frown creasing his brow. “Is anything amiss, my love?” he asked.

“I have found the victim of the amethyst, sir,” she told him solemnly. “And you? What has the slate revealed?”

He glanced down at the slate and then back to her. “It is Joshua again,” he said. “I cannot say how I know it is he; I simply do. But his message does not seem to be anything for me to do, and it feels …” He placed his hand on his chest. “It feels connected in some way to the dream of the man in the cave.”

“Do you feel that Joshua is the man in the cave?” Elizabeth asked.

Jennings shook his head. “I did not inquire how the elder Joshua Heron died,” he responded. “But I do not believe that he is the man in the cave. No, the connection seems to be more remote, yet, according to the slate, there may be more people involved than just Mr. Heron and the man in my dream.” He opened the drawer wider, inviting Elizabeth to come look at it herself.

She approached the drawer a bit hesitantly, but, as was often the case, the actual writing on the slate did not convey for her the emotional impact that Jennings, with his gifts, typically experienced. Given the intensity of his dream, however, and the unusual nature of the Heron-Gilbraith matter, she was not surprised that he found it at best extremely puzzling, and at worst rather sinister. Were there other imposters out there? – ones willing to kill for the privilege? And what part did she and Jennings have to play in it? Where, indeed, could they even begin?

They both stood silently then, staring somberly at the slate’s simple, seemingly innocuous sentence: “There are many more like me.”

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