The Jennings – Chapter Fourteen

“Eldest”

Their next visit to town came much sooner than the Jennings had planned, and for a reason that left neither of them anxious to make the journey.

The morning after Cousin Delacourt’s visit, the Gazette arrived, announcing, amongst the engagements and weddings, the untimely death of a young woman. She resided, apparently, in Whitechapel, and had been walking home from her work in one of the dressmaking shops not a stone’s throw from her front door. She had been found, in fact, by her own mother, who had been expecting her daughter for over an hour before venturing out to look for her. A constable and a doctor were immediately summoned, but the poor girl had been lifeless for some time, and had, according to the doctor, been “ravaged as though by a wild animal.”

If Elizabeth was hesitant at all to assume that this “wild animal” was the monster that had attacked her, her doubts were dispelled by her husband’s expression; he sat staring at the notice in the Gazette as though a puzzle had suddenly been solved.

“You feel this is the same creature?” Elizabeth asked him.

He nodded. “I do indeed,” he said. “More to the point, I believe this young woman left a message on the slate this morning: ‘Eldest,’ it said. And I saw a vision of a girl who looked very much like she might work in a dressmaker’s shop, and a dark street, and a sensation of something coming up very quickly behind her.”

“Eldest?” Elizabeth repeated, frowning. “How could that signify in such a tragedy?”

“I have no idea,” Jennings admitted. He looked at his wife, and then at the letter she held in her hands. “You were displeased with its contents?” he asked. “I thought I heard you scoffing over it?”

Elizabeth chuckled. “Several times!” she said. She laid the letter on the table and, smoothing out the paper that she had crumpled in irritation, began to read it aloud:

“‘My dearest Cousin Elizabeth’ – a promising beginning, to be sure, but don’t be fooled, sir! – ‘It was such a pleasure to hear from you. After hearing – as one does – of all that had befallen you, I was most concerned for your well-being! The polite world knows all too well your father’s rigid opinions, and my friends – with whom I spoke about the matter at some length, it being of such a serious nature, and enough to prompt more than one of my acquaintance to vow never to go to London again if such ruffians wander the public parks! – my friends all agreed that it was most unfair of Sir James to cast you out, only because you were walking alone.’” Elizabeth sighed at this thinly-veiled aspersion on her conduct, but continued without comment: “ ‘I well understand how unhappy your father’s actions must have left you – wondering upon whom you could rely in such a troubled time – and that naturally you wish to satisfy yourself that your family has not all deserted you. And so you may rest your mind on that score, dear Elizabeth, for I assure you, from the very depths of my heart, that I feel all the same friendship and tenderness for you that I always have!’ – I’m sure I know how to take that! She has never felt even the slightest regard for anyone on our branch of the family, except her rather obvious fawning in deference to my father’s money! – ‘And I would most certainly have invited you to visit if I had not thought of your sensibilities – for I know how kind you are, dear Lizzie, and that it would hurt you to think that you had importuned anyone! – and everything here is in such a hubbub planning for the wedding! It is only five weeks away, you know! And of course to have visitors now would be very distracting, and I would not be able to spend any amount of time with you, and I fear you would be quite unhappy and neglected!’ – well, I’m certainly happy she thought of my sensibilities – ‘But as soon as my dear Ned and I have settled in, we will be quite delighted to bring you for a visit! – and your dear father, too, of course, if you think that he would be willing to make the journey with you. I trust this letter finds you well! Your Mr. Jennings seems to be a decent sort of fellow; I’m so glad you found someone willing to look past all of this dreadful unpleasantness! Yours most sincerely, Isabelle Fetherston Fitzhugh.’”

Elizabeth sat back after reading this, her disgust evident on her face. “She is the most dreadful girl!” she said of her cousin, and pushed the letter away from her.

“Well, now,” Jennings said in soothing tones. “At least she told you what you wanted to find out.” As soon as these words left his lips, he frowned, contemplating them in puzzlement.

“How so?” Elizabeth asked, her own baffled expression mirroring his. “She has said nothing of any consequence whatsoever.” She lifted one eyebrow. “Much like always,” she added drily.

“I don’t know,” Jennings said. “It simply seemed to me that she had done so, but now that I consider her words, I have no earthly idea what I was thinking.”

Elizabeth tilted her head to the side. “Perhaps it was part of your gift,” she suggested. She reached out and picked up the ill-used sheets of the letter. “Perhaps some part of you sees something revealed here that we cannot otherwise recognize as any sort of clue.” She folded the letter. “I will keep this, I think,” she decided. “In case I am correct. In time, the clue might be better revealed.”

Jennings nodded. “Wise, my love,” he said rather abstractedly, his mind still searching for the reason for his odd pronouncement. It had come unbidden from him; Elizabeth was no doubt correct about its origins. But it was unlike him to receive information without an accompanying vision, and he remained preoccupied with the mystery all morning, not able to abandon it until he and Elizabeth climbed into the carriage to go to town.

“Although I cannot fathom how they would be willing to discuss it with us,” Elizabeth noted as she settled into the carriage seat. “We are no acquaintance of this girl – what was her name?”

“Ann Baker,” Jennings said, sitting next to his wife. “She and her mother, according to the Gazette, have lived in Whitechapel for many years.” As the carriage pulled onto the high road, Jennings took Elizabeth’s hand in his. “I am in hopes,” he went on. “That where our words and arguments might fail us, a few coins might suffice.”

Elizabeth stared at him. “You mean to bribe the coroner?” she asked.

“Or the undertaker,” Jennings said. “Whoever is in charge of the poor girl at the moment. But of course I am not ‘bribing’ them; I am simply paying them for their services.”

“Their ‘service’ of telling us information that is none of our business?”

Jennings eyes twinkled. “Yes,” he said, and raised her fingers to his lips.

When they arrived in town, they went first to Sir James’ house, and, as the carriage pulled up to the door, Elizabeth realized that her heart was beating rapidly, and that she was almost trembling with nervousness.

“I have not been here in so long,” she said, gripping Jennings’ hand tightly. “Well, I suppose it has only been several weeks,” she amended. “But it seems a lifetime.”

Jennings gazed at her in some concern. “Are you sure you wish to do this?” he asked. “I believe your stepmother said that they would leave for the Lake house today, but if you think they might still be here – if you do not wish to encounter your father just now …”

She shook her head. “I am sure they are gone,” she said. “If they are not, we will simply leave again.” She squared her shoulders. “It’s silly to be nervous to enter my own house!” she said, as much to herself as to him. “I have as much right to visit it as anyone.”

They climbed down from the carriage and approached the door of the house, and Elizabeth, to her irritation, felt even more trepidation than she had a moment before. Why is it so difficult to be here? she wondered. I grew up here.

When the door was opened by the porter – a man whose face she had seen every day of her life for nineteen years – her anxiety vanished. “Simmons!” she said, smiling warmly at him.

Simmons, abandoning his habitual stern expression, broke into a wide grin. “Miss Elizabeth!” he cried. “Or – forgive me – Mrs. Jennings!” He ushered them in, his face beaming. “If I may say so, ma’am,” he said. “You look most well, and it’s the most excellent thing to see you!”

Elizabeth reached out impulsively and shook his hand. “I am quite well,” she said. “And it is indeed the most excellent thing to see you!”

“Miss Elizabeth?” a voice called, and a woman bustled in from the far end of the hall. “Miss Elizabeth!” she said again, overjoyed to see the visitors. She looked from Elizabeth to Jennings, and then, with a cluck of disgust, at Simmons. “Take Mr. Jennings’ hat and coat!” she said. “Have you forgotten yourself?” She herself helped Elizabeth out of her travelling cloak, and draped it over her arm as Simmons hastened to do as he had been bid.

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” he said contritely. “I was just that glad to see her – to see you both!”

“I quite understand,” Jennings told him. “Am I correct in assuming that Sir James is not currently at home?”

“He is not, sir,” the housekeeper said. “He and Mrs. Carlisle and Mr. Delacourt have all gone to the Lake house, just this morning.” She turned again to Simmons. “Simmons, tell Cook to prepare a luncheon for the Jennings!” She smiled cheerfully at the guests. “It won’t be twenty minutes, Miss Elizabeth!” she said. “Shall I show you to the back sitting room?”

Elizabeth, relieved to hear that her father was already away, and as pleased to see the servants as they were to see her, laughed and nodded. “But in a moment,” she said. She pointed to the cabinet where rows of miniature portraits were displayed. “I wanted to see one of the portraits,” she explained. “Someone who, I think, was an ancestor of my mother’s.”

By this time, other servants had made their way to the front hall, all of them delighted to see Elizabeth, and several of them breaching the ordinary conventions of propriety to shake Jennings’ hand and thank him earnestly for saving ‘Miss Elizabeth.’ Without going so far as to criticize their master, or even to acknowledge how painfully aware they were of his ways, they made it clear to Jennings that they felt every tenderness toward his wife, and that they had all been quite worried for her since the attack, and that his being there for her was a relief to them greater than they could say.

“For I don’t mind saying, sir,” the housekeeper said solemnly. “That when we saw how Sir – how things were going to be, that you were very much the answer to my prayers!” Her eyes had actually misted over with tears, and she turned away. “And I’m ever so grateful!” She left the hall, hurrying to ready the back sitting room for company, and surreptitiously wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.

Elizabeth, amidst animated responses to the servants, who had begun peppering her with questions as though she had been gone for years instead of weeks, had made her way to the cabinet. “Here it is!” she said to Jennings, gesturing for him to come see the portrait. “I was right! – it looks exactly like Cousin Delacourt!”

Jennings leaned over the cabinet and looked at the portrait. It seemed, at first, to be a portrait of Cedric Delacourt, so much so that Jennings asked his wife, “Is this a new portrait? The one you remember has perhaps been removed?”

“Oh, no, sir,” one of the servants said, bobbing a slight curtsey to excuse her intrusion. “That’s a portrait of Jonathan Fitzhugh, and I had noticed myself, sir, that it was all over Mr. Delacourt. But that’s been there for all the time I’ve been here.”

Elizabeth nodded her agreement. “It’s been there as long as I can remember,” she said. “In exactly that spot, with exactly that face. Cousin Cedric’s face.”

“I did find it uncanny, ma’am,” the servant said. “I had even thought to mention it to Mr. Delacourt, but Frimmy told me not to be rude.”

The housekeeper had returned to the hall. “And don’t you be oppressin’ Mr. and Mrs. Jennings!” she said tartly. “Bring them into the sitting room, and I’ll check on Cook.”

The servant, casting a sheepish glance at the housekeeper, quickly showed the Jennings into the back sitting room, still asking Elizabeth questions about her new life. For the duration of the Jennings’ visit, and even while they ate the lunch that Cook had prepared, she and the other servants milled in an out of the sitting room and the small dining room, and made constant conversation with Elizabeth. They were clearly very attached to her, and Jennings was glad to see that the cold and haughty Sir James had not by any means been the only person in Elizabeth’s household. She had apparently been quite surrounded by loving people, and she in turn was vastly contented to spend these hours with them.

After luncheon, as the Jennings prepared to leave, Elizabeth asked the housekeeper to tell her about the man in the portrait. “Is he not one of Mama’s relatives, Frimmy?” she wanted to know, as she carefully reached into the cabinet and pulled the miniature out. Where it had been, a circle remained, a darker patch against the faded surface of the cabinet shelf; the portrait had been there for some time, and had not been moved until now. “Is this not a very old portrait?”

“Aye, Miss,” Frimmy replied. “Much too old to be Mr. Delacourt, which I told Tina, but she said it was most uncanny, and I suppose she’s right, but it can’t be Mr. Delacourt, nor even his father or grandfather.” She pointed a finger at the miniature. “That man is the head of the Fitzhugh clan, which was your dear mother’s clan, and that portrait is over a hundred years old.”

_________________________

As they made their way to the coroner’s, Elizabeth was unnaturally quiet and serious. Although she had much enjoyed her visit to her father’s house, she was puzzled, not only by the strange similarity between her cousin Cedric and the long-dead Jonathan Fitzhugh in the portrait, but by her fascination with it. People often resembled one another, after all, especially in miniature paintings the accuracy of which depended completely upon the skill of the painter. It was true, too, that family trees often intertwined at more than one place; perhaps Mr. Delacourt was her relation on both sides of her lineage, and perhaps those connections had simply been forgotten over the intervening decades. It made no sense, really, that this should bother her so.

Jennings noticed her altered mood, and asked her solicitously, “Are you disturbed to be going with me to the coroner? It would be most understandable if you did not wish to go.”

She looked up at him. “Oh, as to that, sir,” she said. “Although her death saddens me, it has already occurred; what would a fit of sensibility on my part benefit her – or myself – in the least? She has reached out to us through the slate, and I take rather seriously our responsibility to help her as best we can – I will not shirk it simply to avoid the coroner.” She gave a small laugh. “When one is being contacted by the spirits of the dead, one might reasonably expect to be required to see the dead, and to deal with the consequences of death. I cannot suppose it would do very well to be squeamish!” She shook her head. “No, especially since you feel her death to be connected to the attack on me, I am in fact rather curious to discover more about her. I am only thoughtful at the moment, about the portrait and about why the matter is so pressing to me. I cannot decide how it should seem so important.” She laughed again. “You must think me rather silly!” she said. “To fret so much over such a small thing!”

Jennings shook his head. “Not at all, my dear,” he told her. “I have spent my life acting upon feelings the nature of which others could not understand. If you feel this portrait is more than a remarkable coincidence, then by all means you should consider it. Perhaps, indeed, we should examine your cousin Delacourt.”

This thought struck Elizabeth as being distasteful as well as unwarranted. “But that would be so … rude!” she protested. “He is the most affable man! And completely forthcoming! I cannot imagine that he would be involved in any sort of plot to hurt others!”

“I quite agree,” Jennings said. “I felt nothing upon meeting him other than warmth and friendliness.” He pondered the matter silently for a moment. “We might instead look the other direction,” he suggested. “It may be your mother’s ancestor who is the key here; his direct descendent is marrying your Cousin Isabelle, after all, and is Mr. Delacourt’s closest friend.”

“But that also feels rather wrong,” Elizabeth argued. “I have never met him – although I knew of him, as part of a list of distant cousins I had no expectation of ever laying eyes on in my life – but I have not heard anything other than good about him.”

Something in her turn of phrase triggered a sensation in Jennings’ chest, a familiar sort of tingling breath that typically prefaced a vision, but no insights came immediately to him. “We’ve heard nothing but good of him,” he echoed. “From your cousins Isabelle and Delacourt.”

“His fiancée,” Elizabeth said. “And his best friend.” She regarded her husband curiously. “Are you seeing something?” she asked. “Something about the portrait?”

“No,” he said slowly. He had stopped walking, and he now turned to Elizabeth with a somber expression. “My dream,” he went on. “Betrayal. The man who was killed was betrayed by someone he trusted implicitly.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “But Cousin Cedric is very much alive,” she pointed out. “The man in your dream was killed.” A thought occurred to her. “Unless,” she continued. “You believe your dream might in fact be a vision of the future after all?”

“No,” he said again, shaking his head emphatically. “I could sense the man,” he explained. “He is dead, killed by a friend. And whoever killed him seems in some way to be connected to your cousins – all three of them, perhaps.” He seemed suddenly worried. “It may be that they are in danger.”

“In danger?” Elizabeth repeated in consternation. “From whom? From my mother’s ancestor? – who has been dead nearly a hundred years!”

Jennings looked askance at her. “Do you believe Eliza Tate was killed by a fever?” he asked. “Or that the creature that left you for dead was of this world?”

Elizabeth blinked, staring at him mutely. “No,” she said at last. “I do not.” The things they had been discussing these past weeks – the deaths, the notions of dark magic and family secrets – had never seemed more real to her, and, as she thought again of the portrait, she could feel that her mind had been guiding her to this conclusion. “My ancestor,” she began soberly. “Is in some way still manipulating his family.”

She turned then, and continued walking. Jennings walked beside her, neither of them saying a word as they each contemplated the mysterious situation.

Upon arrival at the coroner’s establishment, they were informed that Ann Baker had already been delivered to the undertaker, who, even as they spoke, was no doubt preparing the girl for burial. The coroner was a stout middle-aged man named Oxley, who, once Jennings had indicated that Miss Baker was a relative, seemed perfectly inclined to discuss the matter.

“The poor girl was ripped apart!” Oxley said, clearly troubled by the incident. “Clawed all about as though by some animal, but the size of the animal passes all believability! – it should have been a bear, I would imagine, of considerable size, and I can’t imagine how such a thing would make its way into the heart of the city! Twice, too! – for another young lady was attacked in such a way, not a stone’s throw from her home, from what I understand, not two months ago!”

Oxley did not seem aware that Elizabeth was in fact this other young lady, and Jennings did not offer the information. “Strange,” he murmured. “For a bear to roam undetected for two months.”

“Indeed!” Oxley agreed vehemently. “It’s almost as though it’s being released to hunt, and then disappears whence it came.”

Jennings thrust his hands into his pockets. “Can’t be,” he objected. “Surely not. What sort of wretch would train a bear to go out hunting young ladies?”

“Just what I was wondering!” Oxley said. “And how would one do it? How would one control a creature of such size and strength? It makes no sense, sir, I tell you. But it makes even less sense that such a beast would simply be wandering loose, and no one the wiser.” He shook his head, and frowned. “The poor thing was most viciously savaged by it,” he went on. “There was hardly anything left of her.”

Elizabeth stepped forward. “Dr. Oxley,” she said softly. “Was Miss Baker wearing a ring, by any chance?”

Dr. Oxley, who had forgotten to some extent that Mrs. Jennings was in the room, was for a moment worried that his frank discussion about such delicate matters had upset Elizabeth. When he saw that she was unaffected, he was too relieved to concern himself with the reason for her question. “In a way,” he answered. “I found a ring upon examination, one that had fallen into …” He looked at Jennings, and then back to Elizabeth. “But I do not wish to upset you, ma’am, with any depiction of Miss Baker’s injuries.”

Elizabeth gave him a small smile. “The girl is connected with my family,” she reminded him, convinced as she spoke that this was no fib. “I am quite willing to hear whatever I must to learn what befell her.”

Dr. Oxley, still hesitant, nodded his head. “Of course,” he said. “Of course. Well.” He coughed, and continued, “There was a ring hidden deep inside one of the girl’s wounds. All of her fingers were broken – nearly wrenched from her hands! – so I surmised that the ring had fallen.” He was unused to speaking so graphically before a lady, and he coughed again, and flushed awkwardly.

“Do you have the ring, sir?” Elizabeth asked him. “I would very much like to have it back, so that we may deliver it to Mrs. Baker.”

“I do not, ma’am,” Dr. Oxley informed her. “But in fact I had already given it – and some other things found with Miss Baker – to her mother yesterday.”

“Mrs. Baker and I have not spoken in some time,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t suppose – would it be too much to ask you for her direction? I daresay she may not wish to see us, but news of Ann’s death has brought my heart to her, and I would like to try, if I can, to offer some comfort to her.”

Oxley’s brow cleared. “Of course,” he said again. “Mending fences. Of course.” He cheerfully gave them direction to the Bakers’ house in Whitechapel, and within a very few moments, the Jennings found themselves on their way to visit a stranger – a situation that was daily becoming less unusual to Elizabeth. As they made their way to Whitechapel, she composed several avenues of conversation with which they might speak to Mrs. Baker without arousing her suspicions or putting her on her guard.

In the end, however, no subterfuge was required, for Mrs. Baker seemed eager to bring them into her home and to speak with them. “For I’m not sure how to feel, ma’am,” she explained to Elizabeth as they seated themselves in her small front room. “I still can’t believe it. I keep calling to her as though she was just in her room, and then remembering that she’s not.” She looked up at her guests, her face pale and stricken. “Forgive me, ma’am,” she said. “I should have offered you tea.” She moved as though to get up, but Elizabeth put out a hand to stop her.

“We are quite fine, Mrs. Baker,” she said with sincere compassion. “We are here to offer you condolence.”

Mrs. Baker pressed a handkerchief to her mouth. “Thank you,” she said, her voice muffled. “I suppose you are friends of Annie?”

Elizabeth exchanged glances with Jennings. “I believe this must sound strange to you, Mrs. Baker,” Elizabeth began delicately. “But I believe that whatever attacked your daughter also attacked me, some weeks ago.”

Mrs. Baker looked startled, and stared for a long moment at Elizabeth. In a small voice, she asked, “Do you – do you know what it was?”

Elizabeth felt tears welling up, and blinked them back as best she could. “I do,” she said. “But I believe the monster was dispatched by some wretched master, who targets his quarry by means of a ring.”

Mrs. Baker’s eyes opened wide. “A ring,” she repeated. “What kind of ring?”

“I know of two,” Elizabeth answered. “One is a peridot, and the other is an amethyst. But I suppose there is the possibility of more.”

Mrs. Baker got up from her chair. “Please excuse me,” she said. “I’ll be back directly.” She left the room, returning not thirty seconds later with something clutched in her hand. “Is this one of them?” she asked, opening her hand to reveal a green peridot ring resting in her palm.

Elizabeth did not bother to hide the tears that now fell onto her cheeks. “That is my ring,” she said. “My mother’s ring, that the monster stole from me.”

Mrs. Baker held it out for Elizabeth to take. “Please, ma’am,” she said. “Please take this. It is of no particular significance to me; I only took it because Dr. Oxley said that I should take her things. But it was not hers for more than a fortnight, and I had thought to return it to the one who gave it her, but I never cared for him much, and have no knowledge where he might be, and since it is yours, ma’am, you should have it.”

Elizabeth thought of Mrs. Baker’s pain at losing her daughter. “I do not wish to take something that will remind you of your daughter, Mrs. Baker,” she said somberly. “I am content to part with it if it will give you some comfort.”

Mrs. Baker shook her head. “No, ma’am,” she said. “I have many other things to remind me, things that mean a great deal more. This was given her not two weeks ago,” she reiterated. “By a ‘gentleman’ suitor who never even told her his name, other than ‘Edmond’.”

Elizabeth reached out tentatively and touched the ring, but did not take it. “I have no proof for you that it is mine, Mrs. Baker.”

Mrs. Baker smiled faintly. “It’s clearly yours, ma’am,” she said. “I saw your face when you looked on it. It means a great deal more to you than it does to me or, I daresay, to my daughter.” She placed the ring into Elizabeth’s hand, and closed Elizabeth’s fingers around it. “It is yours, ma’am, and I am happy to give it to you.” She sat once more, and, revealing a touch of anger behind her grief, continued, “This ‘master’ … do you know who he is? Can he be held accountable for what he’s done to my Annie?”

Before Elizabeth could answer, Jennings leaned forward and, speaking as gently as he could, said, “His identity is unknown to us, ma’am. But we believe he has taken issue with members of Mrs. Jennings’ family. Are you connected, ma’am, with the Fitzhugh clan?”

Mrs. Baker did not answer at first, but then, looking down at her hands folded in her lap, she responded in a voice heavy with resignation. “I am not,” she murmured. “But Annie is. Was.” She sighed, and raised her eyes to Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Baker,” she went on with a pained expression. “God rest his soul, was not Annie’s father. He was her stepfather, and as kind to her as any man could be to his child.” She began to weep, and pressed her handkerchief once more to her mouth. “Annie’s father never knew that he left me with her; I knew I would never be accepted by his family, and that coming forward would ruin him. I suppose that sounds stupid – I suppose I was stupid – but I chose to raise Annie on my own, and not tell her father about her, and when Mr. Baker proved to be such a good-hearted man, and very accepting of my situation, and loving toward my girl, I thought that I had made the right decision.”

Elizabeth clasped Mrs. Baker’s hands in hers. “I am sure you did, Mrs. Baker,” she told her. “No one is stupid who considers the welfare of others.”

“Mrs. Baker,” Jennings said. “Do you mean to say that Miss Baker’s father was a Fitzhugh?”

Mrs. Baker nodded. “His name was Tate, but his mother’s family was Fitzhugh, and he was very proud of it. He was so young, sir,” she said. “I knew it then as I know it now. We thought – well, we thought our actions would have no consequence, as the young typically do, and I know he never meant me harm. I know he would have done right by me if I’d told him, but I think it would have ruined his life, and I cared for him, and I didn’t want that for him. He moved away from London, and has married now, and is happy. And I had Annie, and I found Mr. Baker, and I was happy.” She sobbed. “Now what do I have?” she asked Elizabeth. “Now my Annie is gone!” She abandoned any pretense of composure, and lowered her head into her hands.

Elizabeth continued to hold the distraught woman’s hands in hers, and her heart broke for the woman’s loss. She was stricken too by the misfortune that had befallen her cousin Marcus – for it must be he! – that he should lose two daughters in a week. Indeed, he had never been given the chance to know Annie, and would now never know her. His little Eliza had been so cruelly snatched from him. The only consolation was that he could not feel grief for a daughter he was unaware had ever existed, but anger swelled up in Elizabeth, and flushed her cheeks, as she thought of the soulless deeds committed by her family’s unseen foe.

“We have to stop him, Christopher!” she said tersely. “We have to find him and stop him, before more girls are lost!”

“Yes,” Jennings said simply, his jaw tight and his expression cold. “And I have a notion where he might be found.”

Mrs. Baker stifled her weeping abruptly, and both women turned to stare in astonishment at Jennings.

“You cannot think it is Cousin Marcus!” Elizabeth said.

Jennings raised one eyebrow. “Indeed no,” he said. “Although I suppose we should not dismiss anyone out of hand. No, I refer to this ‘suitor’ who gave Miss Baker the ring. You said, I think, that his name was ‘Edmond’?” When Mrs. Baker nodded, he went on, “And you never met him?”

“No, sir,” she said. “But even though Annie thought he was the moon and the stars, something in the way she talked about him made me suspicious of him. She said he was engaged, but that he planned to break off the engagement, and that he gave Annie the ring to show his intention to marry her as soon as he had spoken to the other lady.”

Elizabeth scoffed. “I can well understand your suspicions!” she said drily. “At best, this is a man of inconstant affections.”

“Just so, ma’am,” Mrs. Baker agreed. “But Annie found him to be very charming and sincere, and I could say nothing to dissuade her.” She indicated the ring. “Annie wore that as though it were a wedding band. She was so in love with him!”

“Did he mention the name of this other lady?” Jennings asked.

“He did, sir,” Mrs. Baker replied. “Annie said the girl’s name was Isabelle.”

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