The Jennings – Chapter Fifteen

Rings

They sat for some time with Mrs. Baker, speaking frankly about Anne and her father. Elizabeth supported Mrs. Baker’s decision not to tell Marcus Tate about Anne now, feeling that it would be unnecessarily cruel, and injurious to his family who were already suffering so dreadfully the loss of their little Eliza. But, after reminding Mrs. Baker that they were, in fact, family, Jennings insisted that she call on him if ever she were in need. “After all,” he explained. “However prepared and conscientious Mr. Baker might have been, he no doubt had planned to grow old with you, Mrs. Baker, and to see Anne safely married, and for her children to be there for you in the future. He could not have predicted such a bizarre circumstance, or that you would be left on your own.”

Mr. Baker had indeed left money for his widow, but Mrs. Baker admitted that she depended a great deal on Anne’s wage from the shop, and she accepted Jennings’ generosity gratefully. “I should refuse, I suppose,” she said, her expression one of overwhelming heartbreak. “But without Anne, I didn’t know what I would do.” She pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, and tears glistened in her eyes. “I don’t know what I will do without her,” she went on. “All the money in the world cannot fill this hole in my heart!” She sat for a moment, quietly weeping into her handkerchief, while Elizabeth held her hand. “But I thank you most extremely, sir,” she said finally, struggling to collect herself. “Because it will help me, and it’s most welcome and appreciated, because else I believe I would lose these rooms as well, and be put out on the street.”

“We will not let that happen,” Elizabeth assured her. “And we will discover this ‘Edmond’ who gave Anne the ring; whether or not it is my cousin remains to be seen, but we will bring him to earth and hold him accountable for his crimes!” She scowled, and a dark anger welled up in her. “He has taken so many lives!” she said, her voice gruff. “He cannot be allowed to take any more!”

Although Mrs. Baker could not fathom how the Jennings or anyone else would be able to combat a foe who apparently commanded forces well outside the ordinary, she was too grateful to them to say anything of her doubts. Indeed, when she had suggested to the constables that Anne’s suitor was a possible suspect in her murder, they had rather condescendingly declared to her that only a large animal could have caused such wounds, and, while she had no reason to question this conclusion, the Jennings’ assertion that it could be both Edmond and a wild animal supported her misgivings about Edmond without denying any of the evidence. As unlikely as such a notion would have seemed to her three days ago, Mrs. Baker could see the truth behind the Jennings’ words: Anne may have been brought down by claws and fangs, but they were those of some otherworldly creature commanded by human sorcery.

“Human sorcery,” she said aloud softly. She lifted her eyes to Elizabeth’s. “That’s very strange to say, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Elizabeth agreed. “And I see what you’re feeling – how can anyone hunt down such a man, or even find him? How can his guilt in these deaths be made plain? Where would we even begin? I assure you, I have asked myself these questions a thousand times in the past weeks.” She sat up taller and squared her shoulders, and managed a smile. “But if it can be done,” she added. “We are as suited to do it as anyone, and maybe more so!”

Eventually they took their leave of Mrs. Baker, Jennings insisting once more that she not hesitate to call on him for anything; Mrs. Baker, so obviously shattered by her loss, did at least, upon their departure, seem a little less overwhelmed, and as she saw them to the door, a slight bit of colour had returned to her cheeks.

Elizabeth turned to wave one last time at Mrs. Baker, who watched them from a window. Mrs. Baker returned the wave before retreating into the house, and Elizabeth said anxiously, “I hope our visit has done her some good.”

Jennings offered his arm to his wife, and walked with her down the street. “I believe it has,” he said. “As strange as our news must certainly have been, I think she is heartened by the thought that Miss Baker’s killer will be found. And she seemed glad to hear that you would call again soon; however sad the origin, your kind heart has brought you a new friend.”

She looked up at him. “Your generosity,” she pointed out. “Has put her mind greatly at ease.” She looked down at the ground, frowning. “I wish we could bring her Anne back to her.”

“So do I,” Jennings said, and patted Elizabeth’s hand. They walked a moment in silence, then he added resolutely, “But since we cannot do what we would rather, we will do instead what we can: we will find Miss Baker’s body, and I will try to glean some sign from it.”

Elizabeth stopped walking. “You cannot do that,” she told him. “The body has already been given to the undertaker. She’s to be buried tomorrow.”

Jennings looked quizzically at her. “All the more reason to find her now,” he said. “If I can touch her, it may trigger a vision – of her attacker, of his face, of his motives. It could be a crucial clue, and Miss Baker herself directed us to her.”

“That is true,” Elizabeth said. “And I know that on our journey here, I myself spoke of doing what needed to be done, however difficult or unseemly it might prove to be. But even I cannot think on what pretext we would accost the undertaker to allow us to see a body with whom we have no apparent connection. If she had still been with Dr. Oxley, I think it would not have seemed particularly odd at all, but to pursue her now would be highly unusual.”

“My entire experience with the slate has been highly unusual,” Jennings argued. “I have fabricated dozens of pretenses, faced countless strange looks, and endured hours of awkwardness. Why should today be any different?”

Elizabeth reached into her reticule. “Because I do not think we need to fabricate, face, or endure anything,” she answered, pulling her mother’s ring out and holding it up. “Do you not see?” she went on, pointing at a smudge that ran along the inside of the band. “It is a smudge of blood, I think, and also of some green liquid that might belong to the creature that attacked her – that attacked us.”

Jennings looked at the ring, and at the smudge. A smear of yellow-green residue lay over a dark brown stain – no doubt Miss Baker’s blood, covered by a substance that he recognized from Lady Morton’s balcony. “It is,” he breathed, reaching out to take the ring. “It’s what I saw at Lady Morton’s.” Remembering the intensity of that vision, he hesitated suddenly, and pulled his fingers away, but a second later, he willed his hand to close around it, and his finger pressed against the stain.

Instantly his head rocked back as though he had been struck in the face. He grimaced in pain, and cried out; Elizabeth, alarmed, took his hands in hers and called his name, but, other than to squeeze her hands almost convulsively, he could do no more than stand before her, his features pale, his eyes clenched shut. He could hear Elizabeth’s voice faintly, but, as the vision washed over him, he was unable to speak.

The street he saw was much the same as the street where they walked now, but it was shrouded in darkness, filled with horrible smells and strange noises. He could see through someone else’s eyes, and he could feel that this person was used to this street, to this nightly walk home and to the vague unease of wending through unsavoury alleyways, past innumerable faceless strangers whose glances seemed to Jennings to be lecherous at best.

The walker came to the end of a better street – a cleaner place, with fewer people and a sense of fresher air. Jennings could feel the walker’s relief at reaching this point.

Out of the deep shadows of an alleyway came the beast that had carried Elizabeth off the balcony. It ran out on massive, sinewy legs, leering at the walker with yellow, glittering eyes and a slavering mouth. Its claws were enormous; its muscular arms swung through the air toward the walker, and Jennings was besieged by the walker’s fear and panic. It threatened to overcome him, and he doubled over, his arms wrapped around his stomach.

“No!” he cried. “No! Leave me alone!”

Elizabeth realized that these were not her husband’s words. “Who is it?” she asked, bending over him and putting her arm across his shoulders. “Do you see Anne?”

“He’s clawing her apart!” Jennings gasped, watching helplessly as the monster in his vision slashed again and again at the defenseless walker. Blood sprayed up onto the creature’s head and torso, driving it into an even greater frenzy, and its growls became more like shrieks as it ravaged its victim. Just as it had with Elizabeth, the creature tried to wrench the ring from the walker’s hand, but in the distance came the sounds of revelers, stumbling their way home down the same alley, and the creature abandoned its efforts. Pivoting on one foot, it spread massive wings that stretched across the street and touched the buildings on either side; with a rush of wind, the monster disappeared into the night sky. The revelers, emerging into the street, stopped dead in their tracks, and Jennings watched as their drunken smiles turned into abject horror.

“We need a doctor!” one of them shouted, and Jennings echoed his words with a raspy hiss. He sank to his knees, and Elizabeth put both her arms around him.

“Christopher!” she cried. Two men who had been walking on the other side of the street hurried quickly to her aid, one of them gripping Jennings’ shoulders and pulling him to his feet.

“Are you well, man!” he barked, frowning at Jennings in concern. “Shall we fetch a doctor?”

Jennings was still lost in his vision. He saw the creature flying away over the rooftops; he saw the revelers circling the body that the creature had left behind. Then a face appeared, floating incongruously in front of him for a brief second before evaporating. Abruptly the vision ended, and Jennings leaned gratefully against the stranger who had picked him up.

“Thank you!” he said weakly, trying to catch his breath. “It – It must be something I ate.”

______________________________

It took some effort – and a fair bit of both Elizabeth’s charm and storytelling abilities – to convince the men that Jennings was all right, and that they needn’t summon a doctor. But the men insisted on escorting them both to their carriage, and admonished Jennings more than once about eating at the sorts of shops one found in this area, for, as one of them noted, “One can never be sure what’s in the meat, you know. Could be anything.”

As the carriage moved down the street, Jennings sank back against the seat and closed his eyes. “I believe you’re right, my love,” he said, his voice still a little breathless. “I don’t think we need find poor Miss Baker’s body. She has said quite enough.”

Elizabeth put a hand gently on his cheek. “Are you recovered, Christopher?” she asked. She had never seen him react in such a way, and it had affected her deeply.

“I am,” he assured her. “Blood is … very powerful.”

Elizabeth looked down at her mother’s ring, which Jennings had placed on the seat beside him. “You saw Anne?” she asked, picking up the ring and putting it back in her reticule. “What did she say to you?”

“Well, nothing, really,” Jennings said. “I saw through her eyes,” he explained. “I saw her walking home from the shop, down a rather unpleasant looking side street, and then the beast that abducted you descended upon her.” He paused, frowning at the memory. “It tore her apart; I could feel its claws and teeth sinking into my – into her skin. I could feel the blood pouring from the wounds. And then the monster tried to take her ring, but a group of men came down the street, and the monster was obliged to fly away.”

Elizabeth was puzzled. “Why would it feel the need to flee?” she wondered. “If it is truly a wild animal of some sort, let loose into the city, would it not attack any who approached it?” She shook her head. “It must indeed be controlled by someone who does not want it to be discovered.”

Jennings had opened his eyes and was watching Elizabeth. “You’re correct, I believe,” he told her. “But even then, why would this person be concerned over the discovery of his beast? I do not think the beast had the capability to speak, after all. It must be over concern for the beast itself.”

Elizabeth’s brow cleared. “The beast is not invulnerable,” she said with relief. “It hunts solitary prey because larger numbers scare it. It is mortal.”

Jennings nodded. “It can be killed,” he said.

Elizabeth’s joy at this news was short-lived. “But its master is still hidden,” she said. “And we cannot know if this beast was the only beast under his control. You said it flew away; it is, then, not a creature of our ordinary world. What sort of power does this master possess, that he can summon such things and send them to do his bidding?”

“More to the point,” Jennings said. “If it is Miss Baker’s suitor, why did he not kill her himself? She trusted him, apparently, and was in his company unattended – Mrs. Baker had never even met him. He could have taken her life at any time.”

“Perhaps he feared to leave clues behind,” Elizabeth suggested. “To have another do it would hide his identity and his guilt.”

Jennings sat quietly for a moment, lost in thought. “I saw his face,” he said eventually. “He was not actually there, in the street with Miss Baker. He appeared before me for just an instant.”

“Did you recognize him?”

“No,” Jennings said. “But he looked like the portraits in your father’s house.”

“Cousin Cedric?” Elizabeth asked apprehensively. She did not want to believe that he could be involved in this matter; she had become so instantly fond of him.

Jennings had recovered somewhat, and was able to sit forward and turn toward his wife. “No,” he replied. “It is clear, to be sure, that at some point in the past, Mr. Delacourt’s lineage and yours were one and the same. But the man I saw did not so much resemble Delacourt – or Jonathan Fitzhugh – but rather simply seemed to be a member of your mother’s family.” He took Elizabeth’s hand. “We must assume,” he went on. “That Miss Baker’s Edmond is possibly your cousin Ned Fitzhugh, and that he is the man responsible for this creature, and its attacks.”

Elizabeth digested this, and her expression became both sad and angry. “My ‘cousin’,” she repeated scornfully. “Who murders his own relations, and has clearly made a pact with diabolical forces!” She gasped, and stared wide-eyed at Jennings. “Isabelle!” she exclaimed. “She is no doubt in danger from this man! As dreadful as she is, she does not deserve to be murdered; we must warn her away from him!”

“I had considered that,” Jennings said. “I believe on the morrow, we should venture north, and take rooms in Isabelle’s neighbourhood.” He raised an eyebrow, and his eyes twinkled. “We shall call on her in a most uninvited fashion!” he announced. “And, since I doubt she would listen to – or believe – any warning we might deliver to her, we will attempt to suss out Ned’s guilt, and prevent him doing whatever he plans to do next.”

Elizabeth smiled at this. “I would very much like that!” she said. “It would be most irritating for her, I daresay!”

__________________________

They left quite early the next morning, heading north in a carriage laden with weeks’ worth of luggage. They day at first was quite fine, the sun burning off a slight mist, and shining down warmly on the travelers; by mid-day, however, clouds had rolled in, and a chilly breeze came up, so that Elizabeth was obliged to close the carriage window.

“Do you think we’ll arrive before it rains, sir?” she asked, glancing at the darkening sky. The driver and the groom apparently wondered as much themselves, gazing often up at the clouds and conferring with one another.

“We may be forced to wait in the next town,” Jennings said. He signaled for the driver to stop, and, letting himself down from the carriage, communicated to the driver his plan of taking lunch at the village just in sight on the horizon. “We’ll wait there until the rain has passed,” he said. “We may need to stay the night, but I imagine not. We are only three hours from our destination.”

“Aye, sir,” the driver concurred. “It doesn’t look to be a big storm. We should be able to travel on by mid-afternoon, and reach Northampton before supper!”

“Good man!” Jennings said. He turned to climb back into the carriage, but stopped abruptly as his glance took in the surrounding countryside. “Perry,” he said to the driver. “I know you will think me quite mad, but we must wait here for a bit; I need to go for a walk.”

“Go for a walk, sir?” Perry asked skeptically. He looked in the direction that Jennings was looking, but he could see nothing but rolling hills and a distant copse of trees. “It’s turnin’ a bit blustery for that, sir.”

“Yes,” Jennings said. “Nevertheless, I am compelled.” He opened the carriage door and spoke to Elizabeth. “I recognize this place,” he said. “It’s what I see in my dream.”

“The one with the cave?” she asked, instantly intrigued. She leaned out the door and surveyed the landscape. “We are but five miles from Cousin Cedric’s lands, sir,” she noted, and looked at him enquiringly. “Could your dream be prophetic after all?” she asked. “Cedric is Ned’s particular friend; could Ned be planning to harm him? Could that be the sense of betrayal you felt?”

Jennings pondered this. “I have never had a prophetic vision,” he said. “But I suppose it could be.” He looked at her askance. “I don’t suppose you are willing to wait here while I look for the cave?”

Elizabeth frowned at him. “Why on earth would I do that?” she asked, and, gathering her cloak tightly around her shoulders, stepped down from the carriage.

It was not the first time that Jennings had done something that his servants found strange, but as he and Elizabeth walked out into the field that separated them from the copse of trees, Perry watched them with a disapproving and worried eye. It was one thing to be odd for your own part, he thought. But to bring the young lady into it seemed unwise. He knew better than to criticize, however, and contented himself with telling the groom to keep watch on the couple.

“He gets some crazy notions,” the groom observed.

“Aye,” Perry agreed. He sighed. “But he’s the best master there ever could be.”

Elizabeth, stepping carefully over the uneven ground, felt as content as she ever had; her sense of adventure was certainly satisfied by her husband’s visions, and this current journey seemed very much to bring many pieces of a puzzle finally together. What shape they would take remained to be seen, but she cheerfully accompanied Jennings into the trees, certain that they would find here the answer to both his recurring nightmare and her family’s dark mystery.

“Perhaps,” she said teasingly. “Cousin Ned will have left a note for us: ‘I am the killer, and listed here is the way to stop me.’”

Jennings laughed. “That would be very welcome!” he said.

They walked far enough into the trees that the field and the road were almost completely hidden from view, and Jennings, pausing to look around him, felt a strong urge to step some yards to the west, where several trees had grown up on a small hill, their roots and branches intertwining.

“Here is our cave,” he said. Its entrance was little more than a gash in the earth, wrapped on either side by tree roots and tangled bushes. He recognized it at once, but, against his expectations, he felt no urgency or trepidation. He had thought that finding this site, that had plagued his sleep for so many nights, would trigger more intense sensations of discovery or foreboding, or even an overwhelming relief at fulfilling the wishes of a most persistent spirit; instead, he experienced only an anticlimactic sort of curiosity, and, as he walked toward the cave, he wondered if perhaps the dream, however unpleasant, had been only a dream after all.

Behind him, Elizabeth stood still as a statue, and, when he turned to offer his hand to her, Jennings saw that she had grown pale, and was staring unblinking at the cave entrance.

“What is it, my dear?” he asked, concerned. He came quickly to her side. “Are you unwell?” He glanced at the cave entrance, and then back at her. “If you are uncomfortable in such a dark place, please do not think you must accompany me. You can wait here, and I will return in a moment.”

She looked at him as though his suggestion were the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. “I will not let you go in there alone,” she told him emphatically. “But I wonder if either of us should go in there at all.” Her gaze returned to the cave entrance. “It fills me with the strangest dread,” she explained. “As though something horrible will happen if we go in there.”

Jennings thought of the nature of their foe: whoever he was, he clearly possessed otherworldly abilities, and had covered his own tracks through mystical means. Perhaps he had worked some magic on this place, so that ordinary people would be afraid to approach it; Jennings’ own abilities may have caused the magic to affect him very differently, so that he could not see it as he normally would.

“Perhaps that is why I feel nothing special,” he murmured aloud. He took Elizabeth’s hand. “I think we must go in there,” he said. “But I do not think there is any present danger; I believe you may safely wait for me here.”

“No,” she said, squeezing his hand. “I’ll go with you.”

They stepped together into the uninviting crevice, ducking their heads to avoid tendrils of roots and spindly branches. The cave was not more than five feet around, and hardly that high, so that Jennings had to stoop. Everything was exactly as it had been in his dream.

“We should have brought a lantern, I suppose,” Elizabeth said. She was struggling with little success to control the sensation of panic that had welled up inside her. She could not account for it, and she trusted her husband’s judgment, but it was all she could do to stand in this place, and not sprint madly back to the carriage. “If the events in your dream have in fact already happened, then there should be blood stains here, and possibly other clues.”

The faint light that made its way through the narrow opening was not enough to illuminate the cave, especially since they stood blocking the entrance, but Jennings scanned the ground as best he could, and ultimately was rewarded with a slight glint in the furthest recess. “There,” he said, stepping forward and crouching down. “A piece of metal.”

“Be careful,” Elizabeth advised, watching him anxiously. Her panic threatened to overwhelm her, and she trembled violently; only her promise to stay by his side prevented her from fleeing.

“I believe it is a ring,” Jennings said, reaching out for the golden band that lay half-buried in the dirt. “A signet ri–”

As his fingers closed around the ring, a blast of cold assailed him, and searing pain gripped his stomach. He fell back and out of the cave as though flung by an unseen hand, and lay gasping for breath. He felt again the dread he had encountered in his dreams, and the now-familiar betrayal. Yes, there it was: the relief he had expected, now that he had come where the spirit had led. He was transported once more into the dream-vision, but the details were no longer obscured by shadows. He could see the victim this time, and the creeping shape with a weapon raised to strike; he could see the face of the assailant as the weapon descended upon its target. It was a face devoid of any emotion – neither anger nor hatred nor joy, but only a cold intensity, as though this brutal act were as necessary and as easy as shutting a door. It was a face he knew.

“Christopher!” Elizabeth cried, kneeling on the ground beside him. When he had picked up the ring, her panic vanished, as instantly as though she had awakened from a nightmare. Her only thought now was for Jennings, who lay in obvious pain, his arms clutching his stomach. “Christopher!” She grabbed his hand and pried the fingers apart, and wrenched the ring from his grasp. “Christopher!”

The pain subsided, and after a few seconds, Jennings opened his eyes. “Lizzie,” he said, trying to sit up. The blast had taken a great deal out of him; he was able only to lift his head, and then to set it back down on the ground. “Lizzie, we need to go home.”

“Why?” she asked, perplexed. “We need to protect Isabelle!” She put her arm under Jennings’ shoulders and helped him sit. “We need to find Ned.”

Jennings shook his head. “It’s too late,” he said. “I saw the murderer. I saw his face.” He looked up at Elizabeth; she could see that he did not want at all to tell her what he now knew, and she felt her heart sink with dread.

“Ned?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

Jennings leaned forward and put his hand on the side of her face. His fingers curled around her hair, and he brought her close to him, so that his forehead touched hers. Finally, he spoke.

“The spirit is Ned,” he said. “And Cedric killed him.”

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