Having found a suitable inn at the nearby village, Jennings and Elizabeth took shelter from the rain and arranged to have luncheon in one of the inn’s small sitting rooms.
Jennings had recovered from the shock he had sustained at the cave, but he felt now a strong urgency to bring Cedric Delacourt to earth, and his mind raced to fit together the pieces of the puzzle he had been given. “Clearly,” he said, almost as much to himself as to Elizabeth. “The spell on the cave was prodigious. If we can be so deceived in our own feelings, how can we ever know for certain that we have finally stumbled onto the truth?”
Elizabeth shook her head, and bit wearily into a sweet biscuit. “I do not know,” she said. “But one way or another – no matter which way we consider it – I believe we must act in haste now to avert calamity.”
Jennings looked at her curiously. “What do you mean, ‘which way we consider it’?” he asked. He drank deeply from a mug of ale. “Cousin Delacourt is our man, is he not? As much as it pains me to say, both of this generation’s victims have already been taken; if he is true to form, then there will be no more sacrifices from your family for another nineteen years.” He leaned back in his chair and added wryly, “But your father is a direct impediment to Cedric’s fortune. We must, then, go as quickly as possible to the lake house, and prevent him doing your father a harm.”
“Yes, if indeed your dream has been of past events,” Elizabeth replied. “But I question its being so.” She saw that Jennings would argue this point, and hastened to continue. “The enchantment on the cave was prodigious, as you said, but would it affect those already dead? Perhaps Ned could not communicate through the slate because he is not yet a spirit. Perhaps your dreams are echoes from a future that we can, in fact, forestall. Why else would we be drawn on this journey, and to the cave and the signet ring, except to hear the warning of what may be?”
Jennings shook his head. “The signet ring belongs to the Fitzhugh clan,” he reminded her. “It is very likely Ned’s. And I have never had any sort of prophetic vision in my entire life; why would I now?”
“Picking up the ring dispelled the enchantment,” Elizabeth said. “Why would the murderer use his victim’s ring to create such magic?”
“I know very little of magic,” Jennings said drily. “I suppose there might be any number of reasons he would do so.”
“And Ned’s body?” Elizabeth asked. “Why would he take the body from a place that is entirely removed from anyone, hidden from view, and protected by an enchantment? There was no body, sir, which suggests to me that the real Ned is still alive. Someone may very well have been posing as Ned to trick Annie Baker, and Ned himself is in danger from that person who, at some future time, will lure him to that cave.”
Jennings considered this in some surprise. “I had not thought about the body,” he acknowledged.
“You said you felt urgency,” Elizabeth went on. “But is it directed toward the lake house, or toward Cedric himself? If it is toward Cedric, then I believe we must consider the words of Joshua Heron – that ‘there are more like’ him. He told us this for a reason, did he not? Just as that horrible Richard fellow posed as Mr. Heron, so there is a possibility of someone posing as Cedric; if that is the case, then he could even now be on his way to Northampton, while the real Cedric is at the lake house with my father and Charlotte.”
Jennings lifted one eyebrow. “You may very well be correct,” he said. He could not easily dispute the importance of evidence from the slate, but he felt strangely troubled by the notion of being able to see into the future. Perhaps it was the burden of it; he did not want to be obliged to know what should be, as though his guesses were better than another’s. He took a long drink of ale. “It may be that the man who betrayed Ned was not the real Cedric,” he said after a moment. Sighing in resignation, he added, “Perhaps I can see future events. Perhaps that is the meaning of my dreams.” He leaned forward and folded his arms in front of him on the table. “But where does this take us?” he asked. “Either Ned is alive and in danger from Cedric, or from someone pretending to be Cedric; or Ned is dead because Cedric – or a false Cedric – killed him and assumed his identity; and Cedric is either in danger himself from a false Ned, or he is himself the danger that faces Sir James and Mrs. Carlisle.” He gave a sudden bark of laughter. “Have I forgotten anything?”
Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself. “I believe those are all the possibilities that we have as yet encountered.” She grew serious once more. “I cannot justify my sense of haste,” she admitted. “I only know that the situation feels both urgent and dire. A murder has been shown to you, over and over, in hopes that you would be able to heed the warning. And my cousin Delacourt, who has never bothered to meet me before, arrives on my doorstep just as two women in my family are sacrificed, and on the eve of his best friend’s wedding. It may very well be coincidence – it was Charlotte, after all, who asked him to come to town, and not a design of his own making – but I cannot imagine that we should treat anything as mere coincidence when the consequence might be someone’s life.” She looked down at her hands folded in her lap. “Enough people have died,” she said, thinking particularly of Annie Baker and little Eliza Tate. “And while I don’t have your gift, and can only say that I feel strongly about it, you, sir, do have a gift, and that gift has led you down this road, to the cave, to all the clues my mother left for me and all the clues the spirits of the dead have left for you. We are meant to be here, sir, in this place and in this time, so that we might solve this mystery as quickly as possible.”
Jennings heard her out in silence, then, when she had finished, he reached out and gently touched her face with the fingers of one hand. “I never discount people’s strong feelings,” he said. “And your words make sense. If we make haste, the worse that happens is that we look a trifle foolish – a situation I have often faced and do not fear now. If we are wrong in our theories, then it’s best to find out sooner rather than later.” He sat back and drained his mug of ale. “We will journey on to Northampton after the rain lets up, and find your cousin Isabelle and, hopefully, Ned. Then afterward, we will go on to the lake house without delay.”
Elizabeth’s expression told him that she did not agree with his suggestion. “I believe, sir,” she said quietly. “That such a plan would not be hasty enough.”
He tilted his head quizzically. “What would you rather we do?” he asked.
“I know I may simply be exaggerating the matter because it is my own father,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “But at the cave, you saw Cedric kill Ned, and now Cedric is with my father and Charlotte. If he was truly the murderer of his own friend, then I think we should go to the lake house straightaway.”
“Of course,” Jennings nodded. “That was my first inclination. We can return this direction in a day or two, or we can send a letter to Miss Isabelle. She may dismiss it out of hand, but at least the knowledge would then be in her possession to do with as she will.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “She will certainly dismiss it out of hand,” she said. “And perhaps not even read it all the way to the end. Why, indeed, would she doubt her own betrothed over the decidedly odd notions of a cousin she can barely abide? No, if we mean to offer her any help – if she is in fact in danger – then we must journey there ourselves. If her Ned is the real Ned, then we may be able to prevent his murder, if we arrive immediately.”
“My love,” Jennings interjected in some confusion. “We cannot go both places first.”
“Of course we can,” Elizabeth said placidly. “I will go on to Northampton, and you will go to the lake house. I will speak with Isabelle and, if possible, Ned, and force them to hear me out, even if they believe me to be mad. And you will be at the lake house in a trice – why, you could reach there tonight if you spring the horses! – and you can confront Cousin Cedric and protect my father and Charlotte. If I don’t join you on the morrow, you’ll know that I’ve stumbled onto the truth.”
Jennings struggled to absorb Elizabeth’s words. “You wish to go on alone?” he asked her. “You believe that I would allow you to journey alone into what might be a very dangerous situation?” She opened her mouth to speak, but he interrupted her. “And if I do not see you tomorrow at your father’s house, then I will know you have found the ‘truth’ – in other words, I will know you have confronted a monster and that he has prevented your leaving. In what desperate imagining did you think I would be amenable to such a notion?”
She smiled softly. “You are as anxious to discover the truth as I am,” she pointed out. “And you are as concerned as I that this ‘monster’ who has preyed upon my family for six generations is about to cause more harm. I am a married lady now, you know,” she added archly. “It is perfectly respectable for me to travel to my Cousin Isabelle’s alone. I will feel much better knowing that you are on your way to protect my father, and I will join you there as soon as I can determine what has happened to Ned.”
Jennings sat for a long moment without speaking. He knew on the surface that she was correct, both in her sense of urgency and in her plan, but he was reluctant – no, in truth, he was terrified! – that something would happen to her. He did not want to let her out of his sight.
“Oh, God,” he said at last, his shoulders slumping forward. “I want to keep you in a cage as your father has tried to do.” He ran his hands nervously through his hair. “I don’t like it,” he said. “But I think you are right.”
“You are very wise, sir,” Elizabeth said gratefully.
He looked at her drily. “I’m sure you may think so,” he said. He took her hand in his and stared pointedly at her. “I have a pair of pistols under the seat in the carriage. Be prepared to use them.”
She had never used a pistol in her life, and the thought of it made her heart skip a beat. “Of course,” she said.
An hour later, she found herself entrusted to the care of Perry and the groom and sent on her own toward Northampton.
“Stay with her, Perry,” Jennings instructed with uncharacteristic intensity. “Circumstances are even stranger than usual, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, and I am compelled to go east. You must see her safely to Miss Fetherston’s and you must stay with her there as best you are able. Whenever she gives the slightest hint of wishing to leave, you must bring her as quickly as you can either to her father’s lake house or to Brightwood. Understand?”
Perry, not unaccustomed to his master’s unorthodox behaviour, neither batted an eye at the request nor bothered to ask any questions. “I’ll guard her with my life, sir,” he assured him. “You’re certain of your route, sir?”
Jennings nodded. “It is not that far from London,” he said. “I should be able to reach there in a trice.”
“It’s sure to be above five hours, sir,” Perry said. “But I believe there are any number of stops on the way to change horses.” He glanced up at the sky. “I fear it may rain again, sir, sooner rather than later.”
“I’ll be fine,” Jennings said. He turned to Elizabeth, who had climbed into the carriage and now sat waiting with an air of slight impatience. “I’m still not entirely sure this is necessary,” he said, frowning.
She smiled and held her hand out to him. “Enough of my family have suffered, Christopher,” she reminded him. “I cannot allow another to do so, if I can prevent it at all.” She grinned then. “Even if it is Isabelle!”
He chuckled, but swiftly grew serious again. “I vowed, my love, never to let anything happen to you again,” he said, his face drawn with worry.
She squeezed his hand. “That was an admirable vow, sir,” she told him gently. “But I think it was not a vow you could make.”
He gazed at her soberly for a long moment, then leaned into the carriage and kissed her. “Take care, my love.” He pulled away from the carriage abruptly and swung up onto the horse that Perry had been holding for him. “Stay with her Perry,” he instructed again. “I would be greatly unhappy if anything happened to her.”
“Don’t worry, sir,” Perry said. “We’ll stay close by her.”
Jennings nodded rather tersely, and spun the horse around, urging it onto the road and heading away from the inn at a brisk pace.
Elizabeth watched him for a moment, but then turned and addressed Perry briskly. “We must make haste, Perry,” she said. “Let us find Northampton as soon as possible.”
“Aye, ma’am,” Perry said, and climbed quickly onto the box. He soon had the carriage on the road to Northampton, and within an hour, they had reached the carefully manicured grounds of the Fetherston estate. As they approached the house – at a much more sedate pace than Elizabeth had demanded on the journey – servants appeared as though they had been waiting for the carriage’s arrival, and spoke with Perry and the groom.
After a moment, Perry, having climbed down from the box, pulled open the door to the carriage. “Fetherston Manor, ma’am,” he announced, and held his hand out for her to take as she stepped out onto the gravel drive. “I told them you were Miss Fetherston’s cousin, and one of ‘em’s gone to fetch Mrs. Fetherston.”
“Excellent,” Elizabeth said, straightening her skirts and tucking back wisps of hair. “Hopefully they won’t think I’m entirely barmy.”
“I’m sure they won’t, ma’am,” Perry offered.
A moment later, Elizabeth was welcomed inside, first by an obsequious porter and then by Mrs. Fetherston herself, who seemed at first glance to be an imposing woman of stout figure and elegant dress. This air of arrogant grandeur was immediately dispelled, however, as soon as Mrs. Fetherston laid eyes on her young cousin.
“Elizabeth Carlisle!” she cried in apparent jubilation, and greeted her guest with a warm embrace. “Oh, I beg your pardon – Mrs. Jennings!” She beamed at Elizabeth and held her at arm’s length, and subjected her to a thorough but benevolent scrutiny. “I daresay you do not remember me at all!” she said. “But I knew you when you were a little girl – you must have been three or four, I think. You were the sweetest thing, and so like your mother! – I recognized you at once, my dear, for you are entirely her, as though she herself stood before me!” She turned, wrapping her arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders and walking with her into the house. “I sent Isabelle to see you – I thought it would do you both good to know each other – but I confess I could not bring myself to return to your father’s house! He was so much changed after your mother died, and he became – I hate to say it, but it is the truth! – he became completely insupportable! Hatcher, do bring us some tea in the pink sitting room, and some biscuits; Mrs. Jennings must be famished! – did you come here all the way from London today, my dear? What a long journey!”
She brought Elizabeth into a small sitting room and, after making sure that Elizabeth was comfortably ensconced on the sofa, sat herself in a chair across from her and clapped her hands together. “I am so glad you have come!” she said.
“I should have sent some sort of warning,” Elizabeth said with an apologetic smile. “But Mr. Jennings and I had been on a drive, and took it in our heads to come to see Isabelle – she sent word some days ago of her upcoming wedding, and I thought it might be pleasant to see her and wish her very happy. And so we drove north without having planned it at all. I hope I am not importuning you.”
“Not at all!” Mrs. Fetherston assured her. She could not be more different from her haughty and dismissive daughter; her demeanour was exceptionally affable and welcoming. “I have wanted any time these fifteen years to invite you here, but your father would never agree to it. And I had thought to write to you, but after a few attempts, your father communicated his disapprobation in no uncertain terms – he did not want to be reminded of his late wife by members of her family, or so he said – and I was in fact quite surprised when he invited Isabelle to come to visit you.” Her smile dimmed. “Please forgive me, my dear,” she said. “I had thought that when you were older, I would begin writing you again, and then, somehow, time got away from me, and I had not reached out to you in so very long.” She grinned again. “But I was informed of your marriage to Mr. Christopher Jennings; what an excellent match, my dear! You are all that is fortunate! And I daresay he is more pleasant to deal with than your father!”
“He is a very agreeable man, ma’am,” Elizabeth answered. “I am indeed fortunate. And I do remember you. You were very kind to me, and I remember receiving a letter from you. I was very little, and I do not think I particularly remembered before this moment, but now, having met you again, I cannot understand why I would ever have forgotten!”
Mrs. Fetherston looked decidedly pleased to be remembered in such a way. “I am so glad, my dear! When I sent Isabelle to you, it was with a message from me, but I doubt she delivered it.” She pursed her lips. “My daughter – I love her prodigiously – is not like her mama at all! She is very concerned with the appearance of things, and the maintaining of social distances, and the proper configuration of people into their respective categories. She is rather like your father in that regard! – except that she is always quite pleasant, especially to me, and indeed how can I fault her perception of the world when so many others share her view?” She shook her head. “It’s all a pack of silliness, if you ask me, and I am glad at least not to have to live in London any longer, and to be surrounded by a lot of silly people.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I quite agree with you,” she said, her eyes twinkling merrily. Hatcher, the deferential porter, appeared then with a tray of tea and cucumber sandwiches, and placed the tray on the small table beside Elizabeth. She thanked him and gratefully took a cup of tea from him. “It has been rather a long journey today,” she acknowledged. “But I felt some urgency to come and see Isabelle.” She sipped the tea. “Is she at home, ma’am?”
“She is not, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Fetherston replied, sipping her tea. “She and Tillman – Polly Tillman, her old governess – have been invited by Ned’s friend Cedric to come into the country and spend some days at your father’s lake house.”
Elizabeth nearly choked on her tea. “Indeed?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice lighthearted. “I did not realize she was so close to Cousin Cedric.”
Mrs. Fetherston looked at her quizzically. “Cousin?” she repeated. “Do you know Mr. Delacourt?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth answered. “He is my father’s cousin, and will inherit his estate.”
“Oh, of course!” Mrs. Fetherston exclaimed. “I knew that! I cannot imagine how I came to forget it!” She laughed. “What a singular coincidence!”
“It certainly is,” Elizabeth agreed, forcing a chuckle. “I suppose,” she added, speaking carefully. “That Mr. Fitzhugh has also gone to the lake house?”
“Well, as to that,” Mrs. Fetherston said. “I believe he has been there some time, with Mr. Delacourt. Their tale was that they are hunting, but I cannot imagine so at this time of year. I believe Cedric wanted to abscond with his friend for some merriment before the wedding, and they both have been gone for over a fortnight now.” She leaned forward. “Confidentially,” she went on in dramatic tones. “I think Ned hopes to convince Isabelle to elope. He has no taste for the grand occasion Isabelle has planned. I suppose I do not care for it overmuch myself! – except that the expense has already been laid out for it, so it might as well take place!” She noticed that Elizabeth’s expression had become thoughtful. “Are you all right, my dear?” she asked. “Has something disturbed you?”
Elizabeth gazed at Mrs. Fetherston, and mulled over her choices. Finally, arriving at the only decision she felt she could make, she placed her tea cup on the table, squared her shoulders, and began somberly, “Mrs. Fetherston, I daresay you will find me quite mad, but I cannot leave without apprising you of my concerns. I believe that either Ned or Cedric or both are planning to do Isabelle – and perhaps my father – a harm. I have no basis for it except a recurring dream, and a strong feeling on the matter – the feeling, in fact, that urged me here so precipitously. But I believe I must make all haste to the lake house, and attempt to prevent anything untoward.”
Mrs. Fetherston sat in surprise, blinking a few times before finding her voice. “A dream?” she asked at last, setting her own teacup on the table beside Elizabeth’s. She shook her head. “I have known Ned these many years,” she said. “I have never known him to be anything but affable and kind.” She frowned slightly. “But my mother often had dreams,” she revealed. “And your mother too.” She grew serious, remembering her friend. “She foretold her own death.” She sat in silence for a long moment, then raised her eyes to Elizabeth’s. “So I don’t discount dreams,” she announced. “Especially in our family. But I cannot understand how it would be Ned. He has been an excellent man – even more so now that the wedding approaches – and indeed why would he harm Isabelle? He seems decidedly besotted with her, and in any event would have nothing to gain by harming her now, before the wedding. But Cedric now,” she added, waggling her finger in Elizabeth’s direction. “I have never heard anything but good of him, but I allow he stands to gain a great deal if anything should happen to your father. But my dear, what are we saying? Is this some sort of farrago, that we would imagine such nefarious intentions on the parts of these two men about whom no one has ever breathed a negative word?”
“Indeed, ma’am,” Elizabeth said quietly. “I very much liked Cousin Cedric myself, when I made his acquaintance.” She raised one eyebrow and added pointedly, “I made his acquaintance only a few days ago, ma’am. And he said at that time that he could not stay long with my father and stepmother, for he was wanted in Northampton, where he was going to fetch Ned.”
Mrs. Fetherston digested this, her expression becoming increasingly crestfallen. “So one of them is lying,” she said. “And it seems Ned is the likelier culprit, since he’s been gone for two weeks on the pretext of visiting Mr. Delacourt.” She pondered this revelation for a moment, then sighed, and said briskly, “I will send Brothers at once to collect my daughter and Tillman. I never discount dreams, however saddened I am by their tidings.” She smiled warmly. “Whatever is the truth, it will be brought to light now,” she said. “In the meantime, I would be delighted if you stayed here; I will have Symons prepare a room for you.” Her hand reached out to ring a bell that stood on the table, but Elizabeth put her hand out as well.
“I cannot stay,” she said. “I would love nothing more, for I have truly enjoyed renewing our acquaintance. But I told Mr. Jennings that I would proceed post-haste to the lake house as soon as I had spoken to Isabelle, and if I don’t arrive soon, he will assume that I have encountered some trouble here.” She put a hand to her breast. “It’s true enough that Ned would lose a great deal if he harmed Isabelle before the wedding,” she went on. “My concern for her may simply be that, having lost trust for Cedric and Ned, I don’t want to leave her alone with either of them. But I cannot deny my strong feelings in this matter, and I believe for more than one reason, therefore, that I must leave as soon as possible for the lake house.”
Mrs. Fetherston impulsively took Elizabeth’s in both of hers. “Mr. Jennings,” she said. “He doesn’t dismiss your feelings as a pack of silly notions?” When Elizabeth managed a small smile and shook her head, Mrs. Fetherston continued cheerfully, “Good man! Mr. Fetherston has a terrible habit of saying I’m filled with silly notions, and I heartily dislike it.” She sighed again, and rang the bell. “I will still send Brothers to fetch Isabelle,” she said. She squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. “And when all this has been sorted out, I do hope that you will return to Fetherston Manor,” she said. “I too have prodigiously enjoyed seeing you!”
Elizabeth felt tears sting her eyelids. “I would be very happy to visit here, ma’am,” she said. “I would have long since if my father had told me you wished it. But I am dreadfully sorry to have brought you such strange and distressing news.”
“Never mind about that!” Mrs. Fetherston said brightly. “I have missed Mama’s dreams and notions, which always proved to be very interesting.” She scowled suddenly. “And if Mr. Edmond Fitzhugh has revealed himself to be a cad or charlatan, then I can only say that I am greatly indebted to you!”
Hatcher appeared in the doorway.
“Hatcher, Brothers must be dispatched immediately to the Carlisles’ lake house,” Mrs. Fetherston informed him. “He must retrieve Miss Fetherston and Tillman over any objections and bring them back here on the morrow. You must also change the horses on Mrs. Jennings’ carriage, and give her driver whatever provisions he requires. Then find Mr. Fetherston – I believe he went riding toward Lord Shelton’s estate – and tell him I have an urgent matter to discuss with him. That is all.”
“Right away, ma’am,” Hatcher replied, bowing and then swiftly retreating.
Mrs. Fetherston turned to Elizabeth. “I will have Cook send you with a bit of cold beef, my dear,” she said. “You have a long journey ahead of you.”
Jennings stopped to change horses at an inn not five miles from the lake house. The sun had only just gone down, but the sky had been dark for some hours, and spots of rain fell on him as he stood impatiently waiting for the fresh horse. Rumbles of thunder sounded as a girl from the inn approached him.
“Here you are, sir,” she said, handing him a pint of ale. “You’re most welcome to come inside, and have a bit of supper.”
He took the ale and downed half of it before answering. “I would, my dear,” he told her. “But I’m in a great hurry.” He glanced at the sky. “Hopefully I won’t be too wet by the time I get there.”
“How far do you have to go, sir?” the girl asked, also looking anxiously at the lowering clouds. “The storm won’t wait more than half an hour, I wager.”
Jennings drained the mug and gave it back to her with a few coins that he hastily pulled from his pocket. “If it waits that long,” he said. “It’ll be good enough.”
Unfortunately, the rain only waited another ten minutes, and by the time Jennings arrived at the lake, he was soaked through by what quickly became a driving rain. He approached the house, seeing in the all-too-frequent bursts of lightning a cozy and respectable cottage situated on a slight hill overlooking the water. This cottage was surrounded by trees, and a lengthy set of steps led from it down to a long pier. On any other day, the scene would have been quite pretty, but tonight the water was choppy, crashing noisily up against the pier and the rocky shore, and the trees whipped angrily to and fro in the wind. Two broad patches of yellow, barely visible through the rain, suggested windows, but for the most part, the cottage was dark, and Jennings advanced cautiously, not entirely sure he had found the correct house.
He rode up to the stable and dismounted; no one emerged to greet him, but he had hardly expected it, given the late hour and the storm. With fingers grown numb and stiff from the cold, he managed after some effort to open the door to the stable and to bring himself and the poor drenched horse inside.
“Hello!” he called. “Is anyone here?”
He did not receive an answer. After a moment, he found a stall for his horse, promising it with a few gentle strokes on the neck that he would return very soon to look after it. “I’ve got rather an urgent mission,” he explained. “But you have done more than your duty, and I shall set you up as soon as I can.” He made sure the horse had water and hay, before turning once more toward the door.
It was then that he saw three men – or rather, a man and two teenage boys – lying alarmingly still in a nearby stall. They had fallen off of stools that had been set up around a barrel; half-empty mugs of ale sat on top of the barrel, and a plate of biscuits and ham. Bending over them, Jennings shook each by the shoulder, but none of them made the slightest movement or sound. He saw no sign of struggle, or any kind of wound, and he looked around him completely perplexed. What on earth had afflicted them? He was relieved to discover that all three men were breathing, but not even vigorous shaking and shouting made a dent in their absolute unconsciousness.
Jennings picked up one of the mugs and sniffed its contents. It smelled bitter, but that was not surprising. Still, he could only assume that these men had been drugged.
He looked out the open door toward the cottage. One of the dimly lit windows was on this side of the house, and when the lightning flashed again, he saw the door to the kitchens. He could not tell whether the suspicious situation in the stable had merely put him on his guard, or if perhaps he was receiving a more otherworldly message, but as he walked toward the house he was filled with great foreboding, and moved as carefully as though he expected at every step to be attacked by unseen enemies.
When he entered the kitchen, he found nothing out of order. A large fire crackled in the fireplace, and he stood gratefully beside it, letting the warmth settle into his shivering limbs. From the looks of things, a hearty supper had been prepared and eaten, but no one had as yet tidied up. He saw the entrance to a little alcove, tucked into the wall on the far side of the fireplace; he could make out a small table there, and realized that this must be where the servants ate their own meals.
“Hello?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Something told him it was best to stay hidden, but something else, just as strongly, told him that he needed to find people here, that he needed to act quickly to avoid calamity. “Is anyone here?” He stepped into the alcove, and saw then that four people were seated around the small table. “I beg your pardon,” he began, only to realize that these four, like the men in the stable, were slumped unconscious in their seats. Two of them, a man and a young woman, were leaning against one another and against the wall behind them. Across from them, an older woman sat with her head on the table, and beside her, a girl, her own head resting on the ample shoulder of the older woman, had dropped a mug onto the floor. The mug had broken, spilling its contents.
Everyone’s been drugged, Jennings guessed.
He moved as silently as he could through the kitchen and into the dining room. The room was empty, although lamps and candles burned here, and Jennings could make out the faint murmur of conversation elsewhere in the house. He detected the voices of a man and a woman, but, because of the noise of the wind and rain, he was unable to hear what they were saying.
He entered the front hall, and was surprised to find the front door open. Even though the entry was protected by a wide porch, rain had blown in to the house, and a puddle was slowly forming. Lightning briefly illuminated the entry, and Jennings saw two large shapes stretched out across the floor; he imagined at first that animals – perhaps dogs – had come into the house to shelter from the storm. But why then had they not greeted him, or taken any notice of him at all? He crept toward them, realizing after only a few steps that they were human.
Another flash of lightning revealed them to be Charlotte and Sir James Carlisle.
Drugged too, no doubt, Jennings thought. He crouched down beside Charlotte and gently took her hand. They must have been trying to leave when they succumbed to it. Mrs. Carlisle’s hand felt unnaturally cold in his, and, with a sudden sense of alarm, he bent down and tried to detect signs of breathing. None appeared, and, when he pressed his fingers against her wrist, and then against her neck, he could find no pulse. He fell to his knees and put his ear to her chest; he pled with her silently to wake up, but to no avail, and he was obliged finally to accept the grim truth.
She was dead.
Hoping that Elizabeth’s father might still be alive, Jennings turned to Sir James, but the older man’s eyes were opened wide and stared sightlessly into the storm.
As fast as he had ridden, Jennings had arrived too late.