Asked and Answered
Elizabeth sat for a moment in stunned silence, staring up at Jennings with plain incredulity. Sir,” she said finally when she could find her voice. “You should not joke!”
Jennings smiled and shook his head. “I am quite in earnest, Miss Carlisle,” he said placidly. He leaned toward her and added, “Do you see any other way out of your predicament?”
Elizabeth could not, in fact, see any other way out of her predicament, but to foist herself upon a man who had already done so much for her! – whom she had known less than a week, and who would hardly wish to be saddled with a wife he barely knew. She did not even have a dowry to recommend her. No, although the frightened part of her leapt at the chance to solve her problem so easily, she could not accept his offer.
“Mr. Jennings,” she began. “I could not possibly importune you in such a way.”
He shook his head again. “It does not importune me in the least, Miss Carlisle,” he said, his manner easy-going, as though he had asked her to tea rather than for her hand in marriage. “As I said, if it is repugnant to you, we will find some other solution … but I do not immediately see what that solution could be.” He glanced briefly toward Lady Morton, who stood behind him as still as a statue, her face frozen in an expression of expectant awe. “Lady Morton would gladly house you for a thousand years,” Jennings said. “But you have expressed concern that she would be harmed by opening her doors to you.”
“She would be harmed!” Elizabeth averred stringently. “She has daughters whose reputations would be linked with mine!”
Lady Morton seemed inclined to argue with Elizabeth on this point, but Mr. Jennings continued before she could speak. “I suppose it’s pointless to attempt to convince you otherwise,” he said drily. “And, I suppose, you might be right about it, although I doubt very much that it would be as disastrous as you predict. But since this is your feeling, can we assume, then, that you do not wish to accept a place in Lady Morton’s household?”
Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. “It is precisely because of her incredible kindness and generosity that I could not possibly bear to burden her in even the slightest part.”
Jennings, moved by Elizabeth’s woebegone countenance, gently squeezed her hand. “Do you think,” he asked delicately. “That your father will reconsider his feelings?”
Elizabeth made a sound like a scoff mixed with a sob. “I do not,” she said without hesitation.
“I am not vicious,” Jennings pointed out, smiling warmly. “I live in extremely comfortable circumstances. We seem able to converse easily with one another. These present a most agreeable foundation for contentment in marriage, do you not think?” He paused for a moment, watched her as she digested all that he had said. “I am most happy to make this offer, Miss Carlisle,” he assured her. “If you do not believe it would result in misery for you, then I beg you will not refuse me for any fear of … importuning me, as you say.”
Elizabeth did not know what to feel. She could see very well his sincerity, but she questioned how well contented he would be when the unnecessary guilt and notions of responsibility he apparently entertained had faded. He was a very eligible prospect for any young lady, and she was sensible that she would be fortunate to marry him regardless of her situation, but, indeed, that was the problem – he could choose almost any girl he wanted, and to settle on her might be a decision he would quickly come to see as a mistake. She could not bear the thought of causing even a moment’s unhappiness to the man who had saved her life.
“Sir,” she said. “Mr. Jennings. I – I cannot allow you to take a step so disastrous to your happiness.”
Jennings looked surprised. “Why on earth would it be disastrous to my happiness?” he asked. He did not give her time to respond, but instead repeated, “Do you see any other way out of it, Miss Carlisle?”
Thoughts ran through her head of every possible outcome. “I could enter a convent,” she offered. “Or become a governess or – ”
Jennings’ smile broadened as he interrupted her. “Or a scullery-maid or a milliner?”
“Well, yes!” Elizabeth said rather defensively. “I must do something, after all! Why not the same as many other women before me?”
Jennings did not bother to answer her question. “Do you want,” he said deliberately. “To be a milliner? Or a governess? Or live in a convent?” He gazed into her eyes with disconcerting directness as he waited for her reply.
She imagined the sort of existence that awaited her should she pursue any of the options she had described. Life in a convent would likely not be rewarding to her, but it would probably be an easier life than that of governess or scullery-maid. Added to the drudgery of such professions would be the unavoidable awkwardness of employment under families who would be well aware of her earlier station – families who would be obliged to see her father in society. She envisioned the endless years of tedious and difficult labour that stretched before her, and her heart sank even further than it already had. “No,” she admitted, fresh tears filling her eyes. “But what else am I to do?”
Jennings chuckled. “Why, Miss Carlisle,” he said brightly, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. “You can accept my offer, if it does not seem as dreadful as the other choices you mentioned!” He shook his head, and his voice carried the ghost of a laugh. “You would choose these other delightful avenues,” he said. “To spare me from – what? – a charming and genteel wife? Someone intelligent and kind-hearted, who will be the loveliest hostess in all England?” Something occurred to him, and he said animatedly, “You’ll no doubt wish to throw parties. My house has not seen a party since before my mother passed away!” He noticed then in her eyes the faint look of hope that hid beneath her fears and heartache, and this prompted him to confide to her, “You see, Miss Carlisle, I never dance.”
A slight frown drew her brows together for an instant. If he never danced, she wondered, why was he suggesting that they throw parties? “What do you mean?” she asked him. “You danced with me the other night.”
“Exactly,” he said, kissing her hand once more. “Exactly my point.” He continued to stare directly into her eyes, so that she found she could not turn away, and her many concerns began to melt away in the face of his friendly and open demeanour. What had moments before been an impossible course of action now seemed not only possible but perfectly acceptable, and his questions played over and over in her mind as she looked back at him: Do you want to be a governess? Do you see any other way out of your predicament?
Indeed, no, she did not want to be a governess, or a maid, or a ward in Lady Morton’s home. If she spoke the whole truth, she did not even want to return to her father’s home, where she had been, while tolerably happy, never quite able to relax or to be herself. A life with Mr. Jennings would be one free of the censure and judgments of her father. Good God, she realized with a start. I do want to accept this offer!
“Mr. Jennings,” she said, searching his face for his reaction to her next question. “Are you quite – quite – sure about this, sir?”
He laughed again. “I am quite – quite – sure, Elizabeth. And if you accept my offer,” he added. “I will do all I can, every day of my life, to guarantee that you do not regret your decision.” His voice betrayed some measure of his emotion, but his calm and affable expression never wavered as he waited for her to speak.
Discovering as she said the words that a great weight had been lifted from her – a weight that had almost been past bearing – Elizabeth managed, through her tears, to croak out her consent. “I do accept your offer, Mr. Jennings.”
Lady Morton, no longer able to contain herself, clapped her hands together in delight and laughed her excited approval. “Oh, it is everything one could wish!” she crowed. “I could not be happier for both of you, my dears!” She came forward and gently patted Elizabeth’s cheek. “I told you all would be well, dearest,” she reminded her guest. “And you could not ask for a better man than Mr. Jennings! Why, I have known him since he was a babe-in-arms!”
Elizabeth, still overcome, could do no more than feebly nod her agreement with Lady Morton’s assessment. It seemed, indeed, that there could be no better man on the earth than this person who had now rescued her twice. “I – I do not know what to say, Mr. Jennings,” she murmured. “Except that I thank you.”
“Thank you, Miss Carlisle,” Jennings said. “for allowing me to be of service to you.”
Lady Morton intercepted Jennings as he made his way downstairs from Elizabeth’s room.
“Mr. Jennings,” she said, lightly touching his shoulder. “I don’t suppose I could trouble you to walk with me?” She looked around her – as though she feared being overheard – and added, “I would ask your opinion of something that my groundskeeper discovered.”
She led Jennings out to the balcony where Elizabeth had been abducted. “Mr. Jennings,” she began, and touched his shoulder again. “Christopher. I have known your family since long before you were born. I am aware of your mother’s …” She paused, searching for the appropriate words. “Her gifts,” she said finally. “I was one of the few she trusted with the knowledge, in fact, and you needn’t fear that I would betray her confidence, or yours.”
Jennings felt a stab of nervousness, but he attempted to conceal it as he responded to Lady Morton. “I am uncertain of your meaning, ma’am. To what confidence do you refer?”
Lady Morton gave him a small, sympathetic smile. “I quite understand, dear boy,” she said. “How … how society might view such a gift. And so I kept your mother’s confidence all these years, even now that she is gone. But I saw for myself that your poor sister had inherited her mother’s talents, and things your mother said cause me to believe that you yourself have inherited them as well.” Jennings opened his mouth to plead ignorance once more, but Lady Morton held a hand up. “Your sudden return the other night, and your ability to find Miss Carlisle – hidden as she was beneath the leaves! – are far more proof than you can refute to me.”
She looked at him for a long moment, and he at her. He saw nothing in her eyes to alarm him – she held the same kind expression she had always had for almost everyone she met – but he had learned as a small boy to hide the slate and his connection to it, and he was loth to admit to it now. But he did see in her a knowing, and an implacability that silently assailed every argument that came to his mind. His gaze wavered, and he swallowed a slight lump in his throat before saying quietly, “What did you wish to show me, Lady Morton?”
She smiled more broadly, and nodded her head in approval. “Good lad,” she said. She gestured to the railing over which Elizabeth had been so violently dragged. “On the other side, sir,” she said, walking to the railing and leaning over it. “There is a stain on the stone.”
Jennings approached the railing, his nervousness at being discovered quickly replaced with curiosity. As he leaned out to see the spot Lady Morton indicated, he was beset by an uncharacteristic vertigo, and his hand reached out instinctively to grasp the top of the parapet. His vision swam, not so much from dizziness, as from the memory of dizziness – of Elizabeth’s abrupt flight through the night air and into the park. As though he were seeing the events through Elizabeth’s eyes, he felt her experiences: being lifted by strong and angry claws, being pulled over the stone rail that ripped at the edge of her gown, being cast down to the ground by something far, far larger than she.
“It’s a monster,” Jennings breathed, closing his eyes for a moment as his balance steadied. “A great monster that carried her off this balcony in a trice.”
“That is what she described,” Lady Morton agreed, frowning in concern. “Are you quite all right, Mr. Jennings?”
“I am,” he assured her, opening his eyes again and examining the railing. On the outer edge he saw a patch of reddish-brown, flanked along one side by a yellow-green smear. “What is that?” he murmured, leaning closer to it. It had the general appearance of blood, but it seemed too orange at its heart to be so, and the yellowish smear emerged from it as though whatever had bled there had been covered in some viscous substance. “Strange,” he said, straightening up and looking over at Lady Morton. “It’s almost as though a very large frog scraped up against it!”
“That is rather what I thought,” Lady Morton said. “But surely someone would have seen a creature the size of which Lizzie describes? How could it have gone unseen?”
“I’m puzzled by that too,” Jennings said. “But I suppose if it was watching her, it might have waited until she was quite alone. It was very late, after all, and most of the guests had moved inside.”
Lady Morton’s expression had turned decidedly dark. “I considered that, too, Mr. Jennings,” she said somberly. “But how could a – well, a giant frog – be the sort of thing that was watching her? It would need to possess some special intelligence, would it not?”
Jennings nodded slowly as he contemplated her words. “It would indeed, Lady Morton,” he said. “Something beyond the norm, I would imagine, for the sorts of animals that roam England – even the large ones.”
“Good God, Mr. Jennings,” Lady Morton breathed, her fingers partially covering her mouth. “What are we saying?” She looked again at the mark on the railing. “If this was a man,” she asked. “Then how could he have spirited her away so quickly and silently? If it was a man, how did he leave such a stain on the wall?”
“I think it cannot have been a man, ma’am,” Jennings said gravely. “But I think it must have been a man holding the reins.” His eyes narrowed. “Who on earth would have wanted so badly to hurt Miss Carlisle?”
“I do not know, sir,” Lady Morton said, her eyes filling with tears. “But if it was particular to her, then I fear she is still not safe! And if it was not particular to her, then are any of us safe? Even in our own homes?”
Jennings did not appear to have heard her questions; he stretched his hand out rather tentatively toward the blood stain, and allowed his fingertips to touch the dark surface of it.
Instantly his hand jerked back as though he had touched fire. He cradled it in his other hand and took a stumbling step backward. “Ring,” he gasped. “Kill her! Kill her!” He sank to his knees, still holding one hand in the other, and leaned against the railing. “Take the ring.”
“Mr. Jennings!” Lady Morton cried out, quickly bending down beside him. “Christopher! Are you all right? Temple!” she called into the house. “Fetch brandy, at once!”
“I believe I am fine, ma’am,” Jennings said, his voice thin. “It took me rather by surprise.” When he had touched the stain, he had been overwhelmed by a feeling of being in pursuit of a quarry, that no other thought existed but to capture and kill that quarry. He saw a brief flash of Elizabeth, and then of a necklace she wore – a chain with a ring suspended from it, that he remembered seeing when he danced with her. He could not remember seeing it upon her when he found her. He thought for a moment to go into the park and search for it in the dirt under the trees, but the final image that had assailed him, before his hand pulled away from the stain, was of a huge and hideous clawed hand ripping the chain from around Elizabeth’s neck. “It took her ring,” he said. “It wanted specifically to kill her and to take her ring.” He slumped against the parapet, his breathing ragged as though he had run a long way.
“Good God!” Lady Morton exclaimed again. “Why, for goodness’ sake, would anyone want to kill her? Why would a ring be so important?”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” Jennings said, still winded. “But I plan to find out.”
His intense vision on Lady Morton’s balcony had left Jennings a bit rattled, so that he found, to his annoyance, that his hands were still shaking as he climbed the steps to Sir James Carlisle’s house. He had met Sir James any number of times at various functions, but they traveled in such different circles that their acquaintance was slight; he was uncertain whether Sir James would recognize him or, if he did, whether such acquaintance would benefit his purpose here or harm it. One never quite knew what to expect from Sir James, especially when he was upset by something.
The porter, a thin, wary-looking man, opened the door and asked in rather abrupt tones, “Can I help you, sir?”
Jennings gave a small nod of his head by way of greeting, and replied affably, “I am Christopher Jennings. I am lately engaged to Miss Elizabeth Carlisle, and I have come to arrange for the delivery of her belongings to my home.”
The porter’s wariness faded somewhat, and his expression betrayed relief. “Indeed, sir,” he said, his voice much warmer now. “Please come in. I will let Sir James know that you are here.”
Jennings followed the porter into the front hallway of a very elegantly appointed house. After the porter disappeared through a door at the far end of the hall, Jennings contented himself examining a nearby glass case full of miniature portraits. Tucked into the back of the case, barely visible, was the likeness of what he could only assume was Elizabeth’s mother: the colouring was quite different, but the eyes that looked back at him were Elizabeth’s eyes, and the dimpled smile was the same. “Please know, ma’am,” he murmured, running his finger lightly over the glass above the portrait. “That I will endeavour to bring your daughter all happiness.”
Behind him, the porter emerged from the recesses of the house and cleared his throat. “Sir James will see you in the library, sir.” He indicated the door through which he had just passed. “Follow me, if you please.”
Jennings, in hopes of preventing unnecessary conflict, suppressed all disapprobation of Sir James’ actions or temperament, and put on his face an expression of easy-going amiability. He trotted dutifully after the porter, and walked with as pleasant an air as he could muster into the library.
The room was full of light and windows, but the walls were paneled with heavy dark wood and lined with shelves that groaned under the weight of countless books. The furniture was equally dark and heavy, and the man who sat behind the large, fairly imposing desk complemented the room with his serious and vaguely irritated countenance.
“Christopher Jennings!” he said, speaking much more loudly than was warranted by the size of the room. “Why, I know you!” He came to his feet and made a perfunctory bow, which Jennings returned with exacting politeness. “Hawkins tells me that you are engaged to Miss Carlisle,” the man went on, shoving his hands into his pockets and casting an appraising eye over Jennings. “And are you, then, the one who treated her so rough?”
Jennings was surprised that Sir James acknowledged Elizabeth’s injuries; his letter to Lady Morton and his absence at his daughter’s bedside had caused Jennings to suppose he did not believe anything that had been said of the attack. “Indeed, no, sir,” he answered somberly. “I was the one who found her, sir.”
“Ah,” Sir James said. He looked askance at his visitor for a few seconds, and then continued, still at a near bellow, “I suppose you find me hard-hearted, sir, but I cannot countenance her running off from her chaperone – at near on two in the morning! – and behaving with such total lack of propriety! Crying out now for pity because she received her come-uppance! It can’t be borne!”
Jennings’ diligently benign expression now revealed a sincere sadness; he tilted his head to one side as he looked back at Sir James. “Quite the reverse, sir,” he said frankly. “I can well understand that running off into the park in the middle of the night is a violation of propriety, and that if she was meeting clandestinely with a lover, such behaviour might not be approved of by her father. I can also understand that her account of events – being stolen by force from the balcony – does not sound particularly likely. What I cannot understand, sir,” he added, in exceedingly respectful tones. “Is your reluctance to see her or to care for her when she has been hurt so badly.”
Sir James, unaccustomed to people giving their true opinions, however respectfully, was somewhat taken aback by Jennings forthright statement. “It was not easy, sir!” he protested, leaning forward and putting his hands on the top of the massive desk. “But the daughter I raised – to be a proper young lady! – died that night in the park, or never existed! She is as much a stranger to me and to all I have attempted to instill in her as you are! I hold myself to the standard I have asked her to follow, and I do not recognize this girl who leaves her poor step-mama for an assignation in the park!” His bellow had become a roar, and his face had become quite red as he defended his position. Suddenly he seemed to remember himself, and he took a step back from the desk and breathed a great sigh. “I do not require your understanding, sir!” he said more calmly, plunging his hands back in his pockets. “But if you are determined to take on a woman who has shown herself to be the veriest trollop, then I wish you luck!” He straightened to his fullest height, and said with some pomposity, “Now if you will excuse me, I am quite busy this day, and do not have time to converse with you on a subject so painful to me!”
“Painful,” Jennings repeated softly. He clasped his hands behind his back and said brightly, “I quite understand, sir! Please forgive me; I would not dream of importuning you! As I informed your porter, I have come only to arrange for Miss Carlisle’s belongings to be delivered to my house in town.” He stood with an air of blithe expectancy.
“I sent a trunk,” Sir James said tersely. “With her clothes. I can’t imagine she wants for anything else. I have lost my daughter, Jennings,” he pointed out indignantly, as though Jennings were cruelly obliging him to think on things better forgotten. “The sweet girl I once knew is clearly gone, and I will not be put to the trouble of collecting her baubles, when the sight of them reminds me so well of what she has become!”
“Then all parties would benefit by the hasty removal of all her possessions,” Jennings said congenially. “If seeing her things here disturbs you, then I am most happy to remove them from you entirely.”
Sir James’ jaw tightened visibly. “Don’t think you can fool me!” he exclaimed stridently. “You may not care to trifle with me, my boy!”
Jennings’ eyes narrowed, and he took a step forward. His hands, still behind his back, were now clasped rather tightly, but outwardly his entire manner was relaxed, almost languid. His smile had faded, but it lingered wryly at the corners of his mouth. “You are older,” he said, his voice barely above a murmur. “But I think not wiser.” He glanced briefly at the room around him, and then brought his sardonic gaze back to Sir James, whose outraged response he forestalled by continuing smoothly, “And I am sure – quite sure – that I am much, much richer than you. So perhaps it is you who should not trifle with me.” His smile left entirely, and he said crisply, “I expect all of Miss Elizabeth’s belongings – all of them – delivered to my doorstep by the morrow.” He gave a cursory bow to Sir James, hardly more than a nod of his head. “Sir,” he said, and turning abruptly around, he strode purposefully out of the library without looking back.