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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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.”

The Jennings – Chapter Ten

“I Am Joshua”

Elizabeth sat at the breakfast table, drinking coffee and reading over several letters that had come to her in the past two weeks. She often put the letters down to jot something onto a piece of paper that lay beside the remnants of her breakfast. When Jennings entered the room, she greeted him without looking up, but instead continued reading first one letter and then the next, her thoughts spinning as she cobbled together what clues these folded pages revealed.

“I have traced the amethyst,” she announced rather proudly. “Not one but three different cousins have been quite happy to correspond with me, even though I do not remember our ever having set eyes on one another. My cousin Elinor Dreling in Devonshire has written me some rather interesting details.”

“What does she say, my dear?” Jennings asked, sitting down across the table from her. His voice seemed subdued, and Elizabeth tore her attention away from her task and looked at her husband.

“Are you quite well, sir?” she asked. “You seem a bit out of sorts.”

“I had a particularly restless night,” he explained, giving her a reassuring smile. “Strange dreams that I don’t quite remember.” He indicated the letters. “Does Elinor in fact have the amethyst?”

“Indeed no,” Elizabeth said. “If she did, I would have told her at once to cast it as far from herself as possible! – but she did recall my great-grandmother taking the ring back after my grandmother’s death. She made rather a scene over it, sobbing that it was a reminder and a connection to her daughter. But then, not a month later, she gave the amethyst to a nephew – Elinor’s younger brother, who had been living in London but has since moved his family into the north. Elinor has not seen him these two years.”

Jennings frowned slightly. “It is strange indeed that your great-grandmother would crave the ring so desperately only to give it to a nephew. But why not give it to Elinor? What I saw in your family tree suggests that women are the targets.”

“As to that,” Elizabeth replied, taking another sip of coffee. “Elinor is the daughter of her father’s first marriage; her younger brother is in fact only a half-brother, and she is not actually related to me by blood.”

“That is very interesting,” Jennings noted, his fatigue countered somewhat by his growing curiosity. “It supports our thought that the rings mark women in your family.” He sat back in his chair and put his hands in his pockets. “But should we not contact this half-brother? It will mark him too, I believe, or the unfortunate relative to whom he gives it.”

“I wrote him three days ago,” Elizabeth said. “I have not yet received a response.” She leaned forward, her eyes gleaming. “But I have not told you the whole of it, sir,” she went on. She pointed to one of the letters. “My cousin Elliott – a more distant relative – said that my great-grandmother had given the amethyst to his mother, and that, after her untimely death, Great-grandmother came and retrieved the ring, explaining that it was a family heirloom that should ‘stay with the living’, and saying that it had only been ‘loaned’. That was thirty-eight years ago, sir,” she added meaningfully, and took another sip of coffee, waiting for Mr. Jennings’ reaction to her words.

All traces of fatigue had vanished from his face, as a dawning excitement suffused his features. “And how,” he said, “did Elliott’s mother die?”

“Well, as I explained to my great-aunt’s granddaughter Mariah Davies,” Elizabeth said. “As much as my curiosity was piqued by Cousin Elliott’s letter, I could hardly be so unfeeling as to ask him such a forward question. And so Cousin Mariah has very kindly sent a missive which arrived only this morning, in which she explained in some detail about the disturbing and much talked-about misfortune.” She folded her hands together and rested them on the table. “Apparently Mrs. Elliott had gone walking – as was her daily habit – and had been attacked by some animal – whose identity no one has ever been able to deduce – and left on the creek bank. Cousin Elliott’s father found his poor wife, her clothes bloody and torn, her life quite extinct. She was covered with deep gashes, as though from gigantic claws, but Mr. Elliott could neither imagine a creature of such size wandering about the countryside, nor track the animal. Despite its apparent size, whatever had attacked Mrs. Elliott had done so without leaving so much as a mark in the dirt.”

Jennings sat quietly, digesting all that Elizabeth had said. “It would seem,” he said at last. “That my interpretation of your family tree is correct. But how far back does your exploration trace the ring? Can we follow the amethyst to any others?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I fear not, sir,” she said. “But my mother mentioned in her journal that the amethyst – as well as the peridot – had come to my great-grandmother from her grandmother.” She closed her eyes to better recall the journal passage. “Great-grandmother had said that receiving the rings had been part of a family tradition, one that designated her as a member of a most illustrious clan.” She opened her eyes and went on wryly, “My mother felt that her receiving the ring had been part of that same tradition, but clearly this ‘illustrious clan’ is far more selective than one might ordinarily believe.”

Jennings squinted at her curiously. “What do you mean, my dear?” he asked.

Elizabeth raised one eyebrow and gazed pointedly at him. “Why, sir, only this: if giving the ring to my mother had been part of the same tradition that brought the rings to my great-grandmother, then I would imagine my great-grandmother would have been targeted as well. But she lived a long and happy, prosperous life until only three years ago, and at that time died peacefully in her bed surrounded by family.” She frowned. “No,” she continued, a slight edge to her voice. “It seems clear that my great-grandmother received the rings as an initiation into some segment of our ‘clan’ to which my mother, her mother, and myself are apparently not worthy to belong, and that part of her membership included finding new targets.”

Jennings watched her silently, as outraged as she at the apparent iniquity of her relative, but as uncertain what to do with a theory based on so little information. “Elizabeth,” he said at last. “It may be that your great-grandmother was as taken in as you have been – that someone controlled her actions as he controls the dark forces that kill the bearers of these rings. We are speaking of magic, are we not? – a creature from the netherworld summoned to murder you and poor Mrs. Elliott, an unseen entity that visits fever and death upon women in their sleep … these are not ordinary attacks. Whoever orchestrated them must possess extraordinary power; we cannot underestimate his ability to control others to do his bidding.”

Elizabeth gave him a small smile. “You’re only saying that,” she said sardonically. “Because you cannot imagine a woman being able to sacrifice her own daughter and granddaughter. This does you credit, sir, but I believe it is unlikely that my great-grandmother’s actions are unwitting. After all, sir, the transfer of these rings caused us to be suspicious in the first place! – they are central to this matter, I think.” She smiled more broadly. “And you yourself felt that we were correct, no matter how strange our deductions might seem to others!”

Jennings returned her grin. “That is true,” he said. “But it still does not follow that every participant is a willing one.” His smile faded. “I admit, however, that it does pain me to think of a woman behaving so heartlessly toward her own children.”

“And it remains a mystery why these women would be targeted,” Elizabeth complained, her brow furrowed. “Money would be the most obvious reason, I suppose, but none of those you felt were part of the nineteen-year pattern were actually in line for the family fortune of which my great-grandmother was most recently the matriarch; even my grandmother would have been excluded because of her marriage to my grandfather, since he could not claim even distant cousinship with our ‘illustrious clan’. My entire branch of the family tree, therefore, was really in no position to affect my great-grandmother in any conceivable manner, any more than could any of the others who had been given the rings. Only Elinor’s brother is an exception.”

“And men have never been the targets,” Jennings mused. “In truth, however much your great-grandmother was the family matriarch, those in our sphere are required, I believe, to transfer fortunes from father to son, from man to man. These women would have presented no particular impediment to anyone’s scheming, and since three of them were under the age of ten, I can’t imagine any harm they could possibly have posed – especially to someone who – as we’ve said – has a great deal of power.”

“Hmm,” Elizabeth murmured. “I believe I might correspond with my cousin Isabelle.”

“Isabelle?” Jennings repeated. “You believe she knows something about all this?”

“Well,” Elizabeth said. “Her grandfather is my great-grandmother’s eldest son, and his younger brother’s son Fitzhugh is engaged to Isabelle. Her marriage to Fitzhugh is seen as an excellent match, and will in effect consolidate a family fortune that had split off in various directions over the generations; it will indeed be a ‘family fortune’ again – as it was over a hundred years ago – but of course much, much larger now. I suppose, given that, that Isabelle will now replace my great-grandmother as the matriarch of our family.”

“Is it wise to contact her?” Jennings asked. “If she has indeed inherited your great-grandmother’s place in the family – rings and all – it might be rather dangerous to reveal to her what we suspect. Especially when our list of known facts is woefully tiny.”

“I would not ask her anything about it,” Elizabeth told him. “I have had the misfortune to meet my cousin Isabelle on more than one occasion. She is a very shrill and peremptory sort of person, always looking down her nose at others; it is quite difficult to spend more than a few moments with her. But I believe that she would be very capable of inadvertently revealing things to me, since it seems to please her to have secrets from those she feels are of lesser consequence.”

“Your father’s fortune is by no means inconsequential,” Jennings noted. “Did that not allow her to see you as an equal?”

“Well, in a way,” Elizabeth said. “It allowed her to give me some small measure of respect, rather than dismissing me out of hand, as she has done with so many of the rest of our family.”

“It sounds like she will make a delightful matriarch,” Jennings said drily.

“Agreed,” Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling. “I will contact her – with the pretext of trying to connect with her now that my father has put me out – and see if I can glean from her any reason why certain members of our family might wish harm on other members.” She chuckled. “My supplication to her superiority will no doubt be a welcome beginning from her point of view, and my obvious inferiority as an outcast will likely prompt her to list – in a very haughty manner – every conceivable thing that would render my life expendable.”

“Wonderful,” Jennings said, grinning.

______________________________________

 

Later in the day, he found her walking in the gardens beside the house. “I’ve had a message from the slate, my dear,” he told her. “I must go to town.”

“Might I go with you?” Elizabeth asked, her eyes lighting up. “I am very much enjoying our little adventures!”

“I would have it no other way, ma’am,” Jennings replied, offering her his arm.

Within twenty minutes they were on the road toward town, and Jennings was explaining to her what the slate had shown him. “The words were remarkably unhelpful,” he noted. “It said, ‘I am Joshua.’ What significance his name could have, I don’t know.”

“Well, I imagine he was quite attached to it,” Elizabeth said. “Did you see any images connected with it?”

“Only the house,” Jennings said. “And a letter tucked into a book.”

“What sort of book?”

Jennings shrugged. “A tiny one,” he said. “Perhaps a book of poems or some such?”

“Hmm,” Elizabeth mused. “That is indeed very little to start with.”

“Yes,” Jennings agreed. “Yet the message was delivered with a sense of some urgency. Not quite so much as the other night, but a good deal more than would be warranted by a spirit declaring his name.”

They came presently to a row of houses that Jennings recognized from his vision. Stopping the carriage, Jennings hopped down and reached up a hand for Elizabeth. “I believe we are in the right place,” he said, looking around him. “If anything, the matter seems more urgent, but I can’t imagine why. I saw absolutely nothing alarming.”

“Perhaps,” Elizabeth offered, stepping down onto the street, “our experience with the house in the woods has inflated our notion of urgency. I suppose a thing might be urgent without involving falling masonry.”

Jennings chuckled. “I suppose you are right,” he allowed.

He walked with her a little way down the street, coming at last to a door before which stood a pair of young women. One of them was clearly comforting the other, who was overcome with quiet sobbing.

“It will all be well, Caroline,” the first woman was saying. “Surely our cousin cannot be so cruel as he seems.”

“He is!” the sobbing girl wailed, her voice muffled by a handkerchief pressed desperately to her lips. “He is taking our house, and Papa’s land, and we are thrown out in the hedgerows!”

The first woman noticed the Jennings, and quickly pulled the other girl more closely into her embrace. “Yes?” she asked, one eyebrow raised rather defiantly, as though daring the Jennings to importune her.

“Forgive us, ma’am,” Jennings began, bowing and taking a small step forward. “This young lady is clearly upset; can we not assist you in some way?”

The woman shook her head. “I thank you, no,” she said. “We have received distressing news, but we are quite well.”

Behind her, through an open window on the floor above them, came the distinct sound of a woman crying, and the more subdued sounds of her maid attempting to console her. This prompted Caroline to renew her wails of despair, and to bury her head in the other woman’s shoulder.

“Please, ma’am,” Elizabeth said, her heart moved by the women’s obvious unhappiness. “Perhaps there is some design in our coming here; perhaps we are meant to help you. Will you not take us a little way into your confidence?”

The woman at first seemed disinclined to change her mind, but, after seeing the open sincerity and compassion so evident on the Jennings’ faces, her expression softened. “You may be right,” she said quietly. “I did pray for deliverance from this fate.” She guided Caroline carefully to a bench that stood along one side of the stoop. “Sit here, dearest,” she instructed, and gently deposited the woman onto the bench. Straightening up, and squaring her shoulders, she turned once more to the Jennings and folded her hands placidly in front of her. “We are all put out of our home,” she announced, in a calm voice that belied the disastrous nature of the news she imparted. “Our dear Papa has died not a week ago, and his estate is entailed on his cousin, and his cousin has arrived this morning to inform us that he wishes to sell Papa’s house and lands at once, and that we must remove ourselves immediately.” Her demeanour remained entirely passive, and would perhaps have been mistaken for coldness, except that her eyes now swam with tears, and the corners of her mouth trembled. “He has given us until the day after tomorrow.”

Caroline pulled the handkerchief from her lips long enough to deliver one quivering sentence: “And we had been so thoughtful as to send him an invitation – to welcome him!” She dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief and struggled to regain her composure.

Jennings spoke, and his voice was so cold that Elizabeth was startled by it, and cast a sidelong glance up at him. “Ma’am,” he said crisply. “May I ask if you have anywhere to go?”

The first woman shook her head. “Indeed we do not, sir,” she informed him. “We do have some money left to us by our Papa, and I suppose we could cast ourselves on the mercy of our relatives, but since Papa had assured us that his cousin was a very kind and generous man, we had not thought to seek out such alternatives.”

“I greatly sympathize,” Elizabeth said earnestly. “I found myself in a similar situation not so long ago.” She indicated Mr. Jennings. “But you see? Everything can work out perfectly well, even out of the most desperate of straits.”

The woman’s stoic façade faltered slightly in the face of Elizabeth’s genuine concern; she cleared her throat, and looked for a moment down at her feet. “I thank you,” she repeated, raising her eyes once more to gaze gratefully at the Jennings. “Forgive me; I cannot at the moment see how it could work out at all.” She glanced at Caroline, who had stopped crying but now sat with slumped shoulders and an expression of absolute dejection. “But I am sure we will manage somehow,” she added. “If our cousin is indeed amenable to our staying through tomorrow, I will have time to arrange for the storage of our belongings. I believe my friend Anne will allow us to impose upon her, and keep our things in her father’s unused stables.” Doubt and hopelessness flickered across her face. “I have already sent word to her,” she said. “And so I am sure you are correct, ma’am, and that we will manage somehow.”

Elizabeth was at a loss; no words that came to mind seemed helpful in the slightest.

“Ma’am,” Jennings said. “May I ask you – please excuse me for being forward – is your father’s name Joshua?”

The woman blinked in surprise. “It is not, sir,” she said slowly. “The name of our newly-arrived cousin is Joshua.”

The Jennings – Chapter Nine

The Family Tree

The words on the slate were simple enough: “Save my loved ones.”

And the image he saw when he read the words was not a horrible image – a simple cottage nestled in a stretch of woods, next to a stream that might rightly be described as a river under the right conditions. A warm glow of firelight shone through the front windows, and, although he could not see them, he knew that a family was tucked up inside the cottage, gathered together around the fire.

But he knew just as surely that the cottage was in terrible danger, that something threatened it extremely and immediately. The force of this knowing took his breath away for a moment, and he was obliged to sit on the edge of his bed as his vision swam before him.

Elizabeth sat instantly beside him, her brow furrowed with worry. “Are you quite well, sir?” she asked him. She put a hand on his arm. “What did you see?”

Jennings shook his head. “I saw an ordinary peasants’ cottage,” he said. “But I felt overwhelming dread – something bad is about to happen.” He came to his feet. “I’m prompted to head northeast,” he went on. “I believe the house is along that road, not too far from here.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You cannot mean to go now!” she exclaimed. “Into this storm? It’s madness!”

Jennings shrugged, closing the drawer where the slate still lay. “I must do what the slate bids me do,” he explained. “I’ve been given this gift for a reason.”

Elizabeth blinked, contemplating his words. She knew that if he had not been willing to act immediately on the night that she met him, she would now certainly be dead; she had no reason to think that this vision was any less accurate, or that his actions should be any less urgent.

“All right,” she said at last. “But I won’t watch you go out alone.”

Jennings, who had been on the point of departure, stopped abruptly. “You are not coming with me,” he informed her firmly. “I have no idea what sort of danger imperils this cottage, and the storm is quite fierce.” Indeed, the thunder booming outside seemed to be shaking the house as well as the windows. “It’s not safe.”

She stood, and raised one eyebrow. She had thought at first to remonstrate with him, but realized in the same instant that it would be entirely fruitless, and would only waste time which Mr. Jennings clearly deemed to be in short supply. “I will not watch you go alone,” she repeated. “If you will not take me with you, I will follow you.”

He stared at her, bereft of speech. He opened his mouth to ask her if she was in earnest, but he could already see the answer in her eyes, which looked coolly back at him with utmost conviction. “If I leave,” he said. “You will follow me.”

“Yes,” she replied simply.

He squinted at her. “Why?” he asked.

Her direct gaze faltered slightly. “I don’t want you to be hurt somehow without anyone’s knowing where you might be,” she said truthfully. “When you say you’re walking deliberately into danger, who can tell what might befall you!” Her shoulders twitched in a slight shrug. “Besides,” she added. “I want to know what’s going to happen to the cottage.”

She continued to watch him, and his eyes never wavered from her face. “Short of tying you to something,” he said finally. “Or locking you in a cupboard, is there any way to dissuade you?”

She gave him an apologetic half-smile. “Not really, no.”

At a loss to explain how he had let himself be talked into such a ridiculous course of action – and unwilling to acknowledge that in fact very little talking had marked the conversation – Jennings put a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and walked with her toward the door. “As you wish, then,” he said, trying to make his voice crisp but succeeding only in sounding wearily resigned. “We must move quickly.”

______________________________

 

By the time Jennings steered the curricle onto the road, the storm had whipped itself into a veritable frenzy; rain flung down from the heavens in heavy sheets that quickly drenched them both, even though Jennings had put up the curricle’s hood before leaving the house.

Still feeling strongly that the cottage lay to the northeast, he guided his horses in that general direction, eventually ending up on a narrow lane that wound its way into a section of thick forest. His route was illuminated only by the flickers of lightning that lit the black sky, and he had set such a wicked pace that finally Elizabeth, her hands gripping tight to the side of the curricle, voiced her concern.

“Mr. Jennings!” she shouted over the noise of the storm. “We’ll be overturned! You cannot even see your path!”

Jennings looked askance at her. “I told you to stay home!” he reminded her.

“And you wish to kill us both to prove a point to me?” she asked him, pushing rain away from her face before clamping her hand once more on the edge of the seat.

Jennings did not answer; his attention was riveted on what little of the path he could see ahead of him. The sense of urgency that had been thrust upon him was now growing by the minute, and his heart pounded in his chest. He had no wish to die – and certainly no wish to harm Elizabeth in any way – but the urgency drove him forward as though no other thought could enter his brain.

After what seemed an interminable ride, the curricle passed underneath a canopy of trees, and the rain beating against the Jennings slackened. Elizabeth was able to peer ahead into the darkness. “Is that a light?” she asked hopefully, nodding her head toward what she thought – prayed – was a circle of yellow glowing faintly in the distance.

Jennings spied the tiny light and felt a glimmer of relief. “I believe so,” he said. Soon they had drawn close enough to make out the shapes of windows through which the yellow glow emanated, and then, a moment later, the cottage itself became visible – a blot of greyness contrasted against the black woods around it. “That’s the cottage I saw,” Jennings revealed.

Elizabeth was examining the cottage as best she could through the rain. “It does not seem to be in any danger,” she noted. “Are you sure it’s the one you saw?”

“I’m sure,” he said. He drove up to the front of the cottage and pulled the horses to an abrupt stop not ten feet from the door. “Ho there!” he shouted, but his voice was drowned out by the thunder and wind. “You there, inside!”

He climbed down and strode up to the house. “Ho there!” he yelled again, thumping the side of his fist on the door. Behind him, Elizabeth gathered her cloak around her shoulders and carefully slid down from the seat of the curricle.

“It is quite late,” she said to him, coming to stand beside him on the stone stoop.

“Lizzie!” Jennings exclaimed, surprised to see her. “I’m sorry!” he said contritely. “I should have helped you down!”

A dimple appeared, and her eyes twinkled as she looked up at him. “I believe I am quite capable,” she said drily. She tucked her hand under his arm. “But I am sure these poor people have long since gone to bed.”

As though to contradict her, the front door was flung suddenly open, and a middle-aged man glared angrily out at them. “What the devil is this about, then!” he demanded. “It’s near the middle o’ the night!”

“I apologize, sir,” Jennings said. “But I must ask that you leave this cottage at once!”

The man became angrier, and, squinting at Jennings in deep suspicion, he barked at him, “Are you out of your senses? What are you on about?”

From inside the cottage, a woman called out. “Who is it? Is it someone for Mama?”

The man looked briefly over his shoulder. “It’s someone I’ve never seen in my whole life,” he informed her. “He wants us to leave our house!”

A cluster of children of various ages appeared then, circling the man who seemed to be their father. They stared out in open curiosity at the strangers on their doorstep, until the woman who had spoken came up behind them and began shooing them away.

“Get back from the door now!” she admonished them. “Your father will take care of it.” She eyed the Jennings with the same suspicion that still lingered on her husband’s face. “Whoever in the world are you?” she asked. “You’re not here for Mama?”

Elizabeth, seeing an opportunity to turn the tone of the conversation, stepped forward and asked, as kindly as she could muster, “You’re expecting someone to fetch your mother?”

To her dismay, the woman’s expression became even more mistrustful. “My mother is dead, ma’am,” she said curtly. “She left us not two days ago.”

“And,” her husband interjected, his brows drawn together starkly over his nose. “If you were any acquaintance of her, I daresay you would know that she is gone.” He placed both hands, balled into fists, on his hips, and positioned himself protectively across the doorway. “So whatever your business is here, you’d best be off!”

“Please, sir,” Jennings said, wiping a hand across his face to clear the rain away. “I know it must sound exceedingly strange to you, but I assure you, you are in danger here!” He gazed pleadingly from the man to his wife, and then all around him at the raging storm. “Please! You must leave at once!”

The man in the doorway puffed his chest out, and his irritation suffused his entire person. “We will do no such thing!” he avowed.

A deafening explosion of thunder answered him, as a bolt of lightning split the center of the large tree to the left of the cottage. Elizabeth, at first startled nearly out of her wits, watched wide-eyed as the tree, its trunk now decorated with a few tongues of flame and a cloud of bitter-smelling smoke, slowly listed to the side.

“Come out now!” she ordered, stepping away from the house and beckoning frantically with both arms.

Jennings grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and dragged him outside. “Now!” he shouted.

The woman, rattled by the blast of lightning, hastened to follow Elizabeth’s instructions, grabbing her children and pushing them before her into the storm. She had not even cleared the doorway herself when the tree, groaning monstrously in protest, fell crashing down onto the roof of the cottage. The roof caved in, and the cottage walls bowed outward; the branches of the tree brushed against the woman, eliciting a terrified scream from her, and causing her to jump forward several feet in alarm.

“Good God!” the man exclaimed, standing in awe at what had just happened. Before him lay the crushed remains of his small cottage, pinned beneath a smoldering tree that had, until this moment, been as welcome a sight of homecoming as the house itself. The worst part of the destruction was over the sitting room, and the man realized that, had the Jennings not come by and brought the whole household to the door, the roof would have fallen on all of them.

“You’ve saved us,” he murmured. “We would have been killed if not for you.” He shook his head in shock and wonder. “We would surely have been killed.”

The woman, clutching her children as close to her bosom as possible, gazed with unabashed gratitude at Mr. Jennings. “How did you know?” she asked him breathlessly. “How could you know?”

Jennings, breathless himself, released his grip on the man’s lapels. Putting his hand on the man’s shoulder, he shook his head, and replied, “I did not know, ma’am. I believe – but perhaps you will think me mad – I believe your Mama – her spirit, I mean – led me here.”

“Mama,” the woman repeated, and her eyes filled with tears. “Thank God for it, sir! Thank God!”

_________________________________________

 

Jennings found Elizabeth at the breakfast table the next morning.

“I did not think you would be up, my dear,” he said, sitting across from her. “After returning home so late, I thought you would sleep the day away.”

She smiled at him. “Much like you, I suppose,” she said. “I woke when I usually do, and could not go back to sleep.” Her smile broadened. “I slept very well for all that,” she added. “It was most gratifying to have saved someone, and to have had such an adventure!”

Jennings laughed. “An adventure indeed!” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “And I daresay they’ll have their cottage rebuilt in a trice, and none the worse for wear.”

Elizabeth tilted her head. “As to that, sir,” she said. “Do you routinely pay for people to rebuild their cottages? And for their accommodation in town?”

Jennings looked down at his coffee cup, and waved his hand dismissively. “They had to stay somewhere,” he explained diffidently. “And rebuild somehow.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said, still smiling softly. “You are a very good man, sir,” she told him.

He looked up at her. “I try very much to be so, my dear,” he told her. “And I thank you for your good opinion, for I believe no one’s counts for more.”

Elizabeth felt tears stinging her eyelids. “And yours to me,” she managed to say around a sudden lump in her throat. “But I believe,” she went on brightly. “That we were tasked with reading my mother’s journal, and her letter to me.” She patted a stack of leather-bound books that lay on the table beside her. “I have brought them, as well as the family Bible, that we might go through them together.”

Jennings leaned forward. “Excellent!” he said, his interest piqued.

After their breakfast, they made their way outside, to a shaded spot of grass not far from the house. After Jennings put down a blanket, he and Elizabeth sat, alternately enjoying the warm day, reading through her mother’s journal entries, and wading through the copious family tree that had been traced onto cream-coloured paper and tucked carefully into the cover of the Bible.

As she read, Elizabeth became gradually aware that her mother’s peridot ring had been one of a pair, that a second ring of amethyst had also been passed down to various women in the family.

“Mr. Jennings,” she said. “I can trace both the peridot and an amethyst ring back at least five generations on my mother’s side.” She gestured to the entry she was currently reading. “The amethyst was given to my grandmother on her birthday, the same year that my mother received the peridot ring.”

Jennings raised one eyebrow, his eyes quickly scanning the entry. “Who gave your grandmother the amethyst?”

“My great-grandmother,” Elizabeth said. “Each ring was the birthstone of the recipient, and my mother writes that they had been ‘passed through the family for over a hundred years’.” She gazed at Mr. Jennings. “But what indeed could be the significance of them? They’re not precious stones, or expensive rings. They’re both silver, quite ordinary.” She frowned, pondering. “If they had some sort of magical significance, would that not act more as a protection?”

“One would assume,” Jennings murmured. He also frowned, puzzled by this matriarchal mystery, but then abruptly his brow cleared, and he looked at Elizabeth with dawning revelation. “The rings marked them,” he guessed. “They marked them, and yours marked you.”

Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide as she digested this. “It makes sense,” she decided finally. “But why would my mother wish to mark me in such a way?”

Jennings shook his head. “I cannot imagine she would do so,” he said. “Even if I entertained the notion that she would wish you harm – which I cannot do – it seems apparent that she had no idea what the ring represented. It targeted her as well, after all, if I am correct; I believe to her it must simply have been an heirloom.”

Elizabeth had grown very serious. “What on earth could my mother have done?” she asked. “That someone would wish her dead? What on earth could I have done? I’ve barely been allowed out of my home since I was a little girl!”

Jennings put a comforting hand on hers. “It can’t possibly be anything either of you did,” he said. “You are clearly the kindest and best of women, my dear, and I can see through these pages that your mother was very much the same. No.” He shook his head again. “No, I believe the deaths of your mother and grandmother, and the attack upon you, were orchestrated for some magical purpose.”

Elizabeth was both intrigued and horrified; a “magical purpose” would perhaps explain how such a dire creature had been summoned to murder her, as well as the dark and secret manner of visiting a fever upon her mother and stealing her grandmother away in her sleep. But at the same time, the notion that such magic existed boggled the mind and crushed the spirit – how could anyone hope to combat or elude such a supernatural force?

“Surely we’re letting our imaginations run away with us, sir,” she said. “Although I have seen your gift, and know that it is real, surely it is not possible to arrange a fever, or for a woman to die in the night of apparently nothing!” She took a deep breath, struggling to contain her emotions. “Surely not,” she repeated, rather nervously.

“I’m not saying it’s something I see every day,” Jennings replied, gently squeezing her hand. “But when the notion occurred to me, I felt strongly – ” He held his other hand against his chest. “That I was heading in the right direction.” He looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. “And what I have read here,” he began, speaking with a sudden air of delicacy. “Prompts me to believe it.”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked. With a mixture of curiosity and dread, she went on, “What have you read?”

Jennings ran his fingers over the front cover of the Bible. “According to your mother’s family tree, at least two women – sometimes still children – died in each generation. There were other deaths, of course, and by the dates given it seems that more than one woman died in childbed, but every nineteen years, two or more women died within a fortnight of each other. Most recently are your mother and grandmother, and now, nineteen years later, your own life has been threatened.”

Elizabeth blinked, nonplussed. “Nineteen years?” she repeated. “What significance could ‘nineteen’ have?”

“It is the cycle of the moon,” Jennings offered. “It will be in the same location in the sky at a particular time, every nineteen years.”

Elizabeth did not know what to think. To be sure, something diabolical had been dispatched not only to murder her but also specifically to take her mother’s ring. In her mother’s Bible was a record of deaths in which Jennings had seen so sinister a pattern. And it had in fact been nineteen years since her mother died. But the moon had never held any special relevance to her family, as far as she was aware, nor had magic ever been the subject of any discussion. It all sounded so unbelievable.

She leaned forward and picked up a carefully folded paper. “Allow me, sir,” she said. “To read you the letter my mother left me.” She unfolded the paper, holding it delicately as though it might break apart, and began reading:

“Dearest Elizabeth, I am looking on you now as I write this for you, and I have never seen such a sweet and beautiful creature in all my life. I am desolate to consider the possibility that I might not be here to share your life with you. But we all are here according to God’s design, and none of us knows which moment will be our last. My dreams told me that my time here is finished, but they have also told me that you will grow to be happy and strong and good, and that all is happening as it should.

Please know that you are the only thing in my life that makes me so proud, and that I have never known happiness as I know it since you have been with me. Whatever occurs, I will watch over you and love you, and I give you my peridot ring, given to me by my own dear grandmother, both as a keepsake and as a connection to me. If ever you find yourself in harm’s way, call upon me, my dear sweet girl, and I will render you what aid I can.

With all my heart, forever,

Mama.”

Both Jennings and Elizabeth sat quietly for a long moment, each affected by the heartfelt simplicity of her mother’s words. Finally, Elizabeth raised her head and said softly, “I have always felt that she meant the ring to be a protection.” Momentarily overcome, she blinked away tears and cleared her throat. “I think she sought to protect me, sir, perhaps from the very forces that had haunted her dreams.”

“I believe you are right,” Jennings said gently. “She seemed even to feel that the ring possessed a magical quality – one that would allow her to come to your aid, even from beyond the grave. Whether she meant that literally or symbolically, I cannot know. But it would be silly, if she were part of some dark family secret, even to hint at a magical aspect to the ring. Even if all we had heard of her were false, which I cannot believe, to bring such attention to the ring would be illogical, and perhaps even detrimental to the purpose.”

“But what purpose could it be?” Elizabeth asked. “What usefulness could a family find in eliminating its own members?” She shook her head. “It makes no sense.”

“No,” Jennings said. “But perhaps your mother did in fact work some magic on the peridot ring.” When Elizabeth looked inquiringly at him, he continued, “If the rings are a mark of some type, then they have been part of a series of deaths in your family going back to the beginning of the record written here. For you to escape that fate is, as far as I can see, unprecedented.” He reached out and once more took Elizabeth’s hand in his. “Perhaps it was your mother who guided me and who wrote on the slate. Perhaps she somehow altered the nature of the ring – possibly without even realizing it herself – and in so doing caused your attacker to fail in his attempt.”

Elizabeth considered this. “I find a good deal of comfort in that notion,” she said. “The thought that she would wish ill upon me had been rather distressing. But,” she went on, frowning. “Who then has placed these rings into my family? And why?” Her frown deepened. “And since, whatever the reason, it must be of extreme importance, will my attacker not be made desperate by my escape? Will he not find me?”

Jennings’s expression was grave. “I have thought of that since the moment I found you in the park, my dear,” he said soberly. “Your mother and grandmother were taken in a – shall we call it a ‘clandestine’ manner? – that implies there is no place where this power cannot reach. If in fact they were murdered, then I cannot understand what has prevented your being taken away in the night as well.”

Elizabeth gave a small smile. “If my mother was the one who spoke through the slate, sir,” she told him earnestly. “Then it was no doubt because your gifts would offer me protection. You are the reason the creature does not return.”

Jennings looked vaguely embarrassed. “I’ve done nothing,” he said, worry still creasing his forehead.

“You saved my life,” Elizabeth pointed out, squeezing his fingers.

“But I’ve done nothing to protect it since,” Jennings protested, his cheeks flushed. “My ‘gifts’ have told me very little about your attack.”

“Perhaps it is something about you, sir,” Elizabeth said, still smiling. “Perhaps your very presence is keeping something at bay.”

Jennings raised one eyebrow. “I shall be afraid to let you out of my sight, my dear,” he said. “If you put such thoughts into my head.” He raised her hand to his lips. “I have a task for you,” he added, gesturing toward the journal. “You must correspond with all your relation, and discover who had each of these rings.”

Elizabeth blinked, somewhat daunted by the prospect of contacting a score of people she had never laid eyes on. “For the last hundred years?” she asked.

A sudden grin dispelled Jennings’ solemnity. “Yes,” he said. He leaned toward her. “If we can learn who had the rings originally, then we will have found your attacker.”

Elizabeth cast a sardonic eye at him. “That person would be well over a hundred years old,” she said drily.

“That would explain why he sends monsters to do his work for him,” Jennings said, his eyes twinkling.

The Jennings – Chapter Eight

Mums

Miranda Bertram hesitated in front of the magistrate’s offices, but, after taking a deep breath and, in that brief moment, searching her heart, she raised her gloved hand and rapped gently on the closed door.

It was quickly opened by a young man who seemed to be the magistrate’s assistant. “Miss Bertram?” he asked, swinging the door open wide and gesturing for her to enter. “Please do come in, miss.”

Miss Bertram entered the room, and saw two stern-looking men sat at on one side of a table, with a woman seated between them. This woman was clearly unhappy and a little frightened, and her eyes darted constantly from one of the men flanking her to the other.

Miss Bertram recognized her at once. “Betty,” she said, and came immediately to the table. The young man who had opened the door now pulled a chair over for her to sit in, and she took it with a murmur of thanks. “Betty,” she said again, leaning across the table and reaching her hands toward the other woman. “Will you not look at me?”

Betty was silent and immobile; then, as a strangled sort of sob escaped her throat, she forced her gaze up to meet Miss Bertram’s. “Miss Miranda,” she croaked, tears in her eyes.

Miss Bertram put a hand on Betty’s, which were clasped tightly together on the table in front of her. “Betty,” she began, her brows drawn together in a combination of confusion and concern. “Please tell me why you did this.”

Betty sobbed again, and tears fell unchecked down her cheeks. When she did not instantly speak, the man on her right grabbed her upper arm and gave it a shake. “The lady asked you a question!” he barked. “You open your gob!”

Betty cried out, startled by the man’s actions. “I don’t know!” she wailed finally. “I don’t know why I did it!” She looked beseechingly at Miss Bertram. “I know you’ll never believe it, miss, but I swear to you I never meant no harm!”

Miss Bertram still held Betty’s hands. She felt tears stinging her own eyes; she had known Betty since childhood, and had never known an unkind word to pass her lips. She had in fact been quite gentle and loving. “Was your regard for us – for me – all a lie, then?” she asked. She found that she was trembling. “Did you never really care for us?”

Betty shook her head vehemently. “The Bertrams was like my own family, miss!” she said. “When Mistress died, I was beside myself!” She hung her head in utter despondence, still moving it back and forth. “When her wee one took no breath, I chafed his arms and legs, and I held him to my own bosom! I –” She faltered, and her voice became choked with emotion. “I did everythin’ I could!” Her head sank down until it almost touched the table. “I did everythin’ I could!”

Miss Bertram, having wrestled with this dilemma since it had been brought to her two days ago, and having spoken at some length with her cousin Parrish and with Mrs. Jennings, had decided that Elizabeth was quite right: little William had known only love from Betty, and she was, in his heart, his mother; for her part, Betty seemed to be exactly the good-hearted and forthright person she had been when she worked in the Bertram home.

“Betty,” Miranda began gently. “Can you not tell me what you were thinking when you took the second baby away?”

For a moment, the room was so silent that it seemed no one even breathed. Betty raised her eyes again to Miss Bertram’s face.

“I don’t know the right words, miss,” she said, her words barely audible even in the stillness. “All I knew was that I’d married a man who left me with nothin’, no money nor no children, and here was Mistress dead before me, and p’raps I could’ve saved her if I had known how, but I didn’t.” She began weeping again, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. “And the wee one grew so cold in my arms, and I was heartsick, and I dreaded lookin’ on either of ‘em. And I just thought – ” She gave a helpless shrug. “I saw th’other one stirrin’, and I thought – I thought maybe I could save one of ‘em.” She shook her head again. “By the time I came to my senses, miss, and seen what I had done, I didn’t know how to undo it without …” She looked out of the corners of her eyes, first at the man on her left, and then at the man on her right. “I was afraid I would go to prison, miss, or worse.” She stopped speaking then, and bowed her head again, awaiting whatever condemnation Miss Bertram saw fit to heap upon her.

“I have met my brother, Betty,” Miss Bertram said softly. Suddenly she grinned. “William is the sweetest little boy I have ever seen!” she avowed. “He is still quite confused, I believe, for no one has known just how – or what – to tell him, but he seems very happy at the thought that I am his sister, and that he will come to live in a nice house in town, and go to school.”

Betty’s shoulders slumped forward. “You’ll love him, miss,” she said. “I’m glad he’ll want for nothing, and that he’ll be with you.”

Any doubt lingering in Miss Bertram’s breast was now eliminated as thoroughly as though it had never been; she squeezed Betty’s hands, and, still smiling, she informed her, “You both will be with me, Betty.”

Betty stared, confounded, at Miss Bertram, and the man on Betty’s right gave a start and slammed his hand down on the table. “Miss Bertram!” he protested loudly. “You cannot be in earnest!” The man on Betty’s left looked similarly aghast, although he checked his emotions more completely than his companion. “Miss Bertram,” he said. “Why ever would you take this woman in?”

Miss Bertram, momentarily surprised by the men’s outbursts, hastened to reassure them. “I have discussed it at length with my cousin – Mr. Parrish, who I daresay you might remember, Betty – and he has agreed – since there is an heir to my father’s estate, after all – that he will be the steward of the estate until William is of age, and he will look after my interests until such time as I am married, and he will take you in as a ward of the estate, Betty, and you will want for nothing, to use your words, and you will have an education if you wish, and you might live in the Bertram house as William’s mother for as long as you wish it!” She finished, beaming brightly at the other woman, who still sat in dumbstruck confusion.

“You cannot – ” she began, then cleared her throat and started over. “Indeed, miss, you can’t mean it! It’s not heard of!”

“I completely agree!” the loud man interjected. His face was turning an unpleasant shade of red. “This piece,” he went on, indicating Betty, “will only steal everything from you and take William again!”

“No, I won’t!” Betty objected, horrified at the notion. “I never took nothin’ from them, ever! Nor would I!”

The man glared at her in utter disbelief. “You stole the child!” he pointed out, and she shrank down into her chair, abashed.

Miss Bertram put her hand on the man’s arm. “Please, sir,” she said calmly. “Betty has raised William as her own child, and I can see very well that she has cared for him with all the affection that I remember receiving from her myself.” She gave Betty an encouraging smile. “William is so attached to you, Betty, and he has never known any other family; it would be a punishment for him – he who is blameless in this entire affair! – and neither I nor Mr. Parrish could fathom causing William any pain at all. And I believe – however wrong your actions may have been on that day – I believe I see in you here the same good heart I had known in you before you went away.”

Before Betty could respond, the man on her left spoke again. “And Mr. Parrish agrees to all this?”

“Yes,” Miss Bertram said, nodding. “Of course, now that he is not to inherit the estate, I suppose in large measure the decision is not up to him … but then again, I would not be skilled at managing the estate, or at having someone be my ‘ward’. While I might certainly learn such things over time, for now it seemed best to accept my cousin’s offer of stewardship. And, of course, he also had the opportunity to meet William, and to see how well he has been cared for, and how much he loves his mother – you, Betty – and Mr. Parrish was as inclined as I to be merciful in this matter.”

“Your cousin,” the quieter man said. He leaned forward, his hands spread out on the table before him. “I want to be very clear, Miss Bertram,” he continued sternly. “Your cousin accepts this woman as a ward?”

Miss Bertram gazed levelly at him. “That part was his own idea,” she explained. “If for no other reason than that William’s … well, his second mother … had rightly ought to be from a similar station. And truly,” she added, more to Betty than to the others. “Mr. Parrish is quite kind-hearted, and has been very understanding in the loss of my father’s estate.” She chuckled. “He had been planning to sell it, I believe,” she said. “I am sure it must certainly have been quite a blow, but his connection to my father is such that he says he is most honoured and gratified to help both me and little William. Is not that wonderful?”

Betty had given up all notion of comprehending the good fortune that seemed to be shining upon her. She looked in awe at Miss Bertram, and, raising her sleeve to her face to dry the tears from her cheeks, she said humbly, “You are as kind a girl as ever you were, miss, and your heart is so good as I never’ve seen.”

Miss Bertram patted Betty’s hand and sat back in her chair. “And so all is decided, yes?” she asked the quieter man. She turned from him to the louder man and then to the assistant that had been standing wordlessly beside the door. “Betty and William come to London with me, and all is well.” Her grin widened. “Yes?”

In the next half hour, the quieter man – who revealed himself to be the magistrate for the town – and Miss Bertram discussed the details of the entire matter; as the clock ticked past noon, Mr. Parrish, little William in tow, appeared at the door, and joined his own voice to the account, assuring all concerned that it was proceeding according to his intentions, and that he bore no ill will toward Betty. “For I cannot deny,” he said at one point. “That if I had been witness to the death of someone so dear to me, I would no doubt have been so distraught as even to be out of my wits. And then, on the morrow, if I were thus faced with the prospect of prison … well, sir, I do not mind revealing to you that I might well have made the same decision as she.” And since he had often heard from both Mr. and Mrs. Bertram a great deal in praise of Betty, and since William was so happy to see his mother – from whom he had been kept for some days – that all efforts to pry him from her side would clearly be in vain, Mr. Parrish was cheerfully committed to implement his plan, and to ensconce William and Betty into their new lives as quickly as possible.

And so, despite the deep misgivings and lingering consternation of the constabulary and the magistrate, the charges against Betty were dismissed, and she was allowed to travel from Bedford to London with the Bedfords and Mr. Parrish.

“Is that not unbelievable?” Elizabeth asked Mr. Jennings, as they sat at supper. “Is it not the happiest ending to the story?” Before he could answer, she went on excitedly, “When I called on them this afternoon, little William was already scampering all over the house as though he had always been there, and Miss Miranda looked so happy!” Her eyes glistened. “It is of all things the most wonderful, to see how all has worked out favourably.”

Jennings gazed at her with a soft smile. Silently, he wished that Elizabeth’s own father had been nearly so kind as Miss Bertram had been to Betty Cantor, but he would not dampen Elizabeth’s joy by saying so aloud. “Indeed, my dear,” he said. “It is extraordinary, and I must admit I did not expect such a pleasant outcome when we left Bedford.” He reached out and patted her hand before picking up his glass of burgundy. “But you expected nothing less,” he added. “I should never doubt you.”

She grinned. “Of course you should not!” she seconded. Through the window behind her husband she saw a bright flicker of lightning. “I believe a storm is coming, sir,” she noted, as the grumble of thunder reached them.

“Mrs. Raleigh predicted as much,” Jennings said, glancing over his shoulder. Outside, a brisk wind had come up, whipping branches to and fro; a few first tentative raindrops spattered against the window. “She has – as she phrases it – a ‘knee’ which knows more than all the almanacs ever written.”

Elizabeth laughed. “My father has a ‘shoulder’ that is equally good at prediction,” she revealed.

Jennings turned back to her. “You don’t hate him,” he noted. “Even after all that he’s done.”

Elizabeth’s smile remained. “I don’t,” she said simply. “Indeed, he did nothing to me. He has always treated me exactly as he treats everyone, and he evaluates me by the same ruler he has used his whole life to measure everything equally.” She shook her head. “No,” she went on. “In fact, I could see his heart in the letter he wrote, that Lady Morton read out to me.”

Jennings lifted his brows in surprise. “The letter I overheard?” he asked. “You saw his heart in that?”

Elizabeth gave a little chuckle. “I did,” she averred. “I know that his views on women – and many other things – seem antiquated and cold, but they are his true sentiments. He truly believes his notions, and what he viewed as my ‘indiscretion’ must have been quite alarming for him. You see, Mr. Jennings,” she added, grinning across the dining table at him. “My father is never the sort of person to be outraged by anything. Yet he was outraged at what he believes to be my actions. He would not feel that unless I had particularly disappointed him, unless he had believed before that moment that I would never be guilty of such … weakness.”

Jennings was even more baffled. “And you saw his heart in his outrage?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “It means that he had set me apart from others, that I had some significance to him beyond what he might ordinarily feel.”

“And the fact that you had this significance,” Jennings said. “You perceive that to be his regard for you?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth repeated. She shrugged slightly. “We cannot ask people to be more than they are, can we?” She took another bite of her supper. “He felt for me what he could feel for anyone, and he always treated me well, and so I feel no animosity toward him. I feel only the same that I have felt from him since my first memory.”

Jennings tilted his head in curiosity.

“He is my father,” Elizabeth explained, and shrugged again. “He’s my father.”

Jennings took a sip of burgundy. “Clearly, you have received your heart from your mother.”

Elizabeth chuckled again. “Perhaps,” she acknowledged. “I have heard endless good of her from all who knew her – even my father – but I never knew her.”

Jennings finished his burgundy and placed the empty glass on the table. “Can I – do I disturb you by asking? – how your mother died?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “Not at all,” she assured him. “I do not remember it.” She paused, recalling things her father had told her. “She died of a sudden fever,” she said at last. “When I was only a few months old.” A slight frown creased her brow. “She had had a nightmare, apparently. My father said that it took him several minutes to convince her that she was awake and that it had only been a dream. But in the next few days, she became certain that it was a foreshadowing of her own death, and one morning, she did not awaken.” She gazed at Jennings, her expression reflecting a sense of epiphany. “She had dreamed that something hunted her, sir, and that it wanted to kill her. My father felt that she sapped her own strength with her irrational belief in her dream, and so allowed the fever to gain hold of her. But if you are correct, and indeed some dark personage has summoned the supernatural to achieve his own ends, then perhaps it behooves us to examine my mother’s passing.”

“My thoughts exactly!” Jennings said. “This ring that had been your mother’s – other than its having been hers, does it have any particular significance?”

Elizabeth considered this for a moment. “No,” she decided. “It’s not even particularly valuable; it’s a simple silver ring, set with a green peridot – my mother’s birthstone. It had been given her by her grandmother, whose birthstone it also was, and I’ve always assumed, since my mother was very close to her grandmother, that she then passed the ring to me as a sort of family heirloom.” She raised one eyebrow. “But I suppose now that we must assume the ring meant a great deal more.”

“Indeed,” Jennings agreed. He poured himself another glass of burgundy. “Did your mother leave you anything else? Anything that might point to some story behind the ring?”

“She left me a letter,” Elizabeth answered. “She wrote it the day before she died. She was so convinced that her dream had been prophetic, you see, that she felt some urgency in leaving me what legacy – and what sentiment – she could in the time that remained to her.” She smiled softly. “I am sure that my father thought she was being silly, but whether she brought the fever on herself, or whether it was visited upon her, she did in fact seem to know that she would die … and so I am very glad that she wrote the letter.”

“As am I,” Jennings said. He had such fond memories of his mother and sister, and of his father; he could not imagine having only a letter from them, and he wished fervently that he could give Elizabeth her mother back.

“My father gave me some other of her things,” Elizabeth continued. “Her family Bible, and a journal she had kept; a few pieces of jewelry, and portraits of her and of my grandmother, who – ” She broke off abruptly, as chills slid up her spine. “My grandmother died two days before my mother,” she revealed. “As my father prepared to send word to her about my mother, a messenger arrived on our doorstep with the tidings of Grandmother’s passing.”

Jennings leaned forward. “How did your grandmother die?” he asked, his voice taut with dawning excitement.

“She apparently died in the night,” Elizabeth said. “She was not ill; everyone considered it quite strange. I don’t know if she had had a similar dream or premonition. No one has ever told me that she did, but I suppose it is possible.” She too leaned forward, and looked rather anxiously at her husband. “Could what happened to me in fact be connected to my mother’s and grandmother’s deaths? Could they have been …” She hesitated, almost afraid to say the word aloud. “Could they have been murdered?”

Jennings sat back in his chair. Behind him, lightning flashed in the window, and a long rumble of thunder accompanied his words. “I believe, Lizzie,” he said quietly. “That your mother was murdered, and that your grandmother was murdered, and that the same entity has tried to murder you.”

Elizabeth let this information sink in. “I do not know how to feel about that,” she admitted, staring unseeing at her plate. She lifted her eyes to Jennings’ face. “Did you see this, sir?” she asked. “Did you see the truth of it?”

“You mean the way I saw the green box and the blue dove?” he asked. She nodded. “No,” he told her. He put one hand on his chest. “But I feel the truth of it.” His eyes glanced this way and that as he pondered what clues had been given him. “You said there was a journal?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth replied.

“You’ve read it?”

“Yes,” she said again. “But I had not done so with an eye for discovering dark mysteries, sir.” She put her hands on the edge of the table as though she would stand, and spoke resolutely. “We must start at the beginning,” she said. “And read it all with new eyes.”

Jennings nodded, and pushed his chair away from the table. “We must indeed,” he said. “But it will have to wait until morning, I’m afraid.” He came to his feet, his hand still on his chest. When Elizabeth looked at him inquiringly, he explained with an apologetic shrug, “I believe the slate has something to tell me.”

The Jennings – Chapter Three

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.