Esther felt better after she’d talked with Alma and shared her story. But she felt flat, particularly after she’d sent her apology to Ailesworth at Rathbone House and didn’t get an immediate response. Of course, she’d wounded his pride by insulting and embarrassing him in front of his workers.
As a few days passed, she became more dismayed at her behavior with Ailesworth instead of less. He didn’t respond to her apology–he must hate her.
Meanwhile Ailesworth was doggedly counting the days. Esther’s note of apology had gone to Rathbone House. and then been delivered to his lodgings. Although Chambers was meticulous about Ailesworth’s clothing, he was a little careless of some of the butler’s duties he was required to do. He wasn’t a butler, he told himself, and fussing with things like his lordship’s mail wasn’t what a gentleman’s gentleman did. Nor was washing children. And anyway, his lord had no interest in the mail that came to him at his lodgings. All important mail went to Manchester Shipping.
So when Belton had Esther’s apology delivered to Chambers along with a pile of invitations Ailesworth never looked at, it sat on a hall table amongst a mound of others. Ailesworth didn’t bother with them. He assumed they were all invitations which he never responded to. Maybe once every other week he’d sort through them.
He’d gone out drinking and whoring one night with his friend, Michael Constant, but when it came time to choose a partner at Madame Hever’s, he changed his mind. The women were disappointed. They knew him to be a virile lover, considerate of the women he used. Madam Hever decided that the tale of his courtship of an unknown widow must be true.
Esther hoped he would come see her even though she’d told him not to. She smiled to herself at how irrational she was. And she blushed when she remembered her tirade in the shipping yard. Her father had been given to gargantuan rages. All the servants had fled him. Even her mother hid herself and only his valet stood near to calm him down.
Esther had never seen her father in one of his rages–Jessom had kept her close–but she wondered if she’d looked like him while delivering Ailesworth his set-down. And what had she got from it? Only a feeling of deep loneliness, as though she’d been cast adrift on an ice floe. Once she started sharing lodgings with Alma, she came to realize that she’d been lonely all her life. Having a friend now meant all the world.
Ailesworth had held her, really held her, only once and she could recall every second of his embrace. Oh! His warmth, his strong arms. What she wouldn’t give to sleep next to his warm, muscular body. And she tried to keep herself from thinking of how it would feel to have him above her, entering her, his heavy body weighing her down. How glorious it would be! Poor Jacob and his skinny, wiry, smelly body couldn’t compare.
She tried to keep herself busy so she wouldn’t brood, or forget herself in sexual fantasies, but she had begun to lose a little weight. She was in the parlor, working on Alma’s embroidery silks. They’d gotten tangled and Alma hated to take the time to sort them. Esther found it calming. She had a skein of apple green in one hand and with the other hand she was trying to free it from a skein of green that reminded her of the sea on a somewhat sunny day, a day she’d seen the sea at Portsmouth so long ago. There was a knock on the outer door.
Esther’s heart jumped. Could it be Ailesworth?
Jessie arrived at the door with a note. “One of them ship men, ma’am. Bulgin’ with muscles, he is.”
“Does he want an answer, Jessie?”
“Yes’m. He be on the step.”
“Take him to the kitchen for a cup of tea.”
“Yes’m.” Her eyes alight and a grin on her face, she left to lead the docker below stairs. The house seemed to tremble as his heavy boots hit the floor.
Esther opened the paper.
My dear Mrs. Beryll–
Why was Ailesworth being so formal with her?
I have need of your expertise. By chance, I have come into ownership of a pair of children, ages eight and ten, I believe.
I need your advice on what to do with them.
Could I call on you and bring them? Any suggestions you have will be welcome
A return with Fred will find me,
How odd! Two children? How did one come into “ownership” of two children? And what did she know of children?
Esther sat for only a few minutes, puzzling over the letter. She couldn’t deny it was an opportunity to see Ailesworth again. She found her writing desk and penned a reply, saying she’d be pleased to help in anyway she could.
She took it to the basement where the docker was drinking tea and demolishing cake with the two women. He lurched to his feet.
“Here’s my response. Don’t hurry. Finish your tea,” and she smiled at the three of them and went upstairs.
Shortly afterwards she caught herself humming as she sorted Alma’s silks. She smiled to herself. What a complete fraud she was.
An hour later, Ailesworth arrived with two children in tow. From the window Esther and Alma saw them approach. Two skinny children looking both excited and apprehensive trailed behind Ailesworth. When he knocked, they stood close to him.
Jessie brought them into the parlor, her eyes wide. On the spot, she decided these were Lord Ailesworth’s by-blows and he’d brought them to meet his future wife.
“Yes’m,” as she stumbled out, trying to see if the boy looked like Lord Ailesworth. He did.
After a quick glance at each other, Esther and Ailesworth looked at the children.
“Mrs. Beryll, Mrs. Nelson, this is Jim and Sally.” Sally looked up at him, reproachfully. “No, not Sally, Catherine.” She smiled a very tiny smile at him.
He felt ten feet tall. Smiling back at her, he said, “But that’s one mystery we need to solve–first and last names.”
Jim grasped Sally’s hand and her smile disappeared and she moved closer to Jim.
Ailesworth was frustrated again. He tried to soften his look as he turned to Esther.
She was on her knees, at eye level with the children. “Jim, is there some reason you don’t want people to know your name?”
“Is there someone you’re afraid of?”
He nodded again, a tiny nod as though he’d like to take it back as well as give it.
Esther looked up at Ailesworth. “There, my lord, is the only answer you’ll get. At least for the time being.” She turned back to the children. “Shall we continue to call you Jim and Sally, or Jim and Catherine?”
Jim said, “Jim and Sally.” Then a small, almost disembodied voice said, “Jim and Catherine.”
Jim frowned mightily. He’d been practicing frowning like Lord Ailesworth. With a frown like that, he felt older. And safer.
“Jim,” continued Esther, “will calling Sally ‘Catherine’ endanger her?”
Ailesworth started. He’d never thought of that.
Jim didn’t know. Their mother had said to use the common names she’d assigned them until they could claim their rightful place. It just felt too scary.
Esther said, “Catherine, would you come here so I can talk to you?” Esther was still on her knees.
Sally slowly came out behind Jim and came to her. She was still thin and moved stiffly as her back was healing. The clothes Chambers had found for her were a little too big and Mrs. Wilbur had hemmed her dress a little unevenly. The ends of the sleeves were folded back over her skinny wrists.
“Catherine, your brother is worried for you. He has a reason for you to stay Sally and not
Catherine. It’s very important to him. Until he feels comfortable enough to tell us, he’d feel safer if you were Sally.
“Why don’t we call you ‘Sally Catherine’? I think that would be safe enough. What do you thing, Jim?”
Esther kept her eyes on Sally. She saw her think it through and then give a tiny nod. Esther looked up and saw Jim agree.
Esther got up. Ailesworth’s hand was there for her. At the clasp of their hands, a spark of electricity flew between them. Their eyes met and Ailesworth’s look heated. Oh, how she’d missed him.
How he’d missed her. Those heavy-lidded blue eyes of hers fired him as they always did. He hoped their fight was over.
Esther let her hand remain in Ailesworth’s larger one a second longer than needed. It was strong and warm.
Jessie barged in with a tea tray. “Excusin’ me, ma’am, but Cook is makin’ ginger biscuits. Be ready in a flash.”
She set down the tray and grinned at everybody, particularly Ailesworth. She took another good look at Jim before she left. Yep, his brat all right, as she told Mrs Batson. Mrs. Batson reserved judgment.
Esther busied herself serving tea to everyone. Sally Catherine sat on the edge of the settee and sipped daintily at her tea. She ate her bread and butter with care. Jim was careful of his manners, too. He cast frequent glances at Ailesworth.
Meanwhile the adults talked politics and shipping news and the bad storms at sea.
Once the children seemed to be through, Esther asked Alma to take them to the kitchen for ginger biscuits. And to return as it was time for a discussion.
They left and Ailesworth looked steadily at Esther.
She fumbled with her cup. “I take it you received my apology, Lord Ailesworth. I–”
Esther stared. “The apology I sent you five days ago.”
“Where did you send it?”
“To Rathbone House.”
“I don’t live there. My half-brother lives there. If he kept that from me…”
“Where do you live, Lord Ailesworth?”
“For God’s sake, call me Ailesworth.” He looked down at her. “I have lodgings at Griscom Street.” He sat on the settee, close beside her. “Tell me when you sent it.”
She swallowed. “Last Thursday. I think.” She could feel his heat. She wanted to lean on him.
“Ummm.” He’d think about the letter later. He slid his arm along the back of the settee and his hand slowly fell on her shoulder. She’d started to lean towards him, when they both heard Alma’s footsteps in the hall.
They sprang apart as she came in. “The children are eating ginger biscuits and drinking milk. At least Jim is. Sally Catherine is nibbling and sipping.”
She settled herself on the chair opposite them. Why wasn’t she surprised to see them together on the settee?
“Ailesworth,” Esther turned to him, “tell us about the children.”
He sat back and told the brief story. “I didn’t know Jim had a reason to conceal their names. I thought Sally had made up the name.”
“Yes,” Alma leaned forward, “children do have a reason for that. A girl in our village insisted on called herself Gloria when her name was Mary. We thought she was just play-acting until we found out that her mother abused her.
“My father paid her a visit and that stopped. But as soon as we could, we took her in service where she still insisted upon Gloria, much to Cook’s disgust.”
Ailesworth felt a little better for having missed Jim’s fear.
“Have you seen the uncle again?”
“I went back the day after and he’d gone. His neighbors didn’t like him. As to where he went, it was impossible to find out. And I couldn’t find out how he made his money, either. Very strange.
“The question is, what to do with them. I can’t keep them in bachelor’s quarters and I can’t send them to Rathbone Hall. They need care and tutoring. I wondered if you would know someone to take them in?”
He looked at Esther and at Alma who stared back at him. Neither said a word.
Then Esther said, “Do you plan to solve their mystery, Ailesworth?”
“Yes, I do.” He raked his hand through his hair. “But it’s very busy at the docks right now. It’ll be awhile before I can set my mind to it.”
Esther nodded. “Alma and I will have to think on it, Ailesworth.” She glanced at Alma who nodded. She’d noticed how bright Alma’s eyes had been when she’d returned from the kitchen. She had an idea but she and Alma needed to talk it over.
“Then I may call again?”
Esther nodded. “Yes. I…”
“I’ll get the children, shall I?” Alma bounced up and left the room, leaving the door open.
“May I apologize in person, Ailesworth? I’m so ashamed of my behavior in the dockers’ yard.”
“No, no! Don’t be ashamed. I was arrogant. I knew I couldn’t give you diamonds and pearls, so I gave you what I could.
“Now I know. I’ll give you nothing but my company. How is that?” His voice dropped to a growl.
She shivered and began to lean toward him when a knock sounded at the front door. She pulled back. He cursed to himself.
“Who could that be,” she asked with a frown.
Jessie came thundering up the stairs from the kitchen and opened the door.
“Lord de Sable to see Mrs. Beryll,” came an aristocratic voice.
“I’ll see if she can see you. Stay here,” Jessie ordered.
Esther groaned a bit, but also smiled at Jessie’s order to de Sable. She could see him straighten himself, pull his waistcoat down and put his nose in the air.
“I’ll go below stairs and we’ll leave out the back,” said Ailesworth.
Jessie was at the parlor door, frowning. “Ma’am, that Lord Disable is here.”
“Yes, Jessie, show him in.”
Jessie let him come in, while frowning at him.
“Really, Mrs. Beryll, you should…Ailesworth.”
“De Sable. Good to see you again.”
“Mrs. Beryll.” He bowed over her hand. She didn’t look at Ailesworth for fear she would grin.
“You’ll forgive me, Esther, but I must leave. There is work to be done. De Sable,” and he left the room, closing the door behind him.
“My lord, won’t you be seated.” She waved him into the chair Alma had left.
He sat and gazed at the demolished tea try. Esther followed his gaze. It looked like a pack of large raccoons had worked on it. She supposed she would have to get Jessie to clear up and bring fresh tea. De Sable did enjoy his tea.
A fresh knock was heard at the front door.
“You’ll excuse me, Lord de Sable? I must go and see to that.”
He rose and said, “Really, Mrs. Beryll, you need a decent maid.”
“Yes, yes.” She made it to the hall where she encountered Jessie with a small fresh tea tray. Jessie thrust the tea tray at her and said, “I’ll get it, ma’am.”
Esther returned with the tray. She found it difficult to put it down as the large tea tray took up most of the table.
De Sable just stood and frowned his disapproval of the lady of the house doing manual labor.
Esther bit her lip to keep from laughing as she began moving plates and tea cups to put the smaller tray on the larger one.
She’d just done that when Jessie appeared in the doorway. “Ma’am! Here’s a man for you!”
Esther straightened and said, “Jessie, take this dirty tea tray back to the kitchen.” She left the room, leaving de Sable and Jessie together. De Sable’s frown was dark as he watched Jessie clatter cups together. She was ready to take the new tea tray along with the dirty dishes, when he said, “Stay! You’re taking my tea tray!”
“Sorry, me lord,” and she plunked it down.
In the hallway, Esther was amazed to find a tall man wearing a pondered wig dressed in gorgeous blue livery with silver braid.
“My lady, I have a letter from The Countess D’Aellen.” He gave it to her. “She also sends you this,” and he presented the Duke’s envelope addressed to ‘Elizabeth Dramlee’.
Esther’s chest tightened. It was her father’s handwriting. “Where—”
“All is explained in her letter.’
“Of course. Thank you.”
He bowed and left. She could see the Countess’s carriage outside. She wanted badly to open her aunt’s letter, but she couldn’t desert de Sable.
In the parlor, de Sable had poured his own tea and eaten every ginger biscuit. He stood as Esther entered.
“You’ll pardon me, Mrs. Beryll, but I made my own tea. It looked to be getting cold.’
“Of course. How helpful of you.”
She placed the envelopes on the narrow table on the side of the room. Time enough for them later.
Alma came into the room. “Lord de Sable,” and she curtseyed. “How good of you to come out when it’s so foggy.”
“Foggy?” he went to the window and looked out. Alma and Esther exchanged grins.
“It is rather. Hmm.” He turned. “Mrs. Beryll, Mrs. Nelson, I’d planned a longer visit but perhaps I should leave before I will be unable to find a hackney.”
“Yes, of course, my lord. We understand,” and Alma opened the door. She showed him out of the house and rejoined Esther. The two women settled on the settee.
“Well? What did you have in mind?”
“Oh, Esther. You understand me too well! Why not have those children here? We could care for them and instruct them. Until Ailesworth finds out who they belong to. Wouldn’t that be fine?”
“Where would they sleep?”
“Oh.” Alma hadn’t thought of that. There were only two bedrooms on the first floor, along with a small windowless box room. In the attic there was one empty room.
“Let’s look at those rooms again.”
The two women went to the box room. It was big enough for at least one cot and a small table and chair, but it was dark. The ladies’ empty trunks were the only items in the room.
Then they went to the attic. The third unused room was small with a bed and chair and small bureau. The window looked out onto Cargill Street and it was dirty.
“We must get Jessie up here to clean the place even if we don’t use it.”
Esther nodded. She was having a hard time concentrating on these problems. She felt so happy. Ailesworth was back in her life.
Mac sent a note to Charles that he had “the ingredients.” Charles was excited. He had been caught up in his plan to harm his brother and take his title since shortly after he came to London. Before that, Ailesworth had been only a mild annoyance to him. After all, he, Charles, had the Earl’s ear. But being in London for a month, separated from the Earl, and seeing how the nobility lived, he began feeling, or perhaps creating, animosity towards his brother.
Once the idea of doing away with Ailesworth had blossomed in his mind, he could think of nothing else. And now his idea would bear fruit. He loved the idea of setting gunpowder alight. And to destroy one of Ailesworth’s beloved ships. He knew that Ailesworth set great store by the Mary-Anne. She was his first ship and had nearly been destroyed by fire once. The idea of destroying it by fire in a second attempt gave Charles pleasure. What had Ailesworth ever done for him? Ignored him, taunted him when they were boys. Once Ailesworth was established in London, one would think he would offer his brother a position. But he never had.
As soon as he got the note, Charles dashed out to go to Mac’s. Mac was home and his rooms tolerably cleaned up. Charles was hardly in the door when he began talking.
“Mac! You’ve got it! I—”
“Chas!” Mrs. Devil was in the room. Charles hadn’t seen her.
“Sorry.” He began pacing the room. Mrs. Devil left, although slowly and reluctantly, glancing back with suspicion at Charles.
Mac was lying on his bed with coffee beside him, a newspaper in hand.
“Well?” Charles asked.
“Chas, me boy. We need to plan. Sit down.”
Charles sat on a chair beside the bed. “The Mary-Anne is still at the docks. It doesn’t start loading until next week. There’s only one watchman at night, an old man. We knock him on his head and tie him up and gag him. Then we’re onboard with the gun powder. We’ll lay a trail and—”
“Now, lad, this ‘we’ you’re talking about. I’ll not set foot on that ship. I’ll help you get it there and take care of the watchman. And watch your back.
“But you’ll lay the powder.”
“That’s fine.” Charles sprang up again. “Let’s go to the docks so you can see the Mary-Anne.”
“We’ll get masks first. You don’t want anyone to recognize you, do you?”
“No, of course not. Great show! Let’s go.”
Mac rose and put on his coat. They left, Mac giving his landlady a cheery Goodbye.
Out on the street, Mac seemed to know everyone. Half of the people he greeted stopped to talk with him. Charles grew impatient and shifted back and forth on his feet.
“Now, Chas,” as they started walking again, “I need to talk to people. How do you suppose I found what you needed? Oh, here’s the place,” and he ducked into a shop.
Inside was a jumble of old clothes and hats and gaudy paste jewelry in the dirty glass-fronted cases.
A tiny gnome came into the front of the store. Charles stared. The gnome cackled and said, “Mr. Mac Pherson, son of Giant Mac Pherson and Lady Desire, how may I help you, sir?”
“Ah, the de’il take you, Mc Isac. My friend and I, Mc Isac, need some masks. We’ve a masquerade to attend.”
“Masks, is it.” Mc Isac reached below the counter and pulled up a dirty box, “Here ye be.”
The two men began riffling through the box when Charles let out a squawk. He pulled up a row of ivory teeth, curved to fit into someone’s mouth.
“Aargh!” Mc Isac snatched them out of Charles’ hand. “I been lookin’ for those.” He dropped them into a pocket in his garment, which resembled a painter’s smock made into a large man’s greatcoat.
Mac pulled out two masks. One was partially covered with feather. Some feathers were broken off and dirty, as was the mask. The other was a plain black half-mask, grey with dirt and age.
“My friend here will give you two pennies each for these masks, and I’m sure you will be glad to rid yourself of them, as old and dirty as they be.”
“Two pennies! They’re worth a groat or two, fine masks like that!”
“Thruppence. And I’ll go no higher. We can always go to Mr. Shepard’s store. He’s a very polite gentleman.”
“Oh, him! His stock is so poor. You’d get no masks like that from him.”
They purchased the masks after a little more haggling and were on their way. Charles found his had a rotten string. He complained and Mac fixed it.
Mac was beginning to wonder if Charles could do this job at all. Even if the gunpowder was really gunpowder and not a mixture containing soot instead of charcoal, Mac thought Charles would make a bollix of it. He’d best hear the whole plan.
Mac steered them to a coffee shop. It was near Fleet Street and full of newspapermen drinking coffee and bad brandy. Mac got them coffees and they settled at an empty table, littered with coffee cups.
“Now, Chas, me boy. Speak low and tell me your plan.” Mac shoved dirty coffee cups away.
“Tonight we’ll go to the docks at one, take care of the watch, board ship and lay a trail of—”
Mac laid his hand over Charles’s lips. Charles nodded.
“Then,” he whispered, “I send a message to Ailesworth, something to arouse him and make him come. Once he’s on board, I light the gun powder and escape down the gang plank.” Charles was rubbing his hands together, his eyes alight with glee.
Mac sighed. It was a schoolboy’s prank. Charles had no idea what gun powder did to people. He’d never seen mangled dead bodies or worse, men still alive, crying piteously.
Mac nodded. “All right. Do you have a rope and a gag ready?”
“No. I’ll bring them.”
“And a cosh to hit him with?”
“Never mind. I’ll bring one. And a tinder box.”
“Yes, yes! Anything else?” Charles was anxious to show his friend the Mary-Anne.
Mac shook his head and they left to get a cab to the docks. Once there, Charles threaded his way through the dockers and warehouse men, counting bales of cotton. Mac pulled his hat down over his face so no one could see him clearly. Charles seemed indifferent to the stares of the dockers. Mac tried to listen to any comments the men might make and he heard, “Ailesworth’s brother, the bastid.”
Oh, lud! They knew him. Why didn’t Chas dress like a common man! Mac wore his shabbiest clothes.
The found the Mary-Anne. She was a fine looking vessel. The trouble was, there was no gang plank.
Mac came up behind Charles. “Where’s the gang plank?”
Charles started, he was so caught up in his vision of Ailesworth trapped on the deck and begging Charles for help. “Huh? Oh, no gang plank.”
“How do you plan to board her?”
“It was down yesterday.”
“It must be the tide. The ship will be closer to the dock at low tide. What time is low tide?”
Charles looked bewildered. “I don’t know.” He marched over to an idle dock hand and said, “What time is low tide, my good man?”
The docker spit and considered. Mac knew he was making a cake of Charles and Charles didn’t know it yet.
“Ar, let me see now. Likely it’s ‘bout midnight. Or mebbe not.”
Charles got stiff. Mac walked over and slipped a coin in the docker’s meaty hand. “Ar, I reckon half after midnight. Most likely.”
Mac grabbed Charles’ arm and pulled him away and farther down the wharf.
“Don’t call attention to yourself. Do you have any old clothes?”
“Of course! I’ll have them on tonight.”
“Let’s go,” and Mac grabbed Charles’ arm and they left the docks, Mac following behind, his head bent.