Chapter 16

Alma happily went shopping for sheets and blankets and coverlets and curtains for Jim and Sally-Catherine’s room. Once the children were settled in, Sally-Catherine could help choose paint or wallpaper for the room.

Once she had finished with her purchases and was in a hackney, her mind went back to her problem: Should she take a lover? And if so, who would it be? The two questions seemed to tangle themselves together and she couldn’t come up with a clear answer to either one.

She thought of Esther’s happiness. She had apparently delighted in her night of love-making with Ailesworth. Esther looked happier and healthier than she’d looked in ages. But Esther wanted a lover. Or had she just wanted Ailesworth and reasoned backwards?

Reasoned? No logic, just emotions, Alma thought, and emotions make it so difficult to think clearly.

Out of the dirty window of the hack, Alma got a glimpse of a couple. They seemed entranced with each other. Then she spotted a woman, a high-flyer, dressed beautifully but with too much bosom showing. Next to her minced a fop. He had his glass to his eye and seemed to be glaring at everyone. The woman didn’t look happy.

Wasn’t that her, or could it be her? A kept woman. She had no fortune to give her Esther’s sense of independence. Did she want to be kept again?

No! If she invited a man into her bed–and here images of Lord Grainger and Mr. Planchet filled her mind–he’d insist on little gifts.

No. She wouldn’t do it. She sighed and leaned back against the dirty seat.

As she arrived home, she saw de Sable going up the steps to the house on Cargill Street. She stopped the hack and got out. She went to the door which was open. De Sable was there and confronting Jessie.

When Alma walked into the house, de Sable turned and said, in a frozen tone of voice, “Thank God, you’re here, Mrs. Nelson. This creature refused to tell me where I may find Mrs. Beryll. I told Mrs. Beryll that she should be replaced. Rude! To a degree!”

“Come, my lord, I’ll take you to our new house. It’s just around the corner.”  As they walked down the steps, she sent a frown back at Jessie. Jessie got the message and backed into the hall.

Alma took de Sable’s arm, which hadn’t been offered to her as he was in a snit, and chattered on about their new house. Once they arrived there, she tried to show him the downstairs, but he had no interest. He thought it looked dull and gloomy.

“Where is Mrs. Beryll? I thought she was here.”

“She’s on an errand. So many new things to get, when moving house.”  Alma knew where Esther had gone. Jessie had told her she was “goin’ to Mr. Armblasters.”

“I see. Well, there’s no purpose in remaining. Here’s my card. If you’d see Mrs. Beryll gets it?” and he turned away to leave.

Alma wanted to hit him on his head with the heavy pitcher in the hall. The sod! How could he be so rude.

As he was halfway down the steps, he thought he heard her tear his card in two. He turned, to see the front door closing, followed by the sound of the lock clicking into place.

Really! Had no one any manners?

Ailesworth, once in his office again, sent a man to Bow Street to hire a Runner. Mid-morning he arrived. He was a big, hulking fellow whose nose had been broken a few times, Ailesworth was glad to notice. His name was Bill Jenkins. After Ailesworth talked to him awhile, he was pleased to see how quickly he grasped the situation.

“I went to see the people who had fed and be-friended the children. They were happy to help me but all they could tell me was that the man was strong and that he often spoke in an educated voice. He ran a butcher shop in a better section of town, they said. Odd that, he didn’t live in the neighborhood of his shop, but the neighbors seemed to think he was too mean to pay the higher rent.

“The children were sometimes locked into their lodgings when the uncle was at work. Some of the boys would pick the lock and go in and play with Jim. They’d have the place locked up by the time the uncle returned. The children often went hungry–and the uncle a fat butcher!”  Ailesworth’s fist clenched. “And neighbors would share what they could.

“He makes my blood boil.”

“Yes, m’lord. What do you want me to do with him, once I find him?”

“Write me. I’ll deal with him. You stand watch.”

Bill nodded. “It’d be best, if you address an envelope for me. I c’n print, but it’d be safer, done in y’r hand.”

Ailesworth nodded. He wrote his address on three envelopes. Then he opened his desk drawer and took out a metal box. He unlocked it and took out a sheaf of notes. “Five pounds. That should do to begin with.”

“I’ll tell you what I find out in town before I leave fer anywhere.”

“Very good.”  Ailesworth stood up and shook hands with the man.

After that handshake, Bill was glad he was on the same side as t’ lord.

Alex de Sable finally decided to give Esther Beryll up. Everyone in that household was against him. Including her.

So he found himself at the Castles, knocking at their door. He’d best make his move, so the announcement of a marriage to Maria would make his creditors release their death grip on him. Once the world knew he was marrying the mutton merchant’s daughter, all the credit would flow again and he’d be saved. He had needed to trim the frayed threads from his shirt cuffs this morning himself. It was too much for a man with a title, a man of the aristocracy, to be cutting wispy threads from his cuffs.

The butler greeted him with proper frigidity and showed him into the drawing room. Maria and her mother were having a sparse tea. Mrs. Castle greeted him in her usual manner, as did Maria.

After he had his tea–a poor offering of bread and butter and biscuits–he turned to Mrs. Castle and asked if he might speak to Maria alone.

Mrs. Castle beamed and said it was fine and the door would be open and she would be near. She went to order a larger tea.

Maria wanted to beg her mother to stay but that was the coward’s way out. Instead, she pasted a smile on her face and straightened her back. Her hands were resting in a genteel way, palms up, in her lap, but she told herself she was ready to defend herself if needed. She hadn’t wrestled and fought with her brothers all those years without learning how to take care of herself.

“Miss Castle,” de Sable said. Then he dropped to his knee in front of her and grasped her hand before she could pull it away. “Miss Castle, Maria, I have been an admirer of yours for so long. Your beauty, your grace has dazzled my eyes.”

Maria at first tried to pull her hand away and then gave up. Best to get it over with. Her smile didn’t falter. Jess would be proud of her.

“Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife? Together with your beauty and my, um, my title, we will amaze the ton. You will be the premier hostess of London.”

At the end of every sentence, Maria opened her mouth to say, “No,” but couldn’t get a word in. The smile faded from her face and she began to frown.

He had them riding in spanking new carriages with the best horses in the kingdom when she leaned over and said, “No,” in a loud voice.

“Eh? What did you say?”

“I said, ‘No.’ Thank you for your proposal. I appreciate the honor of your, um, offering, but no, I do not care to marry you.”

He remained on one knee, blinking at her. She thought he looked like an owl when he grabbed both her hands and began to kiss them. “Maria, be mine, I beg you. I need you–”

“No! Release my hands, Lord de Sable.”

Instead he rose and pulled her up with him and hugged her close, kissing her face and any other body part he could reach.

She struggled and then said, “If you don’t release me, I’ll scream. Loudly.”

“Then you’ll have to marry me!”

“No, I won’t! Mother! I need you!”

He continued his assault on her. She thought she’d have to do that awful thing her brothers had taught her, her knee to his private parts, when she heard her mother’s voice.

“Maria?”  Mrs. Castle began frowning as she saw Maria struggling.

“Let me go, you worm!”

Slowly he released her and tried to grasp her hand.

She slapped him.

He gawked at her.

“Maria! What is going on?”  Mrs. Castle was making her way towards the pair.  Soames appeared in the doorway, with a footman behind him.

“This gentleman–” Maria dragged the word out, “is leaving now. And he is never returning.”

“But your mother caught us in a compromising position!”

“It’s only compromising if we all say it was, you degenerate. Soames will say, if questioned that you came to tea. That’s all!”

She punched a finger in his chest. “It is time for you to leave, my lord. Soames?” The butler and footman came into the room.

“All right! I’ll leave,” and he began straightening himself. Then he gathered  himself, glared at Maria and strolled to the door, displaying the dignity of his nobility to these commoners for all the world to see.

All four watched his perambulation around the tables, Maria wishing one of them would leap up and strangle him, Mrs. Castle seeing for the first time that there were too many tables in the room, and Soames with an eye on the valuables. He knew how close to debtor’s prison de Sable was.

The front door closed and Soames came in to say, “He has left, Madam.”

“Thank you, Soames. Bring the tea I ordered, please.”

Maria looked at her mother. “Mama, his proposal was so odd. He launched into a speech about how we’d be the premier leaders of the ton, and the carriages we’d have. When I broke in to say No, he kissed my hand and then my face and I was a little alarmed. He thought if he had me in an embrace, and you discovered us, I’d be compromised.”

Mrs. Castle hugged her daughter and then tidied her hair. “We should let your father know what happened. We don’t want him spreading rumors, dear. He might be vindictive.”

“I’m sure he’ll be vindictive, Mama, after that slap I gave him.”Maria sighed. “I never thought he’d do that, he seemed so tame.”

“He’s desperate, dear.”

Maria thought perhaps she should feel frightened, but instead felt victorious. That pig’s snout! He’d been courting three women at once! She needed to tell her mother.

When Soames brought the tea, Mrs. Castle asked for pen and paper. She composed a note and sent it off to her husband’s office. It was men’s business now.

On the street, de Sable smoothed his waistcoat down and shook his cuffs out, something he did without thinking. He didn’t realize he didn’t have any lace on his cuffs to shake out. A street urchin who had been hanging about, hoping for a penny for doing some service to the household, caught sight of de Sable’s red cheek. The imprint of a hand could still be seen.

“Ooo, me lord, the gentry-mort catch you warmin another’s bed? Best be careful!”

De Sable didn’t know what he was talking of at first. Then he wanted to hit him, but he caught himself in time. He ignored the nasty boy and walked rapidly away. He’d brought his cane today and smashed it down with every step.  Two dandies went by. He thought he heard them whispering. At the corner,  his cane caught a cobblestone just right and split in two, straight up the middle. The silver head–a plain knob–held the two pieces of wood together. De Sable gripped it and hoped he’d make it home before anyone noticed.

* * *

The Countess D’Aellen called on Esther in her new lodgings a few days later. Undoubtedly these new rooms were larger, but, of course, there was no comparison to D’Aellen House.

Esther was pleased to see her aunt. The Countess had stopped nagging her about coming to live with her, so Esther began to enjoy her visits. They talked of the past and Aunt Marguerite told her what she knew of her father’s last days.

Esther asked of Beaumont.

“He has not picked up his last two months of his remittances.. I worry about him. I wonder if he is dead.”

“Oh, no, Aunt Marguerite, Beaumont was very resourceful. Didn’t he run away from home once?”

“Yes, he did.”  The Countess brightened. “He found a cave and built a fire and was quite happy when the grooms found him. He didn’t want to come home. And he wouldn’t tell me why he ran away. I found it was his tutor and dismissed him.”

“He’ll be fine. He always–”

There was a tap on the parlor door.

Alma appeared with Jim and Sally-Catherine. She curtseyed to the Countess, Jim bowed, nearly falling over and Sally-Catherine gave a dainty curtsey, her eyes on the floor. Esther introduced them. They all sat and, while Esther was explaining how the children came to be staying with them, Jessie labored in with the tea tray. Since she was terrified of the Countess, she handled the tray with care. Esther was amazed. She didn’t think Jessie could do it.

The Countess studied the children as they had their tea. Sally-Catherine never looked up. Jim became uncomfortable. Esther tried to direct her aunt to other topics, but the Countess would always go back to studying Jim.

When the children were finished, Esther excused them and told them to go to their room for the time being.

“Child! Look up at me!”

Both children started and fell back against each other, eyes wide, staring at the Countess.

Esther had risen. “Aunt? Did you have reason….”

“Fine! You may go,” and the children fled the room.

Esther looked down at her. “Aunt Marguerite?”

“Yes, I know, Elizabeth. I shouldn’t have startled them but I had to see her eyes. That boy–is his name really Jim?”

“That’s what he calls himself.”  Esther seated herself. “There’s a mystery about them. He won’t reveal his real name and there is someone he’s afraid of. Sally-Catherine is called that because Jim insisted on Sally, but she demands to be called Catherine.”

“Catherine. She says her real name is Catherine? And is Jim his real name?”

“I don’t know. I don’t question them, Aunt. I want them to feel safe.”

“Lady D’Aellen, did you think you knew them?”

“No, no. but Jim looks like someone…. I can’t get a name. Someone from long ago. I’m afraid I’m not good at recollecting names to go with faces.”

The Countess looked at Esther. “So you’ll not change your mind about that tiara, then?”

“No, Aunt.”

Alma slipped out the door and followed the children upstairs. She went into their room after them. Their door was always open except when they dressed.

Esther had consulted a nearby seamstress who was coming in to measure Sally for dresses and under garments. Ailesworth had told Jim he was taking him to his own tailor. Jim could hardly walk for the anticipatory daze he was in: new clothes and time spent with his hero.

But he hadn’t liked the way the Countess looked at him, as though she knew him. He didn’t want to be known. Now that he’d found Lord Ailesworth, and then the two Misses, as he and Sally referred to them, he was happy and safe. Sally was safe. Once he’d grown up, he could say who he and Sally really were and claim their place. He knew the face of his enemy. He’d heard the words his enemy had spoken to his “uncle.”

He and his sister were supposed to be in an orphanage but their “uncle” had decided they could work for them. He’d locked them in his cellar with one tallow candle and given them rags to sort. The smell was awful. That’s when Sally began to lose weight. Jim had to do both their jobs but still their uncle beat them. Until that last day, they had been too afraid to run away.

Alma did close the door after her. “I’m sorry of the way Countess D’Aellen looked at you, Jim. She’s a very forthright person.”

“I don’t want her to know me.”

“You mean, know who you really are?”

He nodded.

“Lord Ailesworth has hired a Bow Street Runner to find your uncle. Then you might feel safer. Will you feel safe if we find him?”

“No. He’s not the one.”  Jim didn’t want to say more. The habit of secrecy was too strong I him. But if Lord Ailesworth found him– “Maybe.”

“All right. I’ll say no more. After all, I want you to be comfortable here, not frightened. Do you feel comfortable, Jim?”

He nodded “Yes,” and turned to his sister.

“Sally-Catherine? Do you feel safe here?”

“Yes, Mrs. Nelson,” and she curtseyed, a perfect little curtsey.

“Very good.”  Who had taught her to curtsey? Alma wanted badly to know. But she only smiled.

“My Mama taught me.”

Jim stiffened. But Alma only said, “She taught you well.”  Then she set the children to practicing their cursive script.

Ailesworth came for dinner that night. He decided that enough time had past since he and Esther became lovers. It was time to regularize their union. He had purchased a ring with a large sapphire in it–to match Esther’s eyes–and planned propose that night.

Esther was talking of her aunt that evening at dinner, and how she’d stared at Jim and discomposed him.

“She didn’t say who he reminded her of?”  Ailesworth asked.

“No. She couldn’t remember, place his face with a name. Alma said he was frightened by her staring.”

Old besom, thought AIlesworth.

“But she comforted him. Didn’t you?”

“Yes,” replied Alma. “He said that he’s not afraid of his uncle. He said, ‘He’s not the one.’ I took it to mean his uncle and that there was another man involved.”

“Yes, makes sense. If that man I saw was truly this uncle, he would have gone to the magistrate to demand the children’s return. Instead, he ran away.”

Ailesworth went back to eating his roast pork, cooked with prunes and apples–an unusual dish but delicious. He helped himself to another piece.

Esther loved to see Ailesworth eat. He had a large appetite and did justice to the dinners Mrs. Batson cooked, much to her delight.

Of course, he had a large appetite for other things too. Esther started to blush and focused on the conversation. Alma was telling Ailesworth how well the children had done at their lessons when there was a knock at the door.

“I’ll get it, Ma’am,” Jessie called as she climbed the stairs from the kitchen. She kept calling out until she reached the door.

Esther looked at Ailesworth. “Jessie is very rude to de Sable. He thinks she should be dismissed.”  Esther’s eyes were dancing.

“He’ll think I should be dismissed too. This week I ripped up his card and locked the door against him.”

“Alma! How shocking! Maybe he’ll stay away now.”  Esther grinned at Alma.

Jessie came in the door and tried to curtsey to Ailesworth before she gave him the letter he had in his hand. Her right leg went out too far and she nearly fell on her face.

“Jessie! If you insist, I will teach you to curtsey. But do not try it until then.”

“Yes’m,” Jessie said dolefully. “But Miss Sally–”

“Yes! She’s been practicing for years. Now give the letter to Lord Ailesworth if that is who it is for.”

Jessie bowed her head and handed him the letter and then left the room.

Ailesworth ripped it open and read. “Well,” and he put it down and began eating his potatoes.

“Bad news, Ailesworth?”

“No, my Runner, Bill Jenkins, has found something he wants to give to me. For some reason, he wants to give it to my hands. I’ll have to go to the office  so I can see him. I shall return later, Esther.”

“Of course. Finish your meal and I’ll get my key.”

When Esther was gone, Ailesworth asked Alma if she minded his presence in the house at night.

“Lud, no! I want Esther to be happy and happy she is. She sings about the house.”  Alma smiled at him.

“Good. I plan to offer her marriage shortly.”

“Oh. She has said she doesn’t want to wed again. You’ll need to convince her.”

Ailesworth’s wolf smile appeared. “Oh, I shall, I shall.”

Alma was a bit stunned at the power of the man. Esther would be married by the New Year.

Esther returned with her key and gave it to him. He captured her hand and raised it to his mouth. “Until later, my love.”

She blushed and said, “Yes.”

He put the letter in his pocket, nodded to Alma and was gone.

Esther stood, a little out of balance. Would she ever get used to him? He moved so swiftly for a big man.

She sat and the two women happily ate their rich egg custard with stewed pears.

At his office, Ailesworth found Jenkins waiting. Hassam was waiting with him. “All right, Hassam. I’ll lock up.”

Hassam nodded and left. Ailesworth turned to Jenkins who held out a small parcel to him. “I found this hidden in the cellar. T’owner was very helpful once I explained it was police business. There was nothing else.”

Ailesworth took the small bundle from him and carefully unwrapped it. It was a doll, or so he thought. It was crudely made, with scraps of cloth held together with sharp splinters of wood, a knob of wood its head, with features put on with charcoal.

“It has no hair.”

“No, m’lord. I looked. I couldn’t find any.”

Ailesworth nodded. “Thank you, Jenkins. Did you find out anything new?”  Jenkins shook his head. “Do you leave tomorrow?”

“I do, m’lord.”

“I’ll see you out.”

Charles was furious. His god-damned brother had walked out of the breakfast room as though Charles didn’t matter at all, as though what he’d tried was no more than a schoolboy prank.

He needed to find Doggety again to spy on Ailesworth. He had  to find another opportunity to dispose of him. A pistol this time. But he needed money to pay Doggety. He’d looked over the silver supply at Rathbone Hall but he was sure that long-nosed Belton would instantly detect any candlesticks that went traveling. He needed to find George and transport another body.

He shuddered. “Transport” wasn’t a very good word to use, in this case.

Good. He had a plan. Having a plan always helped. He got up from the breakfast table where his brother had left him and went to get dressed and shaved.

He should have a valet to shave him.

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