Esther’s note to Ailesworth was returned the same day, along with a note from his office manager, Hassam. Ailesworth had unexpectedly left for Portsmouth as there was difficulty in the building of his new ship. Hassam said that if Mrs. Beryll was having any difficulties someone else could solve, he’d notify Lord Grainger to wait on her.
Esther paced the parlor worrying the question. Then she stopped quizzing herself and wrote a brief note requesting a visit from Lord Grainger.
At five he arrived. Jessie was beaming with a new lord in the house.
“Mrs. Beryll. How may help you?” he said as he strode into the parlor.
“Thank you for coming, Lord Grainger. Today, in the park–oh! How have you been?”
He grinned. “Fine. You can cut right to the problem, Mrs. Beryll.”
She nodded. “Today in the park–there’s a small park nearby–I saw someone observing us–oh my! Did you know of Ailesworth’s children? I mean, the children he has under his wing?”
He smiled again. “I know of his ‘children’. He told us that he’d run them down–”
“Oh, no! They ran into him. On the sidewalk. Or was it the street?
“It doesn’t matter.” She shook her head. “We have them now and there’s a mystery about them. Their so-called uncle has been murdered–”
“Yes, and today some man was watching us in the park. I didn’t know what to do.”
Her hands were clasped tightly. “Ailesworth is away and I….”
“Of course. Can you describe this man?”
She gave him the best description she could come up with and then added, “The children might tell you more. Would you like to meet them?”
She rose and hurried from the room. He stretched and looked around. It was bigger than the Cargill Street parlor. Again, Esther had decorated it so that there were pleasing splashes of color. He realized suddenly how gloomy his house was. His mother preferred to spend her time in the country and so took little interest in the town house. He should redecorate it and make it more cheerful.
Esther came back into the room, herding two children in front of her. They didn’t want to come in, it was clear, to have another adult stare at them. But Lord Grainger made them feel comfortable. They all sat and he conversed easily with Esther and the two children without that staring.
“Mrs. Beryll tells me you went to the park today. Is it very big?”
“No, my lord. But Sally-Catherine and I played tag. Then Mrs. Beryll did too.”
“How about you, Sally-Catherine, did you run?”
Esther saw him stumble over the double barreled name and hid a smile.
“Yes, my lord. Jim let me tag him so the game would be even. Mrs. Nelson says I have roses in my cheeks now.” She looked complacent.
Esther hid another smile.
“Mrs. Beryll says she saw someone while you were at the park.”
Jim scowled, Ailesworth’s scowl. “Yes, sir, we did. He looked like a villain. I wanted to….” Here he looked at Esther.
“Can you describe him?” Drum lounged in his chair, not a line of tension in his body.
The children relaxed. Jim continued. “He was tall, not quite as tall as you, he had a heavy face.” For a minute Jim looked bewildered at his description.
“He had a fleshy face, a bit jowly,” Esther added.
Jim nodded. “And a big nose. Ug! Thick.”
“Like an orange,” Sally-Catherine piped up.
“Well, a plum, a fat plum,” Esther corrected.
“What’s a plum?” asked Sally-Catharine.
“A fruit this big,” and Esther showed her.
Sally-Catherine turned back to Drum. “Like an orange,” she repeated.
He grinned at her and stopped Jim from correcting her. He felt that Jim often corrected his sister.
“So, a tall man, a little shorter than me, heavy, fleshy face, big nose.”
Jim nodded. “Yes, sir.” Jim thought a minute and said, “Plain, black clothes. Nothing fancy.”
“White,” both children said.
“And he walked…”
They stared at him.
“A swagger,” said Esther.
Jim nodded. “Yes, he walked slowly. Didn’t mind us seeing him.”
“Excellent! You are very observant, both of you.”
Esther stood up. “Children, it’s nearly time for supper. Go upstairs and get ready.”
The children bowed and curtseyed to Lord Grainger and left. Esther closed the door behind them. “One more thing. He smiled at us, a very nasty smile, a gloating type of smile. I believe he was telling me he knew who I was and where the children were.
“What am I to do? I can’t keep lively youngsters inside all day. When they began running around, Sally-Catherine would shriek every time Jim tagged her. If you could have heard those shrieks–thin and poor. After awhile, they sounded better. She was so pale and she’ll be pale again.”
Drum looked down at her. Part of his mind marveled again that Ailesworth had fallen for this woman. She had great appeal, but Ailesworth had always chosen tall, willowy high-flyers. And here was short, buxom, respectable Esther Beryll.
“Ailesworth has no idea when he’ll return.” They sat down. “Something has gone wrong at the ship yard. The owner died suddenly and left everything in chaos. One of those men who kept everything in his head.
“There are three ships on the cradles, all partially built, and work has slowed down. The son has no idea how to run a ship yard and the supervisor fights with him all day and the workmen don’t know whose orders to obey.
“It’s chaos. As far as I can see from Ailesworth’s cryptic notes to us, he’s taken it over and–”
Esther burst into laughter. “Oh, excuse me, Lord Grainger. How like him! Always knows best. Please continue.”
He was grinning at her. “I agree. It needs a strong will to overturn him. At any rate, there’s no knowing when he’ll feel comfortable enough with the ship yard to return.
“I was going to ask if you had anywhere to go, to hide away, so to speak, until he returns. Tell me about the murder.”
“Ailesworth received word a few days ago that their ‘uncle’ was murdered in Yorkshire. Apparently he was the black sheep of his family–Carstairs, I believe his name was. He was found in a mill pond, shot in the back of the head.”
“Carstairs. I knew an Aloysius Carstairs at–”
“Yes! That was his name.”
“He was a nasty fellow. The type who’d make money off his grandmother’s dead body.”
“My lord, he kept those children locked up in the cellar. And beat them! If you could have seen Sally-Catherine’s back when she first came to us….”
Drum’s eyes had narrowed. “We’re well rid of him, then.”
“Jim had said that there was another who was his real enemy. What should I do?”
“Are you going to the Dunphy’s for Christmas?”
“Yes, we all are.”
“Excellent. Just go there a few days earlier. I’ll provide a couple of footmen. We’ll work out a stratagem for your leaving, so you won’t be followed to Berkshire.”
“A couple of footmen?”
“Yes.” He grinned. “One to feint and the other to deliver the blow, that is, take you to Dunphys.”
“You were in the war, my lord.”
“Drum. Yes, I was. Do I sound like an officer? That’s fine. How will my troops stand up to this maneuver?” He was smiling at her.
“Oh, your troops will respond beautifully. Jim will be in alt. But how exactly is it to work?”
“I’ll have Horace, footman number one, bring over some empty trunks and hat boxes at night when the watchers are gone. My attic is full of them. Then, on the morning of departure, my carriage, with its crest, will arrive and will be filled with luggage, all empty, by Horace. Your maid, appropriately attired as a ladies’ maid, will board. Call out to her that you’ll see her at the Pelican and Lion. That’s a fine inn on the North road. Horace, armed, will accompany her.
“Where will they be heading” he asked her, “on the North Road?”
“To Pemberton,” she promptly answered.
“If there are no watchers, a second carriage will arrive to take you all to Berkshire. Ferdie, the second footman, armed, of course, will travel with you. I won’t let you leave until I’m sure there’s no watchers. If they are there during the rest of the day and evening, you’ll leave in the middle of the night.
“Your maid can stay at the inn–”
“Your footman must help her. She’s never been out of the city before.”
Drum nodded. “Horace will handle it all nicely. The next morning your maid and Horace will amble their way to the Dunphys. Horace will decide if it is safe enough. He was with me on the Peninsula and is an excellent scout.”
Esther sat and stared at him.
“Is it too complicated? I can work something else out.”
“No, no. It’s a fine plan. When will we be going?”
Drum thought. “The day after tomorrow. Is that too soon?”
“No. That’s fine.”
“I’ll send the trunks with Horace tonight. Is there a place for him to sleep?”
“There is one more room on the second floor.”
“Excellent.” He smiled down at her. She was a nice armful, he had to admit. “Let’s say ten o’clock tonight? For the arrival of the baggage?”
“Yes. There’s the alley in the back.” She looked up at him with a question in her voce.
“We’ll see.” What he hadn’t told her was that the best scout of all would be traveling with them: himself.
“Oh! And I need to inform Kay.”
“Write her a note and I’ll have it delivered tomorrow.”
As she walked to her desk, she asked, “How many footmen do you have?”
“Too many. And they get bored and eat too much. They’ll enjoy this.”
They walked to the door, he bowed and left. Esther closed the door and sighed. How complicated caring for the children had become. But they would regard it as an adventure. And she could put off her confrontation with Ailesworth.
She released another sigh and went to tell Alma.
* * *
Charles and George had a blazing row. Charles had taken more than his cut of the money and George was furious.
“What’ll you do? Have me arrested?”
“Your honor should prevent you from taking–”
“This to my honor,” and he made a vulgar gesture with his finger.
“This is what I get for expecting fair dealing from a bastard.”
Charles smiled. He didn’t know it, but it was his brother’s smile when he readied himself for the final move against a business adversary. Not a warm smile.
George felt a twinge of something that made him draw back. Then he leaned over and snarled, “You’ve left me ten pounds!”
Charles shrugged and finished his ale. He was complacent. His quarterly allowance was available at the bank, he had money he’d stolen from George and he was doing his own reconnaissance of Ailesworth. Doggety was too slimy to deal with again.
He stood up. “Goodbye, George. I’ll look for the Watch, to arrest me.” He exited laughing.
George slowly brought himself under control by gazing at his pewter tankard and disciplining his thoughts. He was beginning to calm down when he realized he’d paid for the ale tonight. He slowly sipped and, after a time, regained his usual stoic demeanor. He’d learned a lesson. Expecting the gentry to dirty their hands was a mistake. Honor meant nothing to them.
Alex paid a call on Mr. Pringle. Unlike Mr. Castle, who had a decent business address, close to the City, Mr. Pringle had an address perilously close to Seven Dials, the center of crime in London, or so he’d been told. The street was respectable, but, really, Pringle should have moved.
When he entered the outside office, full of clerks, he saw that the surroundings were pleasant. One clerk came forward. “How may help you, sir?”
“Lord de Sable to see Mr. Pringle,” in his haughtiest manner. Alex reached for a card and then remembered he had no more. He stiffened. “I’m sure Mr. Pringle will see me.”
The clerk bowed his head slightly and said, “I shall ascertain if Mr. Pringle is within.”
Alex heard a faint chuckle. He looked around the room. Some of the clerks had grins on their faces. They’d laughed at the clerk. He heard one clerk whispering loudly to another in a broad Cockney dialect. He couldn’t understand him and just as well. Common.
The clerk returned and led him into Mr. Pringle’s office. The office was paneled in some rich wood. There were candles all about, a small candelabra on Pringle’s desk.
The door closed behind him. He advanced to stand before the desk. “Sir, I have come to ask your permission to pay my address to your daughter, Chastity.”
Pringle regarded him closely. “Ye want to marry her?”
“Did ye know I had an older daughter at home? She’s a beauty, but she limps.”
Alex was confused. “But I don’t know her, sir. It is Chastity I want for a wife.”
Pringle put his pen down and leaned back in his chair. “I’ll tell ye two things about Chas. If ye ever hurt her in any way, with her gettin’ to know about yr lady-birds, ye’ll be sorry.” Alex straightened some more.
“The other is, that she’s stubborn. Very stubborn. They only person who can deal with her is me. If ye run into trouble with her, let me know. I know how to convince her.”
Alex looked affronted. “Sir, all respect, but once married, I will deal with Chastity. These things, as I see it, need to be dealt with between the married couple. Sir, I have witnessed such a marriage as you describe, and it was a sad affair. Continuous quarrels, continuous interference from both sets of parents. It was a very unhappy marriage. I won’t have that, Sir. With all respect.”
Pringle regarded him more closely. He was smarter than he looked, than he had heard. Perhaps he was smart only in this, but as far as Pringle was concerned, that was where he needed to be wise.
“Aye, lad. And whose marriage was that?” he asked softly.
For a minute, he thought de Sable would refuse.
“My parents, sir. It was an unhappy house. I won’t have my marriage like that.” De Sable felt strangely stirred. He usually avoided his parents and avoided thinking about them. But he knew now that what he’d just said was right. He’d never have a house like his parents, full of dissension and strife. He’d long ago decided not to marry at all, but his financial situation demanded it. He and Chastity would work it out.
“Ah, yer wise, boy. I think ye’ll do for our Chastity. So I’ll tell ye something else. She’s not cold, our Chas, not cold at all. If ye treat her right in bed, she’ll be a fine, lovin’ wife to ye.”
Alex had pulled back, a bit affronted by Pringle’s talk.
“I know, tis too blunt for the likes of ye, but that’s the way I deal with facts, me lad. Face in, straight forward.
“What d’ye say?”
“I shall keep it in mind, sir.”
“Good. You go pay yer respect to Mrs. Pringle now. Come see me again once Chas says the word. We’ll talk about yer debts then. I’ve got work to do,” and he turned back to the papers on his desk.
Alex bowed and left.
What a strange man! Talking about his daughter’s marriage bed!
Alex hurried to get out of the neighborhood of Seven Dials and go to the Pringles.
Best to begin as he meant to continue. He’d have Chastity in hand before he left for Elmscourt. Then he could plan his trip to Berkshire.
Charles began frequenting a tavern near the docks of Manchester Shipping. The Port in Storm was rather clean, Charles was surprised to see. And though it smelled of ale and men’s bodies, it didn’t smell of dirt and clothes that hadn’t been washed in years. Indeed, it was almost pleasant.
He asked at the bar about Hassam. The bar man admitted that he came in for an ale most days after work. Charles took his ale to a corner table and waited.
Twenty minutes later, a slim, dark man came in. He was greeted by several respectfully by name. Hassam. The bar man bent his head to him and gestured to the corner. Hassam nodded, turned to the men at his side and began talking.
Charles sat back and tried to look like he had nothing on his mind. He whistled a bit, but it sounded odd so he quit. He waited.
Eventually Hassam came over to his table, after greeting half the people in the tavern on his way over to Charles’ table.
“May I join you?”
“Please. Mr. Hassam?”
“You know me?” Charles was startled.
“Oh, yes.” He smiled.
Hassam had decided on a strategy. He would be the nasty, resentful employee of an overbearing lord.
“I see. Perhaps you won’t be able to help me after all.”
“Try me. I’m always in need of coin.” As a shareholder in Manchester Shipping, Hassam had a comfortable balance in the bank. He had begun investing his money in other ships, ones he knew were seaworthy and had reliable captains.
“Well. Yes. I am interested in Ailesworth’s movements. Is he going away for Christmas week?”
Hassam regarded him for awhile. As he expected, Miggs was an open book. It would be a pleasure to deal with him–no guessing required.
He slid his hand, palm up, across the table to him.
Charles looked at it and then looked at Hassam with a superior smile. “Coin first, eh?” He took out some coins and put them into Hassam’s palm. Hassam took them, examined them and put them in front of him on the table. This wasn’t as much fun as he’d expected. He’d cut it short.
“Ailesworth goes to Elmscourt in Berkshire for Christmas week.”
Charles looked happy, though a little confused. “Excellent.” His eyes left Hassam and he looked into the distance.
Hassam imagined Charles saw himself shooting Ailesworth and then standing over him, one foot on Ailesworth’s chest, king of all he surveyed.
Charles came back to the present. “Thank you, Mr. Hassam. I–”
Hassam waived a hand at him and played with the money in front of him.
Charles left. He no longer felt comfortable with Hassam. Hassam took the money and went to the bar. “Where’s your box for widows and orphans, Jack?”
“Here tis,” and the barkeep put a dirty box on the bar.
Hassam put in his blood money and rubbed his hands together as though cleaning dirt off them.
“Thanks.” Hassam nodded and left. He’d go back now to the office and write Ailesworth. He’d feel dirty until he did.
* * *
Esther received a note from her aunt the next day. She had heard from Beaumont and was coming to show Esther the letter. Esther was pleased. She went below to see if something extra special could be readied for tea.
Mrs. Batson looked at her blankly. “There’s them scones.”
“Those are too heavy, I think.”
“Sponge cake, ma’am. Little sponge cakes. I have a tin here….” and she went rattling through her pans.
Esther remained still and silent. She’d learned that Cook could easily get distracted.
“Ah! Here it be,” and she held up a long tin with small indentations in it. “I never made ‘em for you, Missus. Dunno why.”
“Because we hadn’t the money for the eggs and sugar to make them, Mrs. Batson.”
“Ay. Like so. I’ll have ‘em fresh for ‘er ladyship.”
“Thank you, that will be fine,” and Esther left the kitchen to tell Alma. She hadn’t even noticed Horace, the footman Lord Grainger had sent over the night before with a carriage-load of trunks.
She found her with the children, teaching them maths.
“I’m impressed, Alma. Perhaps you can give me lessons.”
Sally-Catherine giggled. Oh, what a lovely sound it was. “Or you, Sally-Catherine.”
Sally-Catherine laughed outright. “I don’t know my maths, Mrs. Beryll.”
He regarded her solemnly. “I could try, Ma’am.”
She smiled at him. Something kept her from ruffling his hair: too childish for a serious young man.
“Alma, can I speak to you?”
They paused in the hall. They heard Sally-Catherine say, “Adults always have secret things to say.”
“Don’t be a nodcock. Of course, they do. The Misses must make arrangements for our Christmas trip.” His voice lowered. “We’re going to the country, Sally. Do you remember the country?”
“I think I do. It was all open and nice.”
“Yes.” He sighed.
The women slipped away, smiling at each other. “Alma, Aunt Marguerite is coming this afternoon. She’s heard from Beaumont.”
“But would you stay with the children? She makes them uncomfortable.”
“Of course. If we could only go out.”
The two women stared at each other, thinking. “Ask Horace. He might have an idea. He’s in the kitchen.”
Esther went into the children’s room. As she sat in Alma’s chair, she remembered the attics. Perhaps the children could play there.
She only had time to look at Sally-Catherine’s neat row of sums when Alma returned with Horace. “Horace suggests the attics.”
Horace touched his forehead to Esther. “There’s plenty of room up there, Ma’am. There’s a big room, hasn’t been cleaned, but it’s full of boxes and such. Maybe the young ‘uns would like to explore.” He saw Jim’s frown. Best not call them that.
“Yes! Horace, get Jessie up here. Alma, do the children have any old….” She saw the contrariness appear on Sally-Catherine’s face. Jim nodded.
“Mrs. Nelson saved our old clothes from then. I don’t mind wearing them but….”
“We’ll get one of Cook’s aprons. How’s that, Sally-Catherine?”
Sally-Catherine smiled. Esther and Alma smiled back. The room was full of sunshine again.
Jessie arrived and received her instructions. She had her cloths with her and a stout apron on. She and Horace went up and began the cleaning process.
The Countess arrived at two. She looked better, Esther thought, more relaxed and not so tired. “Good news, Aunt?”
“Yes, my dear. I am so relieved. I brought it for you to read. I couldn’t decipher the last part.”
“He’s in America!”
“Yes, in one of those heathenish states as they call them. I can’t pronounce it. A Red Indian name, no doubt.”
“Conn-neck-tye-cut. How odd! How do they ever pronouns the name of their own home.” She began to read. He had crossed and re-crossed the single sheet of paper. She was lost. She handed it to her aunt. “I cant get past: ‘I left Naples,’ Aunt.”
“It took me the whole afternoon.” She settled back into her chair. “‘I left Naples in January and took sail on a British merchantman to the Colonies. It was a rough voyage but….”
The Countess read on without too many pauses until she started on the second recrossing. She finally stopped. “Here, you try it,” holding her finger on the place as she handed it to Esther.
As Esther studied it, the tea tray arrived. Jessie tried to curtsey to the Countess but the plates slid alarmingly, so she rose and put the tray in front of Esther. Then she curtseyed again and left. There were a few thumps overhead. Esther hoped her aunt had not heard them.
“Strange servant,” muttered the Countess. She began pouring the tea for Esther and noticed the small sponge cakes on a plate. Sponge cakes were her favorite cake and she needed to try one to see how well Elizabeth’s cook did them.
Esther kept muttering to herself.
The Countess took a bite. Light as air and not too sweet. She finished the cake and took another. Nearly perfect, she would say. She drank her tea.
Esther put down the letter. “Aunt, Beaumont writes that he had met a girl, and–”
The Countess groaned. “Not an American! Not an American for his countess!”
Esther hid a smile. “He says she is of fine family and he has received permission from her father to pay court to her. He asks for your blessing.”
The Countess took another sponge cake.
Esther continued. She needed to talk over the thudding footsteps above. “He says she’s from one of the best families in Hartford. Now that’s a reassuring name.” She picked up the letter again. “She’s from one of the families who settled there from England, the Deanes. They are from Sussex. They are well-to-do, he says. But since people in the States don’t flaunt their wealth, he can’t be sure.” She twisted the letter right and left. “I think that’s what he says. I can’t make out this last sentence, Aunt.”
“He hopes to be married in a month’s time.”
“Yes, that’s it,” and she folded the letter. “Aunt, marrying will steady him, don’t you think?”
“She’s undoubtedly after his title and his money.”
“But he said to write him without his title.”
“He’ll have told her, no doubt.”
The Countess ate a fourth sponge cake. The rumblings above had died down.
Esther smiled. Mrs. Batson would be pleased. “Well, Aunt, I am pleased for him. I shall believe that he has found a lady worthy of his good nature and that she will make him a happy man.
“We are going to Elmscourt for Christmas, Aunt. Do you have plans?”
“I shall be spending the Eve with Matilda–she always has a Christmas Eve dinner–and Christmas day with Mr. Carruthers. He has a large family. One afternoon with them will be satisfactory. More I can’t tolerate. But perhaps I should practice being around screaming brats. No doubt Beaumont will return with several.”
Esther laughed. Her aunt looked so glum. She got up and went over to sit by her side. She gave her a gentle kiss. “It’ll be all right, Aunt Marguerite. You’ll see. And if they bring a baby with them….”
The Countess harumphed and let herself be soothed. If this marriage meant Beaumont would be settled in England and that he would have ceased his gaming, she would be satisfied. Even if he married a Red Indian.