Lauren looked at her for a long time, twirling her hair. “Will we take walks, Papa?”
“Yes, Lauren. We’ll take walks.” He held his breath.
Lauren heaved a great sigh. “All right, Papa. You can marry her and do the bed sheet dance.”
“Lauren!” Glenfanning felt his face grow hot. “Mrs. Nelson….”
“Where did you hear that?” asked Alma.
“Frank. He and Jem Bassett–“
”Enough,” said her Papa. “I told you I didn’t want to hear that expression again.”
“But Papa, it’ll be fun. Look,” and she held up an imaginary sheet and galloped around the room.
Alma was biting on her lip to keep from laughing. She stared down at her lap to try to keep her composure.
“Lauren!” Glenfanning looked down at Alma. Was she reconsidering his offer? He went down on one knee. “Alma?”
She raised dancing eyes to him. He saw how hard it was for her to keep from laughing. He began to smile and then rose and found Lauren. He took her into the hall to talk to her.
Catherine saw Alma on the floor and came over to sit with her. Clarissa followed. “Why are you sitting on the floor, Mrs. Nelson?”
Clarissa nodded vigorously.
“I was talking to Lauren. How are you Catherine? I miss you.”
“I’m fine. I’m teaching Clarissa her sums.”
Clarissa nodded again.
“Very good. How far have you gotten?”
Esther appeared in the doorway. “Everyone downstairs for the tree trimming.”
The children were excited and ran pell-mell down the stairs. Esther helped Alma up. They went downstairs with Glenfanning. As they entered the parlor, Glenfanning said low in Alma’s ear, “Will you be mine, Alma?”
“Yes. But you have to tell me how Lauren heard that expression.” Her eyes were dancing again and a giggle escaped.
“Oh, don’t, I beg you. Once I start laughing, I cannot stop.”
Alma straightened her mouth and tried to compress it, but funny noises escaped. Esther looked at her as though to ask why, but then moved to the tree.
The children decorated the bottom half of the trees. They covered it. The upper half looked a little bare. Kay placed the candles very carefully on the branches. She had done this so many years now. Some of the branches had been trimmed to provide a stronger base for the candles.
Jim had come into the room with Frank and Eric and hadn’t thought of Versland. But after awhile, he remembered. Suddenly he became clumsy and dropped a red bow. As he picked it up, he surveyed the room. There, on the other side, was Lord Versland, looking steadily at Jim. Jim stared back.
He looked like Papa and he didn’t. The longer he stared at him, the more the resemblance to his father faded. Instead he saw a hard-looking man with peculiar, glinting grey eyes. Slowly it sunk into him that what he was seeing was hatred.
This was his enemy.
Ailesworth appeared at his side and put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “There he is, Jim. Mean looking bastard, isn’t he?”
Jim gave a snort of laughter.
Kay’s voice sounded from the doorway. “Really, Robert, it’s rude to stare.”
Versland turned to Kay. The implacable look on his face chilled her. “Really, Kay, two bastards in your home on this family holiday. What would your father say?”
Kay’s face flushed with anger. “My father, thank God, is dead. If he were alive and wished to be here, I’d have armed guards at the doors to keep him out.”
She wanted to say more, but John stood in front of her. “Versland. Don’t insult my guests again or I shall eject you myself.”
Versland bowed and walked stiffly out of the rom. That had been stupid but the sight of Jim had infuriated him. This brat, this by-blow of Peter’s was a threat. Surely there were no marriage lines in existence. He was safe. But not safe enough. He must get rid of Jim and tonight would do. No one would suspect him of taking such action on Christmas Eve.
He ordered his horse.
The guests went back to their work, at first quietly, but it didn’t take long for them to become talkative and noisy again.
Maria whispered to Lord Harmon, “Why is that man here?”
“He’s Lady Dunphy’s cousin, and he invited himself.”
Maria nodded. “Like my Uncle Edgar. He always has to ask his father-in-law for Christmas. By the end of the dinner, they’re arguing. An hour later, Mr. Snuggles stamps out of the house and Uncle Edgar retires to his study with a bottle of gin.”
“Yes.” She looked at him with dancing eyes. “Mama said we were not to laugh at him.”
“Once we’re married, we can laugh at him all we want.”
“Oh, yes,” and she grinned at him.
An hour later, Versland was at the spot designated for his meetings with his accomplice. It was an unusual rock formation that stood near some trees. Inside the rocks was a place where neither their horses nor they could be seen. His accomplice was there, waiting.
“I want you to take him tonight, out of his bed. I have a drug I’ll give everyone, high and low. They’ll all be deeply asleep at midnight.”
Yr not goin’ to poison them, are ye?”
“No. Don’t be a fool. Its’ a soporific, puts people deeply asleep, but they wake up in the morning. Most don’t even feel groggy. I tested it on my housekeeper. She always complained of having trouble sleeping. For three nights she slept fine.” He corrected himself: all this explanation wasn’t needed.
“There’s no midnight service so they’ll all be in their beds. Here’s what you do. At midnight come in the side door and up the servants’ stairs to the nursery. I’ll be there. Break down his door and take him away. He’ll be asleep too. Once in the woods, strangle him and leave. Then get out. I’ll meet you in London in the usual place.”
“Aye. That’s simple. The doors be locked, do I smash them in?”
“No. I have some pick-locks. I’ll have the door open.”
Versland got on his horse and rode away. He’d avoid people, except at mealtimes. He hated jolly house parties, especially at holiday time. Only the presence of Jim drew him here now.
His hands clenched. There was no question that Jim was Peter’s son. Kay recognized him also. He had to be destroyed if there was any question of him being legally his father’s son. He hadn’t noticed the girl. She didn’t matter anyway.
Yes. Tonight the little bastard would be dead.
The day passed happily for all, especially as Versland didn’t appear again. He had lunch in his room. The children wanted to play in the snow again, so most of the adults went out with them. By noon, the sun appeared and everyone was delighted.
Jim played like a normal boy with no problems. Catherine threw a lot of snow.She and Lauren ran around Clarissa while Clarissa threw snow at them. Then they’d change places. It all involved large amounts of shrieking and yelling. Glenfanning was happy to see his children enjoying themselves.
As the day drew in and the temperature fell, the house keeper called them in for tea and cocoa. Jim found Ailesworth and walked beside him.
“Sir? My lord?”
“I haven’t told you all I should.”
Thank God! This must be the last secret Jim held. It was so unnatural for children to be compelled to hold grown-up secrets. “Yes, Jim?”
“There’s papers.” Jim’s voice was low. “In London. In that cellar, under the floor. I moved a stone,” Ailesworth looked down at him in surprise. “One of the heavy stones and I hid a box there, in the dirt.”
Jim’s voice was hoarse. Ailesworth put his arm across his shoulders. “What are the papers, Jim?”
“My father gave them to me. Told me never to lose them. To take them to someone reliable. Like you.
“I’m sorry I never told you before. But I was afraid.”
Ailesworth gave him a firm, one-arm hug. “You were right. Best to be sure. Can you tell me how to find them?”
He felt Jim relax and began talking. Once Ailesworth had it straight–third paving stone from the outside wall, next to stairs– he released Jim and sat to write to Hassam. The sooner he had the papers, the better. Hassam would take a couple of men and find them.
Jim felt so relieved. It was over. Ailesworth would take care of everything. He told Catherine, who nodded solemnly, like an elder and then danced around the room. “But we don’t tell anyone or change my name until Lord Ailesworth has them in his hand,” he added.
Catherine nodded and danced away to join her new friends. She was so happy. She had an Aunt Kathryn now. Maybe she’d change her name to Kathryn. Her Mama had spelled it with a C, but maybe it was a K.
She danced away.
At dinner, everyone was talking–loudly: maybe Versland wasn’t going to do anything. And besides, it was Christmas Eve.
Except Charles. He’d gone back to the Fish and Kettle in the afternoon to quaff a few ales, and had been persuaded to try some jellied eels. He’d eaten them, not liking them much. On the way back to the Dunphys, he’d thrown up the whole lot of them in a ditch. To say he didn’t feel well was an understatement.
When all were gathered for dinner in the drawing room, Ailesworth noticed that his brother wasn’t there. He feared Charles had taken a grievance against Versland and his bastard comment.
He found Charles in his bed. “What’s the matter?”
“Ate some eels. Didn’t agree with me.”
Charles did. The room settled down after a bit. “Try standing.”
He did. It was better.
“Get dressed. We can’t let that son-of-a-bitch Versland think he drove you away.”
Charles frowned. He’d forgotten Versland’s insult. “I’d forgotten.”
“Yes, but he hasn’t. I’ll help you.”
He did and it took only a few minutes. Charles felt shaky but his stomach, at least, wasn’t going to erupt anymore.
Going down the stairs, Ailesworth said, “Damn fool. Rathbones can’t eat eels. I was sick for three days. Lost half a stone.”
Charles looked at him in surprise. “I didn’t know.” Rathbone, he was a Rathbone.
“If that weasel says anything more about bastards, I’ll flatten him.”
Charles looked at his brother in admiration. He had a champion to defend him. He felt very good. “No, I will.”
Ailesworth gave him a punch on the shoulder that staggered him.
At dinner Charles drank water which tasted very good and ate sparingly. He picked up his wine glass. One sniff of the full-bodied Claret showed him he wasn’t ready for it.
He noticed Ailesworth had knocked over his glass. That was unusual. Despite his size, he was usually graceful. He thought no more of it as he maneuvered his way through the courses.
“I beg your pardon, Kay. I don’t know when I’ve been so clumsy,” Ailesworth said to Kay.
She smiled. “No matter. Salt takes it out.” A footman was blotting the wine with a napkin.
Ailesworth watched him, as he leaned into Esther and stroked her thigh with his big warm hand.
“Enough, my dear,” and she removed his hand which had suddenly grown tense. He relaxed it and let her put his hand on his lap. He took a quick look around the room and leaned over gave Esther a quick kiss.
Versland relaxed and looked away. Ailesworth suspected nothing. The drug was in the bottom of the wine glasses and perhaps hadn’t completely dissolved by the time Ailesworth had knocked it over. He’d told his valet to give Ailesworth a large dose.
Ailesworth went back to eating the succulent mutton and took another quick glance around the table. Drum, although talking, had his eyes on Ailesworth. Ailesworth dropped his eyes to the wine stain and then quickly up again. Drum nodded and watched. Ailesworth reached for his roll and let his pinkie finger drop into the stain. Sure enough, there were grains of some substance there. He gave a slight nod to Drum. Versland was talking to Kay and didn’t notice.
Drum put his hand on his glass as though ready to drink. He turned his attention to Harmon and seemed to listen attentively to him and Maria Castle talk of house furnishings.
Gad! Is that what happened when you became betrothed, you talked of chairs and silk wallpaper? He let his pinkie down into the wine. Yes, some small granules there. He picked it up and made believe he drank. How much had he taken in? He’d drink water and try to dilute it.
Ailesworth took his new, clean glass and drank. He had wondered what Versland’s valet was doing near the dining room when he’d first come down. Now he knew.
He turned to talk with Esther while he planned. Part of the plan included a tumble in bed with Esther. He’d let her drink the drug. She’d sleep and not interfere with his plan.
After she’d taken another sip of wine, he changed his mind, and told her to drink no more. Her eyes grew wide and then darted to Versland.
“Don’t. Don’t look at him or be anything but cheerful and happy.”
She swallowed and smiled.
After dinner, Versland went straight to his room. Kay was grateful. Except for him, it was a lovely party. Everyone chatted happily, but then began yawning.
Soon everyone was gone except Aileworth, John and Drum. “John, he slipped something in the wine. I’d never have discovered it if I hadn’t knocked my wine glass over and saw some white granules.
“I haven’t had any and Drum’s had some.” He looked at Drum with a question in his eyes.
“Not much. But I can feel it. We need coffee.”
“Of course,” said John after a prodigious yawn. He left for the kitchen. There he discovered most of his servants draped over the table, dishes unwashed. One footman was on top of the kitchen table. All were sleeping deeply.
Damn. He didn’t know how to make coffee. He yawned again and lurched against the table. Need to get back.
He made it to the drawing room but could only point towards the kitchen before he collapsed into a chair and fell asleep.
“Of course, the servants too. Let’s make some coffee,” and Drum led the way into the kitchen.
The coffee was made, with difficulty. The cook revived temporarily and seemed confused to find two gentlemen in her kitchen. But she couldn’t get up and collapsed back into her chair.
Ailesworth made a tray and they carried cups and the pot of coffee to the drawing room. They drank steadily. Drum felt himself becoming less groggy.
The clock chimed eleven.
“We’d best get in place.”
Drum nodded and swallowed the last of the strong black coffee.
They left John snoring in place and climbed the stairs. They went to their rooms and closed their doors, rummaging around for a minute for effect. Then they opened them quietly after taking their shoes off and proceeded separately to the nursery floor.
Ailesworth went up the broad front stairs and Drum up the servants’. Light fell on the main stairs. Drum had to feel his way. Very carefully they climbed, putting their feet on the outside of each step as that was the part of each step least likely to creak. At the head of the main stairs, Ailesworth waited for a sound. Nothing. He went down the hallway. On the left was the school room, on the right the nursery. Catherine and Jim’s bedroom was off the nursery at the East end. The ahll went to Ailesworth’s right where there was another door into the nursery and a door into the children’s bedroom.
Ailesworth met Drum in the East-West hall and they stopped again to listen. Ailesworth looked behind himself towards the main staircase and out the window there. All was quiet, the snow shuttering the whole outside–too cold to mel, the swwnow lay peacefully on lawn and roof.
They crept down the East-West hall to a room acrosws from Jim’s bedroom. Catherine slept in Jim’s room. She still needed his presence to sleep. The guard in front of Jim’s door was deeply asleep, ready to pitch off his seat ont the floor.
Jim was deep asleep. Catherine was wide awake. She felt funny: not sleepy so much as confused. She didn’t like it.
She got out of her bed and went to her bureau. Hidden in her clothes in the second drawer was a small knife. She’d found it on the street one day. It was sharp. She’d made a crude sheath for it from leftover material from her new clothes. She’d wanted to make clothes for her raggedy doll, she said. The doll, still sightless, was dressed in glorious green velvet now and Catherine had made a sheath for the tiny knife out of it too.
She took the knife and sheath and climbed into bed beside Jim. Something was wrong. She knew it. She felt dizzy and excited whereas Jim fell asleep early and was deeply asleep.
“Jim,” she whispered. “Jim,” she said louder. No response. He was drugged. She was too, but why wasn’t she asleep? She had tried and couldn’t fall asleep although she was tired.
She decided to wait.
Charles couldn’t sleep. His stomach was much better. Garick was right: some water and a bit of bland food had settled it. He tossed and turned for awhile. The house was strangely quiet. Where were the servants? There was usually quiet movement in the corridors and faint noises from the kitchen. The cook was known to raise her voice and when she did, Charles could hear her.
What time was it? Nearly twelve. He had read for awhile when he first came up.
Uneasy now, he wandered his room. He was looking out his window when he thought he saw someone.
Of course! Everyone was drugged. It must have been in the wine at dinner. That was why Ailesworth knocked over his wine glass. And he, Charles, had drunk none. So it was up to him and his brother to save Jim.
He dressed himself hurriedly, leaving off his cravat and coat. He headed for the servants’ stairs. He caught himself going too fast. He slowed down.
Traveling on his bare feet, along the wall, he made it to the stairs. He carefully looked up and back down, to the ground floor.
No one. Should he wait? Where was Garick? Probably in the nursery.
He began climbing, being very careful. As he recalled a few of these steps creaked. He made it to the top. The nursery door was open. That wasn’t right.
Then he heard a faint creak from the stairs way below. He stood against the wall to the right of the stairs. The nursery door and Jim’s door were to the left. He saw the guard barely on his chair. He was deeply asleep, letting out an occasional snort.
The footsteps continued up the stairs, secretly, causing barely a sound.
Damn! Why hadn’t he brought a poker. He could down him easily.
A hulking man appeared suddenly at the top of the stairs. He didn’t look to the right, merely walked carefully to the nursery and went in. Charles followed to see him enter Jim’s room. Versland was there, his eyes on Jim’s door. He had a small pistol in his hand.
Ailesworth suddenly appeared to the left of the nursery door, surprised to see Charles. Before he could set foot in the room, the hulking man appeared in the doorway with Jim, dead asleep over his shoulder.
“You cur!” and Charles was reaching for the man when the man let out a hair-raising howl. At the same moment Versland shot Charles. Ailesworth ran into the nursery and knocked Versland to the floor with a fist straight from his shoulder. Versland went down, a dead weight.
The man was trying to get out of Jim’s room but was hobbling strangely. Drum kicked the man in the groin. The man let out a shriek and Jim fell to the floor. The man doubled over in pain and couldn’t seem to get his breath.
Ailesworth moved the sleeping nursemaid over in her bed and was ripping a sheet into strips. He threw one piece to Drum who rapidly tied up Jim’s abductor and Ailesworth tied up Versland who was trying to get up and look around. He was dizzy and his head rang.
Ailesworth stopped a moment and looked up to see Catherine, white and trembling.
“Catherine.” Ailesworth went to pick her up. She clutched him tightly.
“I stuck him.”
“I put my knife in his bottom.”
Drum looked more closely and saw a tiny knife sticking out of the man’s ass. He started smiling, then grinning and then he laughed.
Ailesworth, with Catherine his arms, bent over him. “See?” Catherine pointed to the knife. “I don’t want to see,” and she turned her head into Ailesworth’s shoulder.
Ailesworth grinned and shook his head. “Out of the hands of babes come deadly surprises.”
He knelt by Jim, still holding Catherine. Jim was breathing and seemed all right.
Versland was trying to stand up. “I wouldn’t, Robert, if I were you.” He put Catherine on the floor. She clung to his hand.
“It’s only Drum and me and both of us would feel privileged to kill you.”
“Take him out and kill him,” said Charles.
“Yes, and make it look like he stumbled on some hard rocks.”
Drum said, “Oh, my, yes. Hard rocks cut and bruise, don’t they, Ailesworth?”
“Might cut and bruise a man to death.”
Catherine pulled on his hand. He looked down at her. “I could stick my knife in his bottom.”
Ailesworth and Drum began laughing. Charles tried to laugh but Drum pushed down on his wound, to stop the bleeding.
Versland looked with disdain at Catherine. He’d found a nursery chair to sit on. His knees were higher than his head. “Don’t let that brat near me.”
“I’ll get another knife, you bad man,” threatened Catherine, glaring at Versland with her fist knotted.
Jim finally began to move. Ailesworth gently rocked him with his foot. He didn’t want to crouch down and be at a disadvantage.
Catherine got down on her knees and began pulling his hair. “Wake up, Jim. You’ve missed a great adventure.”
“Thank God,” breathed Ailesworth. “Don’t pull his hair. The drug is making him sleep.”
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
Catherine looked up at him. “I was dizzy.”
Drum, ripping more strips of sheet, said, “Sometimes drugs take people differently.”
“Amazing,” murmured Ailesworth.
“Sorry I was late. The coffee made me vomit all my dinner.” Drum looked abashed.
“And the drug with it.”
“Yes. I feel fine, except very tired.”
“I’ll go for the doctor. Let’s get Charles on the bed.”
Drum picked up the maid and carried her to Catherine’s bed. Ailesworth put Charles on the nursemaid’s bed. Charles smiled. “Comfortable. It was stupid of me to rush Jim and that man, wasn’t it?”
“No, you got the bullet instead of me.”
Charles stared up at him and then tried to laugh.
“For God’s sake, don’t laugh. Need to keep the blood stanched.”
Drum had gone to get his pistol and now returned. He used the strips from the sheets to tie the two men up tightly. The one with the knife in his bottom made no demur, but Versland hissed at him.
“Nasty. Didn’t your mother teach you not to hiss?”
“No mother for him. Spawned and raised by hobgoblins,” said Charles.
“A witch and a warlock.”
Charles whispered, “Rats.”
“Oh, that’s low, Charles. Rats. Would you have said rats, Drum?”
“No, I’d have said a slitter and a whore.”
A shrill voice was cursing at them.
“Too loud. How about a gag or two?”
Drum ripped more sheets and gagged the two. “I will say, Ailesworth, if looks could kill, we’d be singed and burnt up.”
Ailesworth picked up Jim and put him back on his bed. “Catherine, stay by Jim and try, gently, to get him to wake up.” Ailesworth rose and Drum took his place. Charles” eyes were closed. Drum kept up the pressure with his pistol resting in his lap. Ailesworth left the room.
When he entered his own room, he was surprised to see Chambers. “Chambers. Why aren’t you–you had no wine did you?”
“Of course not, my lord,” Chambers replied in a suppressed voice. “I never touch any spiritous liquors or beverages.”
“Yes. Of course. So you, I and Miggs and Drum are the only ones in the house who aren’t drugged. Versland made his move. We have them tied up in the nursery, but Drum could use some help. Charles got shot and I’m going for the doctor. He’s in the village, isn’t he?”
“Yes, milord. House to the right of the church.”
“Excellent.” Ailesworth had put his riding clothes on and left to saddle his horse. He stopped in the kitchen to get a carrot and saw the tableau of snoring servants that Drum had seen. The cook was sitting up and looking around, bleary-eyed.
“Good, you’re awake. See if you can get this crew moving. They’re all been drugged. Hot, black coffee “ and he was out the room.
Before Chambers left to go to the nursery, he found his bible. Such evil-doers could use some holy words. In the future, if Drum could say he enjoyed that night’s work, which he did, the highlight was to see the expression on Versland’s face when Chambers read to him of sin and corruption in the days of the old kings.