By noon the next day, everyone was back to their former selves. The house guests were amazed they’d been doped, the male servants were angry and treated Versland’s servants roughly. His valet complained but the other man remained silent. To be brought down by a dot of a girl was shaming. The two men were locked in a storage room in the cellar.
Versland was locked in his room and provided food. Ailesworth checked to see if there were any means of escape through the windows. The room was on the second story so it would be a long jump. He doubted that Versland would try it, but a check was always necessary. Robert said nothing. Ailesworth left him to brood, locked the door and watched the guard, armed with a pistol, settle in front of it.
The adults kept the adventure from the ears of Eric and Clarissa, but, with the triumphant gleam in Catherine’s eye, it wouldn’t be for long. Jim looked tired and pale. Ailesworth worried: he thought he saw a look of fear somewhat hidden on his face. After the happy, laughing boy of the past few days, it was hard to see that former expression of worry and fear reappear.
But Jim cheered up and began to lose years as he opened his presents. Esther had given him a scarf. He thanked her warmly: she had noticed how he always tried to keep his coat buttoned to the neck. Alma gave him a fine pair of kidskin gloves and Ailesworth a new pair of boots, shiny and with a tassel. Jim’s eyes bulged at the sight of the tassels. They were just like Ailesworth’s boots. He sat and stroked them after he had thanked everyone.
Catherine was pleased with her new doll. The doll came with several changes of clothes. One was a dress for Queen Elizabeth. Catherine had her in it in minutes.
“Thank you, Mrs. Beryll.”
“Open mine next, Catherine,” urged Alma. Catherine did. Inside a lovely wooden box was a glittering crown for Good Queen Bess. Catherine was speechless. Alma was pleased. It seemed that it took a queen’s crown to silence Catherine.
Ailesworth’s present was an ermine muff with matching mittens. The two went with Catherine’s coat of velvet. “Now you have two muffs to choose from.”
Esther saw the ermine and said, “Ailesworth.”
Ailesworth grinned at her. Of course, it was extravagant for a tiny chit of a girl, but she needed luxury to make up for her years in the cellar.
Catherine didn’t know what kind of fur it was, but she knew it was elegant. “Thank you, Lord Ailesworth.”
“Merry Christmas, Catherine.”
Catherine went from one present to another. Kay had given both children sturdy mittens for playing in the snow. Catherine spent time putting them on. Clarissa was stunned at Queen Elizabeth. Particularly with her crown on.
Ailesworth’s gift to Esther was a sapphire ring. “It’s a family ring. I had it placed in a new setting.” She stared at him speechlessly. “I hope it’s all right.”
Tears began leaking out of her eyes. “Of course, it is, you big clunch,” and gave him a weak tap on the arm.
All the presents had been opened and everyone was talking happily and thinking of lunch when the footman appeared. “Milord, a, um, a gentleman to see you.”
Ailesworth knew it was Hassam. He rose and went to the hall. Hassam stood there, indifferent to the muddy water his boots were leaving on the floor. He held out a wooden box to Ailesworth. Ailesworth grinned, took it and shook Hassam’s hand. “Come in.”
“No, I’ll muddy the floor.”
“Already have. Wait here,” and he went off to find Kay. Kay returned with Ailesworth. He was talking. “He’s a business associate and brought an important message with him.”
Kay, a bit dismayed at the sight of Hassam’s dark face, put a smile on her face as she approached.
He bowed and then took her hand and raised it to his lips. “My lady.” Then he smiled and Kay felt like swooning. Behind her, Ailesworth grinned.
Kay called for her housekeeper and insisted that Mr. Hassam have lunch with them and, of course, spend the night.
Over her shoulder, Ailesworth nodded to him, and so he agreed, with all the polished charm of a thousand years of a ruling Persian dynasty behind him.
Ailesworth took the box up to his room, told Chambers to guard it with his life and went back downstairs in time for lunch.
Kay was introducing Hassam to everyone and everyone was charmed. Esther kept looking at the huge sapphire on her left hand. Alma was thinking of her beloved, and Hassam had taken Versland’s place at the table and was charming Kay. John was frowning at them. He’d told Drum of the box. “No time to open it. We’ll have a conclave after lunch.”
After lunch, Ailesworth told all the men to join him in John’s study in ten minutes. He ran upstairs to see if Charles was awake. He wasn’t, so best to leave him be. He checked at Versland’s door and saw the guard, alert and awake.
In the study, the men were talking about Versland. De Sable was angry he’d been duped so easily. He was saying, as Ailesworth came in, “I’d have loved to stick that knife in Versland’s ass.”
Ailesworth smiled. Good to see Stables exercised about something besides his boots. He put the box on John’s desk. Hassam sat in the corner, enjoying one of John’s cigars.
“Here it is. Perhaps I should get Jim.”
“No, Ailesworth. It would be a cruel blow if it were empty,” said Drum.
Ailesworth nodded. He looked around him. “You are all witnesses, if it comes to that.” He picked up the box and examined it. It took him awhile to find the hinges, so cleverly were they concealed. He was barely able to get a finger nail underneath the lid. He finally found a small hole that might be the lock or clasp.
“Who’s got a sharp point on his knife? Or a hairpin?”
John began rummaging in his desk drawer and came up with a dusty hairpin. Ailesworth tried it and tried it and couldn’t open the box. Drum tried. Hassam tried.
“Have you got a strong blade in there, John?”
John looked in another drawer and found, in the back, a rusty knife with a broken point. As he handed it to Ailesworth, he said, “Took it from a poacher. Never threw it away.”
Ailesworth got the blade into the fine join and twisted. The top popped open. Inside were some rolled-up papers. Ailesworth took them out. He unrolled the first and read:
“In this year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and five, let all know that Peter Andrew Fitzwilliam Versland married Catherine Amelia de Quincy here, in this church of Sts. Peter and Paul by the Most Reverend Josiah Horatio Crumley. Witnessed by….”
Ailesworth had a hard time reading the names. He held it out to John who flattened it out on his desk and put his inkstand at one corner and the knife at the other.
“The other paper says that a son, Peter James Versland was born on November the sixteenth. It’s in French. The birth is registered in the town hall of ….looks like Versailles, but I doubt that.
“No papers for Catherine.”
Everyone was smiling. Drum said, “I’ll get Jim,” and left.
Harmon said, “I can’t wait for Versland to hear this news.”
Everyone agreed and smiled some more.
Drum appeared with Jim at his side. Jim looked a little worried at the room full of men.
“Good afternoon, my lord,” Ailesworth said.
“Read the paper on Lord Dunphy’s desk.”
He went around and stared down at the sheets.
“Your parents’ marriage lines” Ailesworth put the other paper down. “Your birth registration in France.”
Jim stared from one to the other. Then his eyes rolled up and he began sagging. John caught him and carried him to the couch.
“Poor chap. All those years.”
Jim revived quickly and was embarrassed at his swoon. His eyes found Ailesworth.
“It’s all over. These papers are fine to take to court and oust Robert from your properties.”
“I need to tell Catherine. She’s been…” He didn’t know what to say or how to say it. She had supported him as he had protected her.
The men were no longer looking at him. He rose and started to leave. He turned. “My lord, I’m so grateful–“
”No, not a word. Time to think of yourself now. And Catherine. I’ll take you to the nursery.”
They left. Jim felt so peculiar, as though his head wasn’t connected to this body and his legs were operating of their own free will.
Ailesworth deposited him in the nursery and went to get Versland. He unlocked his door and entered. An open window and a trail of bed sheets over the sill greeted him.
Cursing fluently, Ailesworth ran back to the study. “Versland’s escaped!” He left at a run for the stables.
Drum longed to go with him but felt Jim should not be left unprotected. The rest of the men left and Drum went to the nursery. He found a chair and sat. The four children looked at him. He smiled. The children went back to their conversation.
“So, Jim, how can you be a lord when you’re a boy?”
Jim puzzled over that answer when it came to him. “Because my father is dead.”
Catherine was bouncing in her chair with glee. “And now he’s Peter, too.”
“How can he be Peter, too?”
“His name is Peter James Versland.”
“Oh. Is Lord Versland your uncle?”
“Cousin. He’s not my uncle. He’s a cousin. And he isn’t Lord Versland anymore. He’s Mister Versland!’ On the last, Jim broke out laughing. It was all so strange.
“Forget it, forget it all,” he said. “Lets get out the soldiers again.”
Eric cheered while Catherine reviewed Clarissa’s sums. All wrong.
“Let’s play soldiers too,” and then began an argument about girls playing boys’ games.
Ailesworth and John, along with a groom, rode to the Fish and Kettle. Versland had hired a horse there. “He took the Lunnon road, my lord. I’m afraid he didn’t get the best horse, but…”
Ailesworth stared at the road. “Do we care if he gets to London, John?”
“I don’t know. What can he do there? Remove money from his bank, I suppose.”
“Let’s send Higgins here to follow. See if anything turns up. I myself am tired of having that charlatan interfere with my Christmas.”
“Yes, I agree. Higgins, see if anything of interest occurs. If he gets a better horse at Denmouth, leave him and come back.” He turned to Ailesworth. “The banks are closed today and tomorrow for Boxing Day.”
“I’ll send Hassam back tomorrow with a letter to my solicitor along with the documents. See if we can block him from emptying his accounts.”
Higgins left and the two men returned home.
The rest of the day everyone spent in relaxing and talking. Kay paid a visit to the rectory with Esther and Alma in tow. She introduced the ladies, including the fact that Esther was a Dramlee and explained why the entire household was absent from services on Christmas Day.
After tea was drunk and the ladies rose to go, Kay said, “I’ll bring Peter here some day for you to meet.”
Higgins returned with news. He’d found Versland’s horse along the road. He’d ridden ahead and saw Versland walking in the dirty road. He’d taken the horse back to the stable where he’d found out that if that horse didn’t like his rider, he’d stumble and limp. The story made everyone’s holiday brighter.
The next day Hassam and his guard left for London. He had little trouble finding the solicitor-he was Kay’s solicitor-and the solicitor wrote a letter which Hassam took to the banker, at his house. He was left in a little chilly parlor to wait. The banker came in and quizzed Hassam closely. When Hassam said he’d brought the box with the papers to Lord Dunphy for Lord Ailesworth and showed the letter Ailesworth had written to the solicitor, the banker sat down abruptly.
“But this is so shocking!” He took Hassam into a warm room, his study, introduced him to his assistant and ordered coffee.
“Now I want the complete story. From the beginning.”
Hassam told every part he knew of and referred them to Lord Ailesworth for the complete story.
The banker, looking concerned, turned to his secretary. “What do you think?”
The man replied, “I think Mr. Versland will be at the door at ten o’clock tomorrow to clear out his accounts. Then he’ll take a little holiday in France, or somewhere further East.”
“Yes. Mr. Hassam, consider the Versland accounts frozen until I have more information.”
Hassam bowed his way out. On the steps, he met Versland, with a nice purple bruise on his cheek and looking not quite the thing. Hassam smiled and smiled all the way to his parents’ house where he enjoyed the rest of the day mightily. It was often hard to do justice, but here all had been clear.
He only wished he’d knocked Versland down the steps.
* * *
The day after Boxing Day, after everyone else had left, the Dunphys, Esther, Alma and Ailesworth sat in John’s study. What to do with Peter and Catherine.
“You know, Esther, that I think the children belong here,” Kay said somewhat defiantly.
Esther nodded. “I understand. It’s just that we’ve grown so attached to them.”
“Perhaps we can share them for awhile. After all, it’s time for Jim to go to school,” suggested Ailesworth.
“Oh no!” exclaimed all three women at once.
John grinned at Ailesworth. Let him get out of that.
“Well, soon. Soon he should go.”
Esther put her hand on Ailesworth’s arm. “Let him get used to living, to living ‘out of the cellar.’ Do you understand me?”
Ailesworth took her hand and kissed it. “I do. And I agree.”
Alma smiled at the two. No longer did she feel dismal whenever Ailesworth and Esther looked at each other like that. She let her thoughts go to Glenfanning and soon she was lost to the conversation.
“All right. School will be put off. The next question is, how are the children’s time to be split between you and Esther?”
Kay stared. “I’d assumed Peter and Catherine would stay with us now.”
“Don’t take them away yet,” Esther implored. “I’ve become so attached.”
“But–I’m their aunt.”
Esther said no more. She had no legitimate claim on them.
“Shall we talk to them?” Ailesworth suggested. “They always have their own ideas, I’ve found.”
Esther nodded vigorously and poked Alma in the ribs.
“What! Yes, I agree.”
Ailesworth got up and left the room. John leaned close to Kay and talked to her in a low voice.
“Where were you?” whispered Esther. “I need your support.”
“Yes. What did I just agree to?”
Esther let out a little hiss. “To ask the children who they want to live with.”
“Oh.” Alma resolved to pay attention.
Ailesworth and the children entered.
Before Ailesworth could open his mouth, Kay said, “Now, children, we’ve been discussing your, your….
“Home,” interrupted Esther. “We wonder where and with whom you’d like stay. For a while, anyway.”
Peter looked surprised. “I just thought we would live with you.” He caught a glimpse of Kay’s hurt face. “For awhile, I mean.”
“Jim, we also discussed school for you. Kay said your father went to Westminster School.”
“School! Oh, yes.” Peter’s face was shining.
The women looked shocked but Ailesworth and John nodded.
“You’ll need to catch up to your future classmates .”
Peter nodded enthusiastically.
“We can hire a tutor–“
”We have a fine tutor here, Ailesworth. The vicar was an outstanding scholar at Oxford, I’ve been told.” Kay was irritated at Ailesworth laying down orders.
Ailesworth turned to her. “I’m sorry , Kay, I spoke too quickly.” He winked at her.
Well, that was better.
“Catherine, what are you thinking?”
“I’d like to spend half my time with you, Mrs. Beryll and Mrs. Nelson, and half with my Aunt Kathryn and Uncle John.” She nodded, looking like a queen, sending down a decree on all her people. Ailesworth thought he’d better get her a crown.
Ailesworth looked at everyone. They seemed relieved. “Jim?”
“That would be fine, my lord. Do you think I’ll be ready in a year?” he asked hopefully.
“I think so. You’ll have to study hard.”
Peter nodded enthusiastically. Ailesworth thought he looked more excited about going to school than he had about becoming Lord Versland.
The adults looked at each other and nodded. John stood up. “Let’s let the children decide where they’ll spend the next six months.”
All nodded and left the children alone in John’s study.
In minutes they were out. “Mrs. Beryll, we’ve decided to spend the next six months with Aunt Kathryn and Uncle John.”
“Because you’ll be getting married,” added Catherine. “And only if we can come to your wedding.” She pressed close to Esther and whispered in her ear, “And Aunt Kathryn would feel bad if we didn’t.”
Esther kissed her. “You’re right. A good plan. We’ll make sure you attend both weddings.”
Catherine’s eyes grew round. “You’re getting married twice?”
“No, Mrs. Nelson is marrying Lord Glenfanning.”
“Oh. Two weddings,” and her eyes shone. “I’ll need two new dresses.”
“Yes, you do,” and Esther gave her a crushing hug.
In time, all four happy couples were married. The two younger couples married at St. George’s, so their weddings took a little time. Both couples, it should be noted, anticipated the marriage bed by a few weeks. It appeared to join them more closely together. And there were no ruffles to be seen on the new Lady de Sable.
Alma was married a month after Christmas at the little church in the village of Bardstone. Esther cried so much that Ailesworth grew concerned. At Glenfanning’s home, he tried to get her to lie down, but she threw her arms around him and said, “It’s the baby, silly.” He wondered if he’d ever get his level-headed Esther back.
Esther’s and Ailesworth’s wedding took place in a small church the following week in London. The Countess insisted on arranging it, although she was disappointed it wasn’t in St George’s. There were reporters from the newspapers there, but the dockers Ailesworth had hired kept them at a respectable distance. One gossip column writer already had his headline: Shipping Magnate Weds the Last of the Dramlees, subtitle: Heir to Earldom Marries Lost Lady Elizabeth.
The next day, Ailesworth wanted to take a pistol and shoot the writer when he saw the newspaper. But Esther just laughed. “Lost Lady Elizabeth! I’m the lost lady,” and she got up and began to dance.
Ailesworth watched her. Eight more months of this.
Ailesworth hovered over Esther. She lay on their bed, exhausted and ready to sleep. He kissed her forehead. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. He straightened and looked down at the bundle in his arms.
He stared at his son, a tiny thing with a red face and fists. How could he have helped create such a creature?
“Is he all there, Garick? Does he have ten toes?”
Very tenderly, Ailesworth began to unwrap his son. Across the bed, the midwife tsked and said, “he’s fine, Lord Ailesworth. There’s no need to unwrap him.”
Ailesworth kept unwrapping until the blandets revealed a tiny body with bow legs like his father’s. he very carefully touched the baby’s feet and counted his toes. He was about to tell Esther that all was fine until he remembered to check another important part of his anatomy. He began to undo the diaper. He heard Esther give a weak giggle. There was his son’s tiny willie. Ailesworth stared at all the small bits and pieces of his son and began wrapping him again.
The baby started crying and he was glad to deliver him into the midwife’s arms. “Why is he so red?”
“All babies are red, my lord.”
“But his hair is black.”
“That will fall out soon and his real hair will come in.”
Poor baby! To lose his hair so soon. He turned to Esther, but she had fallen asleep with a smile on her face.
“Your lady wife needs her sleep now, my lord.” The midwife had delivered the baby to his wet nurse and was clearly waiting for Ailesworth to leave. It was after midnight.
“I’m sleeping here.”
She gasped. “It isn’t seemly.”
“I want to be near in case she needs anything.”
“That’s my job.”
“No. It’s mine.” He began to unwind his cravat and remove his coat. She gave a gasp and fled the room. He took off his waistcoat and removed his boots. Then he lay down on the bed beside Esther, dragging the cover him. He didn’t get too close, but he did take her hand carefully in his. She turned her head to his and murmured something, but did not wake up.
The Beast carefully settled himself and clasped his Darling’s hand gently. He closed his eyes and found himself smiling. He could feel Esther’s warmth and the strong pulse beating in her wrist.
He never would have believed it possible that he could be so happy. He smiled and fell asleep.