The Hollow of Fear
Penguin Publishing Group
Copyright © 2018 Sherry ThomasISBN: 978-0-425-28142-0
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2018 Sherry Thomas
Several months later
Inspector Robert Treadles accepted hat, lunch, and walking stick from his wife with an approximation of a smile. “Thank you, my dear.”
Alice smiled back and kissed him on his cheek. “Good day, Inspector. Go forth and uphold law and order.”
She’d been saying that for years, upon bidding him good-bye in the morning. Lately, however, those words set him on edge. Or perhaps it wasn’t the words, per se, but the feeling that from the moment he got up, she’d been waiting for him to leave.
Near the end of summer, her brother, Barnaby Cousins, had died. As he had been without issue, in accordance to their late father’s will, Cousins Manufacturing, the source of the family’s wealth, had devolved to Alice.
She had told Treadles quite firmly that it would not change anything between them. And she was right, but not for the reason she gave—that she would still be the loving spouse he’d known and that he would not feel the least diminishing in the care and affection he received from her.
No, the reason nothing had changed was that everything had already changed before her brother’s death. Treadles had learned that she had always wished to run the family business and only her father’s firmest refusal had turned her gaze from that path.
He still couldn’t completely articulate to himself the turmoil this had unleashed in him, except to conclude that until that moment, he had believed them to be a unified whole. Afterward, they were only two separate people who lived under the same roof.
She saw him out the front door with another smile. He started in the direction of Scotland Yard. But once a week or so, on his way to work, he stopped around the corner to look back. Each time her carriage had drawn up precisely a quarter of an hour after his departure.
And the woman who entered the carriage, smart, gleaming, and coolly self-assured, was a stranger.
No, that wasn’t entirely true. She had always known her own mind and been competent at everything she did. And he had always taken great pride in her—when she’d been the feather in his cap, the envy of his colleagues, a woman who, despite the elevated circumstances into which she had been born, had found in him everything she needed.
Except that had never been true, had it? She’d always needed more. And now she had it.
He walked faster, suddenly as impatient as she must be, to put distance between himself and his marital home.
His day, however, did not improve when he reached Scotland Yard. The Farr woman was there again, harassing Sergeant MacDonald.
“I understand, Mrs. Farr,” said Sergeant MacDonald patiently. “But you see, ma’am, I checked all the reports for unclaimed bodies first thing this morning, and we still don’t have anyone who matches your sister’s description. And without a body, we can’t declare this a murder case. We haven’t the slightest evidence, in fact, that your sister is deceased.”
“But if she were alive, she would never have missed her niece’s birthday—at least not without any word.”
“Sergeant, I have work for you,” said Treadles as he walked past.
The Farr woman raised her head. She was blind in one milky blue eye, her other eye a dark, almost periwinkle blue. She might have been good-looking once, but all she had now were a few lines and angles that, like the ruins of a palace, hinted at yesteryear’s grandeur.
She regarded Treadles steadily, expressionlessly. But he sensed the scorn she chose not to show. What was it with those less-than-respectable women who somehow felt superior enough to hold him in animosity and contempt?
As he marched off, he heard Sergeant MacDonald say, in a lowered voice, “I have to go, Mrs. Farr. Think about what I said. Sherlock Holmes.”
“What did we tell you?” said Lady Holmes triumphantly. “What did we tell you?”
Livia gaped, unable to believe her own eyes.
She had expected the worst. The worst. Her parents did not possess good judgment. They were, furthermore, profligate and nearly bankrupt. When they had informed Livia, after returning from a mysterious trip, that they had found an exceptional place for their second-eldest daughter, Livia had not believed in the least their description of this earthly paradise.
Bernadine did not speak, nor did she respond when spoken to. She rarely left her room and spent her days spinning spools that had been hung on a wire. She had never been able to look after herself, and Livia had no hope that she ever would.
In fact, Bernadine’s very existence filled Livia with despair. What if she outlived everyone in the family? Who would look after her? Would she escape to the woods and become feral, the kind of creature around which adolescents spun eerie tales to give younger children nightmares?
Yet upon being told that Bernadine would soon depart for an institution that took in women with similar conditions, Livia had been outraged, especially at her parents’ delight in the reasonableness of the fees.
Bernadine didn’t bite the maids or disturb the neighbors. She never needed new clothes and barely required any food. Yes, she was a burden to her parents, but so was Livia, and all the other unmarried daughters in the land. That she must be looked after was no reason to send her off to bedlam.
But if this was bedlam, then Livia could only wish she herself was the one taking up permanent residence.
The ivy-covered house boasted wide bay windows on the ground floor and deep, cushioned window seats perfect for reading book after book. The gardens were not too big or formal, but as trim and comfortable-looking as the house, with hydrangeas and delphiniums still in bloom. Her favorite was the narrow walkway that led out from the back, passing under a long arching pergola and disappearing beyond a wrought iron gate. The lane probably ended someplace excruciatingly ordinary, a kitchen garden or a caretaker’s cottage. But Livia was free to imagine that it was a magic path that led to a different beautiful and exciting destination each time she set foot upon it.
The inside of the house was as pretty and cozy as she’d hoped it would be, with an air of contentment rather than ostentation. Even the residents didn’t seem particularly lunatic. To be sure, there was a woman spinning slowly in the corner of a parlor; another sitting on a large Oriental rug, gazing at her bare toes; and a third stacking books on the opposite end of the rug with the intent and seriousness of the builder of the Colosseum, only to knock the stack down and start all over again.
Livia eyed the fourth woman in the room, expecting her, too, to do something bizarre. The woman, in a large starched cap and a long black dress, stood close to the rotating woman, her back to the visitors. Only after a while did Livia realize that she must be a minder employed by the institution, there to make sure the spinner didn’t fall and hurt herself.
Livia’s parents had already moved on, pulling along an unhappy Bernadine. Livia hurried after them. In the next room, a combination of a library and a small picture gallery, two women sat at adjacent desks, both writing. The scene appeared normal and serene, until Livia realized that one woman was simply drawing lines again and again across the page and the other’s paper was full of crude, grinning skulls.
Would Bernadine really be all right, surrounded by all these other women with their conditions?
But Bernadine, apparently, had found her true home. Against the far wall of the room stood a large rack of rods. The rods threaded through dozens and dozens of objects, not only spools but gears and what looked like the sails of miniature windmills.
Bernadine, usually slow and shuffling in motion, crossed the room with the speed of a comet. She slid onto the bench that had been provided and immediately began to spin the objects nearest her. She wasn’t alone. Next to her sat a woman in a turban, who spun gears—and only gears—with just as much focus and interest.
“That is a perennial delight for some of our patients,” said Dr. Wrexhall, nodding with approval.
He was also a surprise. Livia had expected an unctuous quack. But Dr. Wrexhall was a man of dignified bearing and measured words.
“Which one of the patients is the benefactress’s daughter?” asked Lady Holmes, always curious about the wealthy and the very wealthy.
Dr. Wrexhall had explained to Livia, who had not made the previous trip with her parents, that Moreton Close was financed by the widow of an extremely successful industrialist. They had only one child, a daughter. She had wanted the girl to make her debut in Society and marry into one of the finest families of the land. Alas, the girl’s condition had precluded that from ever happening.
But at Moreton Close, the daughter was and would always remain in the company of other young women from the finest families of the land.
Livia had thought it a stretch to elevate the Holmeses to such stature, but her parents apparently considered it their due. Sir Henry strutted; Lady Holmes, for the first time since Charlotte had run away from home, wore a smug expression. Here at last they were being accorded the deference due their station. And even better, no one seemed to know anything about the disgrace attached to their youngest child.
They preened in Dr. Wrexhall’s respectful attention until Livia reminded them that they must hasten to the railway station. At their departure, Bernadine paid them as little mind as her parents paid her. Livia was the only one to hesitate a minute. She almost put a hand on Bernadine’s shoulders. But whereas Charlotte had learned to tolerate a sister’s touch, Bernadine would have immediately pushed Livia’s hand away.
In the end, she said, to the back of Bernadine’s head, “I’ll come back and see you when I can.”
As if she hadn’t heard anything, Bernadine set another two gears to spin.
Dr. Wrexhall walked them out. “I trust you will understand, Sir Henry, Lady Holmes, that we do not publicize our work here. The villagers are still under the impression that this is a family residence. Everything we do, of course, is based on the latest scientific methods and the most humane of principles; but I’m afraid there are and will always be those who would not understand and who would not wish to coexist peacefully with us in their midst.”
Livia could think of two such people listening to him right now—her parents would have been outraged had there been such an establishment near their residence.
“But of course,” said Lady Holmes. “We understand perfectly.”
“Excellent, ma’am. You may expect weekly reports.”
“We eagerly anticipate them,” said Sir Henry.
He wouldn’t bother with them at all, and neither would Lady Holmes. At last they had achieved their hearts’ desire: They had got rid of Bernadine in a manner that was more or less acceptable and they needed never think of her again.
But Livia would keep a close eye on the reports. She would visit Bernadine whenever she could. And she would not allow Bernadine to be forgotten.
Otherwise, how would she ever face Charlotte again?
Usually Livia looked forward to her annual visit to Mrs. Newell’s. Mrs. Newell was Sir Henry’s cousin, and whatever entrée to Society the Holmes girls had possessed was due more to her popularity than to any stature their parents could claim, based on either lineage or connections.
In recent years, Mrs. Newell had tired of town. But she still liked to keep in the know. Besides a voluminous correspondence with everyone who was anyone, she also hosted house parties after the end of the Season.
Sir Henry and Lady Holmes were almost never invited—Mrs. Newell did not care for their company. But she had a soft spot for Livia and Charlotte. This year, for the first time, Livia would attend alone.
She had dreaded the possibility that her parents would not allow her to go, which Mrs. Newell had prevented by sending a railway ticket, already paid for—and her own maid to accompany Livia on the journey.
But her absence from home meant that she would not be on hand when the first two reports arrived from Moreton Close. And there was no guarantee her parents would save the reports for Livia’s return, even though she’d specifically requested that. Lady Holmes was liable to throw them into the grate out of pique that she herself hadn’t received an invitation to Mrs. Newell’s. As for Sir Henry, Livia wouldn’t put it past him to destroy those reports as they came through the door—he who had long been revolted that he’d produced a childlike Bernadine.
She would not be surprised if he was now erasing all traces of Bernadine from their lives.
As she boarded the train, however, foremost on her mind wasn’t Bernadine, but gratitude that Mrs. Newell’s maid had produced a ticket of her own and would not be sitting with Livia.
That—and a stomach-churning anxiety about the small package in her handbag.
Sir Henry didn’t bother with the mail—which too often contained such unpleasantness as notices from creditors—until midday. Lady Holmes was a late riser due to frequent intimacy with her supply of laudanum. Livia, then, was usually the first person to sort through the morning post.
This morning, she had risen unusually late, having stayed up packing the night before. As soon as she’d seen the two items addressed to her, she’d heard Lady Holmes stomping down the stairs. There had been barely enough time to hide them under her skirts. And she’d remained at table an eon so that she could leave without anyone seeing them.
After that there had been only enough time to dress and leave. But now, finally, some blessed privacy.
But no sooner had she given thanks for that solitude than a local squire’s wife and her daughter entered the compartment. Livia was obliged to engage in pleasantries. The squire’s wife was horrified that Livia, after what had happened to Charlotte, was traveling alone—her protestations about the maid that had been sent to accompany her fell on deaf ears. These mere acquaintances declared their intention to forego their own plans and chaperone Livia all the way to Mrs. Newell’s, with the further insinuation that Livia might not be, in fact, headed to a respectable relation’s house.
She almost wept with relief three stops on, when the maid came to check on her. That happened to be her would-be rescuers’ stop, and they detrained rather reluctantly. At last alone in her compartment, it was several minutes before she was calm enough to take out the letter and the package.
The handwriting on the letter she didn’t recognize, which most likely meant that it was from Charlotte, who could write in different hands. And they had devised a system whereby Charlotte sent her pamphlets, with a letter sometimes concealed inside glued-together pages.
But as exciting as it always was to receive word from Charlotte, the one Livia had been dying to open was the small package.
She had become better at not thinking about the young man who had arrived in her life like a surprise present—excitement, allure, and more than a hint of mystery. They had met three times. Two had been delightful, joyous occasions; and then came the fateful third encounter, during which he’d revealed himself to be Mr. Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.
And she had been shattered by the revelation—and nauseated to have felt a great deal of incestuous sentiments for this bright, personable young man.
Only to collapse in relief when Charlotte had sent message that he was not their brother.
All that had happened near the end of the Season. She had met Charlotte only one time afterward, the night before the Holmes household left London. And she had, very deliberately, mentioned neither their illegitimate half brother nor the man she had fallen in love with who wasn’t, thank God, Mr. Myron Finch.
Her intentional lack of inquisitiveness meant that she’d failed to learn what Charlotte knew about him. But Livia had harbored other hopes: Shortly before that meeting with Charlotte, he had sent her a beautiful, hand-illustrated bookmark of a woman in white reading on a park bench, which had been exactly how they’d met.
It hadn’t seemed overmuch to expect that he would write to her at some point. But the bookmark had signaled the beginning and the end of their correspondence.
He had disappeared, and she had no idea whether she ought to wait or forget him altogether.
Or rather, she knew she ought to forget him, but she had not succeeded—she couldn’t even be sure she had tried properly.
Maybe she never needed to: This package bore his handwriting.
Her heart palpitated. She opened the package and, with shaking fingers, teased apart the top of the velvet pouch it contained.
Inside the pouch was a cabochon. Of moonstone. One of the two books they had discussed, upon their first meeting, was titled Moonstone. The other, of course, was The Woman in White, as represented by the bookmark.
It was him. But what did this mean? Was it a significant signal, or the beginning of another long stretch of silence? Of nothing but her lonely and useless yearning?
Perhaps she ought to speak to Charlotte. Why had he tried to pass himself off as their illegitimate brother? Who was he? And what exactly were his intentions toward her? A bookmark was an acceptable gift from a male friend. A cabochon, on the other hand . . . Had it been mounted as a ring or set as the centerpiece of a pendant, it would have been outright improper: A man who wasn’t married or related to her could not present her with jewelry.
As it was, smooth and polished but not ready to wear, the cabochon fell into a gray area, so gray one might as well call it charcoal.
She held the cabochon for a long time, then she returned it to its pouch and placed the pouch carefully in an inside pocket of her handbag.
Summer was long gone, but winter had not yet arrived. This was a time of the year when weeks of dreary rain alternated with rare crisp, clear days . Outside the train the sky was blue and the sun shone.
Livia had met her nameless young man under precisely such a blue sky, such a shining sun.
She shook her head and reached for the letter.
Dear Miss Holmes,
I have news of your sister, Miss Charlotte Holmes.
Livia recoiled. Who was this? She looked for the signature. Caroline Avery.
Lady Avery and her sister, Lady Somersby, were Society’s leading gossips. They had been after Livia for news of Charlotte’s whereabouts ever since Charlotte ran away from home. Livia, of course, had never divulged to a single soul that Charlotte was now living in a fine house facing Regent’s Park and conducting business as Sherlock Holmes at 18 Upper Baker Street.
What did Lady Avery know? And how had she obtained that knowledge? Her heart constricting with a sense of foreboding, Livia read on.
It came about in a most indirect and surprising manner. I was recently at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. The day before my departure, my own maid being unwell, I engaged a maid from the hotel to help me pack.
As I supervised her in the wrapping of some frangible items, she claimed, upon coming across a picture in the months-old newspaper, that she had seen the gentleman. As it turned out, the subject of the photograph was Lord Ingram Ashburton, taken on the occasion of his last polo match of the Season. The maid was certain that she had not made a mistake, her reason being that one did not so easily forget a man such as Lord Ingram.
She told me that during the Season she had worked at a tea shop in Hounslow, not too far from the heath. And one Saturday, still in the height of the Season, he had come in with a lady to whom he appeared devoted. This piqued my attention, since the woman could not possibly have been Lady Ingram.
I asked her to give me a description of Lord Ingram’s companion. These were her exact words: She could be on an advert for Pears soap, if she lost half a stone. Or maybe one stone.
My mind immediately turned to Miss Charlotte Holmes. Of course, given my reputation for accuracy and reliability, I couldn’t base my claims only on the girl’s account, as tantalizing as it was. Instead, I went home, fetched an album of photographs, and returned to the hotel in Cowes.
I showed the girl a picture that had been taken two years ago at Lord Wrenworth’s house party. There were some forty guests in all, and she had no problem identifying Miss Charlotte as Lord Ingram’s companion.
I made sure to ascertain that this sighting happened after Miss Charlotte’s scandal. The girl assured me that earlier in the summer she had not been working at that particular establishment and so could only have seen them in July, well after Miss Charlotte had left home.
If this is unknown to you, I am pleased to be the bearer of good news: that your sister is alive and well. Or at least she was at the time she was last seen with Lord Ingram—and I cannot imagine that he would allow her to come to harm. If this is known to you, I should be obliged if you would either corroborate or correct what I have learned thus far.
Ninety minutes after breakfast, Miss Charlotte Holmes was on her second slice of Madeira cake.
The cottage Mrs. John Watson had hired for their country sojourn gave onto a lovely panorama of green hills and gentle valleys. But its interior was faded, with small and oddly placed windows. As a result, the parlor, even on a sunny day, was underlit, almost gloomy. And Miss Holmes, in her creamy dress the sleeves of which were abundantly embroidered with green vines and magenta flowers, was the brightest object in the room.
She hadn’t spoken since she sat down half an hour ago. Not speaking was her natural state and Mrs. Watson had learned to savor Miss Holmes’s silences. To think of them as something similar to the quietude of a slope covered in wildflowers, or the restfulness of rolling pastures dotted with new calves.
Since the night Miss Holmes helped her brother escape, however, the sense of tranquility had gradually disappeared from her silences. Lately, sitting near her, Mrs. Watson thought of London fogs, thick and all-obscuring, of maritime brumes, the kind that made ships sail straight into rocky cliffs, and even, occasionally, of quagmire and quicksand, seemingly innocuous surfaces waiting to entrap hapless travelers.
Even her delight in the consumption of sweet, buttery goods felt...less joyful. She ate more—Mrs. Watson scarcely came upon her without seeing a biscuit or an entire Victoria sponge parked by her side. But the woman across from Mrs. Watson demolished her third slice of Madeira cake with not so much pleasure as a mechanical neediness, the way a tense man would light one cigarette after another.
In the days and weeks immediately following Mr. Finch’s narrow escape, Mrs. Watson, too, had been frantic with worry. She and Miss Holmes had conferred frequently and at length concerning the various scenarios that could arise, and what their countermeasures must be in any given situation.
But months went by and nothing happened. Mrs. Watson, as fretful as she could be, began to relax. Sooner or later everyone made a mistake. Even the otherwise unflappable Miss Holmes must overreact from time to time.
“My dear,” she said, “we’ve been here three days and you’ve scarcely gone out. What say you we make a tour of Stern Hollow today?”
Stern Hollow was Lord Ingram’s estate. They hadn’t hired a house in the area for his sake. They’d come because Mrs. Newell, Miss Holmes’s first cousin, once removed, lived nearby—and Miss Holmes’s sister was expected at Mrs. Newell’s for the latter’s house party.
But Mrs. Watson was confident that Miss Holmes did not mind at all that Lord Ingram also happened to be close at hand.
“We needn’t call on the master of Stern Hollow. We could simply apply to see the house. And he could come upon us as a coincidence, à la Lizzy Bennet’s visit to Pemberley.”
Miss Holmes eyed a fourth slice of Madeira cake, but did not reach for it—possibly because she was approaching Maximum Tolerable Chins, the point at which she began regulating such things as further helping of cakes and puddings. “Is that a literary reference?”
“You haven’t read Pride and Prejudice?” cried Mrs. Watson, scandalized. “How is that possible?”
“My sister is the great devourer of fiction in our household. As a girl, I found novels difficult to understand—I found people difficult to understand. From time to time I would read a story or two, if my sister absolutely insisted. She did not insist on Pride and Prejudice.”
“Well, I might need to, in that case. The scene I mentioned, Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy coming upon each other by accident, is so very—” Mrs. Watson barely managed to swallow her next word, romantic. “Well, it makes for riveting fiction.”
Though perhaps not the best analogy for the situation between Miss Holmes and Lord Ingram. Miss Austen wrote with humor and perspicacity, but she also wrote with tremendous decorum. What would she think of Miss Holmes’s current situation as a woman no longer received in any polite drawing rooms—or the fact that Lord Ingram was still a married man, absent wife or not?
“Anyway,” she hastened to add, “do let us make a point of touring the place. It is most attractive, from what I understand. And in any case, Lord Ingram might very well already be at Mrs. Newell’s for her party.”
“He wouldn’t leave his children to attend a house party, however nearby.”
“Oh, you don’t know? Well, of course you couldn’t have heard yet, since I only learned it myself this morning. His children left with Lord Remington weeks ago.”
Lord Remington was the third Ashburton brother, the youngest besides Lord Ingram. Even so, there was an eleven-year difference between the two.
Miss Holmes, who had been studying a plate of almond biscuits, looked up. “Lord Remington is in England? The family’s black sheep?”
Lord Remington had spent nearly the entirety of his adult life abroad. Mrs. Watson had a soft spot in her heart for him, but even she had to concur, somewhat at least, with Miss Holmes’s assessment. “I might call him the grayest of the flock. Currently, that is. When they were all young—and Lord Ingram barely out of the womb—Lord Bancroft was, in fact, considered the actual black sheep.”
“Really?” Miss Holmes’s question emerged slowly and seemed to linger in the air.
“You would have been an infant then. But he was notoriously spendthrift. The old duke broke canes beating him.”
“I know. How people change. One should never be judged on one’s adolescence. Now where was I? Oh, Lord Remington. From what I hear, the children were smitten with their uncle, and when he asked if they wanted to come with him to the seaside, they absolutely could not be held back.”
“I guess in that case, there is no reason for Lord Ingram not to be at Mrs. Newell’s,” said Miss Holmes.
She took hold of an almond biscuit, then, remembering herself, set it down and instead picked up the correspondence that had come for Sherlock Holmes.
The consulting detective had stated in adverts that he would be away from London for some time. As a result, the previous month, Mrs. Watson and Miss Holmes had run themselves into the ground seeing to a torrent of clients motivated by this upcoming scarcity to request a consultation in the here and now.
But of course, there were always those who didn’t read the adverts carefully. And Mr. Mears, Mrs. Watson’s faithful butler holding down the fort in London, had forwarded a batch of letters that had arrived in Sherlock Holmes’s private box at the General Post Office.
Miss Holmes quickly opened and scanned all the letters; then she read one letter again and handed it over to Mrs. Watson.
Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
Sergeant MacDonald at Scotland Yard told me to write you. Do you still help with murders?
Mrs. Winnie Farr
The handwriting was boxy and all in majuscule letters, done by a dull pencil that had been wielded with enough pressure to cause a cramp in the writing hand. The paper had not been made from any virgin material but of fibers that had been repulped. And the envelope took advantage of the blank side of a handbill for the latest miracle tonic, with the General Post Office as the return address.
“I’m sure you have deduced that this woman might not have seven shillings on hand for a consultation,” said Mrs. Watson. “I take it you think she wouldn’t have written to us if she didn’t think she had something of value to offer us in lieu of payment?”
The handwriting, despite its lack of ease and prettiness, had a proud, almost haughty quality.
“That is, of course, the hope,” said Miss Holmes.
“And if we should be mistaken in that hope?”
Miss Holmes planned to remove her sisters from the family home, with payments of one hundred quid a year to their parents. As the only consulting detective in the world, she didn’t lack for clients. But the reasonableness of her fees, and the fact that most of her clients presented problems that, however perplexing, also happened to be minor, meant that even with Mrs. Watson’s ability to raise those fees at the least sign that a client could afford more, they were still fifty pounds short of that goal.
Not to mention that Miss Holmes, almost as soon as her income had become regular, had insisted on remitting weekly sums for room and board to Mrs. Watson, in addition to the latter’s share in Sherlock Holmes’s proceeds.
Miss Bernadine Holmes required someone to keep an eye on her. Miss Livia, who required only food and a roof over her head, was ostensibly less expensive. But Mrs. Watson knew that Miss Holmes also wanted to give Miss Livia books and trips abroad. And for Miss Bernadine, not just a harried maid but a nurse with experience and compassion for her care. Altogether, the obligations she planned to take on were fearsome for a young woman who could rely on only her own abilities.
And however extraordinary those abilities, she didn’t have access to more hours in the day than anyone else. To give her time to Mrs. Farr could mean forgoing more solvent clients.
“It isn’t a certainty that we will hear more from Mrs. Farr, or that hers will be a situation for which we can render any aid,” said Miss Holmes.
“I should write back for more information, then?”
“If you would, please,” murmured Miss Holmes. “Now, about our plans to visit Stern Hollow, ma’am.”
Livia clutched at the moonstone as if it were a talisman that could fend off all the evils and misfortunes of the world.
Or, at least, all the curiosity from the guests who would, just beyond Livia’s hearing, be making endless conjectures about Charlotte and Lord Ingram.
She knew what conclusion everyone would leap to, as soon as Lady Avery’s news spread: that Charlotte hadn’t disappeared, but had become Lord Ingram’s mistress.
This would be, of course, profoundly distressing: Charlotte had proved perfectly capable of keeping herself; and Lord Ingram would never have demanded such a tawdry exchange for his help. But it shouldn’t be any more distressing than what Livia had already put up with during the Season, with tongues always wagging just beyond—and sometimes just within—her hearing.
And yet she was almost nauseated by her own anxiety. The sense of foreboding that had descended when she first read the letter had only grown stronger. Which was ridiculous. The story wasn’t common knowledge yet. And even if it should become so, it would simply be an extra serving of unpleasantness in an already unpleasant world.
Lord Ingram’s estate was nearby, was it not? If she sent him a note, he would call on her, wouldn’t he, and assure her that whatever Lady Avery could unleash would only be a passing nuisance, soon dismissed and soon forgotten?
As if the universe heard her plea, Lord Ingram descended the front step of Mrs. Newell’s manor just as Livia’s carriage pulled up.
He wasn’t classically handsome but turned heads anyway, the kind of man who sent a jolt of electricity through a crowd by doing nothing more than stepping into the room. When he remained still, he made her think of a cobra about to uncoil. In motion he put her in mind of a large panther, stalking silently through the jungle.
He handed her down from the carriage. “Miss Holmes. I’m glad to see you.”
Usually she found him intimidating, but today his aura of assurance was exactly what she needed. Already she felt a little less panicked. “That sentiment is most certainly reciprocated, my lord. How do you do?”
“I am well. Mrs. Newell informed me that she is expecting you.”
“She has been most kind to extend an invitation. And Lady Ingram, I hope she is much improved?”
His wife’s decampment to a Swiss sanatorium would have been a much bigger topic of gossip had it not happened so close to the end of Season. When she hadn’t received the ladies who had called on her, as was customary after a ball, it was assumed that her bad back must be bothering her again. It took will and effort for her to appear graceful in movement, and an entire summer of such pretense exacted a severe toll.
It wasn’t until Society had largely dispersed to Cowes, Scotland, and hundreds of country houses all over the land that her friends received letters informing them that her health had deteriorated suddenly and it had been deemed prudent that she remove herself to the Alps where she could be properly looked after by a team of German and Swiss physicians.
Livia, like everyone else, hadn’t learned of this development until after she had left London. She had written Charlotte about it, in the course of their surreptitious correspondence, since Charlotte had, earlier in the summer, asked Livia out of the blue what the latter thought of Lady Ingram’s romantic past, and had even tasked Livia to extract what ladies Avery and Somersby knew of that particular topic.
At the time, distracted by what she had believed to be catastrophic romantic leanings on her own part, Livia had not paid particular attention to Charlotte’s inquiry. But in light of Lady Ingram’s departure, Livia asked Charlotte in her letter, was it not likely that Charlotte had been correct and Lady Ingram had at last decided to run away with her erstwhile sweetheart?
Charlotte had replied that they ought not to speculate. Livia, however, grew only more convinced over time. And to think, she had begun to thaw a little toward that woman. How abominably she had treated her husband.
“Her physicians assure me that her condition has stabilized,” said Lord Ingram, in response to her question about his wife’s health, “but she is still in need of their expertise.”
Did that mean she truly wasn’t coming back?
“I am glad to hear that,” Livia said. “I hope she continues to improve.”
“Thank you, Miss Holmes. I’m sure she appreciates your kind thoughts.” For a moment she feared he was about to wish her good day and take his leave. But he glanced to his left and asked, “By the way, have you seen Mrs. Newell’s new fountains?”
Thank goodness. It wouldn’t do for them to hold a conversation standing on Mrs. Newell’s front steps. Nor could they disappear into some cranny in the house or on the grounds. The fountains were perfectly visible from both the house and the drive and would give their conversation every appearance of propriety, without letting the actual exchange be overheard.
“A glimpse and only a glimpse, I’m afraid,” she said. “Do let us study them in some detail.”
As soon as they were out of earshot, Livia went to the crux of the matter. “I received a detestable letter from Lady Avery. I don’t suppose you were so fortunate as to be spared a similar missive.”
He smiled wryly. “I wasn’t.”
“I have no idea how I ought to respond. I was going to write you as soon as I’d settled in here. Have you replied?”
“I have—and told Lady Avery that it had been a chance encounter.”
Livia had learned from Charlotte that she and Lord Ingram had been in contact—of course Charlotte wouldn’t have left him in suspense as to her fate—but Livia hadn’t expected them to be out in public. “So you did meet at the time and place Lady Avery specified?”
“I’m afraid so.”
And now Lady Avery had his confirmation in writing. “People will draw all kinds of unsavory conclusions!”
They’d walked twice around one fountain; Lord Ingram guided her to the other. “That cannot be helped. Fortunately, their conjectures cannot materially injure Miss Charlotte.”
True. As a fallen woman, Charlotte’s reputation couldn’t be besmirched any further. “What about you, my lord?”
“Me?” There was a trace of amusement in his voice. Or was it irony? “For what it’s worth, I will not be barred from Society for having met with Miss Charlotte in broad daylight.”
This Livia knew. He could have done far worse and not be punished in remotely the same way. Roger Shrewsbury, the man who had compromised Charlotte, was still accepted everywhere he went. “All the same, I hope the rumors won’t prove a nuisance.”
He touched her lightly on the elbow. “It will be a nuisance, but you mustn’t worry, Miss Holmes. It’ll be forgotten by Christmas. And life will go on, for both Miss Charlotte and myself.”
His attentiveness, his confidence, his matter-of-fact approach to the upcoming brouhaha—Livia could not have hoped for a kinder or more fortifying reception. Basking in his presence, she felt downright silly about her undue agitation, making a Matterhorn out of a molehill. Indeed, by the time he took his leave, she was smiling.
But the moment he disappeared from sight, uncertainty came rushing back, accompanied by a cold, hard dread. It will not end well, said a voice in her head.
It cannot possibly end well.