# # #
“Come, Miss Julia, no more of your nonsense,” said Rebecca as the child pulled away from her grasp to dart behind an urn bursting with flowers. On this early autumn day, the honeysuckle and sweet pea were in full blow, and the grass, crushed beneath Julia’s busy feet, was the tender green of promise.
Heart heavy, Rebecca glanced toward the house. Today, with all the blinds drawn, its air of hollowness and decay struck her more than usual. It had been built not long after the reign of the Virgin Queen, and its bricks were black with age. She had overheard the Master, eyes aglow with enthusiasm, speak of rebuilding it one day, but the Mistress had merely smiled, shaking her head. That was some while ago, just after Miss Julia’s birth, when it had seemed as if the evil times were ending. They had not, Rebecca had realized even then, for the mark was on them, man and wife, Master and Mistress, and on all their dependents too, she thought. The shadow hovered over them, darkening the brightest of days.
“I’m lost,” sang the child. “You can’t find me, Nurse. I sh’ll go far ’way and leave you. You’ll never, never find me!”
Rebecca knelt on the ground and, reaching out, pinched Julia’s red-slippered toe visible at the corner of the urn. “You’ll not do that, miss. Don’t you know how lost I should be without you?”
Giggling with delight, Julia hovered briefly just out of reach, then was off again racing toward the sundial at the center of the garden. Rebecca, following, considered scolding the child, yet knew she would not. Not today. As she crossed the open space, a flicker at one of the windows caught her attention, and she paused, feeling exposed, as if somehow caught in the wrong.
It seemed the movement had come from the study where the Master had shut himself up, as he always did. She wondered what he did there all day, alone with his books and papers with only his secretary for company. And the Mistress with her watercolors, poetry books, and endless embroidery, rarely stirring from her own sitting room except to attend to those household duties that could not be left to others. How strange, how endlessly fascinating, Rebecca found them, these beings from another world. She watched, and she pitied them. Now, shaking off the sensation of being watched, she went and scooped up the child to sit with her, both rather drowsy, on the stone bench in the sun. Time they were going inside, but she felt that today Miss Julia would do better out of doors. She was a sensitive creature, biddable until crossed and subject to violent fits of crying. It was best not to enforce obedience unless absolutely necessary. And Rebecca was tired, for like everyone else, she had not slept much the prior night. Gradually, she felt herself relax, allowing the dreams to drift through her mind like ribbons fluttering in a breeze.
“A word with you, Nurse,” said a voice in her ear. Rebecca’s eyes flew open, and she jumped guiltily to her feet, startling Julia so that the child set up an aggrieved wail.
“Beg pardon, sir. I didn’t see you there.” Bobbing an awkward curtsey, she jiggled the child to stop the crying and waited, feeling a rivulet of sweat trickle down between her shoulder blades. She could not look at him, for she was afraid he would be displeased to have found her so nearly asleep—and now to have the child fussing as he looked on. What could be more unlucky? Thankfully, Julia subsided, her head sinking back onto Rebecca’s shoulder.
When she came to Cayhill before Miss Julia’s birth, the housekeeper Mrs. Dobson had thought her too young to take charge of a child, but oh, Rebecca loved her position, loved living in this house with its grand, shabby furnishings, odd corners, and interesting people. It was utterly different from her family’s tiny cottage so packed with humanity that a body’s thoughts chased round and round her head with no chance of any solitude to allow them their say.
Seeming ill at ease, the Master had barely glanced at his daughter. “No matter. I only wanted a word.”
Rebecca lifted her head, risking a glance, and was surprised to see fresh color in his cheeks. His eyes, too, were the clear, remote silver of a polished coin.
“May I offer my con…condolences, sir?” As her tongue stumbled over the unfamiliar word, a flush of embarrassment crept up her cheeks.
“Yes, thank you, Nurse.” He looked faintly puzzled as if for an instant he had forgotten who she was.
After a moment, he went on. “My wife asked me to inform you she won’t trouble you to bring Miss Julia to her tonight.” “Yes sir, I figured as much. Poor lady. I’ll pray for her quick recovery. To be disappointed when we all hoped that mayhap this time—”
“At least her health is not in peril. It was early days, the doctor says, and the babe not fully formed.”
She remained silent, meditating, as she often did on such matters, about the fate of those unborn creatures who did not grow big enough to make their entry into the world, or who spent so few days in it. When once Rebecca had asked Mrs. Dobson, reared in the Romish faith, for her opinion, she had described a place called Limbo where all the unbaptized children were sent to wait till Judgment Day. But Rebecca had also asked her question of Jack Willard, the gamekeeper’s son, and he had insisted almost angrily that all such babes either went straight to Old Scratch, or were condemned to wander the earth forever… “I took Miss Julia to gather hazelnuts today,” said Rebecca when the Master seemed to await her response. “She’s made her mam a necklace, sir, with nuts strung on a chain for good fortune and fruitfulness. And protection.” Hastily, she scrubbed the back of her hand across her eyes and tried to smile, for she was angry at herself for adding to his trouble with her tears. “It was a son this time, wasn’t it?”
“What’s your name?” he said harshly, intent on her face.
Rebecca stared back, too frightened to break away from that measuring gaze. Now she was sure she had offended him.
The crying had continued for hours, a low, throbbing noise that allowed her no peace and sent her stumbling over the rough ground. As she hurried through the trees, a low branch cut her cheek, drawing blood that trickled to her mouth. Her body felt leaden with fatigue, but she knew she must find the source of the sound. It went everywhere, borne on the wind, perhaps just the wind itself.
Ahead loomed a massive oak, its branches silvered by moonlight, leaves a-glitter with a thousand trembling rain jewels. In its shadow, she glimpsed movement and quickened her pace, then halted, confused. The cry intensified, a high note of mourning terrible to the ears.
Penelope awakened. Lifting her head, she looked through the gap in the bed curtains toward the open window. At her side Sarah still slept in the silence that had settled over the house. She could hear her own breathing, quick and shallow, a pulse beating a tattoo at her neck. Slipping out of bed, she crept to the window.
Air, heavy with rain-damp, stroked her skin. Below was darkness, but the sound had come from there, outside in the garden. She stood peering into shadows that she knew concealed trees and barren flower beds. After a time she turned away to slip into her dressing gown, its warmth welcome on this late winter’s morning. She lit a candle and went out the door, closing it behind her.
# # #
In the library, someone had lit the lamp on Sir Roger’s massive desk, around which huddled Timberlake, the butler; the housekeeper Mrs. Sterling, her hair in disarray under a hastily donned cap; and two of the housemaids. A footman, looking oddly unfinished in a loose shirt and no coat, stood at the French window, nose pressed against the glass.
The butler and housekeeper exchanged a glance at Penelope’s appearance, Mrs. Sterling’s mouth thinning.
“Mrs. Wolfe,” Timberlake said, “your rest has been disturbed?”
“Yes, I heard someone cry out. What has happened?” Penelope set down her candle and turned toward the circle of anxious faces.
“You must have keen ears,” put in Mrs. Sterling, her eyes coldly appraising. “Sound does not in general carry to the upper regions of the house.”
Penelope waited, gazing back at her, then replied in a tone just short of insolence, “My window was ajar, ma’am.”
Timberlake spoke. “George and I were on the point of making a circuit of the garden. You had best return above stairs.” He turned to the footman. “Where is Dick? Go and rouse him at once, George. Tell him to arm himself with a stout cudgel.” “Indeed, we are only in the way here, Mrs. Wolfe,” said the housekeeper, who never lost a chance to put the new companion in her place. “We must see to her ladyship. Would you be so kind as to ascertain that Miss Poole has awakened and gone to her? Lady Ashe may have sustained a terrible shock to her nerves and stand in need of a restorative. George,” she added sharply.
“You heard Mr. Timberlake. Go at once and fetch Dick.”
A strange expression crossed George’s face. Turning away, he approached the French window to edge it open a crack. “Listen,” he said with an awed horror.
Through the window came a keening moan, alien it seemed, so full of pain and despair that the strangeness of it struck Penelope like a blow. As they waited, paralyzed, the noise repeated. “What in heaven’s name is that?” she exclaimed, striding forward.
The footman had lost so much color that his eyes blazed against the papery white of his skin. “Nothing of this earth, miss,” he burst out.
“I beg you will not place yourself in front of the glass, Mrs. Wolfe,” said Timberlake. “Who knows but that this uncanny call is meant to beguile us. I will rouse Sir Roger and Lord Ashe.” “Indeed you must, but someone is in great distress. We must go to his assistance at once.” Turning to the footman, Penelope gestured into the darkness, her sense of urgency growing. “George, you will go? I will accompany you.” The footman started to shake his head, but then nodded reluctantly.
Mrs. Sterling looked her with outrage. “Mrs. Wolfe, you cannot mean to expose yourself thus. You will catch your death of cold, if nothing worse is the result of such foolish and immodest behavior.”
The moan came again, fainter, the merest breath of sound. “We must not delay,” Penelope said, shivering. “I cannot bear that some unfortunate soul should cry out in need, or perhaps even perish, without we do nothing to aid him.”
The housekeeper made as if to block her path, reaching out to grip Penelope’s arm. “You don’t know who or what it may be. What decent person is abroad at such an hour?”
Penelope did not reply. Deliberately, she removed her arm from Mrs. Sterling’s grasp, almost pushing the woman aside in her impatience. Seizing her candle, she pushed open the door and stepped onto the terrace, pausing a moment to get her bearings.
The night faded. What two minutes ago had been impenetrable shadow now exhibited a wavering form, yet a fog lay over the whole. George had followed her out, Timberlake hovering in the rear apparently determined that no mere footman ought to be allowed to shame his manhood.
“Look!” cried George. “I saw movement there by that statue.
Someone was there a moment ago, I’d swear it.”
“Nonsense.” Timberlake looked around uneasily. “It’s just the breeze rustling amongst the trees. Mind, Mrs. Wolfe, your candle will blow out.”
Ignoring him, Penelope slipped to the edge of the terrace, peering first toward the mist-shrouded shape that in daytime would become a statue of Apollo. Her eyes followed the line of the path that led to the small shrubbery just beyond. She could make out the laurel bushes and the flower beds. Then her gaze paused to linger on a patch of darkness in the middle of the gravel. Wordlessly, she tugged at George’s sleeve.
Penelope picked up the skirts of her dressing gown and descended the shallow stairs to the garden. Swiftly, she moved to kneel at the side of a supine form, and with a shaking hand, reached out to touch a shoulder.
“What is it, miss?” George was there, bending over her, his face anxious.
Penelope looked up into his eyes. “A man. He’s hurt, I think.
Help me to turn him.”
Before the footman could comply, the voice of her employer’s husband issued from the terrace. “Mrs. Wolfe. May I be of help? Timberlake tells me we have suffered some sort of disturbance.” “Indeed, my lord, for there is someone injured here. Send at once for a surgeon and a constable.”
She turned her attention back to the fallen man, and, with George’s help, managed to roll him onto his back. In the grayish light she saw he was young and well formed. And as she bent over, she caught the faint gurgling as he gasped for air.
“He’s alive,” she said triumphantly. “George, go quickly and obtain a blanket, water, and some brandy. George?” She became aware of her companion’s rigidity. Biting his lip as if in vain attempt to regain control, the footman stared fixedly ahead, eyes brimming with fear.
“What is it?” Her voice rose in spite of efforts to keep it steady. “There is no time to lose. He will die.”
“It’s Dick, miss. Don’t you recognize him?”
Suddenly, horribly, she did. This was the young man who had pulled out her chair in the breakfast parlor just yesterday morning, the one who had blinked and smiled with his eyes when she thanked him for the fresh coffee.
Penelope stared at him. “You are not surprised to find him here, are you? You knew Dick wasn’t in his bed?”
The footman took a shuddering breath. “We share a room, miss. I woke, found him gone, and went to look for him. That’s when I heard that ungodly cry that brought Mrs. Sterling and Mr. Timberlake a-running too. But I never thought…what’s amiss with him?”
“I don’t know.” He still wore his silk stockings and black pumps with buckles, but his hair was unpowdered. Then Penelope reached down to run her fingers over the front of his blue and gold livery and felt a dampness. The stain had spread across his chest.
“He bleeds. Go, George,” she said through a tight throat. “Get some cloths and inform Lord Ashe of what has happened. Go!”
As the footman backed away, she knelt beside the wounded man, taking his hand. With her other hand she bunched up some of the coat and pressed it against the wound. Her own fingers came back, sticky red. She wiped away the wet and reapplied the pressure.
The early morning birdsong clamored in her ears. Watching the light struggle to pierce the clouds, she thought the new day seemed unnaturally dark and was glad of the candle flickering feebly on the ground next to her. It seemed she waited a long time, dew soaking into the hem of her dressing gown, though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Still, it was long enough that she had time to wonder dully where everyone could be.
Penelope could think of nothing to do but pray, bending to murmur exhortations in the man’s ear in the faint hope he might somehow respond. His face remained smooth, not so much as a flicker of an eyelid betraying his awareness of her presence, until it seemed he would attempt to speak. The horrid gasping intensified, his lips trembled, and he spoke, his voice so low, so thready, that if Penelope were not crouched close to his face she should never have heard him. As it was, she could not be certain she had understood him right, and it seemed to her that his face had grown even more alarmingly pale.
“The sun shall be turned into…darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.” He could say no more, for blood there was, streaming from his mouth and down his smooth chin to stain the white cravat knotted at his neck.
“Help will come.” She squeezed his hand. “I promise. It will come.” Feeling the wetness of tears on her own face, Penelope put her cheek to his lips a second time, seeking desperately for breath.
She heard footsteps and looked up to see George, gripping a decanter of brandy, accompanied by Lord Ashe, garbed in a rich velvet dressing gown.
“Come away, Mrs. Wolfe,” said Ashe. “Assistance will arrive shortly. You can do nothing further here, will only distress yourself to no purpose. George tells me that life yet lingers. Perhaps Dick may survive.”
“No. I feel certain he is gone now,” said Penelope. She released her grip on the cold fingers, accepted Lord Ashe’s proferred hand, and came shakily to her feet.
“You shall have the brandy then,” he said, taking her arm to lead her back toward the terrace. But first perhaps you will like to wash your face and change your dress?”
Penelope gaped at him, at first unable to fathom such concern with so trivial a matter as her appearance. But as her gaze followed his to the bloody streaks smeared across her dressing gown, she understood.