Authors: Sonia Gensler
She took a breath and affected a light tone. “Did you happen to see a tall man with auburn hair, worn rather long, when I was indisposed?”
Asher did not answer immediately, and she could not bring herself to meet his gaze to see why he kept silent.
“Do you mean the one with the easel?” he finally asked. “The artist?”
Now it was her turn to blush. “Yes.”
“He joined the crowd that formed around you, but then he hurried away. I thought him some opportunist gaining inspiration from your distress.” His voice was heavy with disdain. “Why? Did you know him?”
She said nothing, looking out the window instead.
“Miss Atherton, were you
that man at the museum?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” she whispered.
All her efforts had come to nothing, her beautiful fantasy
having died a quick and miserable death. No cozy home in London, far from the forbidding frowns of her parents. No sanctuary where he could paint and she could experiment with photography. All of it lost because he couldn’t bear the spectacle of her distress.
But why should she be surprised? Mother had warned her that men would find her attacks disgusting. If she’d had the sense to confirm that her medicine was still in her bag, she’d be with him now.
For some reason, she struggled to form a clear image of his face in her mind. Instead she saw the gentleman who had caught her, his grey eyes widening as she sank against him. He had a noble face, and he’d held her so gently as she trembled in his arms. He did not wince in disgust, nor did he hasten to get away from her at the first sign of trouble. And though he’d clearly been rattled, he had stayed until her spell had passed—as a true gentleman would—even after she blurted the lady’s words to him.
That ghastly lady of her vision …
had loved the gentleman, loved him quite desperately. And yet there’d been something wrong about this love. Elsie knew in her bones that the lady’s death had not been natural. What tragedy had befallen the young pair? Elsie had been frightened during the vision, but now that it was over she was intrigued.
She turned to Asher. “The man who caught me—who was he?”
“He never introduced himself. I thought it strange at the time, as I gave him
name, but he seemed too much in a hurry to return the courtesy.”
“He was quite gentlemanly, don’t you think?”
Asher frowned, saying nothing.
“This will sound odd,” she continued, “but I have a feeling we’ll see him again.”
Her statement was met with silence. Asher faced the window, not turning even when she openly stared at him. She noted his rigid jaw, the pursed lips, and imagined she could see the man he might become. He would be handsome, she thought—he already
handsome—but his beauty would be marred if he grew proud and pretentious … like her father and brothers.
He did not speak again, neither as he helped her from the cab nor as they made their way to the platform at King’s Cross. He escorted her to the ladies’ lounge, murmuring his intent to purchase return tickets to Cambridge. He shook his head when she fumbled in her bag for a sovereign, then turned away to leave her standing alone with flushed cheeks.
He’d arranged for opposing seats in the first-class carriage, but still Asher would not meet her gaze. Instead he unfolded
and raised it like a barrier between them.
She sat in silence for half an hour, her worries multiplying. She had no contingency plan for a return to Cambridge. How would they explain their extended absence? Perhaps Asher meant to expose her deceits. Elsie cleared her throat. “Mr. Beale, what do you plan to say to Mr. and Mrs. Thompson upon our return?”
Asher folded the paper with a heavy sigh. “Miss Atherton, I have attempted to restrain myself. I have not demanded that you explain why you tricked me into escorting you to the Fitzwilliam. Nor have I pressed you to tell me what you were thinking when you took the train to London. I won’t ask again
you were meeting at the British Museum. But now you ask me what I will say to Mr. and Mrs. Thompson when we return to Summerfield?
deceived me—why must
be the one to explain where we’ve been?”
She shrank against the seat. “I understand you are upset, but you were under no obligation to follow me. You might rather have minded your own business.”
“The Thompsons trusted me to take care of you,” he snapped. “You were under my protection, and therefore I had no choice but to follow you. Perhaps I should have stayed in Cambridge and left you to the mercy of strangers at the British Museum? If it weren’t for me, you might be locked away in Bedlam by now!”
She took in his high color, his sneering lip, with familiar dread. It always came to this—the anger, frustration. The deep disappointment. She looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said in a small, dull voice. “You were right to follow me … after what I did. I’m very grateful to you, of course.”
She heard him exhale, sensed his shoulders softening ever so slightly.
“I’ll tell the Thompsons something,” he finally said. “They won’t be angry once I come up with a proper reason for our delay.” He leaned forward and lightly placed a hand on hers. “I only wish us to be friends, Elsie. I want you to trust me.”
She nodded, smoothing away her tears with a gloved hand. Asher seemed to be waiting for her to respond, but no words came to mind—nothing remotely reassuring, anyway. After a moment he unfolded his paper and once again raised the barrier between them.
Really, what could she tell him? She’d only told one person what she’d seen during an episode … and that had ended terribly. Elsie swallowed against the lump that threatened to rise again in her throat. How could she explain to Asher how one careless confession had changed her life forever, separating her from society and transforming her into the dull and drowsy addict she was now?
ate struggled with needle and thread under the best conditions, but it was nearly impossible to make a proper stitch with Mrs. Thompson pacing before the window. She hardly knew the lady, but even so she wondered at this crack in her composure.
“I can’t imagine why they haven’t yet returned,” said Mrs. Thompson. “They can’t have spent the entire day at the Fitzwilliam.”
Her husband looked up from his book. “Come away from the window, my dear. Staring at Summerfield Walk won’t bring them to our door any faster.”
With a shake of her head Mrs. Thompson returned to her seat and picked up her sewing. “Did Mr. Beale happen to mention this morning when he and Elsie would be returning from the museum?”
It took Kate a moment to realize the question was directed at her. “Mention to
, ma’am? He rarely speaks to me.”
The woman’s eyes darted to the window. “It’s just … they’ve been gone the entire day. I didn’t think there was enough to occupy even the most devoted art historian for more than a few hours at the Fitzwilliam. The collection is not that extensive.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, ma’am,” Kate replied absently.
When Mrs. Thompson fell into silence again, Kate’s thoughts returned to her father and the obituary clipping. The account of the inquest had ended rather abruptly with the jury verdict of “accidental death.” Clearly, however, there’d been questions surrounding his death, for various doctors were called to testify. A medically inclined friend named Marshall argued that her father suffered from acute neuralgic pain and had only resorted to inhaling chloroform to relieve it. A long jury consultation followed.
Kate well knew why so many had been called to testify, and why the jury had taken a considerable amount of time to render a verdict. There was a possibility other than “accidental death” to consider—a possibility very familiar to Kate. The death could have been a suicide, just as her mother’s was deemed to be.
Frederic Stanton had been a solemn man, to be sure. But her mother had often told her what a brilliant mind he possessed and how respected he was by his learned friends. Kate knew he came from a good family and had a very comfortable inheritance. If one was blessed with such an easy life, why end it so abruptly?
Her mother, on the other hand, had been a broken woman. When the money came regularly and Kate spent most of her time in school, her mother’s fragile state hadn’t been so obvious. But once the money stopped, and both of them were forced to work, she had suffered deeply and quite openly. She’d taken more Chlorodyne each day and died within a matter of months. It was Kate who found her facedown on the bed. Even if she lived a hundred years, she’d never erase the memory of her mother’s wide-staring eyes and mottled skin when she turned her body over.
Kate shook her head. It made no difference whether or not her father had actually committed suicide. The
was there in the obituary. That meant many of his friends and colleagues had considered the possibility, too. This was something she could take to her father’s widow, a little piece of intelligence that she could embroider with more damning details, if she could harden her heart to do so. She was not so desperate … as yet.
And though she’d found the widow’s name—Elizabeth Grove Stanton—how was she to find the lady herself? Earlier during lunch she’d risked a walk to Castle End, hoping to find Billy safe and smiling. Willing to answer the questions that plagued her. One of the young ones met her at the door, however, and told her Billy had not yet returned. She’d been so rattled during the walk back to Summerfield—wondering if Tec somehow blamed her for Billy’s disappearance, worrying that Billy lay broken and bloody in a ditch—that she failed to fabricate a convincing excuse for being almost an hour late. Freeman’s ire had lasted the entire afternoon.
Mrs. Thompson’s voice jerked Kate from her thoughts.
“I suppose we should hold supper for them? But how long?”
Mr. Thompson turned a page of his book. “No need to worry about that for at least two hours.”
“Perhaps what I should ask,” Mrs. Thompson continued, her voice pitched noticeably higher, “is how long does one sit and wait for one’s children to return before one contacts the police?”
Mr. Thompson looked up. “For heaven’s sake, Helena—there’s no cause for such speculations. I’m surprised at you! Even when there is reason for panic, you usually remain stoic, and at this point,
there is no reason for panic
. Please calm yourself, my dear.”
Mr. Thompson returned his gaze to the book. Mrs. Thompson frowned at the bundle of sewing on her lap, but she did not pick up her needle. Kate could only stare at the window, thoroughly unsettled by the queer silence.
They all jumped at the clang of the doorbell.
Asher felt a sinking in his gut when he saw the Thompsons. They each stood the moment he and Elsie entered the room, their eyes wide and mouths crimped. Only Kate remained seated, her expression curious rather than concerned. It occurred to him that she’d never looked at him with much interest before, and he wondered why that struck him now, when he was about to face an inquisition.
“And where have you been all this time, my boy?” asked Mr. Thompson.
The man’s voice was steady, but the hand that gripped his cane was white-knuckled. Asher stepped forward, feeling much like a pupil brought before the kindly, long-suffering headmaster.
“Well, you see …”
He couldn’t continue. He hadn’t contrived a convincing story to start with, and now he struggled to recall the details. All the worry and anger over the girl beside him had muddled his brain. What a load of trouble she’d brought him! He turned to her, meaning to frown, but her pale-cheeked anxiety melted him once again. He blinked when she put a hand on his arm.
“No, it’s all right, Mr. Beale. Let me explain.” Elsie turned to the Thompsons. “It’s my fault, you see. Mr. Beale was prepared to take the blame like a gentleman, but I can’t allow it. The truth is, we did spend a considerable amount of time at the museum. And shortly after we left, I suggested we take a walk
through Coe Fen and … well, while we were there I’m afraid I had an episode.”
“Oh, my dear!” cried Mrs. Thompson, her stern expression dissolving. “Come sit at once.”
Asher stared at her, torn between satisfaction that she had owned up to the blame and astonishment at her bald-faced lie. He sat across from her to better study her expression as she spoke.
“Mr. Beale helped administer my medication,” Elsie said softly. “Before I lost consciousness, I begged him to wait until I’d recovered. I couldn’t bear the thought of the entire town seeing him carry me back to the college.”
“But … oh, I see what you mean,” said Mrs. Thompson, glancing at her husband, who nodded slowly. “Though perhaps you might have sent someone for a doctor.”
“The medicine worked,” Asher said. “It was just a matter of waiting before she woke and could face the walk home.” His mind worked furiously. “I propped her against a tree—she was quite comfortable and no one seemed to notice her distress.”