THE CRIMSON CAGE
by Nene Adams
©2005 - All rights reserved
O heart, be at peace, because
What, still you would have their praise!
Taken overall, her features and form were pleasing enough to have generated no less than three offers of matrimony, one of them from the local minor gentry in the form of Sir Charles March. Rosamond had proven uninterested in marriage in general, and Sir Charles in particular — much to every other eligible young lady's astonishment. Her father and mother being deceased, and herself in possession of an excellent independent income, there were none who had the right to steer Rosamond away from the yawning precipice of spinsterhood save her brother, Fitzwilliam. However, it was common knowledge that the gentleman could refuse his younger sister nothing, not even the opportunity to waste those charms which Nature had so graciously granted the Fair Rosamond.
Sunlight glinted from her blonde ringlets as she took a step towards the lion cages. Fitzwilliam gallantly supported her arm as Rosamond walked on the dew-sprinkled grass. "Thank you," she said, dimpling at her brother.
"Confound it, Rosie, do be careful," Fitzwilliam admonished when the young lady nearly slipped on what closer inspection revealed to be the remains of an orange. "If you sprain your ankle, I shan't carry you home."
"Hush, Fitz, I've no intention of spraining anything." Rosamond squinted at the iron-barred cages that housed the bushy-maned lions and a pair of lionesses. "At any rate, it's too early in the morning for unpleasantries."
"Dear girl, you drive me to it," Fitzwilliam said. He was quite a handsome young gentleman, sporting a crop of golden curls that were always artfully disheveled. The points of his collar were so well-starched that he could turn his head only with some difficulty, and his yellow pantaloons were considered the height of fashion in Mappleton.
"Only last evening," he continued, "you interrupted my game of piquet with Sir Charles to harangue me regarding the menagerie."
"I did no such thing. I simply took the opportunity to remind you that you had promised to escort me to see the menagerie, and that you were in danger of breaking your solemn word as this is the final day of the exhibit."
"Wretched hellion! I was sufficiently distracted that I lost my chance at a quatorze of knaves and thus ended the partie owing Sir Charles the better part of a hundred pounds."
Rosamond shook her head, making the pheasant feathers adorning her bonnet bob in rhythmic time. "You must give up this illusion of delicate sensibilities that you've been cultivating, dearest Fitz, no matter how fashionable you suppose such a charade to be. We both know that your nerves are solid as bricks. Besides, not even a blubber-head of the first water — and by this I mean you, Fitzwilliam Kay - could imagine that a milk-complected, swooning and poetical young fellow is at all attractive to the ladies."
"Oh, very well," Fitzwilliam said, "but I shall abandon my façade only because writing poetry is too deucedly difficult. The sonnet is impossible to master, I've found, and woe betide the fellow who attempts to untangle an ode."
Mssrs. Perry and Jellico's Traveling Bestiary boasted no less than six noble lions, as well as onagers, monkeys, tigers, leopards, an elephant, llamas, a camel, a veritable herpetological treasure trove of serpents, both venomous and benign, a giraffe, a flock of noisy and colorful parrots from distant jungles, and a large brass band that played a selection of Handel at ear-splitting volume. It was, as Fitzwilliam had pointed out, early in the morning; the animals were still being fed and groomed by their keepers, and the band had yet to emerge from their slumbers. Nevertheless, Rosamond had insisted upon attending the menagerie as soon as breakfast was decently digested.
"What do you suppose they feed the beasts?" Fitzwilliam asked, taking a step backwards as a lion yawned prodigiously, showing fangs longer than a man's thumb and a fleshy pink tongue.
"Meat," Rosamond replied, distracted by the rank, musky, feral smell wafting from the cages. There was a rusty-iron tinge to the scent that was reminiscent of spilled blood. She found that odd, because she did not see any actual meat among the heaps of straw and the cat droppings. A flash of white in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Rosamond took a step closer. The lion twitched its tail and let out a shattering roar.
"Rosie, come away from there!" Fitzwilliam called nervously.
Ignoring the lion, Rosamond focused on the crumpled white form in a corner of the cage. There were crimson streaks and dapples like spilled currant jelly on the wrinkled surface. As she continued to peer, the contours of the object slowly developed into a logical whole, and she gasped. The blood drained from Rosamond's face, leaving her white to the lips. The things scattered amongst the straw made horrible sense now. She glanced down and saw a gleaming, red-tipped tooth on a clot of earth near the edge of the cage.
It was a human molar.
"Rosie? My dear girl, are you unwell?"
Rosamond tottered and fastened her hand on Fitzwilliam's sleeve. "Fetch a doctor!" she commanded her brother hoarsely. "There's a young girl in the cage."
"Damnation!" Fitzwilliam exclaimed, also turning the color of whey.
Fortunately, he was not too shocked to catch Rosamond when she collapsed in a dead faint.
"Be at ease, Miss Kay, you are among friends," said a familiar male voice. "You've merely had a spell. Quite understandable in the circumstances."
Rosamond opened her eyes to regard the village doctor, Mr. Yarrow. "Oh, dear," she murmured, "how lady-like of me."
"Believe me, Miss Kay, the sight of that poor girl's body would be enough to discomfit a hardened war veteran," Yarrow said, setting the glass on a table near the settee upon which Rosamond lay recumbent, her head propped up by a cushion. "Your brother fetched the magistrate's men."
"Who was she?" Rosamond sat up, although she continued to recline against the curved arm of the settee. Her headache was receding and she felt a little stronger.
"Miss Elizabeth Simons," the doctor said, "the landlord's daughter."
Rosamond's eyes widened in surprise. Mr. Simons was the owner of the Goat and Grape, a respectable widower whose inn-yard currently hosted Perry and Jellico's Traveling Bestiary. His only offspring, Elizabeth, was considered an 'unfortunate' due to her unsanctioned liaison with a London lord, who had settled a small income on her when Elizabeth was got with illegitimate child and sent back to Mappleton. The child was stillborn but the Lord's solicitors continued to send her an annual stipend.
Neighboring families who comprised the country gentry had mostly forgiven Elizabeth her sins. She was considered in the light of a lost lamb who had committed a grievous wrong but while knowledge of the scandal remained, it was no longer fresh enough to comprise a juicy subject of gossip around the village's social circle. Elizabeth was one of them, it was understood, and Mappleton protected its own. Rosamond had recently heard, however, that Elizabeth's prospects were not as dire as might be supposed; rumor paired the landlord's daughter with Sir Charles March, and indeed, the pair had occasionally been seen driving together along the wooded lanes in the gentleman's smartest curricle.
"How...how did it happen?" Rosamond asked, aghast.
Yarrow shrugged. Like many men of his generation, he affected bushy side-whiskers that puffed out from the sides of his face like silver clouds. "It seems the lion's cage was left unfastened," he said, "and Miss Simons must have wandered inside. The poor child...she was torn to pieces in the savage attack."
Fitzwilliam entered and immediately went to his sister's side. "Rosie, have you recovered or do you remain unwell?"
"I am quite well, Fitz, although consumed by pity for Miss Simons. Has anyone spoken to Sir Charles? He ought to be told," Rosamond said, swinging her legs off the settee and sitting up straight.
Glancing around the room, she realized that she was in a place that was entirely unknown to her. The cramped environs were colorfully decorated with dark reds and golds on the walls, and exotic fabrics draped here and there. The ceiling was painted indigo with stars picked out in silver and gilt. Rosamond was sitting on a battered settee that was heaped with frayed velvet cushions bounded in fringe. There were a couple of small cabinets fastened to the rear wall, a chair and a small table, and a trunk; shelves and corner cupboards took up the rest of the space. A pair of sconces flanking the sole window held candle stubs.
"Where are we?" Rosamond asked.
"In Miss Anne Jellico's wagon," Fitzwilliam said. "Miss Jellico is the daughter of Mr. Jellico, co-proprietor of the Bestiary. She was kind enough to offer accommodations when you were taken ill."
Rosamond grasped Fitzwilliam's hand and allowed him to help her rise to her feet. "Has someone sent for Mr. Simons?"
"Yes," Yarrow answered, "and the vicar as well."
The sound of a terrible row erupted from outside. Fitzwilliam's eyes fairly bulged when a feminine voice was heard raging in the midst of the brawl, issuing imprecations that would have shamed a sailor. Rosamond blushed and pretended to deafness. Yarrow went to the door and threw it wide open. "What is the meaning of this?" the doctor shouted.
"Dr. Yarrow! Tell these butchers to leave at once or I shall not be responsible for my actions!" cried the unseen female, her voice throbbing with passion.
Rosamond was immediately intrigued. She went to the door and looked over the Yarrow's black-clad shoulder. The sight that greeted her made Rosamond's mouth go dry and a queer flushing warmth spread throughout her body.
A woman stood in front of the lion's cage, holding a dueling pistol aimed squarely at Mr. Sholto, the chief of the magistrate's constables. The sweating man carried a long musket and stood frozen in place, but the weapon's muzzle was aimed at the woman.
"Good doctor," Sholto said, "I'd be ever your servant, sir, if you was to tell this miss that I'm acting under the magistrate's orders, sir. I've no wish to harm anyone."
"You shan't kill poor old Harry," the woman said. "I won't let you."
"Stand aside, miss."
"I will not!"
Rosamond's eyes met the young woman's fierce hazel gaze and she caught her breath, thinking: what if this magnificent creature is shot by that supreme blubber-head Sholto? That was all the consideration she gave the matter. Alarmed, Rosamond squeezed past Fitzwilliam and Yarrow, then bolted down the wagon steps and flew across the intervening space, interposing herself between Sholto's musket and the brave (although possibly also foolhardy) lady whom she suspected was Miss Anne Jellico.
"What is the trouble here?" Rosamond asked, giving Sholto her most quelling glare.
"Ma'am, Lord Jewett's ordered the beast destroyed and I was doing my duty," Sholto said, looking a bit shame-faced, "till the young miss got in the way."
"And I say again, you thick-skulled ninny, that old Harry wouldn't harm a fly!" bellowed the young woman behind Rosamond.
Rosamond shook her head, feeling an inappropriate thrill at the press of the warm body behind her. "Please, Miss Jellico - it is Miss Jellico, is it not? — put away your pistol. Mr. Sholto, be so kind as to put up your musket and desist in your beast-destroying efforts. There will be no killing today. Let us discuss the conflict as civilized folk, not as armed banditos on a vengeance spree."
"I'm very sorry, miss..." Sholto began, at the same time that Anne Jellico began to vociferously anathemize Sholto, Lord Jewett, and anyone else who believed she would allow a meek kitty-cat like Harry the lion — who was the very epitome of a sweet-natured darling in her opinion — to be destroyed at any time, much less that very day. Rosamond attempted to officiate between the two combatants, but Miss Jellico remained adamant: her particular pet Harry would be put down only if Sholto did the deed by passing the balls through her own body first. After several minutes, Rosamond counted herself lucky that shots were not fired, since the magistrate's man was sorely provoked by Miss Jellico.
At last, Lord Jewett himself made an appearance, fetched from Mapplestane Park by Dr. Yarrow. By this time, the dispute had grown in number as well as in volume. Rosamond remained in the middle, but now she was surrounded by Mr. Jellico, Mr. Perry, and a number of other employees of the menagerie on one side, and Sholto and the rest of the magistrate's men on the other. Heated accusations were flung. Chaos reigned. Several men went toe-to-toe and tête-à-tête with pugnacious intent. In the midst of the battle, Lord Jewett descended like a wrathful angel of God.
"What the Devil is the meaning of this, Sholto?" his lordship roared, an impressive fire flashing from his dark eyes. "I sent you here to destroy a dangerous man-eating beast, not enact a Cheltenham tragedy![*]"
Anne Jellico pushed her way through the crowd and confronted Jewett. "Harry's not dangerous!" she insisted, as unafraid as a Christian martyr facing her persecutor. "I raised him from a cub. He wouldn't harm anyone. He wouldn't!"
"The fact remains, ma'am, that the body of Miss Elizabeth Simons was found in Harry's cage," Jewett said, peering down at her through his quizzing glass. "The unlucky girl was ripped apart in a manner that can only be attributed to a wild animal. The lion had blood on its claws. What other conclusion can be drawn from these facts?"
"Was there blood on his jaws? I assure you, milord, that if Harry had attacked Miss Simons, his fur would be quite stained with her vital fluids."
"Sink me, but you're a cool wench!" Jewett exclaimed.
Rosamond thought Miss Jellico's calm was admirable. She glided forward and stood next to the young woman, staring at Lord Jewett with what she hoped was a hope and a hint in her expression. To his credit, Jewett did not question Rosamond's presence but favored her with a half-bow and said to Anne, "Pray permit me the liberty of making known to you Miss Kay and her brother, Mr. Fitzwilliam Kay."
Anne flushed to the roots of her chestnut brown hair, which she wore cropped short and brushed forward in curls in the style á la Brutus. "Miss Kay, Mr. Kay," she murmured, but despite the demure tone in her voice, her hazel eyes were alight with determination.
Fitzwilliam reached over and, without preamble, tugged the dueling pistol out of Anne's fist. "Not really suitable for a lady," he admonished, "beggin' your pardon, miss."
Anne gave him an ugly look but said nothing.
"Now that we are all known to one another," Jewett said, "perhaps Miss Jellico will be good enough to explain the reason behind this incitement to rioting and mischief which I, in my capacity of magistrate, do abhor and most seriously lament. Are you willing to be condemned and fined a goodly sum over the fate of a mere animal, ma'am? For I do assure you that, as the local justice, I shall show no lenience whatsoever no those who refuse to obey the law or the law's representative."
"Harry has been condemned without benefit of trial," Anne said bitterly. "He didn't do it." Tiny gold hoops glinted in her earlobes. She wore a Turkey red petticoat decorated with darker scarlet-and-yellow tambour-work, which peeped beneath the hem of her brown linen dress. Rosamond thought she looked like a gypsy, all windblown curls and sun-kissed complexion and an ever-so-slight tilt to the corners of her eyes.
"Milord, could not the fate of the lion be discussed before further action is taken?" Rosamond suggested. "Surely Miss Jellico is cognizant of the lion's habits and ought to be consulted at the very least before an execution. Our house is convenient, if you would allow my brother and myself the honor of playing host."
Jewett was about to answer when he was interrupted by a florid fat man wearing a very old-fashioned periwig. "Milord, I pray you will forgive my daughter, Anne," Jellico said, baring his teeth in a cur's grin. "Since we lost her mother, the girl's been willful. Too willful, milord, and I've cosseted her shamefully, too. I count it as my most grievous fault."
"There is no need for apology, sir," Jewett said, generously not taking umbrage at Mr. Jellico's impolite presumption of speaking to him without a proper introduction. "Tempers have been running a trifle hot of late."
He turned to face Anne, examining her through the quizzing glass, his brow arched and his chin held high. "For the nonce, Miss Jellico, I shall delay destruction of the beast and remand him to your care. However, this modicum of mercy will not remain extended forever. If Harry the lion did not accomplish the murder of Miss Elizabeth Simons, someone or something else did. In four days I am called to London on business. Come to me before then and offer me evidence of guilt to be laid at the doorstep of some other creature, and I will pardon Harry. Otherwise, he will pay the full penalty and I will furthermore fine Mr. Jellico and Mr. Perry twenty-five pounds for disturbing the peace. Am I rightly understood, ma'am?"
"Yes, milord, you are," Anne said, elbowing her father in the ribs to prevent him from spoiling his lordship's magnanimous gesture. "Four days, milord. Thank you."
"I am certain that Miss Kay will prove an able assistant, as she was ready to act as advocate and arbitrator," Jewett said. "Good day, ladies, Mr. Jellico, Mr. Perry." He made a brief bow that included the entire company, collected the magistrate's men as well as Sholto with a gesture, and took himself and his entourage into the Goat and Grape. Fitzwilliam and Dr. Yarrow accompanied them.
When they had gone, Rosamond offered a shy smile to Anne. "I will be happy to help you prove Harry's innocence, Miss Jellico, if you are amenable."
"Thank you, Miss Kay. You were most brave, shielding me from that bully with his musket, and I do appreciate your speaking in our defense when we were yet strangers who knew not one other's names." Anne brushed some straw off the skirt of her dress and turned towards the lion's cage. The big male cat was dozing in the straw, the tuft on the end of his tail a-twitch. The mortal remains of Miss Simons had been removed earlier by several of the menagerie employees under Sholto's direction, and fresh bedding laid down.
Anne reached out and took Rosamond's hand, holding the fingers lightly in her cool dry clasp. "I think we may work well together...but first, Miss Kay, you and I must beard the lion in his den."
Rosamond's blood turned to ice in her veins with immediate apprehension, and she swallowed hard past the knot that sick terror made in her throat.
"Do calm yourself, Miss Kay," Anne said suddenly, startling Rosamond into emitting a strangled squeak. "Harry is quite harmless, I assure you."
the lion sprawled on his heap of straw. A tawny eyelid lifted, revealing a slice
of golden iris with a pinpoint of a black pupil staring back at her. The tail
lashed once, and then stilled except for a faint vibration at the tip. Rosamond
At Anne's silent urging, Rosamond knelt down and, with much trepidation, put her hand on the lion's cheek. The fur was soft; it felt softer than swansdown and was warm as amber in the sun. Rosamond felt puffs of hot breath against her fingertips, the rough prickling whiskers, the rubbery edge of the beast's upper lip. Goosebumps rose on her flesh.
"He's a good boy, isn't he?" Anne crooned, scratching Harry's head. The lion grunted in contentment. "His mother rejected him shortly after giving birth. I raised Harry with my own hands, Miss Kay. He is, as you see, quite tame."
"Nevertheless, he is a wild beast." Rosamond ducked her head at Anne's fierce glare. "Miss Jellico, any animal is capable of attack if it is provoked beyond its capacity to endure."
The glare faded and Anne nodded in grudging acknowledgement. "That is true, Miss Kay." She spent another moment quietly petting the lion, neither woman commenting on the dark maroon flecks that marred the golden fur of his paws.
Elizabeth Simons' blood.
Finally, Anne sighed, gave Harry a final pat, and said, "If I thought that Harry harmed that girl, I would shoot him myself." She rose to her feet and offered Rosamond a hand. "Did Miss Simons have many enemies, Miss Kay?"
Rosamond grasped Anne's wrist to steady herself as she stood. The other woman was stronger than the lean contours of her body suggested. Casting a last look at the dozing lion, Rosamond said, "Will you accompany me to my home so that we may discuss the matter further? I believe there is cold chicken and ham and cucumber sallet for luncheon, and I will be pleased to answer any questions you may have."
"I am in your debt, ma'am."
"Not at all, Miss Jellico. I should hate to see such a marvelous and beautiful animal pay the ultimate price for a crime that he did not commit."
Rosamond hitched at the skirts of her white-on-white muslin dress and led the way out of the lion's cage, out of the inn yard and down the woodland path that led to the Kay house, which was called Treybridge. It was a modest dwelling made of red brick with white trim, eminently suitable for a country gentleman's son and daughter. A modest pediment in the neo-classical style, added on to Treybridge by Rosamond's father, was supported by two pilasters that flanked the green-painted front door. The crushed stone drive was surrounded by trimmed box hedges and flower beds, which at this time of year were filled with mignonette, purple coneflower and blooming musk roses. An old wisteria vine climbed the north wall of the house, pendulous lavender-colored blossoms scenting the air with their heady fragrance.
After being admitted by the manservant, both ladies hung their bonnets and pelisses on hooks near the front door, then Rosamond took Anne to the dining room, where a cold luncheon awaited. Service was, of course, à la française, with all the dishes on the table at once. Fitzwilliam had sent a note via the inn's pot boy that he would be dining with his lordship and his sister should not wait upon him. Rosamond therefore carved the chicken, graciously giving her guest both of the wings and serving herself some of the breast meat.
By mutual silent agreement, neither woman mentioned the gruesome death of Elizabeth Simons or the probable fate of Harry the lion while they were dining. Rosamond poured them both a final glass of Rhenish wine — for which Anne paid a great many compliments, and Rosamond accepted the praise on behalf of her brother's excellent cellar — and afterwards, led Anne to the sitting room.
This particular room had been a favorite of her late mother's, despite the inconvenience of windows that faced full south. Rosamond pushed aside a piece of tambour-work in its hoop and sat down at the work table. "Miss Jellico..."
"Will you call me Anne?" came the reply, accompanied by a becoming blush. "I beg your pardon, Miss Kay for the impertinence, but since we are to work together, so to speak, I had hoped you might be agreeable to a less formal mode of address."
"Of course, Anne. And you must call me Rosamond."
The women exchanged a smile. Although such immediate informality between strangers would have been frowned upon by their parents' generation - and indeed, by many of their contemporaries who held higher station in life - for these two amiable young ladies, the conventions were less important than that they should be comfortable with one another.
"Tell me, Anne, what is it that you wish to know?" Rosamond asked.
"If Harry did not kill Miss Simons — and I have already shown my faith in his innocence — then who committed the deed?" Anne ruffled a hand through her short chestnut curls. "As the Roman Cassius would ask, cui bono? Who has benefited from her death?"
Rosamond narrowed her eyes in concentration. "I do not know anyone who may benefit financially from Miss Simons' demise," she said slowly. "Miss Simons had been granted a stipend which was enough, I believe, to keep her in dresses and modest fripperies and allow a fortnight annually at Bath or Brighton, but it was not any great amount. She has no heir other than her father, who is the landlord of the Goat and Grape. I have heard no word against Mr. Simons, no whisper of unpaid debts or other matters that would require money."
"From whom does Miss Simons' stipend originate?"
"Ah, that is practically the most ancient scandal in the neighborhood. It seems, some years ago — perhaps as many as ten years or more," Rosamond said, "Miss Elizabeth Simons was permitted by her father to go to London for a season in the company of a maternal aunt, in the hopes that she would make a good match. Miss Simons was considered a great beauty in Mappleton; indeed, she had been counted as the foremost beauty in Derbyshire in her time.
"In London, Miss Simons met a Lord — his name is unknown to me, but perhaps...yes, Mrs. Phillips, the aunt, still lives in Merrydun, which is but five miles away, although she is quite old but one hopes she still enjoys good health..."
"If it proves necessary, I can drive us to Merrydun village in one of my father's carts," Anne said, interrupting Rosamond's digression. "Not as smart as a flying gig or a curricle..."
"But I am very used to carts and do not object to them in the least, so I thank you for the offer." Rosamond's blue eyes twinkled. "At any rate, this lordship did not propose marriage to Miss Simons but rather a counter-offer of protection and patronage that did not include the blessings of the Church. A carte-blanche[∫], as 'twere."
"I see that you do, and so did Miss Simons, who accepted his lordship's proposal, much to her family's shame. It is fortunate that she had no sisters to share her ruination, for their hopes of respectable matrimonial unions would have been dashed to pieces by Miss Simons' disgrace. Well, she got with child, as so many foolish girls have done before her, and his lordship did not want any base-borns in town, so he arranged for Miss Simons to return to Mappleton and granted her a stipend. She lost the child but the stipend continued. As far as I know," Rosamond concluded, "his lordship never set eyes on Miss Simons again, nor did she go to London, nor was any contact between them."
"Was there any resentment shown to Miss Simons?"
Rosamond shrugged. "None," she replied, "but the scandal is long past its first flush, and there are subjects of conversation that are far more concurrent. Miss Simons erred grievously, that is true. She paid for that error with the loss of her reputation, as well as the agony of losing a child yet unborn. There were many more in the neighborhood who pitied her than despised her. Although lately..."
"Yes?" Anne asked eagerly.
"I have heard that Miss Simons has been often seen driving with Sir Charles March, a gentleman of adequate means who returned to Mappleton three years ago after some time spent in India; he had a tea plantation in Palampur, I believe, or some such place where he made a nabob's[Ω] modest fortune. At any rate, Miss Simons is always invited to the neighborhood assemblies and balls — she can hardly be shunned on account of a decade's old scrape — and it seems to me that she has been showing a remarkable inclination towards the pleasure of Sir Charles' company."
Anne nodded. "Will you tell me about Sir Charles?"
"Do you suspect him already of wrong-doing?" Rosamond teased.
"I suspect everyone," Anne said, the corner of her mouth quirking up in a charming half-grin. "Save, perhaps, yourself, dear Rosamond."
Rosamond blushed prettily. "Thank you, dear Anne. Well, regarding Sir Charles...he is not the most affable gentleman of my acquaintance, although he once did me the honor of making an offer for my hand, which I was moved to refuse. One hates to speak ill of one's neighbors, however it must be told that Sir Charles is considered something of a notorious pinch-penny hereabouts. They say he never spends a shilling when a pence will do. To my own knowledge, he has made offers to all the heiresses and widows of independent means in these parts and the gentleman has not caught one that he has set his cap at. His own fortune is far too modest to appeal to the mamas and papas of wealthy ladies; his manners and temperament are far too severe, and his personal charm too negligible to attract female companionship on his own merits, or so it seems to me. Perhaps I am not the best judge, as having refused to marry him, I might be considered not impartial enough in my opinion."
Anne looked thoughtful. "Might there be a reason why Sir Charles would want to see Miss Simons dead?"
"I cannot think of a motive."
"Why would a pinch-penny like Sir Charles — who clearly has ambitions above his station, if he hopes to catch a wealthy heiress whilst he, himself, lacks the necessary elements to do so — wish to be seen in the company of a ruined woman?"
"True," Rosamond said, frowning. "Showing that his affections were engaged by Miss Simons would not help Sir Charles if he wished to gain further fortune by marrying a woman whose income exceeded his own. It is a puzzle, to be sure."
Suddenly, Anne sat up very straight; a shaft of late afternoon sunlight poured through the window, striking dazzling sparks from the little gold hoops in her ears. "You say that Sir Charles was in India?"
"Yes." Rosamond wondered what thoughts were behind Anne's clear hazel eyes.
"I have known a few gentlemen who were in India," Anne said. "Their houses were filled with trophies of that exotic land."
"Sir Charles has a few things, I believe, although I could not say precisely what they are or how they were obtained. To confess the truth, I do not often pay strict attention to Sir Charles, for like many older gentlemen he has a tendency to repeat his favorite anecdotes." Rosamond tilted her head. "Anne, what are you thinking?"
"That I wish I had an excuse to pay a call upon Sir Charles," the young lady answered.
Rosamond was nonplused but gave the problem serious consideration without asking for an explanation. "Sir Charles is giving a card party on the day after tomorrow," she said. "Fitzwilliam and I were invited; I am certain that Sir Charles can have no objection if I bring a friend with me."
Anne's smile was brilliant. "Thank you, Rosamond. I should also appreciate an introduction to the vicar, if that is possible."
"Oh, it is Mr. Blessington who has the living at Mapplestane Park. He is a most congenial gentleman; he and his wife attend all of the local assemblies."
"And the vicar of Merrydun?"
Rosamond's blonde brows flew to her hairline in surprise, but she answered, "I do not know the gentleman very well, but I suppose an introduction could be arranged if Mr. Lamb is at the party. He is, I believe, well acquainted with Sir Charles."
Anne subsided back into her chair. "I think that is all that can be done for now," she said, "and I must return to the menagerie to care for my charges." A gleam of speculation entered her expression. "Will you join me, Rosamond? I think you will find it an entertaining spectacle, to say the least."
Rosamond agreed, and the two ladies set out for the inn-yard of the Goat and Grape.
The remainder of the afternoon was very pleasantly spent, in Rosamond's opinion. Anne allowed her to feed the monkeys, including a vivid and colorful mandrill with a bright red nose and blue cheeks, who took sections of fruit from her hands as gravely as a parson at the supper table receiving the portion that is due his position. The elephant, which had a rather odd musky fragrance, permitted Rosamond to stroke its trunk, and opened its mouth so that she could rub its fleshy tongue. The llamas had to have their toenails trimmed; the parrots were given a bath; and the rather ill-tempered camel was required to kneel and suffer being groomed by Anne alone, because he spat at Rosamond and came within ames ace of ruining her dress with a flung gobbet of partially digested, foul-smelling fodder.
In spite of this near disaster, Rosamond declared that she had never had so much enjoyment in an afternoon in all her life.
With each passing moment, with each delighted smile or full-throated laugh, with each sidelong glance or murmured comment from Anne, Rosamond felt herself more and more captivated. Anne was nothing like the girls with whom she was usually acquainted.
The unmarried misses of her own age were skilled in the arts of allurement; their focus was fixed upon the idea of marrying a gentleman of means, and thus improving their own lot in life. Anne was independent of these ambitions and did not scruple to show it. She was bold, though not harsh nor a virago by any means. Rosamond found, as the hours passed, that her heart was beginning to yearn towards the other woman.
It was nothing new to her, this attachment to her own sex. Rosamond had always felt an affinity for females, and had already confessed to Fitzwilliam her intention to remain unwed. Better to be pitied as a spinster, she told him, than be miserably united with a man to whom she could feel no connection whatsoever save, in the luckiest circumstance, friendship. Fitzwilliam did not profess to understand — like most men, he would rather marry for fortune than love — but he did support his sister's decision to forego matrimony.
Rosamond did not quite know what to do with her sapphic inclinations, but the closer she felt to Anne Jellico, the more she wanted to find out.
It was not too long when the first evening visitors began arriving to gawk at Perry and Jellico's Traveling Bestiary. At Anne's invitation, Rosamond lingered in order to witness her new friend's demonstration of snake handling. Wearing a costume that consisted of a Grecian-style drapery of transparent aerophane gauze and white linen, caught at one shoulder with a bronze clasp, and a laurel wreath crowning her forward-brushed curls, Anne stood before the paying public holding several large snakes twined around her arms. Her father, Mr. Jellico, recited passages from Euripides The Bacchae:
"First they let their hair fall loose, down
Rosamond gasped along with the audience when Anne abandoned the benign snakes in favor of more poisonous serpents. Mr. Jellico informed the on-lookers of the dangers as Anne released a hooded cobra from a withy-work basket. She swayed decorously, her movements mimicked by the snake that wove its deadly supple length into the air. Several times, Anne held out her hand and enticed the serpent to strike at her, earning screams and shouts from frightened audience members. At last, she coaxed the cobra back into its basket and accepted the accolades of amazement and awe that were the reward for her performance.
In the beginning of the demonstration, Rosamond had been as amazed and delighted as everyone else. The big snakes with their wedge-shaped heads and beautiful patterns seemed dangerous, although Anne had assured her before the performance that the animals were not venomous. However, seeing Anne dance with the cobra - a serpent whose kiss would, Rosamond knew, almost certainly lead to death — led her to feel very different emotions. She was appalled at Anne's seeming carelessness; she was made angry by the thought that her friend was sacrificing her life for the sake of a few pence in her father's ticket box.
Rosamond felt drawn to the woman with her crop of chestnut curls and her courage and fierce determination, as well as her demonstrated willingness to do battle on behalf of something (or someone) that she loved. To have this budding friendship ended by death at the hands (or more properly, fangs) of a provoked cobra seemed to Rosamond to be the height of foolishness. The more she thought about it, the more upset she became. It would be grossly unfair for her to be deprived of the opportunity to savor the delicious ache of attraction because the object of her affections was murdered even as Cleopatra by poison in her veins.
By the time that Anne had replaced the snakes in their various glass enclosures and entered her private wagon in order to change to a more regular costume, Rosamond was waiting for her, fairly vibrating with tension.
"Oh! What perfidy! What selfish inconsideration!" Rosamond cried, her nerves shredded to tatters by her fear for Anne's safety.
"Why, what is wrong, dear Rosamond?" Anne asked, putting an arm around her waist and guiding Rosamond to the settee. "Are you unwell?"
"I was terrified out of my wits," Rosamond said, sinking onto the cushions and pulling Anne down with her so that they sat side-by-side, their cloth-covered thighs touching. She could not stop shaking. "You could have been killed!"
"What, by old Deuteronomy?" Anne chuckled, and Rosamond was hard pressed not to berate the woman further for inappropriate levity. "That cobra is an ancient specimen and his fangs are blunt as a three-penny piece. I did not mean to frighten you so dreadfully, Rosamond. Had I know you would be concerned for my safety, I would have explained that the performance simulates danger where none truly exists."
Rosamond shuddered and blinked away the tears of relief that suddenly blurred her vision. "I thought that you were...I thought..."
"Dearest Rosamond, even I am not reckless enough to tease a cobra at the height of its venomous powers. Do calm yourself, I beg. No harm has been done. Shall I give you a glass of hartshorn? Or perhaps a restorative sherry?"
"Yes, sherry, if you would, please," Rosamond replied.
Anne poured them both small glasses of manzanilla. By the time she finished the sherry, Rosamond felt somewhat more at ease.
"Perhaps you will think my question impertinent," Rosamond said, laying the empty glass aside, "but do you often have the occasion to make friends on your travels?"
"To be quite frank," Anne said, after swallowing the final portion of tawny liquid in her glass, "we are always moving from one place to another. Our profession is, you understand, of necessity a peripatetic one. It is only in winter that my father's menagerie remains rooted in Sussex until the roads are fit to travel again. I have some female relations, of course, to whom I may pay a visit should the notion arise. There are also a few acquaintances in Sussex. However..." She paused.
"Go on, Anne."
"You will think me too forward."
"No, for I cannot condemn honest feelings. Tell me, Anne. What is it?" Rosamond felt a frisson of anticipation tingling along her spine. Could it be that her attraction had been noticed? Her eyes met Anne's, and she could not read the expression there. Twitching nervousness caused sweat to pool beneath her arms and between her shoulder blades while she waited for the answer.
"We have known each other only a very short while...a few hours, at most...," Anne said, focusing on the painted wooden floorboards of the wagon "and yet, I feel as though we have been friends forever."
"I feel the same, Anne. Oh, I do!" Made greatly daring by relief, Rosamond reached over and clasped Anne's hand. "You are so very brave — far braver than I — and you've been so marvelously kind..."
"No more than you to me!" Anne insisted fiercely. She turned her hand over so that she could grip Rosamond's fingers in return. "I think...I think when my time here is finished, I shall miss you greatly," she said.
"I don't wish to contemplate such a horrid future," Rosamond said. She felt the rough rasping of Anne's calluses, earned by honest work, against her palm. Perhaps the insistent tug of attraction that was drawing her towards Anne was merely a fascination with the exotic. When they sat close together, as now, hand-in-hand, the tingling sensation increased until a low buzz ran beneath Rosamond's skin. Gazing at Anne's profile in the candlelight, she abruptly knew that this was no calf-love, shallow and insubstantial as a butterfly's wing.
What she felt was not infatuation.
Rosamond thought that she was in love.
How could she indicate her interest without risking the destruction of their new friendship? How could she tell if Anne felt the same? What if the other woman did not own to the same attraction? A single day's acquaintance did not seem sufficient to allow one to declare one's affections. Rosamond was lost, adrift on a sea of uncertainty. She released the other woman's hand and sat on the settee, feeling suddenly shy and tongue-tied.
"We must face the future, but not tonight," Anne murmured. "Will I see you tomorrow, dear Rosamond?"
"If you wish it," Rosamond said.
"I do. I wish it very much." Anne said, smiling.
Awkwardness vanished. Warmth spread through Rosamond's limbs. Being on the receiving end of Anne's smile was like basking in the summer sun following a series of lamentably rainy days. Her mouth curved in an answering grin. "I will be here as soon as my breakfast is decently digested," Rosamond promised.
After making her good-byes, Rosamond walked home to Treybridge, her step light and her heart swollen with optimism and the hope that tomorrow, she might learn how Anne's feelings were inclined, and if they were at all inclined towards her.
Youth was, after all, nothing but resilient.
Upon their return to Rosamond's home, they were joined by Fitzwilliam in the sitting room. He looked splendid in buckskins and new Hessian boots, and amused the ladies by demonstrating his method for tying the coveted Osbaldeston knot in his cravat, learned only the previous day from Lord Jewett. The much-traveled Anne was able to demonstrate the more difficult Trone d'Amour method of cravat tying to the gentleman, much to his gratification and joy, for none other in the neighborhood knew this flamboyant yet fiendish knot. She also passed on certain secrets of the laundry that would enable Fitzwilliam to achieve the perfect degree of starchiness and the most brilliant blanc d'innocence virginale hue to his cravats. The gentleman confessed himself in Anne's debt.
Rosamond was delighted that her brother and her new friend got along so famously. After Fitzwilliam went to his study to write letters, she said to Anne, "The art of tying his cravat is as important to a gentleman as the art of dining is to politicians."
Anne chuckled. "They are like children with their conceits and their fripperies, their follies and their foibles!"
"Indeed, but women are no less vain and foolish in their voluntary slavery to fashion." Rosamond swept a hand over the front of her green-and-gold printed French perkale dress. Over the garment she wore a green sash en bretelles, the length passed around her neck, crossed over her bosom and tied behind at the waist in a stiffened bow. "I must spend at least an hour at my toilette every morning, what with applying Gowland's miraculous lotion and Powder of Pearl of India, Pomade de Nerole, Liquid Bloom of Roses, Royal Tincture of Peach Kernels and Olympia Dew to make me a genuine beauty instead of merely tolerable."
"Oh, Rosamond! You are far too young — and it must be stated, far too beautiful in your natural state — to require such props of artifice!" Anne protested.
"True," Rosamond giggled, "and in fact, I do not even own a carmine pot or a rabbit's foot! However, I do have an auntie who resorts to such aids in order to cling to vanishing youth. Someday, I will no doubt have cause to utilize artifice myself."
Anne brushed the backs of her fingers against Rosamond's cheek. "Should you attain your dotage, dear Rosamond, I doubt you will need powders or lotions to achieve perfection, for such beauty as yours can only grow more refined and more incandescent with age."
Rosamond blushed. "My dear Anne, you flatter me too much!"
"I think that I do not flatter you half as much as I ought," Anne said, and this time, it was her sun-bronzed complexion that showed a tinge of crimson.
Pleased by this proof of partiality, Rosamond smiled.
In a little while, the two young ladies went to the Goat and Grape, where Anne was required to do some chores related to the menagerie. Rosamond donned an apron and gladly assisted her. All too soon, in Rosamond's opinion, it was time to return home for dinner. She did not wish to abandon Anne's company just yet, and it was fortunate when her friend invited Rosamond to dine with her and the rest of the company. Rosamond accepted the invitation and sent a note to Fitzwilliam at Treybridge, informing him of her plans.
Mr. Jellico had taken a private room at the inn, so that he and his partner, Mr. Perry, and his daughter might dine apart from ruder company. Rosamond was made most welcome at their table, which the landlord had supplied with a brace of ducks á la braise, lamb ragoo, trout with anchovy sauce, boiled celery and other dishes, along with a small pyramid of ripe nectarines for dessert. The conversation was merry, the company congenial, and Rosamond thoroughly enjoyed herself. After dinner was finished, the four of them agreed to a game of whist in the inn's common room.
"I do not wish to have to pay Lord Jewett's proposed fine on account of that blasted lion of yours, Anne," said Jellico, dealing the playing cards he had gotten from Mr. Simons with a practiced flick of his wrist. "True, 'twould be troublesome to procure a new animal should Harry have to be destroyed, but we have other lions, you know."
"Papa! You know how fond I am of Harry," Anne said, eying the trump card in the center of the table and shifting her gaze back to the cards in her hand. "He never killed Miss Simons, as well you know." Since she sat at her father's left, Anne played the first trick, tossing down a card in the same suit as the trump, which happened to be spades.
Seated immediately across the table from Anne — who was her partner in the play — Rosamond remained quiet and concentrated on her cards, but her ears pricked as she listened to everything that was said.
"If it wasn't Harry, Miss Jellico, then what beast committed the crime?" Mr. Perry asked, sipping from his glass of port. "I have spoken to Dr. Yarrow. He found animal fur in some of Miss Simons' wounds."
He signaled the pot boy to bring an ember from the fireplace in order to light his cheroot. Mr. Perry's proved to be the highest trump card, so he took the trick and threw down a new trump, this time of the suit of clubs. Play continued until eight of the possible thirteen tricks had been taken by one of them or another.
Rosamond cleared her throat. "Mr. Perry, did Dr. Yarrow indicate what type of animal fur was recovered?"
"I beg your pardon?" Perry frowned.
"You had said, sir, that the doctor found animal fur in Miss Simons' wounds," Rosamond said. "Did he say what type of animal?"
Distracted, Perry swallowed the mouthful of smoke he had been about to blow out and nearly choked. To ease the gentleman's coughing fit, Anne called for a serving of 'hot flannel' — equal quantities of beer and gin spiked with sugar and nutmeg, then heated by plunging a sizzling poker into the tankard. It was fetched at once by the landlord. Rosamond suspected Mr. Simons had been hovering within ear-shot and she did not blame him. The poor man had lost his daughter in a most gruesome manner; to have heard Elizabeth's murder discussed by virtual strangers must have been unwelcome.
Once Perry had regained his aplomb, he regarded Rosamond with a gimlet eye. "Miss Kay, I did not question the doctor as I highly doubt that Miss Simons' injuries could have been caused by a housecat!"
Anne did not respond to his statement. She discarded a nine of diamonds; by way of a distraction, she told the other players that it was called the Curse of Scotland on account of the order for the massacre at Culloden Moor in Inverness being signed on a nine of diamonds in 1692, when the Duke of Cumberland wrote 'no quarter' on the back of the playing card, thus gaining for himself the nickname 'Butcher."
As the trump was hearts, it could therefore be assumed that she held no further cards of that suit and the story was meant to break the other players' concentration. The scheme was unsuccessful. Her father ultimately scooped up the trick, chortling in glee.
"I think that Miss Kay has an excellent question, Mr. Perry," Anne said, picking up the thread of an earlier conversation. "How do we know it was Harry's tuft of fur that was lost? One shouldn't presume such things but wait upon the evidence to illuminate the truth."
Mr. Simons was still loitering near their table. He shot Anne and the rest a red-rimmed, resentful look and cried, "Talk of evidence all you like, miss, but it won't change the fact that my daughter's dead and it was your lion what killed her!" He stamped away without waiting for an ripos—te, the lines of his back eloquent with grief.
"Oh, what a botheration!" Jellico exclaimed, nearly upsetting his glass of sherry. "My dear Anne, people in our profession must maintain friendly relations with inn-keepers and such-like folks, for it is only by their gracious condescension that we are permitted a place to present our menagerie to the local populace and thus, educate the ignorant."
"Not to mention sell them tickets for a penny apiece," Anne murmured.
"I do not think Mr. Simons is offended beyond repair," Rosamond said, ignoring the by-play between father and daughter. "His words were likely prompted by a very natural feeling of melancholy, for he has irrevocably lost someone precious to him. Perhaps if you go and speak to him, Mr. Jellico..."
"An excellent notion, Miss Kay. If you will excuse me for a moment, I must go and pour oil on troubled waters." Jellico laid down his playing cards and rose from the table in haste. Perry joined him, both men intent upon soothing the landlord's ire. Rosamond gathered up the cards and neatened the stack, as it seemed their whist game was over.
"Does Sir Charles play whist?" Anne asked.
Rosamond nodded. "And loo, although I understand that he prefers piquet."
Anne remained silent for a long moment, her thumbnail picking at a splinter on the scarred oaken table top. "And what game do you prefer, Miss Kay?" She seemed to hold her breath as she awaited Rosamond's answer.
Rosamond sat still, aware that there were hidden layers and depths to the question. Anne's head rose and their gazes collided. What Rosamond read in those hazel eyes made her gasp. There was hope and heartache and attraction, a heat that she named desire and a contradicting coolness that Rosamond knew instinctively was generated by fear of rejection. Anne's heavy-lidded regard was filled with promise — a languid softness that would yield to passion, and a fierceness that insisted on giving pleasure, too.
Taking up the deck of cards, Rosamond quickly sorted through them and, holding Anne's gaze with her own, let the hearts spill from her fingers to land face upward on the table. No words needed to be said; comprehension flashed and Anne's face split into an incandescent if tremulous smile. She stood and held out her hand.
"Will you allow me to escort you home, Rosamond?" Anne asked.
In the mellow light of candles and colza-oil[§] lamps, Rosamond was dazzled anew by Anne's unconventional beauty. The chestnut curls formed a halo around her head, giving her the look of a raffish angel. Rosamond rose to her feet, retrieving her Norwich shawl with her free hand as the other had been claimed by Anne in a firm grasp. The two girls were about the same height; she found herself fascinated by a gleam of moisture on Anne's bottom lip.
A very different question had been asked and answered.
Rosamond laced her arm through Anne's and said, "Would you kindly see me home, dearest Anne?"
To judge by the widening of the other girl's grin, nothing could have delighted Anne more. Before they could exit the Goat and Grape, however, Anne caught sight of Dr. Yarrow in conversation with Lt. Foyle, both men nursing tankards.
"Oh, Rosamond!" Anne said, breathless with unspoken apology. "There is the very man I would speak to, and I fear it must be done without delay. Will you forgive me?"
She looked so desolate that despite her own disappointment, Rosamond declared, "Naturally! Will you come tomorrow to Treybridge?"
"I should not miss the appointment for the world," Anne promised. Giving Rosamond a last glance over her shoulder, she went across the room to join Dr. Yarrow. After a moment, Lt. Foyle drained his tankard and came to Rosamond, who had hesitated at the door.
"I am bidden to escort you home, Miss Kay," Foyle said with a diffident bow. "I should have done so in any case, for I wish to speak to your brother regarding some London business. Will you do me the honor of allowing me to accompany you to Treybridge?"
"Of course," Rosamond responded automatically. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders and walked out into the night, pausing only until Foyle had summoned a linkboy with a torch to light their way along the lane.
Her last glimpse of Anne remained etched into her mind during the walk home, and would not be banished even after Rosamond said her good-byes to Lt. Foyle and was soon snuggled safe in bed, a coverlet drawn to her chin and a hot flannel-wrapped brick at her feet.
Anne had been leaning against the polished mahogany bar, a slender figure in white dimity bordered in the sea-green shade called Pomona. Her head was bent, short curls brushing her cheeks as she addressed Dr. Yarrow. A beam of light shone from the lamp and illuminated the single hazel eye that was visible, turning it into a sparkling jewel. Anne's profile was sharpened by the light, her complexion taking on a marble-like sheen.
She had never seemed so beautiful to Rosamond.
That was the image that followed her into sleep, haunting Rosamond's dreams.
"Miss Jellico!" Yarrow panted, his florid face dotted with perspiration. "I have just concluded my observation of the surgeon's post mortem examination."
"And?" Anne asked eagerly.
"You were correct," he replied, mopping at his brow with a spotted handkerchief. "I have consulted with Mrs. Caterham and..." He broke off and gave Rosamond a pointed glance, his mouth pursed in disapproval.
"Do go on, doctor," Anne said.
Rosamond wondered why Dr. Yarrow had involved Mrs. Caterham, the local midwife, in the examination, which she presumed must have been that of the unfortunate Miss Simons. She held her tongue, however, and awaited further developments.
"Well, it seems that Miss Simons had spoken to Mrs. Caterham a fortnight ago regarding...a delicate female matter of the type normally associated with married ladies," Yarrow said, dropping his voice to a confidential whisper that was nevertheless loud enough for Rosamond to hear.
Ah! Rosamond shuffled closer to Anne, trying to remain inconspicuous lest she be dismissed by the doctor as being too delicate and immature to listen to such matters. So Miss Simons was once again got with a by-blown child, and this time her London lord was not responsible. The father must have been a local gentleman. Rosamond's nose wrinkled and her blonde brows drew together in a frown as she gave the problem serious consideration.
Suddenly, the light dawned. Of course! Sir Charles! It must be! He has shown considerable partiality towards Miss Simons; during the last few months, the pair have often been noted in one another's company, as close as if they had been affianced. I know Sir Charles would not have tolerated sharing his amour's company with another gentleman, so who else could the father of Miss Simons' illegitimate child be but he, himself?
Yarrow continued, "This new information is neither here nor there, Miss Jellico. The fact remains that Miss Simons was killed by an animal, and thus my original observations remain unchanged."
"I thank you, Dr. Yarrow, for your indulgence," Anne said. "It has been most instructive and, I do not doubt, extremely helpful as well."
Shaking his head doubtfully, Yarrow withdrew, still wiping the sweat from his jowls.
"As you heard, Miss Simons was with child," Anne said, turning to face Rosamond.
"The father is most likely Sir Charles, although I cannot anathemize him openly as I no proof but conjecture, and I am no reckless gossip," Rosamond said, shuddering. "Thank God, though, that I did not accept the gentleman's offer of marriage."
"Thank God, indeed." Anne put an arm around Rosamond's shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "I know who killed Miss Simons and I can guess why. When I have discovered the weapon that took her life, the evidence may be presented to Lord Jewett."
"What must be done?" Rosamond asked, shocked. "Surely you do not suspect..."
"All will be revealed tonight, I promise." Anne's expression turned as mischievous as any monkey's. "In the meantime, you could help me create a dress suitable for this evening's soirèe. I have some ideas — and there is a gown that can be altered, as well as trims that I have been saving for an occasion."
Once again, Rosamond was forced to curtail her curiosity, although she felt likely to burst from a surfeit of conundrums. She went with Anne to her wagon, where a flame-colored dress in glacè silk required a few alterations to make it wearable, including cutting off the elegant Indian gold border from another dress and tacking it on the bottom of the flame silk. With the addition of an orange satin turban ornamented with ostrich feathers, as well as donning long gloves of French kid, Anne looked very smart and as fashionable as any of the beau monde who patronized Almack's in Town.
The newly altered gown was carefully laid over an arrangement of two chairs, so that it would not be crumpled and put their efforts at naught. That task accomplished, Rosamond went to sit on the settee, where Anne joined her. They sat side-by-side in comfortable silence, until finally Anne said, "I cannot stay here in Mappleton with you."
"I would not so presume," Rosamond said, although there was a sharp pang in her breast that betokened the cracking of her heart from a weight of dread and remorse.
"I beg your pardon, Rosamond, I did not mean it to sound as bleak as that," Anne said, taking Rosamond's cold hand and rubbing her knuckles with a thumb. "I have obligations with my father's menagerie that must be fulfilled. You have obligations as well, do you not?" When Rosamond nodded, Anne went on, "However, when my travels end later in the year, I should greatly wish to join you for an extended visit, if that is agreeable."
To have Anne at Treybridge from the beginning of Winter right through Spring! Rosamond's heart began to beat again, wholly mended by Anne's suggestion. The rhythm was giddy and wild, setting her aglow until she felt positively radiant. "Oh, I should desire that as well!" she cried. "I had dreaded being parted so quickly after we met! And I do like you, Anne, so very much!"
"Then we are in concert, dear Rosamond." Anne seemed satisfied. "I will miss you when I am away..."
"Then you must write me as often as you like, as many pages as you like, and I will have Lord Jewett frank my letters to you so that you will not be out of purse,[**]" Rosamond said, "for he has shown himself willing to frank correspondence for Fitzwilliam, and I do not doubt that he will do the same for me." She half-turned on the settee so that she faced Anne more fully. "And when you come in winter-time..."
"We can skate on the pond. There will be many balls, too, and other soirées...we have an amateur theatricals society in Mappleton, too, which produces a play at Christmas. I will ask my brother if we may give a ball in your honor, Anne, as I'm sure that you'd wish to be known in the neighborhood."
"That is a very fine thing," Anne said softly. She glanced down at their joined hands; her long lashes fluttered as she looked up again, focusing on Rosamond's face. "I look forward to many evenings spent together, in company or in quiet."
Rosamond wondered if Anne could sense the thundering of her pulse through the long, lean fingers wrapped around her wrist. "And tonight?" she asked shyly.
Anne's gaze was ablaze with joy. "Tonight, duty takes precedence...but not yet." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against Rosamond's mouth. The caress was light and soft and all the more wondrous for its brevity. An effervescent bliss bubbled over in Rosamond's soul, leaving her feeling as though, if she were not tethered to the earth by her own flesh and bone, she would surely float away.
"We should go to Treybridge," Anne whispered against her mouth, warm puffs of air that made Rosamond shiver. "We mustn't be late or Sir Charles will not be pleased."
Rosamond pulled away reluctantly, her lips tingling. "You must assist me in finding something suitable to wear," she said.
"That will prove no difficulty," Anne replied, smiling.
All the way to Treybridge, Rosamond could not stop thinking of the kiss - The Kiss, as it became in her mind, capitalized as was appropriate for such an important subject. During the walk home, Rosamond directed side-long glances at Anne, and more than once found herself blushing for no reason other than sweet recollection. She and Anne would be parted, but they would see each other again, and Rosamond had no doubt that their attachment would only grow stronger with enforced absence.
The afternoon wore on into evening.
Sir Charles March owned a modest house called The Briars; he did not often play the host to large parties, and the card party to which Rosamond and Fitzwilliam had been invited was one of the more well-attended affairs given by the parsimonious Sir Charles. As there was no ballroom at The Briars, the guests were, for the most part, stolid matrons and older gentlemen who did not require the excitement that youth demanded in its entertainments.
Round tables had been set up in the drawing room, each accommodating four players. Beeswax candles — a necessary extravagance — cast a clear smokeless light over every group. On a long pier table at the north part of the room, salvers held a selection of cheeses, including a large wheel of double Gloucester from the premier cheesemonger of London, Paxton and Whitfield (ordered especially for the occasion), as well as bread and sherry and a rather indifferent port.
Rosamond entered the drawing room, escorted by Fitzwilliam and with Anne at her other side. Dressed in peach Tussore silk with a gold gauze overdress, her blonde hair hidden beneath a coquelicot[∫∫] turban-style sacque decorated with a beaded band and a long tassel, Rosamond preened beneath Anne's admiring gaze. Sir Charles came over to greet them.
"Miss Kay, Mr. Kay," he said, "you honor me with your presence." His glance shifted to Anne. "May I be made known to your friend?"
"Allow me to present Miss Anne Jellico, of Jellico and Perry's Traveling Bestiary," Fitzwilliam said, making the necessary introductions. "Miss Jellico, may I present to you Sir Charles March."
Sir Charles bowed and Anne acknowledged him with a curtsey.
"And what is your pleasure this evening, Miss Kay?" Sir Charles asked. Rosamond looked into the hard, sharp planes of his face and suppressed a shudder. Apart from his Indian ventures, the gentleman had made some small name for himself during the Battle of Talavera in the Peninsular War. He had an ex-soldier's rigid posture; his eyes were dark and his gaze was greedy, gobbling up every detail that came into his view, always assessing, always covetous of every show of wealth.
Rosamond had never liked him. Now knowing — or at least speculating — that Sir Charles was responsible for the ghastly murder of Miss Elizabeth Simons, she loathed the gentleman. It was difficult to keep that disgust from showing in her expression. Fortunately, Fitzwilliam drew Sir Charles aside in order to discuss some grouse shooting on his land that was proposed for later in the season, and Rosamond eased the clutching grip she had taken on Anne's gloved arm.
"Does Sir Charles have a trophy room?" Anne asked.
"Yes," Rosamond replied, "I believe he keeps some trophies of his India travels in the billiards room."
Anne indicated that she should take the lead, and the two young ladies slipped out while their host remained distracted by Fitzwilliam. The billiards room was located opposite the drawing room. Dark walnut panels covered the walls, which were in turn covered with exotic animal hides and other trophies of the hunt. A candle in a heavy silver holder sat on a small table next to a rack of ivory-tipped cues. Rosamond hovered beside the door, allowed to remain open a crack so that she could keep watch with eyes and ears while Anne stalked into the gloom, the single candle held high.
Rosamond's nerves were taut as wires, her belly hollowed by apprehension. The situation had become painfully real to her; they were here to unmask a murderer, who had felt no compunction in killing an unarmed, helpless woman in the most gruesome manner imaginable. She had difficulty understanding what could motivate a man to do such a terrible thing. An illegitimate child did not seem sufficient cause to commit murder.
"Here!" Anne called in hushed half-whisper that nevertheless cut through the silence as though she had shouted. Rosamond followed the sound of her friend's voice and found Anne examining a tiger's skin.
"Look here," Anne said, pointing at the orange-and-black striped fur. "Do you see it?"
Rosamond leaned forward, into the pool of light cast by the candle. The hide was stretched out flat and fastened to the wall. She had seen a living tiger in the menagerie and thought the great cat's powerful yet supple movements were the very embodiment of grace. It seemed to her a great shame, that something so beautiful could be hunted and deprived of life solely to provide a huntsman's trophy to hang upon a wall. She could even feel sorry for foxes; when the country fields lay fallow and the leaves began to turn, these red-coated animals were hunted by gentleman of the Quorn and the Pytchley for no other reason than to provide themselves with entertainment and exercise to banish the dreaded ennui.
"Well?" Anne prompted, brows raised. "Do you see it?" she repeated.
"I do not know what I ought to be discovering," Rosamond said, poking the hide with a forefinger. A small cloud of dust puffed from the striped fur, and she sneezed.
Anne waited until Rosamond had stopped rubbing her abused nose before saying, "Do you not consider hunting a tiger with three paws to be somewhat unsporting? Or do you suppose the tiger lost his fourth paw more recently?"
"Oh!" Rosamond stared, wide-eyed.
"I believe that Sir Charles wanted to be rid of Miss Simons," Anne said, her gaze fixed on the tiger's skin with its missing paw. "He seized upon the presence of the menagerie in order to conceal his crime. As you see, the claws are still present and quite sharp. He must have cut off the paw and affixed it to something rigid, such as a stick, to utilize as a weapon. Sir Charles knew that if the girl's body was found in Harry's cage..."
"Everyone would assume that the lion was responsible," Rosamond concluded.
"The dust on this hide tells me that it is not cleaned very often by the servants, nor is the mutilation very evident, as you had difficulty noticing the missing member."
"What do you suppose Sir Charles did with the paw when he was finished with it?"
"I threw it into the pond," came a male voice from the vicinity of the door. Both Rosamond and Anne turned with gasps to confront Sir Charles March.
He stood there, a tall straight figure in a bottle-green coat and breeches that showed his muscular figure to perfection. Whatever other faults he may have possessed, the gentleman had not allowed himself to slacken and grow soft through lack of activity or a fondness for the epicurean delights of the table. Sir Charles surveyed the ladies with a jaundiced expression.
"Curiosity can be a dangerous vice when over-indulged, and it is assuredly an annoying habit in young ladies," he said, shutting the door behind him. "I am sorry, Miss Kay, that matters have come to such an unpretty pass. Quite sorry, indeed."
"Sir Charles!" Rosamond backed away until she bumped into Anne's immobile body. "What have you done, sir?"
"What have I done?" he repeated the question back to her mockingly, and took several steps closer. "She deceived me, the wretched Simons girl."
"How did she deceive you?" Rosamond asked, feeling Anne trembling behind her.
"I did not know that her stipend would cease if she married," he said, his eyes glinting strangely as he entered the circle of candlelight. "We wed in secret but when she told me that she was with child, and that her stipend would be withdrawn..." Sir Charles shrugged. "The girl was of no further use to me, nor had I any intention of supporting a bastard. It was easiest to be rid of the troublesome wench and the unborn brat and be free to pursue another wife whose income was not so dependent upon the avoidance of moral turpitude."
Snaking a hand around her back, Rosamond took hold of Anne's wrist. Her fear was not for herself but almost entirely reserved for the lady that she loved. Rosamond vowed silently to protect Anne until the last breath fled her faltering body.
"You ought to be ashamed," she told him fiercely, unaware that her blonde hair had come down from its anchoring pins and stood out around her face like a gilded ruff. Rosamond stiffened, bracing herself against the bulwark of Anne's flesh. "Stand aside, Sir Charles. Lord Jewett must be told."
"Do you believe that I will willingly surrender to that dandified fool, Jewett?" Sir Charles spat. "Elizabeth put herself in my way and I dealt with her as she deserved." His hands — large, strong, hard strangler's hands — opened and closed into fists. "I throttled the life out of her before I used the tiger's paw. Never let it be said that I did not show her a modicum of mercy...the same mercy that I will show you."
His face was as expressionless as a mask but his shoulders bulked massive as he loomed above them, as tall and as broad and as deadly as the legendary Minotaur. Sir Charles let out a animal-like snarl and came at them in a rush, catching Rosamond by the throat. She kicked out at him, fingers tearing at his hands but unable to do any damage thanks to her gloves. Rosamond was dimly aware of shouting and something hot and wet splattering against her face. Her vision was blurred by involuntary tears. Stale air filled her lungs like white-hot coals. A crimson-tinted darkness muffled her every sense.
Suddenly, the pressure was removed from her throat and Rosamond inhaled a spasmodic breath, choking, her breast heaving and her eyes watering as an agony that was also relief lanced through her breast. Someone was patting between her shoulders. Someone was scooping her up and she felt the sensation of moving through the air. Rosamond forced herself to croak in desperation, "Anne? Where are you? Anne?"
"I am here, dear Rosamond," said the beloved voice close to her ear.
Thank God, Anne was alive and well!
Rosamond succumbed to the insistence of oblivion.
Sir Charles had not attempted to escape.
The women's ordeal was over. Now Rosamond was seated in a chair in the sitting room, facing Lord Jewett. She had taken hold of Anne's hand after being revived by Yarrow, and refused to be parted from her friend for even a moment.
"Well, you have exceeded my expectations," Jewett said to Anne, surveying her through the quizzing glass that he languidly raised. "Not only is the lion proved innocent, you have unmasked the true murderer."
"I could not have succeeded without the assistance of Miss Kay," Anne answered coolly, but the smile she directed at Rosamond was warmth itself.
Jewett waved away Fitzwilliam's offer of wine. "As the matter was explained to me by Sir Charles," the lord said, "it seems that he wed Miss Simons for the sake of her stipend — although why anyone would wish marry another man's barque of frailty[ΩΩ] for a mere hundred pounds per annum is beyond my understanding. Miss Simons proved a willing partner in the deception and agreed to keep the marriage secret at Sir Charles' demand, but when she found herself in a state of fruitful anticipation, she desired to broadcast her wedded state."
"One can hardly blame Miss Simons," Rosamond remarked, "for she quite naturally did not care to be tarred with the self-same brush of her youth." Her voice was husky but otherwise intact, scarcely unimpaired by Sir Charles' thwarted attack.
"Indeed, I believe that was the case," Jewett said. "At any rate, Sir Charles had been told that marriage would end Miss Simons' stipend, which was why he was desperate to keep their union from being publicly announced. As her husband, he had, of course, a claim upon any property or monies that she owned, but Miss Simons had very little aside from the stipend that he coveted.
"Sir Charles decided that, as he was to lose the stipend in any case, he might also lose his inconvenient wife, the better to begin afresh with a new inamorata."
"The gentleman is utterly mad," Fitzwilliam opined, maneuvering in his seat so that Lord Jewett had a better chance of admiring his dazzling white, well-starched cravat tied in the complicated Trone d'Amour.
"Perhaps. Is not the love of money considered the root of all evil? There lay the roots of Sir Charles' madness." Jewett flicked his gaze towards Fitzwilliam, then back to Anne and Rosamond. "A pity that Miss Simons lost her life in pursuit of respectability. A great pity, indeed." He sighed. "At least we need not fear further deprivations among the neighborhood ladies. Sir Charles will receive just punishment for his crime. I will see to that."
"Thank you, milord," Rosamond said.
Jewett turned to Anne. "Miss Jellico, I have officially pardoned your lion and he is no longer under sentence of death."
Anne colored slightly under his lordship's regard. "Thank you, milord," she said.
"Fitzwilliam," Jewett continued to the younger gentleman, "do take me aside and demonstrate for me the intricacies of that rather exquisite cravat."
"Of course!" Fitzwilliam cried in unfeigned delight. "Excuse us, ladies, I beg you."
When the gentlemen had gone, Anne heaved a sigh of her own. "My father and Mr. Perry have informed me that we can no longer delay in Mappleton and must take the menagerie upon the road once more."
Rosamond gulped. She clutched Anne's hand convulsively. "I would rather that you weren't required to leave so soon."
"That would be my fondest wish as well, but we both know that I cannot abandon my family duties so suddenly. I am glad, though, that you will be well and safe until we see one another again in the winter-time."
"Oh, Anne!" Rosamond threw her arms around the other woman and embraced her tightly. Anne smelled of lavender water and powder and ever-so-faintly of the animals that were in her charge. "I shall miss you dreadfully."
"And I, you," Anne replied, her face pressed against Rosamond's neck. "You have my heart, you know. That must suffice for a little while."
Rosamond pulled away and studied Anne's face, seeing the a gratifying depth of love and affection reflected back at her. A swelling tenderness filled her; she sniffled back tears — not because she was melancholy, but because her soul rejoiced in having found its mate.
"I would have more than your heart, Anne," Rosamond murmured diffidently. "Much, much more...I would take anything you are willing to give."
"Then you must have it all." Anne's mouth descended upon her own, velvety lips demanding a response that Rosamond was only too eager to give. Tantalizing sweetness gave way to voluptuous delight. Soon, they would be parted, but tonight...
Tonight, Rosamond and Anne would revel in each other's company, as lovers ought, and pay no heed for what the morrow might bring.
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