In Which Miss Annis Whitworth Is Confronted with Terrible News and Two Handkerchiefs
When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions. —Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
We were at home when my father’s solicitor arrived. The morning was overcome by a soggy rain, and even Aunt Cassia did not choose to drag the flounced hem of her indigo walking dress in the unspeakable ooze that washed over London’s cobblestone streets. Cassia was sitting at her walnut desk writing letters to educated ladies she knows all over the Continent (one of her favorite activities), while I lay on the chaise in front of a cozy fire, reading the gossip columns. “Lady Castlewright insists that Hortensia Thomas must have the siren talent,” I reported.
Cassia looked up from her letter and blinked. “Miss Thomas? Who couldn’t decide whether she preferred lemonade or tea last time she called? I shouldn’t have thought her voice could convince anyone to do much of anything.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps it’s a talent that improves with training? Lady Castlewright insists that if Miss Thomas had not sung ‘Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow?,’ her son would never have tried to kiss Miss Middleton on the balcony after the musicale. But Miss Middleton’s mother demands to know why only Mr. Castlewright was affected, and why Miss Thomas’s performance of ‘Flow My Tears’ caused not a single tear.” I frowned. “It is a great pity—Miss Middleton finally obtains a suitable gown, only to face such a scene! I’d better call on her later, or she’ll never wear it again, and all those alterations I made will be nothing but a waste of time.”
Cassia snorted. “I’ve never in my life heard of siren magic affecting only one member of an audience, and, I can assure you, improper gentlemen will behave improperly regardless of what one is wearing. Lady Castlewright ought—”
But I never heard what Cassia felt Lady Castlewright ought to do, for just then Jenkins announced Mr. Harrington, my father’s man of business. Cassia put down her pen at once, without even blotting the page, and I sat up straight and set the gossip column aside.
“Thank you, Jenkins. Would you be so kind as to ask Mrs. Parker to send up a pot of tea?” Cassia said, eyeing our visitor’s tired face and wet boots.
Jenkins bowed. “I have already taken the liberty of doing so, madam.”
Cassia nodded. “I think a plate of sandwiches too, if you would?”
Jenkins bowed and left at once, and Cassia closed the door to the sitting room. After a heartbeat, maybe two, she dropped to her knees, peered through the keyhole, then stuffed her handkerchief in it. (Cassia has always insisted on the value of a clean handkerchief, but I had never seen this particular use for one.) Then she rose smoothly to her feet and nodded to Mr. Harrington as though nothing had happened. (Honestly, I do think Cassia is becoming rather eccentric, even for a lady intellectual.)
I’d pictured my father’s man of business as white-haired and ancient, but Mr. Harrington could not have been much older than I was, even if he was dressed like a man twice his age. Was it to convince his clients to trust him to manage their money? I wondered. His coat fit properly and his boots were no muddier than could be helped on such a day, but he might have worn some other colors than unremarkable brown, more brown, and tan, especially since his hair and his eyes were also brown. But he smiled at me as Cassia made the introductions, and it was a nice smile, if sad.
“I hear the Lakes are beautiful at this time of year,” he said to Cassia.
What an odd thing to say. Had he stopped by the alehouse before calling on us? He did not sound inebriated, though.
Before I could ask what he meant, Cassia nodded and said, “Indeed, very good hunting, they say.”
I stared. Cassia had gone quite pale, and Mr. Harrington hadn’t come so far for small talk.
Cassia took a deep breath, gripping the back of her chair in both hands. “Tell us. Quickly.”
Mr. Harrington’s face fell, and he looked so very tired. “Allow me to express my sincere condolences on the death of your brother.”
I stared at Cassia’s white face, trying to understand the words. It was not until her eyes filled with tears that I believed him. My father was dead.
The delicate fretwork of the chair snapped under Cassia’s grip. She stared down at it for a moment, her face blank. Slowly she released the chair, one finger at a time, and a piece of gilt wood fell to the floor.
Then she grabbed her penknife and stabbed it through the letter she was writing and into the beautiful carved wood of her desk. The knife quivered there for a moment, then fell, knocking her inkwell over into a black pool that dripped onto her skirt as the tears ran down her face.
I stumbled to my feet, grabbed my handkerchief, and handed it to Cassia, but she just crumpled it in her fist, squeezing so hard her knuckles went as white as her face.
“When?” Cassia asked, her voice choked.
How I wished she’d sounded surprised—but she didn’t. My stomach bunched and twisted like the handkerchief in her hand.
He sighed. “The night before last. He was traveling alone from Paris to Calais when his carriage overturned. He had an injury to the head, and his neck was broken; he did not suffer.”
I looked at him sharply. “But there was no moon that night. Why would he travel such rural roads without even the moon to light his way?”
Mr. Harrington looked down at his boots. “He was to meet me in Calais the next day, to sign some business documents before he embarked on his next journey. He’d sent his trunk to Hamburg that morning—I’ll arrange for its return—but I’ve brought the personal things he had with him.” He held out a leather document case.
Calais was just across the Channel from Dover. Had my father even considered visiting us before leaving for Hamburg? I wanted to ask, but when I opened my mouth, my words couldn’t squeeze around the ache in my throat. My father was dead.
Cassia scrubbed her face with my handkerchief, took a deep breath, and held out her hand for the case. “Have you brought his will?”
Mr. Harrington handed her a paper from the sheaf he held.
She read it, frowned, and bit her lip. “I see.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said softly. “It will take me some time to collect his overseas accounts. Do you have family to visit?”
Cassia did not answer. I swallowed hard. “The rest of my father’s family is dead. My mother’s family was French; she believed them dead in the war, and we have never heard otherwise. I suppose there’s no one left but us. Why, are we destitute now?”
I’d meant it as a joke, but Mr. Harrington did not smile. “Your father lived off his military half-pay, from when he was in service before you were born. That died with him, I’m afraid.”
“That is what paid this house’s lease, our household expenses, the servants’ wages . . . ,” Cassia trailed off.
There was a noise like a gasp in the hallway, and then, quickly, a tap at the door, and Cassia sighed.
Slowly, she got to her feet. She took a deep breath, put her shoulders back, and pressed her lips together until they stopped trembling.
“I will make every effort to secure Mr. Whitworth’s overseas accounts as quickly as possible,” Mr. Harrington said as she went to the door.
Mrs. Parker’s eyes were wide as she set down the tea tray.
“Mrs. Parker, please ask the servants to gather in the dining room in half an hour,” Cassia said, her voice calm, though her eyes were red, and ink still dripped from her skirt. “I shall have an announcement to make as soon as we’ve finished here.”
Mrs. Parker bobbed her head and left, closing the door softly behind her.
“Do have a sandwich,” Cassia said, handing Mr. Harrington the plate. “You must have traveled all night.” She poured him a cup of tea, her hand perfectly steady, not spilling a drop. “For you, Annis?”
I shook my head.
There was a commotion in the corridor, and a loud tapping on the door. Cassia was there in an instant, opening it.
“Pardon me, but there seems to have been an accident involving Mr. Harrington’s coach—”
Mr. Harrington was up and out the door before Jenkins finished speaking, with Cassia right behind, pausing only long enough to hand me the document case and to tell me to stay where I was.
For once, I did not argue. I felt trembly, distant, not ready to cry, not ready to speak. I hadn’t seen my father for months—he had been traveling for most of my life, for weeks, even years, at a time. And now he was gone forever. I ran my finger over the damp leather of my father’s document case. Then I untied the cord and opened it.
He had so little with him when he died. A couple of cravats, carefully rolled so as not to set creases (my father had a simple but elegant way of tying his neckcloths that was always admired when he came to London), a few sheets of paper that looked boringly businessy, his cravat pin, his signet ring. There were two of the handkerchiefs I’d embroidered for him for his birthday—so they had reached him after all. An unsigned note confirming that passage had been booked for him from Calais to Dover. I paused. So he had meant to call on us. Then why had he sent his trunk ahead to Hamburg?
I felt around in the corners of the case, but there was nothing else. Where was the silver pocket watch with my mother’s portrait inside? He couldn’t have been robbed by highwaymen, not with the rest of his valuables intact. But he was never without it. It was the only picture of my mother we had.
When I was two years old, my mother fell ill of a wasting fever while my father was traveling. Cassia had come at once. Her parents thought it improper for a girl of her age, but she’d come anyway to help my father’s housekeeper all through my mother’s illness and after her death. When my father was delayed yet again, she decided to stay on to care for me. Now I could no longer remember my mother’s face, nor a time before Cassia came.
I placed the note next to the business papers I’d set aside. The hand was the same. Surely Mr. Harrington had drafted the papers? But why say he was to meet my father in Calais, after he’d booked his passage to Dover? I frowned. Mr. Harrington had lied about my father’s destination. Why? Who could it matter to now, when he was dead?
I picked up the handkerchiefs, remembering the time I’d spent embroidering my father’s initials, wondering where he was, hoping he was safe.
The door opened, and I jumped, but it was only Cassia. “It was nothing,” she said, hurrying across the room. “A lamplighter blundered into Mr. Harrington’s hackney cab and singed it a bit, and he and the driver got into a scuffle. Since Mr. Harrington had traveled all night to deliver his news, I suggested he go get some rest.” It made perfect sense, but her voice sounded strange.
Copyright © 2017 by Kelly Jones. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.