Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Davies.
Warnings—See part 1.
19th Century Gypsy Words & Phrases
There's a glossary of relevant words and phrases at the end.
"That was rash. Now wasn't it, my dear?" said Franklin Ablewhite. "Running away with the gypsies!"
Dorcas ignored him and gazed out of the window. The view was far inferior to that from her cubicle in the women's dormitory. There, she had at least been able to look out onto greenery. Here there was only a drying yard, across which were stretched four washing lines full of thin, shapeless, grey dresses like the one she was wearing.
They had stripped Kat's colourful gypsy clothes from her when she arrived. At least she thought they had. The sedatives made everything dreamlike—she had tried to refuse them, but two attendants had gripped her while a nurse held her nose until she was obliged to swallow the foul-tasting draught.
"I told your mother you read too many sensational novels," continued her uncle. "Dear Julia. How I miss our conversations. She disagreed, but events have proved me correct, for look at the unfortunate result." He wandered over to join Dorcas by the window and pushed up his spectacles before peering out. "It's lucky we found you before you came to any more harm. Novels!" He shook his head. He seemed to have been doing that a lot since the locked door had opened to admit him. "You're to be allowed only edifying reading matter from now on."
Pilgrim's Progress? Dorcas grimaced.
"It's time you spared a thought for others." He turned and frowned at her. "Do you know how worried we all were when we heard you had absconded? Your Aunt had palpitations. As for poor Gilbert... he took it as a personal slight, I fear." He shook his head again. "What your parents would say, if they could see you in this sorry condition, I shudder to think."
"They would tell you to release me."
Her uncle drew himself up with an offended air. "And I would accede to their wishes at once. In fact I would like nothing better. But St. John Dunn is of the opinion that you are sadly still far from being well enough to go home. And who am I to argue with him?"
Dr. St. John Dunn was the asylum's assistant medical officer. He had spared Dorcas all of five minutes of his precious time, listening with a distracted, pitying air as she told him of her belief that her uncle was plotting to gain control of her money. Then, with crushing condescension, he had told her it was all in her head and rung the hand bell to summon an attendant.
"I want to go home," said Dorcas.
"I'm afraid that's impossible without someone to take care of you." He adopted a coaxing tone. "Gilbert would welcome the task."
Gilbert again. "I will never marry your son."
"Well, well. In time you may change your mind."
He turned his back to the window, his glance taking in the unlit grate, the narrow bed, the high-backed wooden chair, and the rickety table on which sat a tarnished oil lamp. "I am sorry your quarters aren't more comfortable. I would have liked to move you to somewhere more suitable for patients of our class and station, but I'm afraid the fees...." He gave an eloquent shrug.
She picked at her thumbnail. "Am I to be locked in all day?"
Her uncle had the grace to look a little shamefaced. "For your own safety. After this last incident, I can no longer trust you to be sensible. You will, of course, be permitted half an hour's exercise each day... under strict supervision." He studied her. "I know things must look a little bleak. But St. John Dunn assures me your strength and health will return with proper rest and care."
An awkward silence fell. He made a show of taking out his pocket watch and looking at it.
"And now, I really must take my leave," he said. The jovial smile didn't reach his eyes. "You must be tired after your... adventures, Dorcas. I'll return in a day or two. In the meantime, I'm sure Gilbert will want to pay you his respects."
It was fortunate the gates hadn't been locked for the night, thought Kat, as the cart's wheels crunched up the long, gravelled drive. The house at its far end loomed larger in the gathering darkness than she had anticipated. Evidently Squire Wentworth had money. No wonder her requests for directions in the little village from which this house drew its name had garnered such looks. What business could a bedraggled Romany possibly have at such a grand residence?
No doubt they think I've come begging. She gave a wry smile. As indeed I have. But for information not money.
She steered Pharaoh round to the tradesmen's entrance—no sense in provoking the occupants unnecessarily. After reining the donkey to a halt, she jumped down. It had been a long day of travelling for both of them. She pressed a fist into her aching back with one hand and patted Pharaoh with the other.
"Perhaps you'll sleep in a stable tonight," she told him. And perhaps not. Most likely Wentworth would send her away with a flea in her ear.
With Bracken trotting at her heels, Kat walked up to the door, took a deep breath, and gave the bell lever a tug. Somewhere inside, a bell jangled. The lurcher pressed herself against Kat's calf.
"I know," said Kat. "I wish we were sitting by my campfire, with the prospect of hare for supper, but we must make the best of it."
She was beginning to think she must ring the bell again, when she heard footsteps. The door swung open. A big bosomed woman in an apron, the bunch of keys at her belt indicating she was the housekeeper, held up her candleholder and scanned Kat from head to toe. Her lip curled.
"Selling lucky white heather, are you? Be off with you. Bothering decent folk at this time of night. The cheek!" She started to close the door.
"Wait," called Kat. "I have urgent business concerning Dorcas Garland."
The door paused and the housekeeper peered round it. "Who?"
"Miss Dorcas Garland." Perhaps Dorcas had been before the woman's time. "My business is with Squire Wentworth. Please give him my message."
With a grudging nod, the housekeeper said, "Wait there." She finished closing the door, leaving Kat standing on the step.
"At least she didn't slam it in my face," Kat told Bracken.
Five minutes passed, and Kat was beginning to fear that the squire either couldn't remember Dorcas or wished no further involvement in her affairs, when once more she heard the sound of approaching footsteps.
The door opened. The housekeeper looked annoyed. "Come in. But leave that nasty animal outside."
"Stay," Kat told the lurcher, and stepped inside.
"This way." The housekeeper bustled along a passage. "You've interrupted him in the middle of dinner."
That explained the aroma of roast lamb, thought Kat. She'd had little to eat since last night's bread and cheese, and her stomach rumbled. The housekeeper gave her a sour glance. No offer of food and drink was likely from that quarter.
The woman stopped at a door, knocked, waited a moment, then entered. "The gypsy as requested, Sir."
"Thank you, Mrs Keyes," came a man's voice. "Show her in."
She beckoned Kat, and stood to one side.
The room was huge, and so was the linen-clothed dining table dominating its centre. At a solitary place setting at its farthest end sat a young man who reminded Kat strongly of the young Prince Albert. His choice of clothes was a more conservative than the Queen's late consort, though —no checked waistcoat or plaid trousers for him.
He kicked back his chair and stood up. "Good evening. You wished to see me?" His manner was polite, but his grey eyes were watchful. Kat couldn't blame him. For all he knew, she had come to demand money for Dorcas's safe return.
"Childhood friend of Miss Dorcas Garland?"
"Yes, yes." He waved an impatient hand. "How may I be of service?" He gave his dinner a wistful glance. Kat's stomach rumbled loudly once more.
Wentworth turned to his housekeeper. "Set a place for our guest, Mrs Keyes."
He turned back to Kat. "Whom do I have the honour of addressing?"
"Please be seated, Miss Lovel." He gestured towards an empty chair and resumed his own seat.
"Mrs Keyes?" he prompted.
While the housekeeper, lips pursed in silent disapproval, placed cutlery and a napkin in front of Kat and set about carving slices from the roast joint, Wentworth picked up his knife and fork and resumed eating.
A half-filled plate appeared in front of Kat with more ceremony than was necessary, followed by a tureen, its contents steaming. She helped herself to vegetables while the squire sipped his glass of wine and regarded her.
"Thank you." Kat replaced the spoon in the tureen.
"That will be all, Mrs Keyes," said her employer.
The housekeeper curtseyed and made her exit, her displeasure plain. When the door had closed behind her, Wentworth let out a quiet laugh. "You must excuse my housekeeper. She is merely being protective."
Kat picked up her knife and fork and took a bite of lamb. It was delicious.
"Now, please. What is all this about Miss Garland?" He stroked his moustache. "I confess, I am somewhat surprised to find a gypsy with Dorcas's name on her lips. And curious. And a little fearful." He paused. "Is she in trouble?"
"I believe so. Her uncle, a Mr. Ablewhite, is at the root of it."
He put down his knife and fork. "Impossible!"
"I fear it isn't."
"But I don't understand. What of Dorcas's parents?"
"Dead. Last year, in a carriage accident."
"So she is all alone in the world? Poor girl." He propped his chin on one hand, and regarded her with a frown. "You seem to know a good deal about her affairs."
"We travelled together for a while."
"Yet she's no longer with you?"
"We were coming here for your help, when we were waylaid. Her uncle's men abducted her."
He blinked. "What?"
"There were two constable with them, with documents authorising their actions."
"Why would her uncle do such a thing?"
"He wants her back in the asylum."
"Asylum!" Wentworth looked aghast.
"She is as sane as you or I, sir. But I believe Ablewhite intends to gain control of her estate. And if his plan to make her marry his son fails—"
He let out an oath.
"—then he will get the courts to pronounce her of unsound mind and appoint him as administrator of her affairs."
Wentworth scratched his side-whiskers. "And Dorcas was coming to me for help?"
Kat nodded. "She couldn't think who else to turn to."
"I see." He studied her with a frown. "How much do you want?"
She managed to keep her tone even. "I haven't come here for money."
His frown eased. "Then I fear you have come to the wrong place, Miss Lovel. It is some years since I corresponded with the Garland family."
"Even so." Kat leaned forward. "Do you know the location of Garland House?"
"The property in Hampstead that Dorcas's father inherited? Of course." He told her the address.
"Thank you. And her uncle's residence?"
He drummed his fingers on the tablecloth. "Alas, I've forgotten the particulars. Somewhere in Pimlico? Mr and Mrs Garland visited him several times, as I recall."
Hampstead and Pimlico. It's a start. "Thank you." Kat prepared to rise.
Wentworth glanced at the clock on the mantel and stayed her with a gesture. "You cannot continue your journey at this late hour. Permit me to extend my hospitality."
Kat's urge to set off after Dorcas was strong, but it would not be sensible. She was exhausted and her head ached. She would think more clearly after she had rested.
"My donkey needs food and water. And there's my dog—"
"Donkey!" Wentworth quickly regained control of his features. "I can assure you that your animals will be well looked after."
"In that case..."
A key rattled in the lock. Dorcas looked round as the door creaked open to admit her cousin. He was fashionably dressed as always. Today his waistcoat was a pale shade of green.
"Gilbert." She didn't bother to hide her disappointment.
"Is that any way to greet your greatest admirer?"
He had taken to visiting her every other day, and, though all the evidence pointed to the contrary, each time made of point of telling her how much he esteemed and admired her and wanted her to be his wife. Perhaps he was hoping persistence would wear her down. If so, it wasn't working.
"How are you today, cousin?" He placed his top hat brim-upwards on the table, and tossed his kid gloves inside it.
"No different from the last time, or the time before that," she said wearily.
Which was rather disturbing, now she came to think about it. She was no longer being given a sedative draught each morning and evening. Were they lacing her meals instead? She gave Gilbert a speculative glance.
"Would you like some tea?" It was just after dinner, and the teapot on her tray was still untouched.
"No thank you," he said quickly.
Too quickly? She couldn't tell. Of course if she was being drugged, the distance they put between her and the world made withstanding Gilbert's proposals easier. She doubted his father had foreseen that.
He sat on the high-backed chair, crossed one leg over the other, and picked an imaginary piece of lint from the knee of his plaid trousers.
"Have you considered my proposal?" He looked up at her.
"The answer is still no." She shrugged. "I don't love you, Gilbert. And you certainly don't love me."
Something changed in his expression. He leaned forward in his chair. "Let me reassure you—it would be a marriage of convenience only."
She digested that, though it was hard to focus as her thoughts kept drifting, fragmenting. She found herself remembering instead the shawl dance—the sultry, sensual movements of the young women dancing in front of the flickering camp fire, the gleam in the black eyes of the men watching them....
Gilbert cleared his throat.
What had they been talking about? Ah yes. "You have no desire for children?"
He waved a manicured hand. "I expect you to do your wifely duty and provide me with an heir, of course, but after that...." His cheeks pinked and he lowered his voice. "My, um, needs in that department are taken care of."
She had heard rumours of a mistress, a working class young woman named Lily. It looked as if they were true. She wondered if her uncle knew. "Even so," she murmured.
His leaned back, looking genuinely puzzled. "Don't you want to escape?"
"Of course I do."
"Then accept my offer." When she remained silent, he went on, "Surely you realise the risk you are running by your continued refusal?"
"Risk?" Her heart beat faster.
"From my father." He licked his lips before continuing. "You've not seen his ruthless side, cousin, but I have. He has a reputation for getting what he wants, if not by one means then by another."
"What do you mean, Gilbert? Speak plainly."
"I may not love you, but I have no desire for you to come to harm."
"Come to harm," she repeated.
He flushed, as though realising he had said too much. "I meant only that he can make your life uncomfortable." The scraping of the chair legs on the bare floorboards as he stood up was loud in the silence. "By limiting the coals for your fire, the blankets, the oil for your lamp," he added.
But his glance had become shifty. He was lying, she was sure of it.
"Think about what I've said." He pulled on his gloves and reached for his hat. "I will come for my answer in a day or two."
"The Ablewhites don't live here no more." The housekeeper glared at Kat. "So hook it."
"I don't know where they moved to, neither. What's more, if I did, I wouldn't tell a good-for-nothing gyppo." She flapped a hand in dismissal. "Be off with you!"
Only Kat's instinctive flinch saved her nose from a squashing, as the door to the house in Pimlico slammed shut.
"Thanks for nothing." She turned and trudged back down the front path. I hope Wentworth is having better luck.
In an overdue stroke of good fortune, it had turned out that Dorcas's childhood friend knew a member of the Lunacy Commission. The commission had the power to release asylum inmates or allow them visitors, and Wentworth had offered to contact his friend and enlist his help.
Kat had been doubtful about the good that would do. For a start, they didn't know where Dorcas was being held. The squire had been dismissive. Surely they could find Dorcas by trawling through the names of all patients admitted to London asylums in the last few months? Kat wasn't so sure. What if Dorcas hadn't been admitted under her real name? She wouldn't put it past the manipulative uncle to have assigned her a false one, or even to have bribed the Superintendent to lose her papers altogether. What's more, time was against them. Dorcas was probably drugged by now, and alone and powerless in her uncle's clutches. Suppose he were to decide his niece's death suited his purposes better?
But so far Kat was making little progress. Perhaps Wentworth had had the right idea after all.
"Gave you an earful, did she?"
She looked round for the source of the amused remark. A coal deliveryman was standing on path to the house next door. He grinned at her, teeth gleaming in his coal dust-coated face.
"Couldn't help overhearing." He shifted the heavy coal sack from one shoulder to the other. "Got a tongue like a fishwife, that one." He indicated the closed door.
Was he just making conversation? Deciding to humour him, she returned his grin.
"Had this round for the past five years," he said. "It's the Ablewhites you're after, is it?"
"Moved out Hackney way. Six months ago now, and good riddance. Didn't like the man or his missus. Stingy, the pair of 'em. Never once gave me a Christmas box." He frowned in thought and Kat held her breath. Then his face cleared. "Pembury Street."
He nodded. "Couldn't tell you the number though. Sorry."
"Don't be. It's the best lead I've had all day." Kat started back down the path at a run—the cart was parked just around the corner. "May good fortune smile on you and your family all your born days," she called back over her shoulder. The coalman looked after her in pleased astonishment.
The sky was the colour of pewter, but at least it hadn't started to rain yet. Dorcas hunched her shoulders and pulled her shawl tighter. She had spent most of yesterday longing to be able to stretch her legs, but now her allotted exercise period had arrived, all she wanted to do was get back to her room.
It might have been different if there was something nice to look at, and if the airing yard weren't so cramped. The last time she had could remember walking round in circles in such a confined space was when she was eight. Her brothers were at Limmerton House. Dorcas had wanted to go too—William had a magic lantern and a toy theatre, and the grounds there were much more exciting than the tame little garden attached to the house of the Squire's agent. But her brothers' tolerance of their little sister was thin at the best of times, and today they had told her to stop bothering them. She had run crying to her mother, whose lips had thinned when she heard what Tom and James had said.
Mother dried Dorcas's tears and read her a favourite story until she was calm once more. Then, because it was washday, she left Dorcas to amuse herself.
Dorcas got out her tin tea set and fed her dolls imaginary tea and cakes. Then she straddled her hobby horse and ran round the garden, neighing, galloping, and shaking her mane. After ten minutes, a downpour forced her back indoors. Taking comfort from the thought that her brothers' fun and games were being ruined too, she rode her hobby horse round the parlour, until her elbow nudged a piece of Father's favourite china off the mantelpiece....
"Stop dawdling, Garland." The call from attendant on the other side of the yard jolted her back to the here and now.
The memories had blurred her vision. She wiped her eyes and increased her pace and tried not to feel despair.
For all its shortcomings, this half hour made a welcome change. Reading the Bible and old newspapers, from which the most interesting articles had been excised, had grown tedious. As had the lack of someone to talk to.
Previously, she had been able to join the other inmates for daily worship in the chapel, and accompany the women to the dayroom for meals. Now the chaplain grudgingly visiting her room once a week, and a silent attendant brought tepid meals on a tray.
Even a spell in the high-ceilinged workroom sewing dresses, aprons, and tablecloths under the eagle eye of the dressmaker hired to give instruction was beginning to seem attractive. To be able to whisper if only of trivial matters to another human being, to exchange sympathetic glances....
An image of Kat smiling at her from across the campfire surfaced, bringing with it the usual pang of anxiety and string of unanswered questions. Did someone find you in time? Are you injured? Dead, even? Will I ever see you again?
"Half hour's up, Garland. Back to your room and be quick about it."
With a sigh that mixed regret with relief, Dorcas trudged towards the airing yard exit.
Kat eyed the spear-tipped iron railings with dismay. Half an hour ago, Ablewhite had walked through those tall gates and disappeared inside one of the smog-stained buildings. For the past week she had tracked his every journey, and this asylum, a penny omnibus ride from his house in Hackney, was the most likely candidate.
It was just possible, of course, that he was on the board of some charitable institution concerned with the plight of asylum inmates, but she doubted it. It was also possible that he had decoyed her away from the asylum where Dorcas was actually being held, but again she doubted it. She had been careful to keep herself hidden.
This must be the place.
In the back of her mind Kat had harboured the thought that she might be able to rescue Dorcas on her own. But breaking the gorgie out of such a fortress would be impossible. She needed Wentworth and his contacts.
There had been an electric telegraph branch office near the Common where she had left the cart. How far was it to Limmerton? Not much more than 100 miles, surely? She might—just—be able to afford a telegram.
Kat accepted the receipt from the counter clerk, and made her way down the telegraph office steps. Now word of Dorcas's whereabouts was speeding along the wires to Wentworth, her thoughts could turn to other things, such as the emptiness of stomach.
At breakfast, she had discovered that the loaf meant to last her another day was missing. Her prime suspect was Pharaoh. But the donkey had done sterling service over the past few days—she couldn't begrudge him his illicit snack.
The last shop before the Common was a bakery. She pushed open the door and inhaled the mouth-watering aroma of fresh-baked bread with appreciation. The baker looked up at the doorbell's tinkle. A strange expression flashed across his face. Was he going to refuse to serve a Romany? But he smiled and nodded, and turned his attention back to his customer—a middle-aged woman buying Bath buns.
Ignoring the shelves of fresh bread, Kat crossed to a basket of stale quartern loaves, whose price had been reduced by tuppence. The door catch clicked closed behind the departing woman, and the baker folded his arms and watched her. She was reaching for a loaf when a clearing of his throat made her pause.
"I can let you have a fresh-baked one for the same price."
Kat regarded him in astonishment. "Why?"
"Business is slack." He flushed. "Truth is, I owe your people a favour."
"You're a gypsy, ain't you?"
Fresh bread would make a welcome change. For a moment she hesitated—offers from gorgios should be treated with caution—then hunger got the better of her and she crossed to the counter.
The baker took a quartern loaf from the shelf behind him and began to hand it to her. As she reached to take it, he hesitated. Kat was about to ask if he had changed his mind when he relinquished his grip.
"A blessing on you, sir." She tucked the four-pound loaf under her arm and counted out five pennies.
He put the money in the till. "Anything else?" His manner had turned brusque, and the tinkle of the doorbell indicated the arrival of another customer.
She shook her head.
As Kat made her way along the path that wound across the Common, the buzz and hum of London's busy streets became muted. A breeze sprang up, diluting the ever-present stink of coal smoke from chimneystacks. She took a deep breath and let it out, wondering, not for the first time, how gorgios could bear living in such a place.
She reached the copse where she had hidden the cart, glanced round to check she was unobserved, and slipped among the tree trunks. Pharaoh's head came up as she emerged into the clearing, but he relaxed when he saw who it was and brayed a greeting. Bracken hurried over and presenting her head for patting. Kat obliged with one hand, while she put down the heavy loaf with the other.
"Thought I'd deserted you, did you? You should know me better."
Kat fetched her fire-making tools from the cart. Soon, she had a small blaze going, a carefully positioned branch scattering the smoke. While she waited for the water to boil, she found the last of the lamb that Wentworth had made his cook give her and sliced off a crust of bread to go with it.
After a moment, she stopped chewing. Did the meat taste too sweet or was it the bread? The bread, she decided. No wonder the baker was eager to be rid of it. A favour, indeed! It's on the turn.
She swallowed the mouthful—no sense in wasting good meat; besides she was hungry—swilled away the cloying taste with some water, and ate the rest of the lamb unaccompanied.
When the water had boiled, she made herself a cup of tea. Then another. Her thirst was hard to slake, though, and by now her head was throbbing. Her eyes were smarting too, though that was probably just the smoke.
Bracken nosed her arm.
"I do feel queer," admitted Kat.
It was a different kind of nausea from last week, when the policeman's truncheon had laid her low. I hope that baker rots in hell.
She crossed to her cart and retrieved her bag of medicinal herbs. An emetic had the desired result, and she was sick at the side of the clearing. Afterwards, she felt a little better, though shivery and hot by turns.
She banked the fire and lay down beside it, glad it wasn't raining. A good night's sleep was what she needed, but what she got was nightmares. She emerged from some nameless horror, panting and sweating, only to plunge back under once more.
When next Kat became aware, the moon was high. Voices had disturbed her, she realised, and a sense of imminent danger swept over her. Bracken's tongue rasped across her cheek, but Kat had no strength to respond. It was all she could do to lift her head. Against her will, her eyelids closed.
"Is she dying, brother?" came a voice she knew but could not place.
"Depends how much of the bread she ate."
"How much drow did you give the baker?"
"Enough to kill two hogs."
"Mishto!" The first voice brimmed with satisfaction.
At the mention of drow, Kat's heart sank. Some Romanies liked to creep into a farmer's sty by night and poison a pig, then happen by the next morning, offering to take the carcass off his hands for a few pence. With that particular poison, if you scoured out the pig's innards, the meat was still fit to eat. But for one Romany to poison another....
A finger peeled back her eyelid and she saw a man's face looking down at her. It took her a moment to identify him. Boboko Herne. Two more faces swam into view, one sporting a bushy black moustache. Yayal and Punka.
"Still with us, but not for long," said Boboko,
She flinched as something poked her in the ribs.
"Felt that all right." His grin became a snarl. Pain flared in her ribs. He had kicked her.
Bracken's snarling filled the clearing and an alarmed Boboko reared back out of her field of vision. "Get it off me," she heard him cry out.
Scuffling followed, interspersed with growls and barks. Then came the sound of blows. A yelp gave way to silence. Kat's heart sank.
Boboko's face reappeared. "She'll not last much longer, nephews. If you want justice, take it now."
Kat braced herself for more kicks.
A whistle shrilled. "Over there," came a woman's shout. "Gypsies! They're attacking someone." The whistle shrilled again.
"What the devil?" Yayal's eyes widened.
"Run for it!" said Punka.
Then the three were gone, the rhythmic thud of their footsteps fading into the distance.
Silence followed, and Kat's surroundings kept going in and out of focus. A face blocked out the moon. For a moment she feared the Hernes had come back to finish her off. But it was a woman, brows creased.
"Katarina." A hand brushed her cheek.
Kat knew that voice. Mala. Then the blackness that had been threatening to engulf her returned.
Dorcas gaped at the attendant tipping coal into her grate. Usually her requests for a fire were ignored, and she had grown accustomed to her room being cold. But the door had opened with a crash that made her jump, and the attendant hurried in, carrying a coalscuttle.
Coal dust flew. Dorcas coughed and shielded her nose and mouth. The woman added three sticks of kindling and some scrunched up newspaper to the coal, and pulled a box of matches from her apron pocket. The draught from the chimney has blown out two matches and she was impatiently striking a third when Dorcas became aware of voices.
"This room, Mr. Biven?" came a man's voice from the doorway. It sounded familiar.
The attendant's panicked expression eased as the fire chose that moment to catch alight.
Dorcas recognised the deep baritone of the respondent. Why was Superintendent Biven visiting her in person?
"I fear you are under a misapprehension," went on Biven. "Miss Garland's presence here is above board. Her certificates are in order—I checked them myself."
"Nevertheless, I wish to speak with Miss Garland. And this order from the Lunacy Commission says I may."
"Very well. But I must ask for your assurance that you won't harm her or help her to escape."
"You have them, sir." The speaker sounded testy. "Now please be so good as to ask your attendant to stand aside."
The door creaked fully open to reveal a silhouetted figure. It paused to allow the attendant and her coalscuttle to squeeze past, then entered. The afternoon light filtering through Dorcas's grimy window revealed a young man holding a document in one hand. His frock coat and trousers were plain but well cut. There was something familiar about him. Or it could just be that he reminded her of a young Prince Albert. But that moustache and those side-whiskers seemed wrong.
"Dorcas?" He took a step towards her and she took a corresponding step back. "Don't you recognise your old friend?" He halted, his brows drawing together. "William? William Wentworth?"
"William?" Her jaw dropped and a parade of childhood images flashed through her mind. "Surely not?" But now he had told her his name, she could see the resemblance.
He had been shorter then, of course—all elbows and knees. And the fullness of youth had melted to leave a much leaner countenance. No wonder the moustache and whiskers looked wrong though—in her memory he was clean-shaven. But the keen grey eyes were the same, and they were regarding her with kind concern.
Her head was aching again. "Is this another dream?" She closed her eyes then opened them again. He was still there. "It's so hard to tell what is real and what isn't."
His face filled with dismay. "This is real. Have no fear." He glared at the Superintendent standing in the doorway. "What have you given her?"
Biven shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Pray don't concern yourself, Mr Wentworth. A mild sedative only, to calm her nerves."
Wentworth frowned. "I insist on seeing Miss Garland's medical notes before I leave. In the meantime, I wish to talk to her alone."
"That is hardly wise, given the fragility of her mental state."
"Alone," repeated Wentworth furiously. He brandished his document as if it were a weapon. "I am sure you have pressing business to attend to. Don't let me detain you further."
For a moment the asylum superintendent looked as if he had swallowed something sour, then his expression smoothed. "As you wish. You may have half an hour with her. Alone. But regulations require that you be locked in, Mr Wentworth. And an attendant will remain outside at all time, in case you should require assistance."
With an air of wounded dignity, he turned on his heel and stalked out. Only after the door had closed and the key turned in the lock did Wentworth's shoulders relax.
He gestured towards the single chair. "Will you sit down and be comfortable? We may speak freely."
Dorcas perched on the edge of her bed and gestured in her turn.
He smiled at her and sat. "Thank you."
She straightened her skirts and tried to order her muddled thoughts. This sudden turn of events had disconcerted her. Hope warred with apprehension. She looked up and met his gaze.
"You must be wandering how I came to be here." He leaned forward. " It was your gypsy friend, Katarina Lovel, who found you and telegraphed me news of your location."
Kat was the last person Dorcas had expected Wentworth to mention. It filled her with gladness. "She is alive and uninjured?"
He nodded. "She came to Limmerton House." His face fell. "It saddened me to hear of your parents' deaths, Dorcas. My memories of them are fond."
"Thank you," she managed. "I miss them dreadfully."
"I lost my own parents a few years ago. I understand your feelings all too well."
They regarded one another sadly for a moment, then he took a breath and continued. "I was shocked to hear that your uncle had committed you to an asylum for the insane." His gaze sharpened. "You don't seem to me to be in need of such treatment."
Dorcas didn't answer. "Is Kat with you?" she asked instead. Perhaps the gypsy was waiting in the corridor. It would be so good to see her again.
"I'm afraid not." He stroked his moustache. "Miss Lovel's telegram suggested a meeting at Paddington station. But she didn't keep the appointment."
"Kat is missing?" Dorcas didn't understand.
"Gypsies rarely stay in one place, do they? Perhaps urgent business required her presence elsewhere." Wentworth shrugged. " Or perhaps she realised she could render little more in the way of assistance and left the matter in my hands." He took in Dorcas's pallor and softened. "Whatever the reason, I am sure it is no cause for concern."
It dawned on Dorcas that the gypsy might have decided to get on with her own affairs. I can hardly blame her. I am only a gorgie and since we met have caused her nothing but trouble. That Kat might play no further part in her life pained her, however.
"It is your welfare that concerns me, Dorcas," continued Wentworth. "I have a contact on the Lunacy Commission, and now that I have seen and conversed with you...."
"Take me with you, William."
Her plea took him aback. "Alas, that is beyond my power."
Her groan made him grimace.
"Legal wheels turn slowly, Dorcas. I need papers certifying what we both know to be true: that you are in your right mind and don't belong here." He paused and reached for her hand. "Be patient. It may take me a few days to obtain the necessary certificates."
She freed her hand. "If my uncle were to get wind of this...."
"He is powerless to stop me."
Dorcas wasn't so sure. "You never met him, did you?"
"Your anxiety is understandable, given your recent ordeal." He cocked his head. "But you must trust me."
She was badly afraid Wentworth's confidence was misplaced. If only Kat were here.
He pushed his chair back and stood up. "In the meantime, I will demand they stop giving you sedatives." He thumped the door twice with his fist. "I have finished," he called to the attendant on the other side. "Unlock this door at once."
If it was a dream it was a bad one. There was pain and nausea. A familiar smell of dog from the limp warmth pressed against her side. Shivering alternating with fever. And confusion, always confusion.
From the jolting and rumble of wheels Kat thought she must be in the back of a cart, but whose cart it was, she had no idea until, just once, she heard Pharaoh's distinctive bray.
If I am here, who is at the reins?
A vague memory of Mala's face peering down at her surfaced then was gone, replaced by that of a young fair-haired gorgie whose name was on the tip of her tongue if only she could gather her thoughts....
The odour of male sweat had replaced Bracken's scent. Strong hands eased themselves under Kat's armpits and yet more hands grasped her painfully by the ankles, but she was too weak to protest. Then cool air was under her back, and movement—upwards and backwards—made her head swim and her stomach lurch.
Something banged her elbow.
"Careful," came a woman's voice. "On the bed. That's right"
She came to rest on a cool, springy surface. The hands withdrew. Something soft wiped the sweat from her forehead. She tried to open her eyes but couldn't. Tried to speak but her mouth and throat were too parched, her tongue too swollen.
"Here." A hand eased beneath her neck and raised her head. Cold water trickled into her mouth. She was desperate to swallow it, but couldn’t. As it overflowed and trickled down her chin, she wanted to sob. The throbbing in her head intensified.
Whoever had lifted her head lowered it. "I fear there is little I can do. Poisoned, you said?"
"Ay, Auntie. I think they used drow.... Kat's grandmother is a healer. Can you keep her alive while I fetch her?"
"I'll try, child. But hurry."
The housemaid picked up the letters from Franklin Ablewhite's doormat in Pembury Street, arranged them on the silver salver, and headed along the hall. Pausing in front of the mirror and balancing the tray on one hand, she tucked a stray lock of hair under her cap. Then she tapped on the study door.
"Enter," came the muffled voice of her employer.
She turned the handle and let herself in. "Second post, sir."
Blue pipe smoke almost obscured the occupant of the voluminous armchair. She breathed through her mouth as she proffered the tray.
A hand swiped up the letters. "Thank you, Nellie." It waved dismissal and reached for the letter opener lying on the little table.
"That will be all." Ablewhite's tone was preoccupied. He pushed up his spectacles and perused the handwriting on the letters' exterior.
"Very good, sir."
A rustle of pages accompanied the maid's departure. Seconds later came a heartfelt expletive. Ablewhite crumpled a letter into a ball and flung it across his study.
"Damn the man!" He surged to his feet and began to pace. "Damn him for a meddler." His cheeks flushed an angry red. "How on earth did he find her?"
For a good ten minutes he stared unseeing out of his window, cursing or muttering from time to time, "So close." Finally, he let out a loud, "Ha!" and gave his whiskers a satisfying scratch.
He tugged the bell pull, sat at the writing desk, and reached for paper, pen, and ink. When the maid peeked her head round the door, Ablewhite had finished one letter and started on the next.
"These are to go in the post at once," he told her.
"At once. Do I make myself clear?" He threw her a piercing glance.
"Yes, sir. "
"And send word to Jenkyns and Grimshaw." With a flourish he signed his name and blotted it. "Tell them I need them, urgently." He folded the letter, scribbled the address, and attached a penny stamp.
"At once," he repeated, handing her the missives.
Two men, one a little man in a bowler hat, the other a big, broad-shouldered man in a cloth cap, hurried up the path to Franklin Ablewhite's house and rapped the doorknocker.
"What does he want now, I wonder?" mused the shorter of the pair.
"Mister A? Nothing good."
The door opened and the maid ushered them inside. "He's expecting you. You're to go straight in."
"Are we indeed?" The man in the bowler hat glanced at his companion.
"It's that Miss Garland, again, I'll bet." The man with the broken nose rubbed his elbow reflexively and started along the hall.
"Don't see how it can be." His colleague followed him "She's locked up, all shipshape and Bristol fashion."
They stopped outside the study door, exchanged a glance, and knocked.
"Enter," came the bellow.
Just over the threshold they paused. "You sent for us, Mr Ablewhite?"
"Ah. Grimshaw. Jenkyns." Franklin Ablewhite pushed up his spectacles. "You took your time. Come in and close the door. Don't want any eavesdroppers, do we?"
The two men did as they were told.
"I have a job for you. Involving Dorcas Garland." The men studiously avoided looking at one another. "She's to be taken from Mr Biven's establishment and conveyed here." He scribbled an address on a piece of paper and handed it to Jenkyns. "They're expecting you."
Jenkyns pushed back his bowler hat and perused the address. When he looked up, his brows were knitted. "Suppose she don't want to go? She put up the devil of a fight last time." He flexed his foot and winced.
Their employer waved in dismissal. "Isn't that what ether's for?"
Kat woke to the chirrup of sparrows and listened to it for a while before remembering with a jolt that she had been ill. Turning her senses inwards, she catalogued limbs and organs. Trepidation turned to relief. That awful nausea had gone, she could swallow with only mild discomfort, and the throbbing in her head had eased.
She became aware of a distant rumbling, rushing noise, growing louder until it eclipsed even the raucous chirruping. Then came the mournful blast of a train whistle, and the noise receded into the distance.
Must be a railway close by.
She cracked open one eyelid, then the other. As her eyes adjusted to the daylight filtering through the tiny window's curtains, she recognised the interior of a vardo.
The little home on wheels had been partitioned, so that the half Kat occupied formed a tiny bedroom in which was a chest of drawers and two berthlike beds with storage space under them. A creak and movement drew Kat's attention to the rocking chair beside her bed, and to its occupant. Familiar brown eyes twinkled at her.
"Grandmother?" said Kat, astonished. "What are you doing here?"
"Janosh brought me." Aniki put down the knife with which she had been fashioning clothes pegs. "Sarishan, my chavi?" She gave Kat a fond smile. "I told you we would meet again. The cards didn't tell me it would be under these circumstances though."
Kat tried to sit up, but a rib twinged and she thought better of it. She felt as weak as a kitten.
"Our invalid is awake, sister," called Aniki to someone in the other half of the vardo.
Kat craned her neck, and made out a kitchen, with a table hanging by its hinges from the wall and a grate cooking-stove whose chimney poked through the roof. A motherly woman in a black skirt blocked her view, bringing with her a delicious aroma of stew. She gave Kat an interested glance.
"If I hadn't seen it with my own yakka, I'd never have believed it. You must have the constitution of an ox, sister." She turned to Aniki. "Your reputation as a healer is well deserved."
Aniki gave a self-deprecating shrug.
"I speak the truth," insisted the woman. She turned back to Kat. "I am Lurina Stanley, and this is my vardo."
She had the look of the Stanleys, thought Kat—that clan was known for being tall, dark, and handsome, and, before she had run to fat, Lurina must have been a striking woman.
"I am grateful for your hospitality, sister," she said. "How long have I been here? And where exactly is 'here'?"
"Two days and nights. This place is Latimer's Green."
Kat had heard of the stretch of wasteland, bounded on the northwest by massive railway arches that provided shelter for traveller and Romany alike.
A memory surfaced. "Did I imagine Mala?"
"You saw true. She feared discovery and has left you in my care. She has her unborn baby to think of." Lurina sniffed and shared a derisive glance with Aniki. "Never had much taste in roms, that one. Now she is paying for it."
"That whistle," murmured Kat. "It must have been her. She followed Boboko and the others."
Lurina nodded. "Mala has her faults, but she's good at heart. But you are wondering why she brought you here, sister. Her grandmother and mine were friends." She cocked her head. "Hungry?"
Kat gave the question serious thought before nodding.
"There's rabbit stew. Your juggal is a good hunter."
The memory of that final pained yelp surfaced. "Is Bracken all right?"
"Bruised and wary of strangers, sister, but she’ll live."
As if she'd heard her name, the lurcher's head appeared in the vardo doorway. Toenails scrabbled, as she tried to pull herself up the wooden steps.
Kat wanted to pet her and commend her for trying to protect her mistress, but at Lurina's grimace she ordered the dog outside. With a reproachful glance, Bracken retreated.
While Lurina busied herself ladling rabbit stew into a bowl, Kat let her grandmother help her to sit up, propped against two pillows. That it left her weak and trembling concerned her. She touched the bandage around her ribs and felt the tenderness beneath.
"You'll soon get your strength back," soothed Aniki, seeing her pensive frown. "You just need some food inside you."
"I've taken no permanent harm?"
Aniki smoothed back a lock of Kat's hair. "You are fortunate, my chavi. If you had eaten a mouthful more...."
Kat shivered at the narrowness of her escape. "Devil take those Hernes!"
"He will. You must tell the kral of their crime."
"Mala is a Herne, grandmother. That seems a poor reward for her help."
Lurina's return brought the discussion to a close. She handed Kat a spoon and a steaming bowl, then folded her arms and watched her eat.
When she had finished every drop of stew, Kat leaned back against her pillow.
"Better?" enquired Aniki.
Kat nodded. Already she could feel a little of her strength returning.
Her grandmother resumed her peg-making, shaving slivers of wood with a sure touch. "What happened to that gorgie?"
Kat winced. She had been trying not to think about her promise to take Dorcas to Limmerton.
How long is since I sent the telegram? Had Wentworth found the asylum without Kat's assistance? Perhaps even now Dorcas was laughing and chatting with him, unaware of Kat's part in the proceedings. She felt a pang at the thought.
"Katarina?" Aniki's voice jolted her from her reverie.
"I couldn't keep my word, grandmother." She bowed her head.
"And that pains you?"
"Even if she is only a gorgie? It does." Kat looked up. "Does that surprise you?"
"On the contrary." Aniki caught her look and smiled. "More to the point, what are you going to do about it?" She finished off the peg and set aside her knife.
"Find her and apologise. What else can I do?"
Dorcas came to to find herself lying fully clothed on a narrow bed. Her surroundings were unfamiliar. Bars crisscrossed the room's window—it was dark outside—and a draught whistled down the chimney. She struggled to her feet, and crossed to the door.
As she returned to the lumpy mattress and pulled the threadbare blanket around her shoulders, memory returned....
The door opened to reveal, instead of Wentworth as expected, two all too familiar figures, one wearing a bowler hat, the other a cloth cap.
"No! Please," she protested, as the pair advanced on her in a determined manner. "You cannot—"
A cloth covered her nose and mouth, muffling her protests, then the acrid smell of ether was choking her, sucking her down into a deep black well....
They've spirited me away beyond Wentworth's reach. Despair threatened to overwhelm her.
The screech of the bolt being pulled back recalled Dorcas to her surroundings. The door creaked open, revealing an angular woman in a plain grey gown and white cap. Her expression was forbidding.
"Awake at last." The woman spoke to someone unseen in the corridor before continuing. "I hope you're not going to be any trouble, Miss Garland. Troublemakers get very short shrift here."
Dorcas had no idea what she meant, and no wish to find out.
"I'm Mrs Sidgwick. Your daily routine will be simple from now on. Breakfast at 8. Dinner at 1. Supper at 7. And bed at 8. Your uncle has requested you be kept separate from our other patients." She paused. "Keep your nose clean, Miss Garland, and we'll get along. Cause me any grief...." She left the threat hanging.
In the distance a clock struck eight. It explained the hollowness of Dorcas's stomach. She had missed supper, but was too frightened of the woman to ask for something to eat.
Mrs Sidgwick turned and accepted something from an assistant with a nod. She flung it at Dorcas, who caught it instinctively: a nightgown, stiff with starch, and as worn as the blanket.
"Your night clothes. Sleep well." She turned to go.
"What if I need to relieve myself?" blurted Dorcas
Her jailer pointed silently to a chamber pot poking out from under the bed, then pulled the door closed behind her, and slammed the bolt home.
Kat regarded the Great Western Hotel with a frown. An observer might have been forgiven for assuming she disapproved of the magnificent façade, but her frown owed its origin to something else entirely.
If Wentworth hasn't brought Dorcas here, what shall I do?
The gorgie was no longer at the asylum; a discreet bribe to the porter had elicited that much. But he hadn't been able to tell her who had released her or where they had taken her.
Dorcas wasn't at Garland House. It had been the first place Kat looked, and it was locked up, curtains drawn, dustsheets over furniture and paintings, black mourning drapes over the mirrors. A telegram to Limmerton House had brought no acknowledgment. So Wentworth must still be in London and Dorcas must be with him. A huge assumption, but what else was Kat to think?
That he was staying at this particular hotel was yet another assumption. London was awash with hotels and lodging houses, and he might be staying with a friend. But the hotel was situated right next to Paddington's railway terminus— the odds were in its favour that Wentworth would stay here whenever he came up to town.
Only one way to find out.
Ignoring the disapproving looks—what business could a Romany have at such a grand hotel?—Kat started up the steps.
The porter looked as if he had smelled something unpleasant, but answered civilly enough. "Squire Wentworth of Limmerton? One moment, please." He ran his index finger down the names in the hotel register, halting at a scrawled signature. "Yes, he's in residence."
Before a relieved Kat could ask for details, the porter beckoned a bellboy. "Take a message to the gentleman in room," he lowered his voice so Kat couldn't hear the number, "will you, Tommy? Tell him a lady"—he paused to indicate the description's inadequacy—"is at the front desk, enquiring after him. A Miss...." He arched an eyebrow.
"Katarina Lovel," she supplied, frustrated that she wasn't to be allowed to make her way up to Wentworth's room at once.
As the bellboy sped off in the direction of the stairs, the porter waved grandly towards the row of leather seats in the lobby, where an old man sat reading The Times. "You may wait over there."
She was too impatient to sit, and spent the ten long minutes until Tommy's return pacing up and down, and garnering increasingly annoyed looks from the man with the newspaper.
At last the bellboy reappeared, puffing a little. "The gentleman says I am to bring you straight up, Miss." He glanced towards the porter, who was keeping an eagle eye on Kat. He indicated Kat, then himself, and then the stairs. The porter frowned at the boy's dumb show but gave him a grudging nod. He grinned and turned back to Kat. "Follow me, please, Miss."
They set off at a brisk pace, up several flights of stairs and along a rabbit warren of corridors, punctuated by fire doors. Kat was out of breath herself when they drew up outside the door numbered '145'.
Tommy had barely finished knocking when the door was wrenched open, framing Wentworth. His anxious expression eased at the sight of Kat.
"Miss Lovel." He pressed a coin into the bellboy's hand and stepped back. "I am glad to see you. Come in and tell me your news." He paused and looked behind her with the beginnings of a frown. "Isn't Miss Garland with you?"
His question made Kat miss a step. "I don't understand." He ushered her to one of the numerous chairs and she sank into it feeling suddenly shaky. "I was hoping to find Dorcas here, with you."
"With me?" His face fell. "But— Do you mean to tell me she isn't with you?"
"No." Kat's heart thumped. "Weren't you intending to release her from the asylum? When I could find no trace of her, I assumed you had been successful."
"Dorcas wasn't there."
"Wasn't there," repeated Kat, wondering if she had misunderstood him.
"Upon receipt of your telegram, I acquired the necessary release documents and travelled down to London by the next train. When you failed to meet me at Paddington as agreed, I went to the asylum on my own. But Miss Garland was not there."
He began to pace, narrowly avoiding a table, his agitation obvious. "An attendant told me some men had come for her. The Superintendent couldn't tell me who they were or where they had taken her—they don't keep track of patients once they have left their care, apparently. All he could say was that her transfer papers were in order." He threw Kat a look of distress and sank onto a couch.
"What could I do? I obtained her uncle's address and went at once to his house. I confronted him. But he claimed to be as much in the dark as I. That left only one solution, or so I thought—you had grown impatient of waiting for me and taken matters into your own hands." His eyes flashed. "I see now that Ablewhite was lying."
Kat cursed under her breath. If only she had taken matters into her own hands. "This is bad," she muttered. "Very bad."
Wentworth let out a groan, but Kat barely heard him. Her mind was whirling with ideas no sooner thought of than discarded. One proved more durable than all the others, however. As she considered it, calm descended and her shakiness receded.
Ablewhite might be unwilling to reveal Dorcas's new location. But the men who had transported her there might be open to persuasion.
"I am sorry to find you in such insalubrious surroundings, cousin." Gilbert ran the fingertip of one gloved finger over the windowsill and studied the result.
"Not as sorry as I am," said Dorcas. "Perhaps you could speak to your father about it. After all, it's his doing."
He turned and looked at her. "You are angry with me." He crossed to the chair an attendant had brought in for their meeting and sat down. "Unjustly so. I tried to dissuade my father from this course."
"Not very hard," she said bitterly. "Have you come to propose marriage again?"
Gilbert had the grace to flush. "Come come. Recriminations won't advance your cause." He leaned forward, his expression earnest. "If only you'd accept my proposal, Dorcas. Things would go so much better—"
He sighed and sat back. "A pity."
"Why is my uncle doing this, Gilbert? He can't lack for money. And if he does, surely his employer can give him a loan at reasonable rates."
"The bank, you mean?" Gilbert let out a hollow laugh. "They dismissed him from his post two years ago. Since then his income has been... erratic."
"Dismissed him?" She stared. "Did my father know?"
He nodded. "And loaned him money too, for old time's sake. But it disappeared quickly, as all money seems to in my father's hands, and your father refused to lend him more."
Dorcas put a hand to her throat. "Oh!"
He sighed. "Father thought you might refuse me, so I came prepared." From the inner pocket of his coat he pulled out a legal document. Expensive paper crackled as he unfolded it.
Dorcas accepted it from him with a sinking stomach. "What is this?"
"Another means of gaining your freedom."
Lines of legal jargon written in a bold, unfamiliar hand met her gaze. The words swam, and she had to read the document several times before she understood it.
"I am to sign over control of everything I own?" She looked at Gilbert in disbelief. "He can't believe I would sign such a document."
Gilbert shifted in his chair but didn’t answer.
"It doesn't even make any sense," continued Dorcas. "My signature would carry little weight. Indeed it would probably not be valid as I am of 'unsound mind'." Her mouth twisted on the phrase.
He waved a hand in dismissal. "Who is to know whether you signed before or after you were pronounced sane and set free?"
For a moment she was tempted. What did she need with money and property? Gypsies like Kat managed quite well without a roof over their heads, didn't they? For a moment she pictured herself travelling along the open road on Kat's cart, staring at Pharaoh's backside and eating the nuts Kat shelled for her.
Gilbert took in her expression. His face brightened.
But if her uncle had caused the accident that killed her parents, what was to stop him arranging one for her? Then there was Garland House, which her father had worked so hard to modernise. It was all she had left to remember her parents by....
Rage bubbled up inside her. Could she string her uncle along? Sign the document, then contest its validity in the courts? But that would take money and if she signed she would have none at her disposal. The sensible course would be to wait for Wentworth to find her again. Or rather, Kat. For it was the gypsy who had located her whereabouts last time, wasn't it?
"To be clear," she said, brandishing the document, "if I sign this, I will be released?"
Gilbert nodded and began to rise. "We need a pen and a witness—an attendant will serve. Let me call—"
He froze. "No?" He looked at her, aghast. "Have you taken leave of your senses?"
She bit back the urge to laugh hysterically. "You can ask me that? When I am locked in an asylum?"
"This is no joking matter." He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "What use is your wealth if you aren't at liberty to enjoy it? You won't be poor for long, Dorcas. With your looks, some moderately wealthy young man is sure to want to marry and take care of you."
"I said no."
Gilbert paled. "Don't you understand? If you will neither marry me nor sign that document, Father will have no option but to try another tack. Your very life could be in danger."
"Then set me free."
He turned shamefaced away. "I can't."
"Won't, more like." She stood up and took a step towards him. "If you won't free me, Gilbert, then for the love of God send word to someone who will. Surely that is not beyond your power?"
He turned and walked towards the door. "Keeper," he bellowed. "My business here is concluded. Open up."
The bolt drew back and the door creaked open. Without a backward glance, Gilbert stepped through it.
"If you refuse to help me, Gilbert, you are as culpable as your father," called Dorcas.
The door slammed closed behind him.
"Let me go! " Dorcas struggled, but against the two burly male attendants she stood little chance. Soon she was snug in the padded straitjacket, arms crossed in front and tied behind.
She glared at Mrs Sidgwick, who had presided over the proceedings with a grim smile. "You have no right!"
"I have every right, Miss Garland. The doctor prescribed this treatment. I am merely carrying out his instructions."
Dread swept through her. "What treatment?"
Mrs Sidgwick raised her lamp and moved towards the door. "Dr. Cox's chair has fallen out of fashion —these days many doctors deem it too dangerous. But we have found it efficacious for our more... unruly patients."
Dangerous? "But the doctor hasn't even been to see me yet!"
"Your uncle spoke to him this afternoon. His son's report of his visit concerned him greatly." She beckoned to the attendants. "Bring her."
They manhandled Dorcas into the corridor. It was windowless and so dark she would have stumbled if they hadn't held her upright. They hurried her after Mrs Sidgwick, whose lamp cast ominous shadows on the walls.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To the Swinging Room. You are to have ten minutes in the chair," came back Mrs Sidgwick's voice. "It won't be pleasant, but afterwards you will experience wonderfully refreshing slumber and your tranquillity and rationality will be restored." She halted outside a door and reached for its handle.
"I am perfectly rational now," objected Dorcas.
The door opened to reveal a bizarre sight. A Windsor chair had been suspended from a large hook in the ceiling by four stout ropes—two strung around the chair's front legs, and two around its rear.
Mrs Sidgwick set down her lamp on a table next to three heavy leather straps of differing lengths and waited for the attendants to bring Dorcas in.
"Strap her in, please."
It took them mere seconds to force Dorcas into the chair and strap her waist securely to its barred back, her ankles to its front legs.
"This is outrageous!" panted Dorcas, feeling light-headed with panic. "I am perfectly rational. Why won't you believe me?"
"My, how you do go on," said Mrs Sidgwick. "If you were rational you would have accepted Gilbert Ablewhite's proposal."
Her comment stunned Dorcas. It was a moment before she could gather her wits and respond, "So you intend to torture me into submission?"
"What's that?" Mrs Sidgwick was inspecting the straps and ropes. Satisfied, she stood back. "Of course not. The very idea!"
"I hope my uncle is paying you handsomely," continued Dorcas bitterly, as the two attendants positioned themselves on either side of her.
Mrs Sidgwick rolled her eyes. "Now you are seeing conspiracies where there are none. The doctor was right. This treatment is sorely needed."
She gestured to the men. "Begin. You know the drill. Slowly to start with."
Two pairs of hands grasped the ropes and began to spin the chair. The hook in the ceiling juddered and flakes of plaster fell on Dorcas's lap and in her hair.
"Oh please!" she cried out, as her surroundings blurred. "Whatever my uncle is paying you, I will pay you double." She would borrow the money off Wentworth if need be.
"It's better if you don't talk," said Mrs. Sidgwick, her face a pale oval.
The ropes creaked and groaned with strain as the rate of spin increased. Dorcas felt the beginnings of nausea. "Stop," she pleaded. "In the name of humanity, stop!"
"Pay her no mind," said Mrs. Sidgwick. "She'll thank us once it's over."
Just before noon, a carriage halted outside the house in Pembury Street and Ablewhite and his wife climbed aboard. Going to a friends' house to dine? Whatever the reason, Kat was glad the coast was clear at last.
She emerged from her hiding place—a narrow alley further down the street on the opposite side—crossed, and made her way down the steep steps to the servants' entrance.
A middle-aged woman in a cook's uniform answered her knock. Her expression soured as she saw who was standing on her doorstep.
"Don't want no lucky white heather." She started to close the door. "Nor my future told."
"Then it's as well I'm here to do neither," said Kat. "I've come about Mr Ablewhite's niece."
The closing door halted. "She ain't here." The woman's manner became wary. "Even if Miss Garland was here, what's it got to do with you?"
"I am enquiring on behalf a friend of hers, Squire Wentworth of Limmerton. Miss Garland may have spoken of him."
"To her uncle's cook?" Her tone was sceptical.
"He's heard troubling news about Miss Garland's health, and sent me to find out the truth."
"Why didn't he come himself?" The cook folded her arms. "Why send a gypsy, of all people, to do his dirty work?"
"How should I know? Maybe it's easier and less expensive than travelling all the way down from Limmerton on what might be a wild goose chase."
The woman pursed her lips but her wariness eased. She didn't need to know that it had taken all of Kat's persuasive powers to stop Wentworth from accompanying her. He had little subtlety, and the last thing she wanted was for him to alert Ablewhite that they were on his niece's trail so he could move her again, this time beyond all hope of ever tracing her. Wentworth had seen sense eventually. He was cooling his temper and his heels in his hotel room.
"The squire heard that Miss Garland was taken ill while staying here," continued Kat. "Just after her parents' deaths. And that her uncle committed her to an insane asylum."
The cook's eyes widened. After a moment she unfolded her arms. "You'd better come in."
Kat followed her into a kitchen, where the makings for an apple pie were strewn on a table.
"Miss Garland was taken poorly." The cook picked up a rolling pin and began to roll out some pastry. "Her parents' deaths were very sudden. The shock was too much for her, that's true. But as for an asylum, I don't know about that. Mr Ablewhite told us she had returned to her house in Hampstead."
Kat shook her head. "Garland House is closed up."
The busy hands stilled. "Why would her uncle want to lock her away?"
The cook looked as if she was about to speak but thought better of it.
"Squire Wentworth located the asylum and went there with Miss Garland's release papers," continued Kat. "But she was no longer there."
"Perhaps Mr Ablewhite relented," said the cook, relieved. She frowned. "But I thought you said Garland House is closed up."
Kat nodded. "Have you any idea where he might have moved her?"
"Lor bless you! None at all. He don’t take me into his confid—"
Kat's raised hand cut the cook off. "There are two men who do know his business. Shady characters, the pair of them, and not averse to brute force. One is short and wears a bowler hat. The other looks like he might be a wrestler; his nose is broken and he wears a cloth cap."
Recognition filled the cook's eyes. "Sounds like Jenkyns and Grimshaw."
"Do you know where I might find them?"
"Of course." She glanced at the battered clock on the kitchen mantel. "Especially at this time of day."
The eating-house was little more than a long, narrow room, set back from the street. It was dark and shabby from the outside, and whoever had chalked the day's menu on the blackboard couldn't spell 'Yarmouth Bloaters', but the plate-glass window revealed tables packed with customers. As Kat opened the door, the aroma of sizzling chops, sausages, beefsteak pudding, hot potatoes, coffee and tea wafted to her from the open door behind the serving counter.
She ignored her rumbling stomach and focussed on locating her quarry.
The men she had called 'Bowler Hat' and 'Broken Nose' —their real names Obadiah Jenkyns and Nathaniel Grimshaw, according to Ablewhite's cook —were sitting in a small booth towards the back of the room. She made her way between the other diners towards them and, uninvited, eased herself onto the bench next to the smaller man. It was the first time she had seen Jenkyns minus his hat.
"Here now, my gal. Can’t a man eat his dinner in peace?"
He looked more fully at her and let out an oath. His knife and fork clattered onto his plate and he tried to stand up. Kat pressed him back down. At the neighbouring table, diners turned to stare.
"No need for alarm, gentlemen," said Kat. "I'm here on business."
Jenkyns had been reaching to prise Kat's hand from his shoulder, now he froze and exchanged a glance with Grimshaw. The big man shrugged and continued to wolf down a huge beefsteak pudding that must have set him back thruppence.
"'Business', is it?"
"I've a proposition for the pair of you," said Kat. "A profitable proposition."
Grimshaw swallowed a mouthful of tea and belched. "Profitable, eh? Perhaps we should listen to her, Obadiah."
"Can't do any harm," agreed Jenkyns. "Listening, I mean."
Kat relaxed on the bench. "I need to know the whereabouts of Miss Dorcas Garland. And your employer, Franklin Ablewhite, must remain ignorant of the fact that you've told me. Can you help me?"
"Depends." Jenkyns drummed his fingers on the table. "How much you offering?"
She pulled from her pocket the banker's draft Wentworth had given her, unfolded it, and spread it on the table. Jenkyns' eyes widened.
"Well now, Nathaniel," he said. "That's a handsome sum!" To the wealthy young squire it meant little, but to men such as these....
Grimshaw didn't reply. He had stopped chewing and was staring at the draft in disbelief.
Jenkyns reached for it, but Kat kept firm hold. His eyes met hers, then he winked. "I think we have a deal. Don't you, Nathaniel?"
Grimshaw's jaws resumed their chewing. "Aye," he said indistinctly. "Reckon we have."
Dorcas was back at the gathering, lamplit shadows flickering on the interior of the tent, and Kat leaning over her pallet, saying, "Wake up."
She surfaced to find herself still in the room with the barred window. But Kat was indeed leaning over her.
"Wha—" Startlement chased away the remnants of her dream.
"Come on." Kat helped her to sit up. "There's no time to waste. That witch had threatened to call the constables. I don't think she will, but— Here." She draped her cloak around Dorcas's shoulders. "Think you can stand? I'd carry you, only my ribs aren't up to it yet." She kept glancing towards the door, and something of her urgency communicated itself to Dorcas.
She flung back the blanket and swung her feet out of bed. "How did you—" Belatedly she saw that the cell door was hanging off its hinges.
"Later." Kat pulled her to her feet. "Put your arm round my shoulders. Hurry."
They staggered into the corridor, Kat's strong arm around her waist half lifting, half dragging her. A memory of a clumsy three-legged race with Father when she was a child flashed across Dorcas's mind and was gone. On the floor outside lay a jemmy. Kat retrieved it and they set off down the corridor.
Dorcas shuddered as they passed the door labelled 'Swinging Room'.
"What is it?" asked Kat.
But the experience was too recent. A wordless Dorcas shook her head. They turned a corner and she forced the dreadful memories from her mind.
Voices raised in protest were growing louder with every staggering step. In the distance she saw the flickering of lamps.
"Not far." Kat adjusted her grip. "Keep going."
A strange tableau unfolded before Dorcas's eyes. In front of the wide-open front door, its splintered lock showing signs of being forced, stood Mrs Sidgwick and William Wentworth, the former still clad in her night attire.
Wentworth thrust a bundle of documents at her. "I said: take them!"
Deliberately she held her hands behind her back. "How do I know they're not counterfeit? Breaking in here in the middle of the night! Hardly the action of a man with the law on his side."
"I assure you, Miss Garland's release papers are in order. They've been notarised, see?" He pointed to a seal. "As for the door, we wouldn't have had to break it down if you hadn't refused to open it."
"Attacking my employees unprovoked...."
Mrs Sidgwick flung out a hand. Dorcas followed the pointing finger and saw two of the orderlies sitting half hidden in a shadowy corner, their backs pressed against the wall. One held a blood-soaked kerchief to his nose. The other was looking daggers at the gypsy standing threateningly over them, a jemmy in one fist. Dorcas recognised Kat's cousin, but couldn't remember his name.
"Unprovoked?" said Wentworth. "You try my patience, Mrs Sidgwick. Your men attacked us!"
"They were only defending us from intruders. I insist on recompense for my door. And as far as Miss Garland's presence, I take my orders from Mr Ablewhite and no one else."
"He no longer has jurisdiction. As these documents will explain if you read them." Wentworth thrust the bundle at her once more, and once more she held her hands behind her and refused to take it.
As Kat and Dorcas drew nearer, Mrs Sidgwick caught sight of them. Her eyes widened. "What is this? Miss Garland out of bed? You have ruined all the good we achieved."
"Good?" Kat's eyes flashed. "She is pale, drawn, and terrified, and she has lost weight. You should be ashamed of yourself.... Any trouble, Jan?" she called to the gypsy.
Black curls bobbed as he shook his head, and his teeth gleamed in the lamplight. Kat returned his grin with one of her own then turned to Wentworth with an arched eyebrow. "For pity's sake! Deliver the papers, and be done with it."
His face flushed. "She won't accept them."
"Shove them down the front of her nightdress, if you must."
At her words Mrs Sidgwick flinched and for the first time looked fearful.
Kat turned her attention back to Dorcas, who could feel exhaustion catching up with her. If Kat's arm had not been around her waist, she would have fallen.
"Only a few more steps," Kat murmured in her ear. "Outside there's a carriage waiting. Then you may rest. But we must get you out of here. Now."
Her urgency pierced Dorcas's fog of exhaustion. She straightened and took another step.
"You haven't heard the last of this!" bleated Mrs Sidgwick, but her heart was no longer in it. Mindful of the jemmy or fearful that the gypsy might curse her, she quailed under Kat's dark glance and stepped out of their way.
Kat hadn't been lying. A Brougham was waiting as the two women emerged into moonlight. The driver gave them an incurious glance as Kat helped Dorcas board—he must have been paid well for his services.
She settled into the comfort of the leather seat and let Kat arrange the cloak around her shoulders. Already she missed the comfort of Kat's arm around her waist. She was glad when Kat sat beside her and took her hand.
"I'm not dreaming am I?"
"No." Kat gave her hand a squeeze.
The carriage sagged as Jan and Wentworth and took the seat opposite. The sober, well-dressed country squire made an odd contrast to the gypsy. Dorcas supposed she should feel embarrassed at being in male company clad in only a shabby nightdress, but exhaustion made her too numb to care.
Wentworth banged the carriage side with his fist. "Back to the hotel, driver," he called out. He was minus the papers. Dorcas wondered if he had done as Kat advised.
The Brougham lurched into motion.
"A bit more comfortable than my cart, isn't it?" murmured Kat. "You have Wentworth to thank for it."
He caught the remark, his cheeks pinking as he met Dorcas's gaze. "Think nothing of it. It's the least I could do."
"Thank you," said Dorcas. She stifled a yawn and tried to think. Everything was happening so fast. Once moment she had been asleep, the next.... Wentworth had directed the driver to a hotel, she recalled suddenly.
"Aren't we going to Garland House?"
"My apologies," said Wentworth, "but Garland House is not habitable. It has been closed up in your absence, all the servants let go. It will need airing."
Dorcas opened her mouth to protest that even so she would like to be taken there, but he was continuing, "I have rooms at the Great Western Hotel. You may wash, breakfast, and rest there. This afternoon there is a train to Limmerton. You will stay at my house until your own is ready."
"She cannot stay with you," said Kat.
Wentworth sat bolt upright. "And why not? I assure you, a lady's maid will chaperone Miss Garland at all times. She will be perfectly safe—"
"From you, maybe," interrupted Kat. "It's her uncle who concerns me. Can you guarantee her safety from him?"
He opened his mouth and closed it again.
Kat glanced at Dorcas. "Will you trust me to make your decisions until you are feeling better?"
Dorcas gave a weary nod.
"If he hasn't learned of it already," went on Kat, turning back to Wentworth, "Ablewhite will soon learn what has happened. He knows of your involvement. Garland House will be his first port of call, and Limmerton House will be his second."
"Oh." A crestfallen Wentworth slumped back in his seat. "I had thought, once the release papers were filed...."
"A piece of paper can't restrain the likes of Franklin Ablewhite," said Kat. "We need something more... concrete."
Dorcas shuddered. She had thought it was all over. "Am I never to be free of him?"
Kat squeezed her hand. "Don't lose heart. It may take a little time, but every man has a weakness. We'll find his and use it against him." The conviction in her voice soothed Dorcas's fears a little.
Wentworth frowned. "What kind of weakness, Miss Lovel?"
"I have no idea. Not yet. Do you know someone who can investigate Ablewhite's affairs?"
"Good. Please ask them to do so."
A thoughtful silence fell. From outside came the rhythmic clopping of hooves, and the rumble and clatter of wheels. Jan began to whistle under his breath and Dorcas's eyelids fluttered closed.
"She must come with me," said Kat.
Dorcas opened her eyes.
"With you?" Wentworth's tone was so insulting Dorcas gave Kat a worried glance. But the gypsy appeared impervious.
"To Lurina's vardo," said Kat.
Jan nodded vigorous approval. "The gorgie's uncle doesn't know of its existence," he said. "And if he learns of it, he won't be able to get close without discovery."
"What's a vardo?" asked Dorcas.
"A kind of wagon." Kat smiled at her. "You'll like it. Bracken's waiting for us there."
Wentworth sighed. "Where is this place?"
"Latimer's Green. It should be a simple matter to get the driver to drop us where I left my cart. I can take Dorcas the rest of the way."
"William," said Dorcas. "I would like to go with Miss Lovel."
After a moment he said, grudgingly, "Very well. If that's what you want."
Dorcas woke to the sound of a cock crowing and of a dog's answering bark. Anxiety threatened to overwhelm her until her memory returned with a rush.
I'm in the back of Kat's donkey cart. She almost sagged with the intensity of her relief.
She had thought it unlikely she would doze, given that Kat's pots and pans were sticking into her side. But the events of recent days had caught up with her, and the cart's rhythmic creak and sway—it reminded her of a ship—lulled her.
She pushed back the tarpaulin protecting her from the early morning air. At the movement, Kat twisted round in the driver's seat. Jan sat beside her, holding Pharaoh's reins.
"Sleep well?" asked the gypsy.
Dorcas nodded. "Where are we?" She sat up and took in her surroundings with interest.
"Notting Hill," said Kat. "They call this the Potteries."
Dorcas could see why. On either side of the dirt road stood low, rough sheds open at the sides to reveal the dim shapes of earthen chimney pots, pan tiles and fancy bricks within.
Jan turned the cart left then right again.
The question died on Dorcas's lips as on their right a patch of waste ground opened up. It was crammed with tents and battered caravans of all shapes and sizes, and dogs and children seemed to roam at will.
Movement drew her eye and she blushed when she realised that some of the residents were taking their morning ablutions in the open air without any pretence at modesty. Smoke struck her nostrils, a mix of cooking fires and tobacco. A fierce-looking man standing in his doorway gave them a hostile glance before disappearing inside his caravan. Dorcas grimaced. There was a wildness and a hostility here that had been absent from the gathering.
Kat saw her expression. "Don't worry. We're not stopping. Lurina's vardo is in another part."
They travelled on another mile, Pharaoh weaving his way through puddles and piles of horse dung, until Dorcas saw brick railway arches in the distance. Nestling under them was a collection of tents and wagons, painted all colours of the rainbow.
As Kat spoke and pointed, a steam train thundered over the arches, wheels clanging. It let out a loud mournful whistle, however, those living in the shelter of the arches didn't give it a second glance but went on about their business.
A shower of sparks signalled a tinker sharpening knives; those hammer strikes came from a gypsy repairing pots and pans. Women in colourful shawls and bonnets sat outside wagons and tent entrances talking to one another while they whittled clothes pegs, plaited straw into hats, or shaved pieces of wood into strangely attractive flowers.
Jan reined Pharaoh to a halt in front of a large red-and-green caravan. From the fresh coat of varnish and new paintwork, the caravan's owner took pride in its appearance.
Bracken rose from her hiding place in a patch of long grass, and with a joyful bark, limped over to greet them.
Jan vaulted down. "I'll tell her we're here." He took the steps up to the caravan three at a time, and disappeared inside.
"Auntie," they heard him calling. "Auntie, you have guests." Second later a woman appeared in the doorway, her face creasing into a smile.
Dorcas woke with a gasp and sat up. Uncle Franklin and Mrs Sidgwick had been chasing her, led by a pack of slavering hounds.
"Are you all right?" Kat was sitting in a rocking chair beside the bed.
Dorcas blinked away the last vestiges of her nightmare. "A bad dream, that's all."
"Not surprising after what you've been through."
From the other half of the wagon came the sounds and smells of someone cooking. What was the owner of the vardo's name again? Lurina. Dorcas tried to let the homely sensations anchor her.
"What if he finds me, Kat? What if he makes me go back there?"
"Your uncle?" The chair stopped rocking and the muscles in Kat's jaw worked. "I'll make sure he doesn't."
It sounded like a promise. "Suppose you can't?"
Kat studied her, and Dorcas flushed a little under the scrutiny. "Everything will turn out well. The cards told me so, and they never lie."
Though the notion that the cards could predict the future was probably so much stuff and nonsense, it gave Dorcas some comfort.
Kat resumed her rocking, and after a little began humming in time to the rhythm, a contented expression on her face. The light from the wagon's window revealed a bruise on her cheekbone that Dorcas had been unaware of last night. A memory returned. Something about Kat's ribs.
"Are you all right?"
Kat stopped humming. "Nothing time won’t heal."
The gypsy gave her a rueful smile. "Those cursed Hernes took it into their heads to ignore the kral's ruling. They tried to poison me. And while they were at it, they gave me a kicking."
Dorcas sat bolt upright. "To poison you?"
Her exclamation brought Lurina through from the kitchen. "Don't think about the past, little gorgie," she instructed Dorcas sternly. "Your nerves are frayed enough. Concentrate on getting your health and strength back. As for this one," she indicated Kat with her thumb. "She's tougher than she looks."
After Lurina had returned to the kitchen, Dorcas sagged back against the pillows. The news of Kat's narrow escape had shaken her. She chewed a fingernail. "The Hernes won't try to hurt you again, will they?"
"One word to the kral and they will be marhime." Kat's lips drew back in a feral grin. "They wouldn't dare."
Kat read the letter through twice. A week and this was all they had to show for it? She crumpled it into a ball and threw it away. At once, Bracken sprang up and went to retrieve it. Her limp was barely perceptible now. Kat accepted the saliva-wet ball with a grimace, and the lurcher lay contentedly back down.
They were lounging in front of Lurina's vardo. A week with nothing to concern Kat and Dorcas except recovering their health and spirits had worked wonders for them both. Kat's ribs barely bothered her any more, and the colour was returning to Dorcas's cheeks.
"Hasn't Wentworth's investigator found anything?" asked Dorcas, whose eyes were closed against the sunshine.
"Only that your uncle is deeply in debt. And that the bank dismissed him for embezzlement."
"Can't we use that against him?"
"They refuse to press charges for fear of adverse publicity. He repaid what he stole. As far as they are concerned, the matter is closed."
"So there's nothing we can use?" Dorcas's tone mirrored Kat's dismay.
"I fear reputation means little to him—he is already in disgrace, his friends as shady as he is."
A tense silence came from the gorgie. Kat raised herself up on one elbow and looked at her. "Perhaps we should simply ask Wentworth to pay him off. He's not short of money. And he was willing to pay off Jenkyns and Grimshaw."
Dorcas opened her eyes and sat up. "I wouldn't dream of asking William for more money."
If he had any initiative at all, he should have thought to offer it, thought Kat. "Not even if it solves the problem?"
Dorcas's threw her a stony look. "Free myself from one man's clutches by placing myself within another's?" She gave her head a determined shake.
"Wentworth is nothing like your uncle," said Kat. "He's an honourable man." Too honourable to be of much use. "But perhaps you are right. It would be a temporary solution at best. Ablewhite would merely spend the sum Wentworth gave him and return for more."
"There must be something we can use."
Sparrows filled the ensuing silence, chirruping from the vardo's roof.
"Perhaps we could threaten to tell my aunt about his part in my parents' deaths," continued Dorcas at last. "She would never sanction the killing of her sister." She fiddled with a blade of grass then corrected herself, "Half sister."
Bracken rolled onto her back and proffered her belly. Kat rubbed it absently. "We've no proof your uncle did anything but take advantage of a accident. But it's an idea, using his wife against him. What would you say your uncle values above all else? His family?"
"He's never been overly fond of poor Gilbert. But I believe he'd do anything to keep his wife. Heaven knows why. Aunt Laura can be a sour-faced battle-axe."
Kat mulled that over, before becoming aware that Dorcas was studying her. She pushed Bracken away. "That's enough for now."
"What are you planning?" asked Dorcas.
"To take a look inside your uncle's house, and see what secrets I can uncover."
"Can't Wentworth's investigator to do that?"
Kat snorted. "Your squire's far too law-abiding to ask him to."
"He's not my squire," muttered Dorcas.
Kat arched an eyebrow. "Have you seen the way he looks at you?"
But Dorcas's thoughts were elsewhere. "Suppose you get caught." She gave Kat a stricken look. "The police don't like gypsies at the best of times, Kat. I couldn't bear it if—"
"Don't worry." Kat winked and donned her best reassuring smile. "It won't be the first time I've broken into a house. And with Jan as my lookout, I'll be fine."
It was 1am. The drizzle had ceased an hour ago and a breeze had sprung up, drying Pembury Street's pavements. Kat glanced up at the sky. The clouds should hide the moon for a while longer.
Perfect for breaking and entering. And the night constable won't be back for twenty minutes.
"Ready?" came the whisper. If she squinted she could make out Jan's face in a shadow further up the alley.
Giving thanks that the residents couldn't afford many street lamps—the nearest was twenty yards from Ablewhite's front door—she slipped out into the deserted street and crossed the road. A fox froze, startled by her silent-footed emergence. For a long moment it stared at Kat, then it slunk off on its own nocturnal quest.
No lights burned in Ablewhite's windows. He and his wife were away for the next two days—searching for Dorcas, probably— and their son was spending the night at his mistress's. That left just the two servants. But by now the maid and the cook Kat had spoken to should be sleeping soundly in their attic bedrooms.
Kat chose a likely sash window on the ground floor and withdrew her knife, while Janosh took up sentry position. Seconds later, she had slipped the catch and was sliding the window open, praying that it wouldn't squeak. She eased herself inside and closed the window behind her—no sense in advertising her presence.
The room she found herself in was a dining room, cluttered with furniture and bric-a-brac. A table leg stubbed her toe before her eyes adjusted fully. She withdrew the candle from her pocket, lit it, and repocketed her matches. A pair of yellow eyes reflected the flickering candlelight back at her, startling her until she realised it was merely a stuffed owl. Kat preferred her creatures living or in her cook pot.
She made her way to the door and peered out into a small hall. Where would Ablewhite hide the things he wanted to keep secret from his wife? The only other door opening off the hall was locked. Most houses of this kind had a library or study on the ground floor. Promising.
Kat pulled the picks from her pocket, stood the candle on the floor, knelt, and set to work. She had no idea how much time had passed when at last, inside the lock, something shifted with a dull click. She turned the door handle and went in.
Oil paintings crowded the walls—Ablewhite favoured hunting scenes, the gorier the better. The overwhelming reek of tobacco made her nose wrinkle. A maroon velvet smoking jacket and matching tasselled cap had been thrown carelessly over one arm of the leather armchair, and on the occasional table lay a half-smoked cigar, a dirty coffee cup, and a half-eaten biscuit —by locking his room, Ablewhite had prevented his maid from tidying.
Next to the armchair was a writing desk. But a quick rummage through it revealed nothing of interest. She turned her attention to the mahogany cabinets standing against one wall. The first contained trays of birds' eggs and pinned butterflies. The second was more rewarding: it held rows of painted slides, each comprising two almost identical images.
Even Kat had heard of stereoscopic slides: they were all the rage. She selected one at random and held the candle closer. The same voluptuous, naked woman, painted as though from two slightly different points of view, met her gaze. Seen through a special viewer, the image would take on the appearance of solidity. Kat put it back and selected another. And another. She grinned.
Though users might claim these were merely 'classical' scenes from the ancient world, Kat knew pornography when she saw it. Possession of the slides wasn't in itself a crime, unfortunately. If caught, Ablewhite faced only the confiscation of his collection and, if he was unlucky, a report of the court case in the local papers. No, it was his wife's reaction that was crucial. Kat couldn't imagine Laura Ablewhite being happy he had these.
It's a lever, she thought. A very weak one though. I'll need something more convincing.
A glance at the study clock showed more time had passed than she had realised. Janosh would be growing concerned. She pocketed a handful of the sauciest slides, closed up the cabinet, and relocked the study door behind her.
Back in the dining room, she peered out of the window before sliding it open and leaning out. "Jan?" she hissed.
"All clear," came the whispered reply. "But make it quick, cousin. The night constable's due back any minute."
Dorcas glanced at the clock. "He's late, isn't he?"
"Only a few minutes," said Wentworth, who was stationed by the window, peering down into the street, scrutinising every cab that came and went.
Kat drummed her fingers on the table. "Perhaps he's having trouble finding the hotel."
Dorcas threw the gypsy a curious look. Kat was up to something, but had taken neither Wentworth nor Dorcas into her confidence. It was at Kat's insistence that they had arranged the rendezvous for a hotel other than the Great Western. "I want to be able to leave when we are ready," Kat had said. "If it's Wentworth's room, your uncle has to do the leaving." She had also insisted on hiring the room under an assumed name.
The hotel had provided refreshments in the shape of a decanter of sherry and carafe of water. Kat had brought some macaroons and put them on a plate, but then warned Dorcas and Wentworth not to touch them. As if Dorcas could eat anything, the state she was in!
To say she was nervous was an understatement. Her hands were shaking, her mouth dry. The man who had probably killed her parents, tried to steal her money, and almost succeeded in having her locked away for life was about to walk through that door. Though Kat and William were here, she felt vulnerable.
Kat glanced at her. "Here." She poured water into a tumbler and handed it to Dorcas.
"Thank you." Dorcas sipped the water gratefully. "What if he doesn't come?"
"He will. If only to satisfy his curiosity."
Kat had dictated the letter. She had told Wentworth to write that they had something that belonged to Ablewhite. Something he wouldn't want to fall into the wrong hands. "The more mysterious the better," she had said with a smile.
Dorcas's glance shifted to the paper-wrapped package on the table, and her cheeks warmed. The explicitness of the slides had shocked her. She couldn't help contrasting them with the innocent slideshows she and her brothers had staged using William's magic lantern at Limmerton House. She had heard of pornography, of course but—
"Will threatening to tell Aunt Laura work?" she asked Kat.
"It's worth a try."
Dorcas bit her lip. She would have preferred a more definitive answer.
"A cab's pulled up." Wentworth pressed his nose against the glass. "Ablewhite's getting out."
"Anyone with him?" asked Kat.
The letter had told him to come alone. Even so, Dorcas was surprised. She had half feared that Jenkyns and Grimshaw would arrive in tow.
"He has courage, I'll give him that." Wentworth left the window and came to join them.
"I wouldn't give him the time of day," muttered Kat.
"Oh Lord!" Dorcas took another sip of water.
"I won't let him hurt you." Kat gave Dorcas's shoulders a gentle rub.
Wentworth looked as if he wanted to do the same. "Neither will I."
Then the door creaked open, and her uncle was standing there. He smiled at Dorcas, though the smile didn't reach the eyes behind the lenses.
"The missing niece. Well, well. Your aunt and I had been searching all over for you, my dear. We've been concerned for your welfare. Are these people holding you against your will?"
His effrontery made Dorcas splutter
"We're her friends," said Kat.
Ablewhite's brows rose. "In that case, I can only hope that she comes to her senses soon."
Dorcas edged closer to Kat, but his gaze had moved on, quartering the room, the package that contained the slides causing a slight crease between his brows.
"Refreshments?" He let the door swing closed behind him and crossed towards the table. "My favourite sweet biscuits too. Very civilised, considering you have summoned me here for the purposes of blackmail."
Wentworth scowled. "You're lucky we haven't reported you to the police."
Ablewhite threw him a scornful glance. "On what charge?"
"Killing Miss Garland's parents, perhaps?"
Dorcas's heart skipped at hearing Wentworth make the accusation public. She must have made a noise, because everyone turned to look at her, Kat with compassion.
"Mere conjecture." Ablewhite gave an ostentatious yawn.
"Making her life a living hell by committing her against her will to an institution then," went on Wentworth, visibly annoyed with Ablewhite's theatrics. "And trying to steal what is rightfully hers."
"Slander." Ablewhite sounded unconcerned. "And if you repeat those accusations in public, I shall sue."
He tossed his hat on the table and his gloves after it. Without asking, he poured himself a glass of the sherry and nibbled one of the macaroons. Dorcas glanced at Kat, but could tell nothing from her expression.
"The asylum was for her own good," mumbled Ablewhite around the biscuit. "You have no evidence to the contrary. The police will dismiss your accusations as malicious." He brushed a crumb from his waistcoat and reached for another biscuit. "Is no one going to join me?"
"I've lost my appetite," muttered Wentworth.
Kat poured herself a glass of sherry and took a sip. Dorcas watched her in astonishment.
"Very well." Ablewhite set down his glass. To business." He locked gazes with Wentworth. "I received your letter, Sir. Very enigmatic. What do you hope to achieve with this mysterious bargaining chip of yours? I'm all ears."
"To persuade you to leave Miss Garland alone."
Ablewhite took off his spectacles and polished them with his handkerchief. "Aren't I to be allowed to take an interest in my niece's welfare?"
Wentworth's hands bunched into fists. "You have shown little concern for her welfare to date."
"And what would you know about it?" Ablewhite tucked his handkerchief back in his pocket and redonned his spectacles. "This is a family matter."
"If you are after a punch on the nose, Ablewhite, you are going the right way about it," said Wentworth through gritted teeth.
Ablewhite tutted. He pulled out his pocket watch and checked its time against that of the clock on the mantelpiece.
"William," warned Dorcas, worried he was going to do something rash. He exhaled and uncurled his hands.
"The parcel," prompted Kat.
Wentworth picked it up, unwrapped it, and shoved it at Ablewhite. "Yours, I believe."
Ablewhite's face paled when he saw the slides. Then his cheeks flushed a rosy red.
He's rattled, thought an astonished Dorcas. She had never seen her uncle wear such an expression before. Hope quickened her pulse. Perhaps this was going to work after all.
He recovered his composure quickly. "If you expect me to deny they are my property, why should I? They're mine, and you did not come by them by legal means." He drew himself up to his full height. "It is I who should call the police."
"Call them by all means." Wentworth rewrapped the slides and replaced them on the table, out of Ablewhite's reach. "We have merely done the work of the Society for the Suppression of Vice for them. They will confiscate and destroy all of your slides—they cost you a pretty penny, I imagine. And your name will be mentioned in the newspapers in connection with this... depravity."
Her uncle affected boredom, but the eyes behind the lenses were angry. "Only the ignorant could detect depravity in innocuous images of the female form."
There had been men on some of the slides, and some couples were in very compromising positions, but Dorcas didn't draw his attention to the fact.
Wentworth folded his arms. "What would your wife say if she knew you indulged in such a vice?"
Ablewhite became thoughtful. "Ah. So that is your strategy?" He smiled, as if with relief. "By all means show Laura. I keep no secrets from my wife."
Dorcas's heart plummeted.
"Oh dear." He grinned, amused by their reactions. Only Kat remained unperturbed. "Oh dear, oh dear." He shook his head. "Is that all you have?" He poured himself a glass of water and took a gulp. "It's so cardinal a rule that I hesitate to teach it to you. But if you are going to play games of chance, Mr. Wentworth, you really must make sure you hold a winning hand."
He's right, thought Dorcas, dismayed by this turn of events. They had gambled everything on one throw, and a feeble one at that, and lost. Nothing would stop him from coming after her as in her nightmares, again and again and again. But she couldn't go back to the asylum. She'd rather die.
"No." Kat's voice pulled Dorcas back from the brink. "It isn't all we have, Mr Ablewhite."
Both Dorcas and Wentworth looked at her in surprise.
Ablewhite frowned. "I've been meaning to ask. What is a gypsy doing here?" He flapped a hand. "Never mind. Get on with it, woman, before I lose what remains of my patience." He took another gulp of water and refilled his glass.
"You seem very thirsty," observed Kat.
"And if I am, what of it?"
"Did the biscuits taste strange? Richer than usual, perhaps?"
Ablewhite's brows drew together. "What the devil does that have to do with anything?"
"A great deal."
Consternation filled his gaze. "What have you done to me?" He raised a hand to his throat then to his mouth. "My mouth is devilish dry and my lips are burning."
"Given you a taste of what will happen should you continue to harass your niece." Kat's eyes gleamed with something Dorcas was at last able to interpret.
Satisfaction. Like the cat who has eaten the canary.
"You have poisoned me?" His eyes bulged.
"We call it drow," said Kat.
Understanding dawned. "Have you killed him?" asked Dorcas in an appalled whisper.
"He hasn't eaten enough for that." Kat gave her a reassuring smile. "The next few hours will be very unpleasant, though. I speak from experience."
"I'll have the law on you," said Ablewhite hoarsely. "Just see if I don't."
Unmoved, Kat refilled his glass with water. He drained it dry.
"You made a mistake when you crossed me, Mr Ablewhite." Her blue eyes were glacial. "A bad mistake. We Romanies don't consider ourselves bound by your laws and customs."
"Crossed you?" Ablewhite looked confused. "But I didn't—"
"Your men did," she cut in. "On your orders."
He pulled a kerchief from his pocket and mopped his sweating brow. "So?" His tone was defiant, and despite herself Dorcas felt a twinge of reluctant respect.
"Consider this your final warning," said Kat. "No matter where you go or how many bodyguards you employ, I can reach you, Ablewhite. Or if not I, then a member of my clan."
He was beginning to pant, and he looked nauseous and unsteady on his feet.
"Are you prepared to check every mouthful of food, every drop of drink for the rest of your life?" asked Kat, her voice silky with menace. "Because next time it won't be just a taste of poison, it will be a lethal dose."
"Try me." He flinched as the gypsy stepped towards him and thrust her face into his. "If you so much as harm a hair on your niece's head... if I even suspect you of being involved in something that causes her harm... your life is forfeit. And it'll be a protracted, painful death. From which there is no hope of recovery." She paused. "Do you understand?"
He stared at Kat as a rabbit might stare at a stoat, and gave a jerky nod.
"Good." Kat straightened. "In that case, our business is concluded."
It was quiet in the carriage as they travelled back to the Great Western Hotel. Dorcas sneaked frequent glances at her companions. Kat was gazing out of the window, her expression remote. Wentworth's jaw was set. If Kat was aware of the stormy glances he kept throwing at her, she showed no sign.
Wentworth had always had an unattractive tendency to sulk, Dorcas remembered. She wondered what was most upsetting him: Kat's ruthlessness, or the fact that it was Kat, rather than himself, whose plan had succeeded. For Dorcas knew, deep in her bones, that her uncle was now so terrified, he would never come near her again.
For herself, she was uncertain what to feel. Kat's decisive and potentially lethal action had taken her aback, and uneasiness marred with feelings of relief and gratitude. Her mind kept throwing up awkward questions, like: If she could do that to my uncle, could she do that to me?
But her uncle had richly deserved everything Kat dished out, hadn't he? His callous treatment of his own niece had revealed he had neither morals nor scruples and was unlikely to change his ways unless forced to.
The carriage lurched as it turned right, throwing her against Kat. She righted herself and murmured an apology, and decided the silence had gone on long enough.
She gave Kat a shy smile. " Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
At her words, something in Kat's manner eased. "I couldn't tell either of you what I was going to do." She turned to regard Dorcas. "I knew you wouldn't approve. And if you had forbidden me...."
Wentworth shifted in his seat and muttered something that sounded like, "Barbaric!" Both women ignored him.
"You're right, I would not have allowed it," admitted Dorcas. "But I think, with hindsight, it was the only way."
Wentworth looked shocked, then dismayed and disappointed at her words. I am not the woman her thought I was. Perhaps it's just as well.
Dorcas turned her gaze back to Kat. "How did you manage it?"
"Janosh acquired it for me. I made up a weak solution and soaked the biscuits in it."
Dorcas studied her. "But how could you be sure my uncle would eat them?"
"I saw a half eaten macaroon in his study the night I took the slides. It was obvious he has a weakness for them."
"It was dangerous and irresponsible." Wentworth could endure his self-imposed silence no more. "Suppose Dorcas had eaten one!"
"I told her not to," said Kat. "And I wouldn't have let her."
He swore under his breath.
"But how could you be sure my uncle wouldn't consume a lethal dose?" continued Dorcas.
"I kept a close count of how many biscuits he ate," said Kat. "If he had reached for another, I would have prevented him. I've no wish to have his death on my conscience, Dorcas." But the way she avoided Dorcas's gaze during that final sentence betrayed that it wasn't quite true. "Besides," her lips acquired the hint of a smile, "a police investigation of his death would have been inconvenient, to say the least."
"So that is why you hired the room under an assumed name. Just in case?"
Wentworth opened his mouth and shut it again. Pointedly he stared out of the window.
Dorcas reached for Kat's hand and patted it. "Tomorrow I shall reopen Garland House," she said. "And hire new servants. I would dearly like back those who worked for my parents, but I expect they have found employment elsewhere."
"Let me take on that task for you," said Wentworth, still gazing out of the window. "Limmerton House can manage without me for a while longer."
It would certainly make things easier, and give William something to do. "Thank you," she told him. "That would be a kindness."
He harrumphed but his ill temper seemed to ease.
"What are your plans, Kat?"
The silence between them stretched.
"The open road is my home," said Kat at last. "Bracken and Pharaoh are waiting for me."
An urge to go with her swept over Dorcas, and she only just kept herself from blurting it out. Kat gave her a curious look, as if she had sensed something of her inner turmoil, and she blushed and looked away. It was a preposterous idea, impractical, and scandalous. She needed to rest and recover, and let her jangled nerves heal. Why, she had barely had time even to mourn her own parents.
But if she couldn't go with Kat, perhaps....
"Have you never thought of settling in one place? There is a great deal of land attached to Garland House. It joins onto the heath, you know, and would make an ideal campsite for you."
"You can't do that!" said Wentworth, shocked. "The other landowners won't stand for it. They know that, once one gypsy camps on your land, they all want to. Besides, you'll be far too busy picking up the thread of your old life and resuming acquaintance with friends and neighbours to want to play at gypsies any more."
His passionate objection took Dorcas aback.
"A husband an children," he went on, warming to his theme. "That's what you need to throw your energy into, Dorcas."
She threw him an indignant glance. "I've had quite enough of other people deciding my future for me, thank you."
He flushed, and returned to gazing out the carriage window.
"What do the cards say?" She asked Kat
"Cards?" Wentworth's head whipped round again. "You can't possibly believe in such superstition."
Dorcas didn't reply.
Kat pulled the pack from her skirt pocket. "Let's see, shall we?"
It took her only a moment to shuffle and lay out the cards in a 3 by 3 grid on the spare seat. Dorcas watched like a hawk.
"What do they say?"
"All diamonds," murmured Kat, pointing at the middle row of cards.
"Is that good?"
She nodded and tapped the Six. "That indicates a short trip." Her finger moved to the Seven. "This, a conversation. The one we are having now, probably." Wentworth let out a derisive snort, which they both ignored. "As for the Queen... That's you, my dear. Mistress of your own destiny at last."
"At last," repeated Dorcas, pleased. "And the future?"
"The same as before." Kat sounded surprised.
Dorcas frowned. "Which is what? Last time you wouldn't tell me what they meant. Will you now?"
Kat laughed. "This one"—she tapped the Nine of Clubs—"says that strong affection, love even, lies in your future."
Wentworth leaned forward, interested in spite of himself. "Is she to marry?" Dorcas frowned at him.
"Perhaps." Kat's tone was noncommittal. "Love comes in many guises."
"Go on," urged Dorcas.
"The Ten of Clubs." Kat pointed. "That's income, money. You will have plenty of wealth."
"Just as well. From what Father used to say, Garland House requires a lot of upkeep.... And the final card, Kat? The Ace of Hearts?" It was Dorcas's turn to point.
"Home," said the gypsy simply.
Dorcas thought about that. "Garland House?"
"Perhaps. Sometimes it isn’t a place but a person." Kat gathered up the cards and slipped them into her pocket. "One thing I can promise." She smiled at Dorcas. "You'll know it when you find it."
Kat pushed Bracken's head away from her frying pan. "Stop that, or you'll burn your nose. Or worse, end up in the stew."
The lurcher whined but did as she was told.
A delicious aroma of sizzling rabbit, potatoes, and onions had replaced the scent of foliage and bark and the salt breeze coming off the sea. Three days ago, Kat had pitched camp beneath the spreading branches of a huge beech tree. It provided shelter from the elements as well as dispersing the smoke from her campfire, so that no curious landowner would come looking. There was also a brook flowing past a mere ten yards away. Though clogged with weed, its water was clean and pure, the taste redolent of the chalk through which it had flowed.
The perfect campsite. I wonder how it compares to the woodland at Garland House?
It dawned on Kat that she was thinking of the gorgie again, and she stifled a sigh. She was doing a lot of that lately—wondering whether Dorcas had managed to pick up the threads of her life, if she was still having nightmares, if Wentworth had persuaded her to marry him yet... if she ever thought about Kat.
Stop it. She gave herself a mental slap. You're as bad as Bracken, sticking your nose in where it shouldn't go.
The smell of burning onions dragged her attention back to her supper. She set aside the frying pan and checked on the pot of water she had hung over the fire. It was almost boiling, so she tipped the contents of her frying pan into it, added salt and a handful of fresh herbs, and plopped in the suet dumpling. The pile of shredded greens must wait until later.
She manoeuvred the scorching hot lid back into place with a forked branch, stood up, and wiped her hands on her skirt. Time for a short walk.
Pharaoh was securely tethered with plenty of good browsing within reach, so Kat called Bracken to heel and set off in the direction of the cliffs. It was a pleasure to stretch her legs; she had spent much of the afternoon bent over, either trimming the donkey's hooves or fitting his new shoes, and she leaned into the incline with a will. Bracken bounded after her, taking the occasional diversion to investigate a rabbit hole or sniff something interesting.
When she reached the top, the breeze off the North Sea and the raucous cries of seagulls met her. She inhaled the salt-fresh air with a sense of pleasure. Who would want to live in a crowded, stinking city when they could have this? For a few minutes she simply stood admiring the view, then she strolled along the cliff top to the erosion-smoothed rock that had become her favourite seat. Bracken flopped down next to her, panting.
Out on the ocean, fishing boats were returning to the sandy bay further up the coast for the night. Do they never get tired of fish for supper? The thought of her own supper waiting for her made her mouth water. Then she found herself remembering Dorcas's reaction to her first taste of hotchi-witchi and sighed.
Something had changed. When had she first noticed it? Not when she first left London. Then she had been relieved to be able to shake off the stench of coal smoke and sewage and escape the ceaseless noise. She needed space and silence, fresh air and the open road. It was a challenge cajoling Nature to provide her with food and shelter every day, but one she embraced with a will, taking satisfaction in being beholden to no man.
Solitude had never bothered her. When she needed company, a patrin steered her to the campsite of a fellow Romany. And if she had a thirst for ale, there was always a public house not far away whose landlord would tolerate her kind. She had revelled in the freedom to go wherever the fancy took her, crisscrossing the vales and hills of England, before ending up here on the Yorkshire coast.
It should have been enough. And for the past six years it had been. But something was different this time, and gradually it had dawned on her what it was. There was no substitute for a familiar, friendly human face sitting across the campfire from her, smiling back at her and sharing the day's bounty.
"I miss her," she told Bracken. The lurcher gave her a soulful gaze, as if she understood.
Kat laughed and stood up. "Supper's waiting." She made her way back to the beech tree.
Pharaoh had finished browsing and was dozing as Kat checked the dumpling had risen and added the shredded greens to her stew. As she got out her eating bowl, her eyes fell on the pack of playing cards, unused since she had left London. She had been reading palms, instead, for those gorgios willing to give her some silver. What woman didn't like to hear that her absent lover was constant and thinking about her? What fat widower didn't relish knowing that a pretty, rich widow was due to enter his life soon? But for the true dukkerin, you couldn't beat the cards.
She picked them up and put them down again. But as she ladled out stew and dumpling into her bowl, made herself comfortable by the fire, and ate, they kept drawing her gaze.
"After all," she muttered after a while. "What can it hurt to ask?"
Rolling her eyes in self-mockery, she set aside her half-eaten supper. She shuffled the pack well, dealt out nine cards, and squinted at them in the firelight. Bracken laid her head on her paws and watched her.
Her mouth had gone dry, she realised. Is it because I want them to tell me Dorcas lies in my future, or because I don't?
She steeled herself to look at the first card in the bottom of the three rows. "Nine of Clubs—love, strong affection." She looked at the next card. "Queen of Diamonds—a young woman." She turned to the final card. "Six of Spades—a long trip." From here to Hampstead?
She gathered up the cards and shuffled them, once, twice, three times. Again she dealt them, holding her breath the while, then looked at the result. Her breath escaped in a rush. Exactly the same cards were staring up at her. The odds against that happening must be astronomical.
For a long time she simply gazed at them. Then she threw back her head and laughed. Bracken wagged her tail and let out an excited bark. The donkey awoke with a snort and a bray of protest.
Kat regained control at last and wiped her eyes. "Go back to sleep, Pharaoh," she ordered. It was just as well she had fitted him with new shoes today. "We've a long journey ahead of us tomorrow."
"Your tea and biscuits is on the table, Miss." Dorcas's lady's maid drew back the curtains. "Looks like it's going to be another fine day."
"Thank you, Edith." Dorcas stifled a yawn, and glanced at the washstand, where wisps of steam were curling up from the water jug Edith had placed there. "That will be all."
The maid curtseyed and left her to get dressed.
Dorcas threw back the sheets and got out of bed. She carried her cup of tea to the window and gazed out over the garden. When they had first moved to Garland House, the garden had been little more than a meadow separated from the heath by a wild wood. Through dint of hard work, her father had turned the strip nearest the house into a lawn and flowerbeds. But though the roses he had planted looked beautiful, and their scent and that of the lavender further along were wafting in through the open bedroom window, it was the woodland that drew her eye.
I wonder where Kat is camped. And if Pharaoh is being as obstinate as ever.
Her thoughts seem to be often on the gypsy these days. Compared to Kat, everyone else seemed monochrome. But perhaps the stress and danger of their time together had leant it a vividness it didn't merit. She sighed, ate her biscuits, and finished her tea.
While she washed and dressed, she contemplated the day ahead. It would be mundane and ordinary, like the day before it and the day before that. She would consult Cook about dinner and Edith about the housework and laundry, and take delivery of the items she had ordered yesterday from the shops. She would read a few more pages of that Wilkie Collins novel, which was a little too melodramatic for her taste, and play the pianoforte Father had given her on her twelfth birthday. After luncheon, the hired carriage would arrive, to take her to call on some of her friends and neighbours.
Her heart sank. There must be something wrong with me to find my life of comfort and ease so lacking.
But it was hard to pretend an interest in the affairs and health of people she couldn't give a fig about. It didn't help that they had declined to come to her aid when she most needed them. Blaming them was probably unfair—they weren't to know her uncle's true character—but she couldn't help it. And the pitying glances that still met her every appearance irritated her. Her return home, and her uncle's hasty departure to America, had been something of a Nine Day Wonder, but in time, she hoped, the scrutiny would turn elsewhere.
Without the convivial presence of her parents, the house felt hollow, as empty as her mood. But family was lost to her. Even if she had been able to forgive her uncle and aunt, they were on a ship bound for America, and she had no intention of ever seeing Gilbert again.
Wentworth said all she needed was a husband and child to dote on; a matter that could be easily remedied, as a spinster with a fortune and a house too large for her was of interest to every young man in need of a wife. But he had his own agenda. She had refused him three times now, and he had gone back to Limmerton last Friday looking quite put out. Perhaps it has sunk in at last that his quest was hopeless. She hoped so. Friends with him she would gladly be, but anything more intimate....
I must stop being so maudlin. Good company is all I need. Or to fill my days with charitable endeavours.
Dorcas was picking at her plate of kedgeree when Edith hurried in to the dining room, looking alarmed. "An intruder, Miss. In the wood." Dorcas put a hand to her throat. But the maid was continuing, unaware of her consternation. "It's a gypsy woman with a donkey cart."
"A gypsy woman," repeated Dorcas faintly.
"She's parked by the stream, Miss. The cheek! This isn't common land. Geoffrey has gone to send her packing—"
"Call him back at once, Edith." Dorcas threw aside her napkin, pushed back her chair, and stood up.
"Call him back?" The maid looked confused. "Didn't you hear me, Miss? There's a gypsy—"
"I heard you as clear as day. But if it's who I think it is...."
Dorcas hurried towards the window that overlooked the garden and the woodland at its limits. Her heart leaped in her chest as she peered through the glass. Beyond the footman running to intercept the interloper, she made out a cart, from which a tall figure in a scarlet cape was unhitching a donkey, while a lurcher nosed at its surroundings. The donkey's size and colouring matched Pharaoh's.
Dorcas turned back to the gawping maid. "Fetch Geoffrey back at once, Edith. That is no intruder but a guest." And I didn't dare to hope she would accept my invitation. "She has my permission to camp here whenever she wants." Distractedly she looked round for her shawl and bonnet.
Edith's eyes widened, but she said merely, "Very good, Miss." She curtseyed and hurried away.
Still tying her bonnet ribbon, Dorcas hurried down the stairs and into the kitchen. There, under Cook's amazed gaze, she grabbed a wicker basket, opened the door to the pantry, and grabbed hold of the first things she saw—a slab of veal pie and a flagon of cider.
"We have a guest, Mrs Coulsdon," she said. Cook had worked for her parents and, luckily for Dorcas, was only too happy to return to Garland House. "You would surely not begrudge her a little food and drink?"
"That gypsy woman, is it?" Cook threw her a shrewd glance.
Dorcas felt her cheeks warm. That was the trouble with servants who had known you all your life. They could read you uncomfortably well. "Yes." She pretended to occupy herself packing food into the basket.
"Well. It's about time. All that moping about you've been doing."
Cook pointed at the windowsill on which a pie dish sat cooling. "There's fresh baked apple pie. Your friend would welcome a slice of that, I'm guessing. You too, I expect."
Dorcas beamed a thank you. "I am feeling quite peckish all of a sudden." She added the cooling pie to her basket. Cook returned to her baking with a knowing smile
As Dorcas continued on out the back door, her heart was pumping hard, and she felt slightly dizzy. She was half way towards the stream, passing Edith and a disgruntled Geoffrey, returning to the house, before she realised she was still wearing her house slippers. Oh well. At least it hadn't rained overnight.
As she drew closer, the figure in the red cloak straightened and turned. Familiar blue eyes regarded her, and Bracken bounded across the turf towards her. Then she had her work cut out keeping the lurcher's nose out of the basket.
"Stop that, Bracken," called Kat, her voice carrying clearly. Bracken whined her disappointment, but ceased her attempts to snatch the veal pie. She barked once at Dorcas, as if to say, "Are you coming?" and raced back to join her mistress.
As Dorcas hurried after her, Kat's face broke into a smile. "Are you well, pirini?" she called.
Kat had never used that term of address before. From her fond expression, though, it was a term of endearment. Dorcas suddenly found it hard to stop grinning.
"I am now," she said, meaning it. She stopped in front of Kat, feeling suddenly tongue-tied as their gazes locked.
"I've missed you," said Kat.
Dorcas ducked her head. "I've missed you too."
"Kushti." Kat held out her hand and Dorcas took it. "The cards were right." She led Dorcas to where a newly built campfire lay waiting to be lit.
"About what?" Dorcas deposited the basket, and sank down on the grass next to it, looking up with a smile as Kat joined her, cross-legged.
19th Century Gypsy Words & Phrases
Contemporary English gypsies use slightly different words (gadje for gorgio, and marhime for marhime, for example) from those used in Victorian England. The spelling of the words also seems to vary greatly. I have taken the works of George Borrow and Charles G. Leland as my primary sources, but even they aren't consistent. Some errors are bound to have crept in, but, hey, I tried. J
Chal = boy
Chavi = child/daughter
Dukkerin = fortune telling
Gorgie = non Gypsy woman
Gorgio = non Gypsy man
Daya = mother/nurse
Drow = poison
Hotchi-witchi = hedgehog
Juggal = dog
Kral = chief
Kushti = good
Marhime = rejected/outcast
Pirini = sweetheart
Mishto! = Well done!
Patrin = marker/sign/leaf
Rom = Gypsy man/husband
Sarishan? = How are you?
Tatcho = true
Tatto yeck = 'a hot one' (a severe blow)
Tickni = small/little/child
Vardo = cart/home on wheels
Yakka = eyes
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