You ask if there is a peaceful place in the world, and I regret to say that it is not Stony Cross. Recently Mr. Mawdsley's donkey escaped from his stall, raced down the road, and somehow found his way into an enclosed pasture. Mr. Caird's prized mare was innocently grazing when the ill-bred seducer had his way with her. Now it appears the mare has conceived, and a feud is raging between Caird, who demands financial compensation, and Mawdsley, who insists that had the pasture fencing been in better repair, the clandestine meeting would never have occurred. Worse still, it has been suggested that the mare is a shameless lightskirt and did not try nearly hard 18
enough to preserve her virtue.
Do you really think you've earned a place in hell? . . . I don't believe in hell, at least not in the afterlife. I think hell is brought about by man right here on earth.
You say the gentleman I knew has been replaced. How I wish I could
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offer better comfort than to say that no matter how you have changed, you will be welcomed when you return. Do what you must. If it helps you to endure, put the feelings away for now, and lock the door. Perhaps someday we'll air them out together.
Beatrix had never intentionally deceived anyone. She would have felt infinitely more comfortable writing to Phelan as herself. But she still remembered the disparaging remarks that he had once made about her. He would not want a letter from that 'peculiar Beatrix Hathaway.' He had asked for a letter from the beautiful golden-haired Prudence Mercer. And wasn't a letter written under false pretenses better than nothing at all? A man in Christopher's situation needed all the words of encouragement one could offer.
He needed to know that someone cared.
And for some reason, after having read his letter, Beatrix found that she did indeed care.
The harvest moon brought dry, clear weather, and the Ramsay tenants
and workers reaped the most abundant yields in memory. Like everyone else on the estate, Beatrix was occupied with the harvest and the local festival that followed. A massive al fresco dinner and dance was held on the grounds of Ramsay House for more than a thousand guests, including tenants,
servants, and townspeople.
To Beatrix's disappointment, Audrey Phelan had not been able to
attend the festivities, as her husband John had developed a persistent cough.
She had stayed home to care for him. 'The doctor has left us with some medicine that has already helped John to great effect,' Audrey had written,
'but he warned that uninterrupted bed rest is important for a complete recovery.'
Near the end of November, Beatrix walked to the Phelans' house,
taking a direct route through woodlands populated with gnarled oak and wide-gesturing beeches. The dark-branched trees seemed to have been
dipped in crushed sugar. As the sun cracked through the veneer of clouds, it struck brilliant glints on the frost. The soles of Beatrix's sturdy shoes bit through the frozen mush of dried leaves and moss.
She approached the Phelan house, formerly a royal hunting lodge, a
large ivy-covered home set among ten forested acres. Reaching a charming paved path, Beatrix skirted the side of the house and headed toward the front.
Hearing a quiet voice, she turned to behold Audrey Phelan sitting
alone on a stone bench.
'Oh, hello,' Beatrix said cheerfully. 'I hadn't seen you in days, so I thought I would . . .' Her voice faded as she took a closer look at her friend.
Audrey was wearing a simple day gown, the gray fabric blending into
the woods behind her. She had been so silent and still that Beatrix hadn't even noticed her.
They had been friends for three years, ever since Audrey had married John and moved to Stony Cross. There was a certain kind of friend one only visited when one had no problems--that was Prudence. But there was
another kind of friend one went to in times of trouble or need--that was Audrey.
Beatrix frowned as she saw that Audrey's complexion was bleached of
its usual healthy color, and her eyes and nose were red and sore-looking.
Beatrix frowned in concern. 'You're not wearing a cloak or shawl.'
'I'm fine,' Audrey murmured, even though her shoulders were trembling. She shook her head and made a staying gesture as Beatrix took off her heavy wool cloak and went to drape it over Audrey's slender form.
'No, Bea, don't--'
'I'm warm from the exertion of the walk,' Beatrix insisted. She sat beside her friend on the icy stone bench. A wordless moment passed, while Audrey's throat worked visibly. Something was seriously wrong. Beatrix waited with forced patience, her heartbeat in her throat. 'Audrey,' she finally asked, 'has something happened to Captain Phelan?'
Audrey responded with a blank stare, as if she were trying to decipher a foreign language. 'Captain Phelan,' she repeated quietly, and gave a little shake of her head. 'No, as far as we know, Christopher is well. In fact, a packet of letters arrived from him yesterday. One of them is for Prudence.'
Beatrix was nearly overcome with relief. 'I'll take it to her, if you like,' she volunteered, trying to sound diffident.
'Yes. That would be helpful.' Audrey's pale fingers twisted in her lap, knotting and unknotting.
Slowly Beatrix reached out and put her hand over Audrey's. 'Your husband's cough is worse?'
'The doctor left earlier.' Taking a deep breath, Audrey said dazedly,
'John has consumption.'
Beatrix's hand tightened.
They were both silent, while a chilling wind crackled the trees.
The enormity of the unfairness was difficult to grasp. John Phelan was a decent man, always the first to call on someone when he had heard they needed help. He had paid for a cottager's wife to have medical treatment that the couple couldn't afford, and had made the piano in his home available for local children to take lessons, and invested in the rebuilding of the Stony Cross pie shop when it had nearly burned to the ground. And he did it all with great discretion, seeming almost embarrassed to be caught in a good deed. Why did someone like John have to be stricken?
'It's not a death sentence,' Beatrix eventually said. 'Some people 21
'One in five,' Audrey agreed dully.
'Your husband is young and strong. And someone has to be the one out of the five. It will be John.'
Audrey managed a nod but didn't reply.
They both knew that consumption was a particularly virulent disease, devastating the lungs, causing drastic loss of weight and fatigue. Worst of all was the consumptive cough, turning ever more persistent and bloody, until the lungs were finally too full for the sufferer to breathe any longer.
'My brother-in-law Cam is very knowledgeable about herbs and
medicines,' Beatrix volunteered. 'His grandmother was a healer in his tribe.'
'A Gypsy cure?' Audrey asked in a doubtful tone.
'You must try anything and everything,' Beatrix insisted. 'Including Gypsy cures. The Rom live in nature, and they know all about its power to heal. I'll ask Cam to make up a tonic that will help Mr. Phelan's lungs, and--'
'John probably won't take it,' Audrey said. 'And his mother would object. The Phelans are very conventional people. If it doesn't come from a vial in a doctor's case, or the apothecary's shop, they won't approve.'
'I'm going to bring something from Cam all the same.'
Audrey leaned her head to the side until it rested briefly on Beatrix's shoulder. 'You're a good friend, Bea. I'm going to need you in the coming months.'
'You have me,' Beatrix said simply.
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Another breeze whipped around them, biting through Beatrix's
sleeves. Audrey shook herself from her dazed misery and stood, handing back the cloak. 'Let's go into the house, and I'll find that letter for Pru.'
The interior of the house was cozy and warm, the rooms wide with
low timbered ceilings, thick-paned windows admitting the winter-colored light. It seemed every hearth in the house had been lit, heat rolling gently through the tidy rooms. Everything in the Phelan house was muted and tasteful, with stately furniture that had reached a comfortably venerable age.
A subdued-looking housemaid came to take Beatrix's cloak.
'Where is your mother-in-law?' Beatrix asked, following Audrey to the staircase.
'She went to rest in her room. The news is especially difficult for her.' A fragile pause. 'John has always been her favorite.'
Beatrix was well aware of that, as was most of Stony Cross. Mrs.
Phelan adored both her sons, the only children she had left after two of her other children, also sons, had died in their infancies, and a daughter who had 22
been stillborn. But it was John in whom Mrs. Phelan had invested all her pride and ambition. Unfortunately no woman would ever have been good enough for John in his mother's eyes. Audrey had endured a great deal of criticism during the three years of her marriage, especially in her failure to conceive children.
Beatrix and Audrey ascended the staircase, past rows of family
portraits in heavy gold frames. Most of the subjects were Beauchamps, the aristocratic side of the family. One couldn't help but notice that throughout the generations represented, the Beauchamps were an extraordinarily
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handsome people, with narrow noses and brilliant eyes and thick flowing hair.
As they reached the top of the stairs, a series of muffled coughs came from a room at the end of the hallway. Beatrix winced at the raw sound.
'Bea, would you mind waiting for a moment?' Audrey asked
anxiously. 'I must go to John--it's time for his medicine.'
'Yes, of course.'
'Christopher's room--the one he stays in when he visits--is right there.
I put the letter on the dresser.'
'I'll fetch it.'
Audrey went to her husband, while Beatrix cautiously entered
Christopher's room, first peering around the doorjamb.
The room was dim. Beatrix went to open one of the heavy curtains,
letting daylight slide across the carpeted floor in a brilliant rectangle. The letter was on the dresser. Beatrix picked it up eagerly, her fingers itching to break the seal.
However, she admonished herself, it was addressed to Prudence.
With an impatient sigh, she slipped the unopened letter into the pocket of her walking dress. Lingering at the dresser, she surveyed the articles arranged neatly on a wooden tray.
A small silver-handled shaving brush . . . a folding-blade razor . . . an empty soap dish . . . a lidded porcelain box with a silver top. Unable to resist, Beatrix lifted the top and looked inside. She found three pairs of cuff links, two in silver, one in gold, a watch chain, and a brass button. Replacing the lid, Beatrix picked up the shaving brush and experimentally touched her cheek with it. The bristles were silky and soft. With the movement of the soft fibers, a pleasant scent was released from the brush. A spicy hint of shaving soap.
Holding the brush closer to her nose, Beatrix drew in the scent . . .
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masculine richness . . . cedar, lavender, bay leaves. She imagined
Christopher spreading lather over his face, stretching his mouth to one side, 23
all the masculine contortions she had seen her father and brother perform in the act of removing bristle from their faces.
Guiltily she set aside the brush and went out into the hallway. 'I found the letter,' she said. 'I opened the curtains--I'll pull them back together, and--'
'Oh, don't worry about that, let the light in. I abhor dark rooms.'
Audrey gave her a strained smile. 'John took his medicine,' she said. 'It makes him sleepy. While he rests, I'm going downstairs to talk with Cook.
John thinks he might be able to eat some white pudding.'
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They proceeded down the stairs together.
'Thank you for taking the letter to Prudence,' Audrey said.
'It's very kind of you to facilitate a correspondence between them.'
'Oh, it's no bother. It's for Christopher's sake that I agreed. I will admit to being surprised that Prudence took the time to write to
'Why do you say that?'
'I don't think she gives a fig about him. I warned Christopher about her before he left, actually. But he was so taken with her looks and her high spirits that he managed to convince himself there was something genuine between them.'
'I thought you liked Prudence.'
'I do. Or at least . . . I'm trying to. Because of you.' Audrey smiled wryly at Beatrix's expression. 'I've resolved to be more like you, Bea.'
'Like me? Oh, I wouldn't do that. Haven't you noticed how odd I am?'
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Audrey's smile broadened into a grin, and for a moment she looked
like the carefree young woman she had been before John's illness. 'You accept people for what they are. I think you regard them as you do your creatures--you're patient, and you observe their habits and wants, and you don't judge them.'
'I judged your brother-in-law severely,' Beatrix pointed out, feeling guilty.
'More people should be severe on Christopher,' Audrey said, her smile lingering. 'It might improve his character.'
The unopened letter in Beatrix's pocket was nothing less than a
torment. She hurried back home, saddled a horse, and rode to Mercer House, an elaborately designed house with turrets, intricately turned porch posts, and stained-glass windows.
Having just arisen after attending a dance that lasted until three
o'clock in the morning, Prudence received Beatrix in a velvet dressing gown trimmed with spills of white lace. 'Oh, Bea, you should have gone to the dance last night! There were so many handsome young gentlemen there, including a cavalry detachment that is being sent to the Crimea in two days, and they looked so splendid in their uniforms--'
'I've just been to see Audrey,' Beatrix said breathlessly, entering the private upstairs parlor and closing the door. 'Poor Mr. Phelan isn't well, and--well, I'll tell you about that in a minute, but--here's a letter from Captain Phelan!'