A Trip North
Thursday, October 3rd, 1867
Great Northern Railway
En route to Scarborough
The clack of the wheels and the sway of the car were soporific and Josephine had risen early to make the train out of St. Pancras Station for her trip to Scarborough. London was two hours behind her and she faced most of the day on the rails before she could return to solid ground again. Sitting in second class, she thought longingly of the comfort of Katherine’s car on their trip to Paris and dismissed it as a weakness—before the advent of trains one had the option of covering the distance by horseback or carriage or dray cart. All were slower than a locomotive, at times painfully so if one were an inept rider, and she counted her blessings where she could: her finances were somewhat easier to access now that she’d had the paperwork cleared and though she must still husband her money against frivolous expenditure, she could indulge in a train ticket where once before she would have gone without. Her trunk sat secured in the baggage car and in her valise beneath her seat she had all she needed for the duration of the trip. A tea cart made its way down the aisle and she waved the attendant over. She paid for her cup and sat breathing in the aroma with pleasure. This late into the season, the train windows were raised and locked tight against the chill and the car was starting to grow hot from the press of its passengers. However much Josephine would have loved to crack that window and put her face in the slipstream, she left the window locks unmolested and contented herself with the bracing scent of her tea.
She’d paid for two more cups and had made her way through most of her notes of her fortnight in London before she had to change trains for a line that would take her east. The crush of the northern line was replaced by the lighter traffic of the northeastern and the car was less crowded. Furthermore, the folk aboard must have been of hardier northern stock, for someone cracked a few windows fore and aft and the fresh air banished the stifling morning from her memory.
It was nearly 6 o’clock in the evening when Josephine finally stepped down onto the platform and found her trunk waiting for her. She checked the knots on the ropes and the locks and found all were secure. Over the crash and boom of the nearby surf, the bells of Scarborough’s churches and clock towers rang the hour and Josephine hired a porter to carry her trunk to the station telegraph office. She would give Katherine another fifteen minutes and then wire ahead to the estate of her arrival. There might still be a wagon at the station she could hire to take her there. Josephine entertained herself with reading the notices tacked on the bulletin boards while she waited. She checked her father’s watch and saw it was a quarter past.
Right. Look lively then.
Josephine closed her watch and put her pencil to her telegraph form.
A tall, lean man, his face obscured with a large mustache approached her. “Might you be a Miss Josephine Arceneaux?” he inquired in a broad Yorkshire accent. Her last name rumbled through his mouth with a certain careful intonation, one that spoke of repetition of the name until it rang from his lips true and carefully formed. He doffed his cap, inclining his head a little, the blue eyes in his craggy face warm but guarded.
“Pardon?” Josephine glanced up from the counter and swept the man with a look. The man was middle-aged, with skin reddened by the elements, his cheeks pink above his fulsome mustache. His overall countenance reminded Josephine of a bloodhound. She caught the spark of intelligence in his eyes along with their warmth, despite his respectful almost diffident manner, and she looked him up and down again. He had long-fingered hands to go with his long rangy body, hardened by work but unbowed by it. He stood in the durable work clothes of his class—groundskeeper, all sturdy corduroy and leather and wool. A pair of work gloves was tucked into his belt and a pocket of his work pants (stained at the knees, patched twice) bulged with what looked like pruning shears. Obviously he’d been interrupted in his work, but he’d taken the time to sketch a hasty wash, if the faint thin line of diluted dirt at his throat was any indication. He wore no collar, favoring a looser shirt to work in. Aware she’d spent a second too long in her regard, Josephine stuck out her hand. “I’m sorry. I am Josephine Arceneaux. How did you know to find me?”
“The Miss said that you were to be comin’ in round the evenin’ train and I waint to leave until I had ye or she’d be vexed wi’ me.” He smiled wanly. “The lass can have a lem on when she’s of the mood. But she said that Miss Arceneaux would have a trunk as great as a house. And I stood here and studied and took the odds that ye were that lass.” He paused though his words were already slow and measured, nodding as if he were pleased with his logic. “I brought the wagon. I’ll get your trunk and git ye on to the house quick as can be.” He gestured to where a farm wagon waited. “I apologize for the ride. If ye’d rather wait here, I ken go and send back a carriage. Tis’ no need for a lady such as you to ride in a farm wagon.” A frown clouded his face for a moment, a bemused consternation that was full of fatherly concern. “The Miss seemed to think that ye are a wick one and wouldn’t be too vexed by the arraingement. But I won’t be offended if you wish to wait for better transportation. T’would only be right.”
The Miss seemed to think that ye are a wick one.
Josephine found the man’s thick Yorkshire accent delightful and her mind was busily squirreling away the dialect’s quirks even as she thought of her reply.
“I’ve been trapped in a train car the entire day and it would be a blessing to breathe fresh air again. And while the world waits for no man, a woman cannot afford to wait for the world, lest she grow old before she gets what she needs. Fret not for propriety’s sake, sir. I would be glad to ride the wagon.” She stepped back to see the effect her words had on the man and couldn’t resist adding, “I promise to behave.”
A wick one, indeed.
His thick eyebrows rose as a barely discernable smile slipped across his lips. “Ah,” he muttered, unmoved, and cocked his head towards the plain, but well-kept wagon parked on the hitches nearby. The large chestnut-colored draft horses pulling it waited patiently where they had been tied, occasionally switching their tails to bother a fly or two. “Gie onto the wagon then, Miss, an’ I’ll git one of the porter to help me move yer trunk onto the wagon. But if ye want to stand to one side so ye’ll not be mithered by the jostling as we put the thing on board, yer more than welcome to wait til we’re finished. Ye might git some tea nearby. T’won’t take long to be loaded. Ye got more luggage than that great thing?” His head tilted back towards where the trunk waited and finally put back on his cap as he waited for her answer.
“Nothing more than this,” Josephine said, lifting the valise she held in her other hand. About the size of a small briefcase, it was made of leather and had a saddle-work quality to it. Which would be about right, since she’d had a saddler make it for her years ago. “I can carry it, thank you.” Josephine smiled at the man, wondering just what his name was since he had yet to give it. “It’s quite light.”
His persistent offers to accommodate ladylike sensibilities made her loathe to cause the groundskeeper additional anxiety by climbing into the wagon forthwith. After all, I did promise him I’d behave. She smiled and parked herself on the bench running along the wall of the station. “The air is quite refreshing. I shall wait here until you are ready.”
He nodded as if there were no other answer and then bellowed, “Samuel!” One of the younger porters looked up and trotted over.
“Aye, Richard! What’d I’d be doing for ye?”
“Stop laiking and help me get this great kist in the wagon, would ye?”
Samuel grinned. “Laiking? Yer the one nattering while I tewed, allock all afternoon in the back of that wagon!” But he briskly strode over to get one end of the trunk while the older man lifted the other side. Soon they had it loaded and with great decorum, the groundskeeper held out a hand to help Josephine into her transportation. Samuel, his face alight with a boyish grin, flanked Richard, bowing as Josephine approached.
“May I hold that bag for ye, conny?” he asked with a wink. Samuel cleared his throat.
“She don’t need to abide yer attentions, ye blithering gawby. I’ll hold the bag and give the lady a hand up. Ger on with ye, Samuel. I’ll have the Miss send you a coin or two for the help.”
Though he turned to go immediately, Samuel paused, a broad smile lighting his face before he winked at her. “Ye come back to town if ye wish. I’m Samuel Buxton, at yer service.” With that, he made his way back to the train platform.
Josephine bit the inside of her cheeks to keep from laughing. Richard and Samuel’s banter delighted her with its homey familiarity. It reminded her of the good-natured bickering in William’s troupe and for an instant she missed them. Then Samuel cheekily offered to carry her valise and there was something in his eye that reminded her of Anton and it was on the tip of her tongue to respond back in kind: Naw, gi’ on wit’ ye. She was saved from saying so when Richard dismissed him with rough affection and a promise of a tip. Josephine resolved to grant them two shillings for the pleasure of hearing their banter. Besides, it would be easier to split two shillings than to divvy the pence from splitting the one.
“I shall remember, Mr. Buxton,” she said as she smiled. “Thank you.” She watched him go as he was bidden and then she turned to the groundskeeper, Richard. “Shall we go? I can forego tea. I would hate to make Lady Katherine worry by making her wait unduly.”
“Aye.” The groundskeeper nodded affably, went to untie the horses, and then climbed into the driver’s seat. With a chuck and a gentle slap of the reins, they were off.
There was no other place to sit except on the box seat beside Richard and Josephine climbed into it herself. She stowed her valise below the seat, put a foot on the wheel axle and hoisted herself up. She’d dressed with the anticipation of having to fend for herself and so had eschewed the constricting bustle attire suitable for London. Instead, she’d donned her looser shirtwaist and gored skirt and took care to wear her articulated corset to allow herself greater freedom of movement. She wore a bolero jacket to disguise that fact for convention’s sake, though her head was scandalously bare and her gloves were black in defiance of custom. She twitched her skirt into place and braced herself and gave Richard a nod. He twitched the reins and they were off.
At this latitude and this time of year, the sun was already setting, sending its warm ruddy rays flooding across the landscape. The last of the season’s color bled vividly in orange, yellow and red in contrast to evergreens nurtured by the clement ocean air. Scarborough lay along the shore but the land rose above the strand in short order to the green walled fields that surrounded the town. Thick trees ribboned through them, following the course of a river hidden by the trunks and canopies, their leaves a glorious riot of color. To the north rose a cliff, echoed by another glimpsed a mile or so away to the south. Looking over her shoulder to the north east, Josephine could see the last of the sunlight sparkling on the ocean but the shadows from landside were sliding quickly to meet the waves on the shore. The wind picked up, teasing strands of Josephine’s hair from the prim knot she’d dressed it in and the temperature began to drop, though the air remained gentle, and Josephine breathed it in deeply, tasting the salt on it. Night was advancing, marching over the fields and dales with pools of purple thrown by the hills, but there was still enough of the golden light to see by. It gilded the ride to Katherine’s family estate all the way to the walled entrance, where Richard hopped off the wagon to open the iron gate. Josephine rocked with the action of the springs as Richard climbed back aboard and clicked his tongue to the horses. The chestnuts snorted, eager for their supper, and trotted happily through.
The drive was graveled and the stone growled under the wagon wheels and crunched under the horses’ hooves. Josephine took in the great house as they approached. It had multiple floors and was generously tall and built of the local Yorkshire stone. The last of the sunlight limned the façade and the roof in bloody gold, smoldering against the indigo sky. Lamps twinkled to life behind the glass windows. Brass accents on the large double front doors, well polished to keep the tarnish at bay, gleamed softly in the growing twilight and far from being foreboding, the overall effect was one of warmth and welcome, like a loving embrace upon coming home. Richard crooned and drew on the reigns, signaling the horses to stop. The offside chestnut snorted and shook his head, making his headgear jingle. The sound blended with the clack of the doors drawing open and yellow light spilled down the steps like honey, speared through the center by shadow. Following it to its source, Josephine looked up and saw Katherine standing on the threshold, her red hair afire in the lamplight, her smooth cheek gleaming like a crescent moon in the night.
“Katherine!” Josephine threw caution and good manners to the winds and scrambled off the wagon and up the steps. It hardly seemed possible of someone Josephine had known for so short a time but she could not deny how glad she was to see her friend or how much the last two weeks without her company had subtly eroded her contentment and self-sufficiency. As she scaled the last step, Josephine realized that despite all her years with William’s troupe, though it showed her the world and gave her the unparalleled freedom to explore it, it had failed to grant her the one thing she’d lacked: a woman akin her own age for a friend. She hugged Katherine without a second’s thought and held her tight and whispered into her hair, “I’ve missed you.”
Katherine laughed, holding the other woman tight. “Thank heaven you’re here safe!” she exclaimed joyfully. “Did Mr Sutton take good care of you?” She finally released Josephine, taking her hand to draw her into the house as servants appeared to help move the trunk inside. “Come and get some tea before dinner. Are you hungry? Would you like to refresh yourself in your room before you take tea?” She smiled brightly, her steps animated and almost dancing. “That’s too many questions by far. Tell me what you want to do and I will have it done.”
“Of course I am,” Josephine laughed and stepped back, holding Katherine’s hands. “Why wouldn’t I be? But to answer your questions: Yes, he did; famished, actually; and yes, I’d love to. And that is what I want to do.” Something tickled her memory and Josephine’s eyes widened. She slid a hand into her jacket and extracted two shillings from her coin purse, hiding it from view. “I’ll just be a moment, Katherine.”
Josephine turned around and called out to the groundskeeper for her bag, then smiled and covertly slipped the two shillings into his pocket as he gave it to her. “Thank you, Mr. Sutton. You’ve been very kind,” she said and turned back to Katherine, wondering when he would discover the coins. She linked arms with her friend and nodded at the house. “Shall we go in?”
Katherine took possession of her arm as soon as she re-entered the house. “Come, I will show you your rooms and let you get refreshed. Dinner will be in the small dining room.” She stopped to sigh and hug Josephine again. “I’ve been so bored!” she exclaimed softly. “Father has been in London to deal with his businesses and intrigues and I’ve been rather alone. Neecy’s beloved Prissy is here, but she is much like Neecy and insists that I attend to my visiting and correspondences. Not that she isn’t delightful. She has retired to her room for the evening. You will meet her tomorrow.” She released Josephine and twitched the skirt of her pale lavender dress with irritation. “I’ve ridden and walked the dales and moors these past two weeks when I could get away and read everything I could in the library. But I’m so frighteningly bored, Josephine.”
She began to walk up the curved and carved stairs, the wood gleaming softly in the gaslight. The ornate house was well-kept, but the feminine touch was not as apparent as in Katherine’s townhouse. “Stephen will have made certain that your bedroom was spick and span. He’s my father’s butler. I told him that I would take care of making certain that you knew where your room was and that he could have some private time. My father is an independent and headstrong man. Stephen is very used to being dismissed to let my father do as he wishes.” They passed portraits and paintings, the carpets soft under foot, and after a moment, Katherine opened a well-oiled door to a large and comfortable room. Katherine gestured inwards. “Ring the bell if you need anything. I’ll meet you downstairs in a half hour?”
Josephine followed her friend up the stairs and couldn’t help compare this trip with a similar one made at the London townhouse the morning after the dinner party. This house had a more masculine feel to it. It was richly appointed and everything was in the height of taste but it had that subtle atmosphere that revealed a woman’s touch was lacking. It was, she reflected, rather like her father’s study: comfortable and filled with things that pleased the eye, but was nevertheless imbued with a sense of purpose and a dismissal of needless elaboration.
Then Katherine opened a door and Josephine saw what waited for her beyond.
It was a jewel box of a room, with rich blues dominating the carpet, counterpane, and draperies. A fireplace surrounded in cobalt Spanish tiles stood opposite the door, flanked by tall windows. Velvet girded the windows and though the draperies were drawn, a slit here and there showed they’d captured the color of the deep twilight sky outside. Dark bronze tiebacks, almost deep brown in hue, hung on their keepers to the side, tasseled in matching bronze, deep blue, and black. The carpet was an Aubusson, its pile silk and deeply cut, and its base color matched the blue draperies. Rusty hues mixed with forest green and sparks of red and gold saved the carpet from mere mimicry, however, and it had the effect of bringing everything together. The rich mahogany bedstead in the Morris Medieval style, the vanity in the corner with the low blue velvet stool lifted straight from a Rossetti painting, the wallpaper populated by Islamic foliage and creatures cleverly interwoven, the bedding of blue and dark bronze … They combined into a cohesive whole and Josephine was stuck immediately by how the room made her feel. The color soothed her, the furnishings promised comfort without fussiness, and the textiles lent a softness that bolstered her strength instead of sapping it.
“Oh, Katherine …,” she breathed reverently, unable to help herself. She felt her shoes sink into the carpet and was seized by a wild impulse to kick them off and go barefoot. She set her valise on an upholstered chair and ventured further into the room. The bed was flanked by tables, simple in style and function, and like the bed they were of mahogany. Polished black stone slabs with blue fishscale flashes topped the wood and a single drawer slid effortlessly under them. Opening one, she saw it was deep enough to contain her pistol and yet shallow enough for her to find it quickly in the dark. A large oil lamp sat on the table, one to either side of the bed, their glass chimneys frosted to diffuse the light evenly for reading. That was when she caught the clue and turned to face the door and realized the wall it stood in was flanked by book cases that soared to the ceiling—an anomaly for a guest room but to her it mattered not a whit. Every shelf held books. Leather covers rubbed shoulders with clothbound. Most of them old with ribbed spines but some new, they effectively slew the protest forming on Josephine’s lips that she didn’t deserve the room. She felt her jaw slackening along with the weakening of her knees and she has to sit on the bed lest she slide to the floor. Her eyes were wide and she could feel the prickle of incipient tears when she turned them Katherine’s way. “It’s … beyond description. Thank you.”
The red-headed Eldren smiled gently, her emerald eyes full of fond humor. “Just remember. Dinner in a half hour. It will get cold if you get lost in the books.” She then turned and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
“I shall remember. I promise.” Josephine didn’t delay her friend with more words but let her go. Knowing full well she would be unable to resist the siren call of those books if she so much as put a fingertip to them, Josephine forced herself to unpack her valise, familiarizing herself with her room as she did so. There was a mirrored wardrobe that she’d somehow missed standing near the corner. A folding screen with graceful curves and russet quilted fabric sitting at its side offered cover to change. A leather chaise lounge generous enough to nap in angled into the room on the other side of the wardrobe, accompanied by a small plant stand pressed into service as a lamp table.
Katherine had thought of everything, Josephine saw as she got her clothing stored and her few toiletries arranged on the vanity. A trio of cut crystal bottles stood arranged on a brass tray, their contents nothing more than lavender, sandalwood, and rose as she lifted their stoppers in turn to sniff them. She was somewhat tall for a woman yet the stool offered her the proper height off the floor and made sitting in it a pleasure. Checking her watch, she saw that she had time to make herself presentable and wasted not a minute getting to it. She may have spent the day traveling and arrived showing every mile of it, but there was no reason to repay her generous hostess by foisting the sight upon her at the table.
Her feet got their wish and her traveling shoes came off first, then her skirt and shirtwaist followed in short order. A basin with water waited behind the screen and Josephine sketched a quick wash standing in her articulated corset and cotton underthings. Done, she carefully removed her knives and sheaths and placed them in her valise. She’d already stowed her pistol in the bedside table nearest the door. She pulled her extra change of clothes from her valise, a dark blue sateen shirtwaist and matching gored skirt and she reversed her bolero jacket to reveal it had been lined in a matching blue satin—a little dressier for dinner than the black velveteen side she’d ridden outward for the train. It was stiffer than the velveteen and she shook it to make it release the wrinkles her elbows had put into it. She frowned, knowing that no matter the clothes or the accessories she paired with them, there was no disguising the fact that what she wore was daywear and inappropriate for dinner after nightfall. Still, until her trunk was delivered to her room—with her more appropriate attire within—she would have to make do with what she had and hold her head high, despite. She quickly brushed out her hair and put it up again, her movements nimble from practice and her coiffure bespeaking a life accustomed to going without a maid. She pinned her pinchbeck gryphon brooch to her high collar and hung her matching blue drops in her ears and slipped her father’s watch into her skirt pocket, a talisman she could grip under the table should she need to keep unease at bay. She bent to slide her feet into a pair of black high buttoned shoes, glad of her articulated corset, and the buttonhook Katherine had left on the vanity made short work of the task. Standing up, she took one last look around the room, then left to find Katherine and the promised dinner.
A ladies maid waited unobtrusively outside the door, the young girl curtseying curtly once Josephine left her room. “If you would please follow me, miss. The Lady Katherine asked that I bring you to the dining room.” She then led Josephine back down the stairs and through the wide marble of the hallway to an elaborately carved door. She opened it silently, revealing a warm room with a gentle fire in the large fireplace. A small round table was set for two, the serving staff standing stiffly in attendance. Katherine rose from the table, biting her lip to keep from grinning.
“Thank you Jane,” she stated as the girl curtseyed again and departed. “I hope you don’t mind that I had them sit us in one of the smaller rooms. I couldn’t bear to try to talk to you in the great dining room and even our smaller breakfast room is too annoyingly large to me for two. Surely Neecy and Prissy would be scandalized, but she’s retired to her room for the night and Neecy isn’t here.” She gestured to the open chair as one of the servants readied to pull it out for her and then push her into place.
“I don’t mind one bit,” Josephine said sincerely and relief made her smile. Katherine must have surmised her wardrobe circumstances and arranged for the less formal setting. And truth be told, any other dining venue would have been too large to relax in perhaps save the kitchen and Josephine knew that Katherine would never hear the end of it from the servants, Beignet, or Prissy if she had dared entertain a guest there. Josephine shifted to allow her chair to be pushed in and sat quietly as the staff served them with silent efficiency. “This is lovely. You’ve thought of everything. Thank you.”
“I hope you like it. I told cook that something simple would be nice. Nothing jellied or coddled, treacled or creamed. I was just in the mood for a good chicken pie.” She leaned back to let the servant refill her wineglass and then grinned. “The first week here, Father or his butler must have told them to show off for me. I about snuck off to the village to try to find some plain food. I finally begged them to go back to what they normally ate.” A giggle escaped her. “Of course, that also meant a vast amount of beef and mutton. Those are Father’s favorites. I’ll admit I was glad when he left for London. But the house has been dreadfully lonely without him. Thank you so much for coming to spend time with me. I feel as if I’m going to go mad here.”
“It smells heavenly, Katherine, truly.” Josephine’s fork pierced the crust and transferred the first flaky bite to her tongue. It had just the right amount of butter in it, making it succulent yet dry enough to resist the teeth when they bore down. A lick of gravy from the interior clung to it and Josephine could taste the thyme the cook had blessed it with. Bliss. Sighing, she opened her eyes and said, “Dear God, if this is your definition of a simple dinner, Katherine, I doubt I shall survive to see dessert. I am almost afraid to discover what a complicated meal would do to me.”
Watching the light of the fire dancing on the china and cutlery, the crystal and the candlesticks, with a fine cooked meal in front of her and a soft bed to look forward to, Josephine realized she was unaccustomed to luxury. She was adept at recognizing it, yes, and had an eye for its details, but until she befriended Katherine, she had been only a passerby travelling through it. Life on the road precluded it, though William’s wagons were cozy and a model of efficiency. It was, she decided, as much a difference in outlook, of expectation, as it was of material things. For as long as she could remember, she had prided herself on her resourcefulness in the face of scarcity or lack, of having the strength to withstand hunger and hardship, of enjoying what she had to the fullest, whether it be plain or fancy. Not once had she been cultivated with a sense of entitlement, even though she’d been taught and had memorized the myriad little elements that dictated the size and shape of it. It was simply another prop, a tool to set the stage, to carry the mission; it was something useful but never owned. But now, surrounded by what William would call high living and having it lavished upon her for at least a fortnight, Josephine wondered if she would be capable of leaving it behind her when she took up her normal life again.
And it would be her normal life that she’d choose, rather than the cosseted one she would lead for the next two weeks. Already she could feel the creature comforts of her room upstairs calling to her and she could anticipate difficulty of leaving it, but leave it she would. She would cease to be her true self if she gave in to it and she instinctively knew it would stifle her if she stayed. Katherine herself suffered from it, though Josephine wondered if the other woman realized what it was she described. The house, the servants, and the treasures and the station—they were a trap, a constriction on a person’s freedom. It was something Josephine could never baldly state, however, certainly not while under her host’s roof. It would have been the height of rudeness and ingratitude. Yet it was permissible for a guest to express her wish to spare her host unnecessary trouble and expense. Perhaps by doing so, she could ease her friend’s disquiet and perhaps through her company show her a viable alternative to the life she led. With that intent firmly in place, Josephine said with a clear conscience, “There’s no need to insist on formalities when it’s just the two of us. It’s so much more friendlier this way. I’m glad to be here and look forward to helping you stave off madness until better company arrives.”
Until better company arrives. Thus she acknowledged Ezekiel Drake’s importance in her friend’s life. It would be a suitable topic to distract Katherine from her boredom and it would be pleasant to talk about a person they both knew.
A light frown marred Katherine’s forehead. “Better company?” she asked, puzzled. “You are the best of company, Josephine. We shall go riding and shopping and shooting. All sorts of things while you are here. Scarborough isn’t far. . .maybe we can rent a boat and go sailing. I cannot conceive of better company.”
“But I thought …” Josephine faltered and put her fork down, touched. She had not realized that the Eldren woman would think or feel that way about her, not when she already had Ezekiel Drake. Pleasure mingled uneasily with doubt and Josephine didn’t quite know what to do with Katherine’s compliment. As was her wont when puzzled, she sought to clarify the matter. “Won’t Ezekiel be joining us? I realize he has business in the City but I assumed he would come up to see you, as I have, when he concluded his affairs. He is your husband. Surely you miss him.” She stopped before she could say more, dangerously close to putting Katherine in a position to choose one person over the other. This will never do. Salvage this. Think! She brightened her expression to hide her dismay and said, “Just think of it, Katherine. Ezekiel could take us sailing in the sun and the air. Or we could go riding, as you said, and shooting. You and I would have a lovely time by ourselves and I so look forward to it but with all three of us here, you’d have the best of everything.”
And with that last, Josephine fervently hoped she’d deflected Katherine from her verbal misstep. It was, she sighed internally, unfortunate that Katherine was so intertwined with Ezekiel in her mind that it was almost impossible to separate the two. So long as one stood before her, so would the other—in spirit if not in truth. Furthermore, her feelings for Ezekiel had yet to completely resolve into the background and she knew she would be plagued at odd moments by them. Josephine’s honor and pride would never allow seducing another woman’s husband, but she also knew Katherine was sharply perceptive despite her occasional flightiness and not for the world would Josephine hurt her friend or give her cause to suspect her motives or her husband’s integrity.
“But … did you really mean that?” Josephine couldn’t help but ask, still touched by her friend’s declaration even as she stepped carefully through the minefield of her feelings. “That I’d be the best of company?”
Katherine could only blink for a moment and then swiftly covered with, “So eager are you to get us married, my darling. My future husband you mean.” She smiled brightly and then looked to the maid who waited discreetly in the corner of the room. “Marianne, would you be so kind as to go and tell the cook to start warming some tea for dessert? We shall require attention in a half hour or so, but for now I think that we can manage alone. Thank you.” Emerald eyes tracked the retreat of the maid and once the door closed, Katherine looked at her friend with gentle concern.
“My darling Josephine, Ezekiel cannot come here without my father or Bertie’s presence. It would undo everything. I was not married to him except in my heart and soul once we set foot on the boat to England; what occurred, however wonderful, cannot be spoken of here. It cannot.” She shook her head regretfully. “This is a game you must understand, one that must be played to gain everything that I want. There are rules that I abide by, rules that with Neecy’s help and my father’s kindness that I flout with great enjoyment.”
She inhaled deeply, her face stern. “But these particular rules of society must be obeyed.” Her voice grew more firm, deeper as her gaze locked to Josephine’s. “The family name, my father’s businesses, his success, Ezekiel’s success, and that of our children depend on the strength of my resolve. I can wait to see him. I am going with Prissy to meet his mother once you leave. But he cannot come here. Protocol must observed and you cannot refer to him as my husband until we are married on the soil of England.” Her gaze softened, her voice tinged with the tiniest of dismay. “Please tell me that you understand. I know it galls you, but Josephine, I beg you to keep our confidence. Rant as you need until dessert is served, but please swear you will keep our secret.”
“I do understand and no begging is necessary, Katherine. Of course I would keep anything personal you’ve told me in the utmost confidence. But … the Bishop Von Sinestri? I thought he’d …,” Josephine shook her head to forestall an answer. “Does not apply here, I suspect. Therefore let us say nothing more on it unless you wish. And I would never rant at you for anything not under your control, Katherine. I do not hold you responsible for the restrictions you must observe. I just despise the fact that you must observe them. And I feel somehow unworthy of …so many things that I’ve enjoyed when I know you’ve been forbidden them. It’s irrational, I know, but ….”
Josephine speared a bit of potato from her pie and chewed it as she tried to organize her thoughts. She swallowed and lowered her fork.
“I must confess something. I have not many friends, Katherine. Family, of a sort, yes. William and his troupe cared for me and kept me as safe as they were able, even as they put me to work. They had me traveling all over Europe and back, with what must only seem a shocking lack of propriety but for all that, I cannot count any of the women I’ve lived with for the past ten years as my friend. Not as you and I have become friends. And I had not realized that until I saw you standing at the top of the steps when I arrived. The very idea quite makes me … afraid my inexperience might lead me to do something to ruin it. So truly, if anyone needs beg patience or forgiveness, I am ashamed to admit it must be I.”
Katherine’s face lit from inside. “Oh no, Josephine, my darling. No apologies! It is a new world that we both trod. As I have told Ezekiel, change comes slowly, but it comes. But for now, though we may chaff at the restrictions, in time, those bounderies can be moved. And we shall move them, from the inside and the out. I am jealous of your freedoms. But I do enjoy the freedoms that money can give and the potential joys that it can help me give you and Ezekiel. You are my best friend, Josephine, and I am most pleased that you count me as such for you. I hope to have more adventures together with Ezekiel and you.” Her eyes twinkled as she grinned. “And maybe one day, your husband too.”
The light in Katherine’s eyes was bright and Josephine thanked Heaven she hadn’t stepped amiss. She truly did not want to injure her friend or alienate her, not when they had become so close. And when, if you must be honest, Josephine, you are quite alone in the world. There is no going back to William. You are no longer one of them. You’re a fledgling grown and it’s time to leave the nest and fly. Aloud she said, “A husband, I cannot guarantee, but adventures? Yes.” She raised her wine glass in a toast. “Just try to stop us from having them.”
Katherine dinged her glass to Josephine’s with a firm hand. “Without doubt, without trepidation! We will go forth and right wrongs, discover new things and grow ever closer!” She drank deeply with relish and then grinned. “And we will practice fencing so that Ezekiel will be proud of us and we will practice shooting so that our hands will be true like Neecy’s.” She then winked. “And there will be a husband. Just wait.”
“To adventures and to us,” Josephine smiled over the rim of her glass. “But surely you cannot mean you have a spare husband in your hostess closet, Katherine. And in truth, I doubt I shall need one for the duration of my visit.” Josephine winked to take any possible sting out of her words. “Besides, you do not strike me as a woman who would immure a poor soul in a closet, to be smothered by bed linens and lavender water.”
Katherine’s face quirked and then she laughed. “Oh, you don’t yet know me well, Josephine. You may well wonder what I keep in my closets!” Still laughing, she finished up the last of her pie and swallowed her wine. “Eat up! Dessert is a trifle that will make you swoon. Father always did love to have the best cooks and Mrs. Cadegorn is a treasure.”
“Oh, no, please say it isn’t true,” Josephine said then, expanding the conceit. “For if it is, I shall be compelled to plumb the depths of every closet I find so as to save the man.” She laughed and spent the next few minutes polishing off her plate. Her rail journey had left her famished and since it was just the two of them she made no bones of eating heartily. Everything had been prepared to allow the character of the food shine without interference and the ingredients transcended their simple recipe. At the mention of dessert, Josephine fanned herself and said, “I may swoon before it arrives. This meal was simply divine.”
A whisp of hair fell free as Katherine nodded and she pushed it back into place absently. “Wait for the trifle.” She reached for a small, silver bell and rang it. The serving maid appeared almost immediately. “Dessert please,” she requested pleasantly. “Tell cook that the meal was wonderful.” As the girl curtseyed and turned, Katherine let out a soft exclamation.
“Mi’lady?” Jane asked.
“One of father’s sweet, pale wines. Mr Stephen will know which one.” As the serving girl disappeared, Katherine giggled. “Mr Stephen is the butler. He already laid out the wines that we are drinking. It will annoy him to no end that I want another bottle decanted to go with the triffle. He is a human Neecy. Father tends to hire the same type of butler, human or hobbit. I shouldn’t be so mean, but he always made a face at me when I came through the front door with dirty shoes and darn him if he didn’t give me the same look when I came in from the moor the other day. You can’t go on the moors and keep your shoes clean.”
“Then it’s simple, Katherine.” Josephine grinned at her friend. “Stay on your horse until you’re off the moor.”
The green widened as she rapidly put down her glass before peals of giggles erupted from her lips. Katherine laughed until tears came out of her eyes and she wiped them with her napkin as she tried to regain her composure. “Or I could just ride my horse into the house,” she managed before dissolving into more laughter.
“It’s well that Ezekiel and I are already one,” she finally managed, breathing hard. “Were I to do that, my fate would be sealed. I would be an attic denizen, caught and kept. I’d have no choice but to run to America to escape with him.”
“Why wait?” Some imp of the perverse had taken her tongue and Josephine said, “One needn’t be mad to run there. Just adventurous.” She set her glass aside. All right. That is enough of that. No more wine for you.
“Excalibur is here,” Katherine stated firmly. “America will be a wondrous trip, but for now, there is Excalibur to think of.” The trifle came in, the cut crystal container catching the gaslight in a myriad of rainbows. They were both served and Katherine rolled her eyes to the ceiling as she licked her spoon luxuriously. “Best whipped cream I have ever had. She is a genius! After Ezekiel and I are married and I hopefully conceive a child, I will eat buckets of this so that I will have a healthy, bouncing baby.”
At the mention of the sword, Josephine remembered Ezekiel’s quest and something in Katherine’s words—For now, there is Excalibur to think of—made something fall into place.
“Will you help him search for it? His quest?”
Her expression was nothing but pure surprise. “His dreams are my dreams, figuratively and literally. Of course we will not only search for Excalibur, but we will find it.”
Josephine had to bite her inner lip to keep it still, so poignant was Katherine’s love, faith, and support of her husband. It made her ache to see it. To give herself time to recover, she reached for her wine and sipped it, then dug into her dessert. The trifle hit her tongue and she sighed. It was everything Katherine has promised and yet it wasn’t quite enough to erase the bittersweetness of regret: Ezekiel would never be hers. He would go instead to the woman she had come to love as a sister and a friend. It was well, Josephine reflected, that she would not be staying more than a fortnight, nor accompanying Katherine to see Ezekiel’s parents. Some things were easier to bear if they remained unwitnessed and unlived.
“I have no doubt you will succeed, Katherine,” Josephine said and it was nothing less than the truth. “You are perfectly matched as a couple and together you will be unstoppable.”
Digging in her own dish with relish, Katherine’s eyes wandered over her friend’s face, noticing and noting things that she would in time most likely forget. Her heart warmed with happiness at Josephine’s words; even though she had not a shred of doubt as to the mate that Fate and the Host saw fit to give her, it was nice to have an outside confirmation of her own heart’s thoughts. She smiled as she carefully, indecorously sucked the whipped cream off her spoon, content in the moment. Ezekiel’s presence would have made it perfect, but all things in time, she reflected.
“Thank you, my dear friend.” She took another bite of dessert. “I am so very happy that you are here. And though you aren’t Ezekiel, you have your own immense charms that delight me. So yes, in many ways, you are the best of company. There are things that only girls may talk of, only girls can enjoy. So, what adventures did you have in London before you came to me?” The thought that Josephine could help her choose her wedding dress rose its head and was quickly put away. The maelstrom of emotions that stormed through Josephine’s eyes when Ezekiel’s name was spoken told her that subject would be painful.
As much as for Josephine as for herself, she did not want to revisit those emotions nor did she want to invite the green serpent into her mind again. She was woman and she was weaker than either Ezekiel or Josephine gave her credit for. But she wasn’t willing to part with either of them and so what could not be borne would be set aside and forgotten. She was good at that. She raised her eyebrows as she sucked another spoonful of dessert off the silver spoon; no Father, no Neecy, no one but Josephine, so bless it all, she was going to leave none of the tastiness behind. The next spoonful paused as she waited for Josephine to speak and to decide whether or not she had the courage to lick the dish.
Watching her friend enjoying the cream, Josephine was struck by the overwhelming sensation of watching a cat contemplating licking its bowl clean. Her green eyes glistened in the firelight and the slit pupils relaxed in pleasure, even as Katherine’s gaze swept keenly across her, looking right through her to her thoughts. It was unnerving. Josephine put her wine down. No more. Really and truly. It’s making me silly. Aware that her friend was waiting for an answer, Josephine gathered her thoughts and gave it.
“Well, to start at the beginning, in order: I arrived, was debriefed, had my trunk delivered to my room at the Guilford Hotel, slept like a dead thing, made my room accommodating upon waking, and met with Ezekiel for a consult. I had gone back to Nurnberg, you see, to have Miss Von Dahlberg draw up papers confirming that I am my father’s daughter and that his assets—what remained of them—should be placed in my custody as his sole surviving heir in the light of his long disappearance. I have, in short, documents declaring him dead. As such, I have some funds at my disposal and I wanted some advice on how to, well … dispose.” Josephine spooned up a bite of her dessert and took her time eating it. When she could trust her voice, she went on. “So he met me at the Albert Pub and after a luncheon of lamb, we walked the City and I told him a little of my father and what I hoped to do with the monies in my possession, both as a legacy and as insurance against the charity of others in my old age.”
Josephine took up another spoonful and looked across the table at her friend.
“I have the idea to buy an establishment outright, live in rooms above and have something of a … consulting business on the ground floor. Something to do between assignments. I confess, I am not entirely sanguine of my chances in the Colonel’s or Sir John’s eyes. I feel as if I’ve let them down. Though we’ve vanquished Countess Rembecki, Selene is recovered but not herself. In that sense, I’ve failed to complete the mission as ordered and therefore want to have something to fall back on. Working as a consulting agent, finding things people have lost, that is something I can do. And I would think, given that it is a man’s world, there are many women who have lost what they cannot find and yet have no one to turn to, to find it. That is where I intend to step in.”
She spooned up another mouthful, swallowed, and her tone grew thoughtful.
“It cannot happen overnight. I haven’t the funds for that and even if I did, I would not want to jump in all at once. Something like this will take more thought and planning than a fortnight can give me. I have a little time. I will get it done. For now, I am on holiday.” She focused her eyes on Katherine and her very shiny spoon, and grinned. “Oh, go ahead and lick the dish, Katherine. I know you want to and I would not be offended if you did.”
“Oh I must’nt!” Katherine declared, instead taking a dexterous finger and cleaning the dish with it and then cleaning her finger. “I have to pretend that Father’s money wasn’t misspent on all the governesses, professors, and Neecy.” She ducked her head and then slyly glanced up at Josephine with a gentle, wicked twinkle of her eyes. “But I do want to.” The matching smile slid over her lips as she licked the last of the dessert off her forefinger with a final relish. “I don’t believe that you failed,” she continued, her chin lifting as she pointed the very clean finger at Josephine. “Within the parameters of what we had to work with, I think you succeeded rather well.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to argue a more experienced agent would have known how better to prepare, would know better how to use the resources at her disposal but common sense enabled her to bite it back. Fully aware that she was her own worst critic and that endlessly evaluating her performance from the standpoint of failure instead of success would only destroy her ability to do her duty. So she shut away her misgivings and saluted her friend with her dessert dish.
“Thank you, Madame. You are very kind. Would you like to know more of my stay in London?”
“Please.” Katherine settled back into her chair. “Was Ezekiel doing well before you left? He assured me that his shoulder was feeling well and had healed well. Was he truly as healthy as he said?”
“Yes. Healed and healthy and hale,” Josephine said without reservation. “He and I had a lovely walk through the Pall Mall and then northeast through the Seven Dials and then to Covent Garden and then to Bow Street. We only passed by Sir John’s,” she added. “We were, after all, on holiday.”
Her mouth quirked. “Ah yes, no work on holiday. So, what did you do?”
“We walked and we talked. I explained that I wanted to do something as a legacy to my father, something that would help the less fortunate and he advised me that perhaps instead of tying up my assets in something large, like a charity operation, that I should attempt something small but personal, such as finding a deserving family and helping them up from their straitened circumstances. It need not take a fortune. It need take only time and a helping hand to prepare for gainful employment. I am no stranger to work and I know well how any employment, though the wage is small, can make a big difference. I haven’t found that family yet, or that individual whom I would help, but London has no shortage of souls in need of assistance. I expect I shall have no difficulty finding somebody to assist.”
Josephine shook her head.
“I realize it is a somewhat gloomy subject for dinner conversation, but I was in somewhat of a serious mood that day. On another day I took in Regent’s Park and walked along the Canal, then went through Chelsea to view the Embankment works in progress. Lambeth looks fair to explode with new development as a result, but only time will tell.” She sank back in her chair and gazed at the ceiling, recalling all she’d done in the two weeks she’d had to herself. “I visited the British Museum and walked Oxford Street. I window shopped. I fed the birds at Saint Paul’s. I saw the Tower and walked the Bridge. I went back to the warehouse district to see Selene’s laboratory, but it had been boarded up by the authorities. I saw the markets at Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road. I walked through St. John’s Wood. I went through Limehouse and Whitechapel and saw the slaughterhouses at Deptford. I hired a cab and took a picnic to Greenwich Observatory. I thought to take the train to see the Seven Sisters and the Cinque Ports but decided to do so in the spring or summer, when the weather would be warmer. It can get cold on the southern coast.” She looked back at Katherine. “I did a lot of walking and I suspect I shall have to resole my favorite pair of boots before the year is out.”
She raised her foot for emphasis, even though the shoe it wore was not the abused article under discussion.
An approving nod. The Eldren regarded the spy with approval. “What a wonderful idea for a legacy for your father. I would be willing to give a suitable amount and maybe encourage my father to do also. But I sincerely still hope that your father is merely missing, not deceased.” She rose to her feet and waved Josephine over towards the door. “We will go to the library. I think that you would enjoy it and the chairs there are amazingly comfortable.” Her eyes sparkled. “I don’t believe that Father reads there at all. I think that he just sleeps. Follow me.”
At the mention of the library and the books, Josephine quit the table gladly. Books had always been her constant friend, one that filled the hours an only child of scholar parents was often blessed with. She’d had a love of reading and learning instilled early. It was an activity she shared in common with her parents and it was one she indulged in as often as she could. Katherine could not have chosen better accommodations for her visit with the blue room upstairs and she could not have chosen a more compelling venue to while away the evening hours than with the promise of a comfortable chair and the company of a friend and good books. Good manners, however, dictated she address the first half of Katherine’s statement first.
“Katherine, you needn’t feel you should. You’ve given me far too much already. However, should my project expand to such a scope as to need such funding, I shall not turn your offer down should you choose to extend it.” She closed the distance between them and linked her arm with Katherine’s. “Please make no plans now. I haven’t a solid thing to hang them on and I would hate to disappoint you should my idea never come to be. We’re on holiday—let us enjoy it. I think a fire for my toes, a book for my lap, and your company for my spirit would be just grand.”
In the end, that is just what they did. Katherine led them to the library and turned Josephine loose on the shelves. The brunette found a folio on the oriental elements of style and she and Katherine spent an enjoyable hour pouring over the colored plates, a gentle fire glowing at their side. The hour was late when they sought their rest. Katherine escorted her guest to her room, climbing the stairs arm in arm. Josephine hugged the Eldren woman goodnight with her whispered thanks and closed the door on the world. Within minutes she was sliding into the bed and discovering it was every bit as comfortable as it promised to be. Sleep was fast in coming. Josephine’s last conscious act was to crack open her bedside drawer where she’d stashed her pistol and then the feather bedding and the rigors of travel sent her down to sleep.