Deception By Proxy: Chapter twelve.

Thursday, February 8th, 2018



A Promise Kept. A Violent Blatherskite Dealt With. The Service. A Gossip.

 

William walked to the church with the ladies for the early evening service in better attire than he had worn for the earlier one, and noticed the man he had seen with the squire, riding some fields off.

His peculiar but characteristic, inelegant, even clumsy riding style gave him away as Mr. Joshua Thackeray. From the direction he was heading, it was as though he were going to the Manor, for there was little else beyond there for at least another four miles. He would perhaps be aware that the house might be empty of the family at this time as they attended service and might see to turn that to his advantage from what William had heard from the Barristow family’s scathing commentary concerning this individual, and certainly enough to regard him in an unfavorable light.

At that moment, William decided that he should make some excuse to return to the Manor and see what the other man had planned, that had him riding in that direction. There was nothing beyond it worth visiting and had he been on his way to visit the squire, he would have been headed on a slightly different track.

Fortunately, the others did not see him riding in the distance.

“Please excuse me Ma’am for a few minutes, there is something that I need to see to. I shall rejoin you as soon as I can.” He turned and walked back along the lane toward the Manor without waiting for a response.

Mrs. Barristow and the girls watched him go. “I wonder what he could have forgotten? No matter, he will join us again quite soon.”

Annis suspected that once they were all well out of the way, he might snoop in other ways to find out what he might, except there was no need for any of that. He already had the keys to everything important and could go over it with her mother’s blessing and approval at his leisure, and he had already begun that task earlier.

 

On his return to the Manor, he found that the gentleman had preceded him by no more than a minute or two, and had bullied his way past the servants, pushing one of them aside with a threat from his crop. William had seen that threat as he had crossed the lawn. Mr. Thackeray was even then in Mr. Barristow’s study going though the papers on top of his desk, having found the drawers to be locked.

William’s shadow fell across the desk, and the man looked up from what he was attempting to do. He noticed a modestly well-dressed gentleman filling the small doorway. An imposing presence, smiling calmly at him.

“Mr. Joshua Thackeray, is it not? I saw you with the squire earlier, I think.”

He showed his surprise. “Yes, it is, sir, and who in tarnation are you to barge in here? Who are you? Who let you in?”

William did not show any anger at his obvious ill manners. “Strange. From what I saw, I got the impression that it was you who had barged in. Who I am does not matter for the moment. More to the point, why are you here? What gives you the right to be taking an interest in these ladies’ affairs or the private matters of the late Mr. Barristow?”

Joshua Thackeray bristled at his questioner. “You take too much upon yourself, sir. I am not accountable to you, but then I might ask you the same. Who do you think you are to question me? I am his nearest surviving relative. At least my father is, and have been used to visit here as I wished.” Clearly an untruth, designed to put off any questioning of his presence. “My father will follow me in a day or two. This will soon be my estate—indeed it is mine at this moment as the only direct relative after my father, and so you see I have every right to protect my interests….” he saw the raised eyebrows of his inquisitor, “…and those of the ladies of course. I think that you are the one trespassing, sir. Or did that crafty squire put you up to this to try and cheat me in some way and keep me off the property until he had cheated me out of what is mine? I would not put it past him.”

He called out for the servant girl. ‘Ho. You. Whatever your name—Polly, Molly. See this fellow off before I do so myself, and then you can bring me some refreshments. Haven’t eaten all day. You can make up a bedroom for me too. I shall be staying. Why are these drawers and the cabinet locked? They were not locked when I was last here.”

“It’s all right, Molly,” William said in a low voice while focusing solely on the intruder. “Just ignore us entirely and everything said, and go back to what you were doing.”

“Yes, sir.” She was well aware who she was about to listen to, and it was not about to be that giblet-grinding-blatherskite, Thackeray, who had pushed her aside as she had thought to resist his ill mannered intrusion. He had never been welcome here when Mr. Barristow was alive, and he was not welcome here now. She was pleased to see that William was not about to be either overawed by his bluster or put off by his transparent lies. Thackeray would be wise to change his mind on certain things, especially if he thought he would be welcome to stay, or he would likely find himself poisoned, but if not poisoned, he would most certainly find himself severely ill.

“They are locked because of when you were previously here. Your prying was as unwelcome then as it is now.”

Thackeray, effectively tried to ignore him. “Well, locks are easily broken.” He rummaged on the desktop for an implement to do so. “I need access to the papers that my relative kept here.”

“No. You don’t need to see them at all. They do not concern you. You will not be staying.”

Mr. Thackeray raised his eyebrows and laughed nervously at the sheer impudence and certainty of the man and then frowned. He saw that despite his questioner’s comments being made in a low and controlled voice, he had been serious. “Oh, it’s trouble you want, is it? I’ll have you know that I—my father, that is—is having the magistrate seeing to the transfer of the estate at this very moment. It should have been ours long ago for it passed to the Barristows—both of the brothers—in error, and it is about to be dealt with fraudulently again. We did not feel disposed to argue at that time, but….” he looked directly and defiantly at the gentleman in the doorway, “you would be advised not to interfere with the workings of the law, sir.”

“I suggest you put those papers down, Mr. Thackeray. The law is not on your side now, just as it was not on a previous occasion, as I briefly learned from Mrs. Barristow, and those same papers denied to you.”

The man behind the desk began to feel rattled and annoyed by the persistence of this unknown upstart in front of him, for he knew nothing of him, despite the servant girl seeming to know him and even taking his orders. He had never seen him before and he could have no claim upon the property. The apparent gentleness and polite good manners behind the request, stated in the same low voice, seemed to invite an objection, for it suggested weakness to one who was not familiar with a certain kind of assured gentleman—one who increasingly smiled and whose eyes became harder when met by increasing intransigence—and did not know enough to be terribly alarmed by it as he should have been.

He chuckled in mild disbelief at what he seemed to be hearing from a complete stranger to him and undoubtedly to the family. “Why should I, you meddlesome upstart? You had better leave before I throw you out. Why are you here at all? What do you know of any of this? Take care, sir. I’ll have you know that I have wrestled bigger men than you to defeat and—”

The large man before him moved faster than he expected. His words were cut off as his ear was grasped firmly, as in a vice; and he found himself pulled off balance, and was then being forcefully pulled across and around the desk in an indecorous, humiliating, and painful way, fit only for dealing with a recalcitrant schoolboy. As the other’s surprisingly large and rough hand closed on his wrist, his arm was twisted behind his back. The papers drifted to the floor as he was forced to let go of them. He moved himself clumsily around the table before he risked losing his ear, as well as suffering a dislocated shoulder. He complained loudly at the pain, and threw his free arm around to try and encounter his opponent and get a grip on his hand to stop the pain as he was pulled across the corner of the desk.

There was a scurrying of listening and attentive servants from just out of sight behind the scullery doorway, as both men passed noisily, and with cursing from one of them, from the study and down the corridor amidst a good deal of resistance and even more pained protest from the one being dragged by his ear—helplessly being dragged along, and unable immediately to do anything about it. Mr. Thackeray unwisely thought to slow his ignominious progress by grabbing onto the door frame with his free hand and planting his feet. It was a mistake to do that.

He cried out in pain even more, as he felt his ear being gradually and unquestionably being torn from his head along with his hair too, for the man had let go of his arm and had now taken hold of his scalp and was tearing that from his head too as he pulled him to the door. The pain was unbearable. He let go, grabbed the hand holding onto his ear with both of his own to lessen the pain, and with a bellow of rage, rushed toward his tormenter, intent on running him into the door frame, or bowling him out of the open front door and landing atop him and, at the same time, freeing one hand to feel in his pocket for the small pistol that he knew would soon decide who would prevail.

However, he was the one thrown hard against the door frame as their relative positions were suddenly changed, and his hand was wrenched from his pocket as he was easily disarmed; his small gun sent spinning to the floor by the door.

He then found that his opponent had momentarily let go of him entirely and had not only stepped to one side but then had taken hold of collar and the seat of his trousers and had rushed him toward the open doorway and then had added to his momentum, as in the manner of throwing a sack of grain. Caught severely off balance yet again, he went sprawling into the rough driveway.

He looked up and saw his tormentor slowly and methodically strip off his coat with some deeper purpose in mind, and began to roll up his shirt sleeves with a look on his face that suggested he held little regard for the man he was looking at.

And he was looking down at him.

With a bellow of rage and pain, once he regained his feet, he launched himself at the man before him. A second later, he felt as though his head had been hammered from his shoulders as his face ploughed into the dirt once more. He tasted both the dust and grit of the driveway and something else.

He had tripped. That must have been it. He had tripped. But he had not tripped. He was being manhandled as though he were a nothing, a nobody, and he knew that he was not that. There was a taste of blood in his mouth and an intense pain from his neck and jaw. He also discovered that he could not clearly see his attacker, for his eyes refused to focus; and in any case, he was facing down the driveway, not sure how he had turned about like that.

It was then that he felt that he was being dragged across the driveway, and then felt an even tighter constriction at his throat and middle as he was lifted bodily by the collar of his shirt and his middle and was dropped unceremoniously into the horse trough. That was surprising enough—to be handled as a child, for he weighed the better part of fourteen stone.

He lifted himself out and sagged back against the stone edge of it, with runnels of water streaming from his clothing and pooling near his feet. It seemed that he ached in ways and places he had never felt before. His face hurt, especially his cheek and jaw. His ear was ringing, and his eyes had difficulty seeing anything as clearly as he would have liked, but the cold water had cleared his brain.

His attacker seemed to be talking to him, quite relaxed and he still spoke gently.

“You shall take yourself off, Mr. Thackeray. You are not welcome and have no legitimate business here, and you will not come back to pester these ladies ever again.” There was no mistaking whom he was addressing, yet the voice was as calm and as controlled as before, as though he were talking of the weather or of something entirely inconsequential in the market place. “You will leave this family alone from this time forward, for if you do not, I shall be seeking you out, supposed legal claim or not. We will both regret it if I do.”

As Mr. Devane spoke, he watched with interest and mild amusement the gradual change in Mr. Thackeray’s expression, position, and attitude as he seemed to gather himself for an ill-advised and clearly signaled offensive. He was obviously a swaggering blowhard used to getting his own way and who won his fights only in his own mind and by thunderous bluster and a loud voice and did not like to be so easily bested, while others—women—those he had intimidated just a few moments before, stood in the doorway and looked on with obvious smirks on their faces and the gentle sound of their low laughter to inflame him to unwise action. He would make them pay for that when he had dealt with this fellow.

It was no surprise to Mr. Devane when the attack came, for he had anticipated it, and had moved quickly forward to meet Thackeray as he charged at him once more. This time, unexpectedly again, the attacker was stopped dead in his tracks by the most punishing blow to his face he had ever experienced, exceeding the force even of the earlier one, as the entire momentum of his opponent’s body had been behind it. Not only that, but it was also followed by a half dozen others just as hard and ruthless to both his head and his body and driving him back, except he found that he was now being held firmly by the neck of his shirt in an iron grip and could not escape the brutal and relentless punishment being meted out to his face before he was then let go. Severely winded and fighting for breath, with a taste of blood from his broken lips and his mouth and other places, he sat down hard with a gasp of pain, his legs refusing to support him. He sobbed in frustration. He was not sure how this could be happening to him.

His opponent turned away, recognizing that the man on the ground had been thoroughly humiliated, with the fight and any remaining dignity knocked out of him. He would not persist further and risk an even greater beating and further embarrassment.

“Thomas. Please bring Mr. Thackeray’s horse for him. He has decided to cut short his social visit for some reason, and to leave the vicinity and the locale immediately, for a more relaxing and healthful location. But first, we should exchange that foolish and far too severe bit in the poor horse’s mouth for a different one. Take the one I was working on this morning.”

“Yes, sir.” The horse had not been put away as Mr. Thackeray had demanded but had been loosely tied to a metal ring by the trough. It might have been instructive if one had been able to ask the horse what it had thought of the proceedings. Thomas followed his directions and changed the bit, marveling that Mr. Devane could exercise some gentle wit and humor over the predicament that would have had most other men presenting a ferocious aspect. Yet he was smiling and speaking gently and politely as though nothing serious had happened. He did not seem to care that Thackeray was also known for carrying a murderous little knife that he was fond of using when someone’s back was turned to him. But it looked like Thackeray might have got the measure of Mr. Devane, and had more sense than to go looking for it. The major was a knowing one about things like that, which was clearly why he had survived as long as he had.

Thomas had felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck when he had seen it all beginning to unfold, recognizing that though they had lost their former master, there was not much that would unsettle or distract this gentleman from whatever he decided to do. He remembered his now prescient observations, spoken to his dead master the previous night, concerning what he had seen and felt concerning Mr. Devane. He had correctly assessed Mr. Devane by his kind words and actions that previous night and just that morning too, and had found nothing to cause him concern for the ladies or their future. Had not Mr. Barristow given his blessing to the union between him and his daughter? He had also heard that his late master had seemed to trust him to see all of the womenfolk safe in that last tragic meeting, and he was doing just that.

William turned and rinsed the blood off his hands in the trough. Most of it seemed to belong to the man sitting on the ground nearby, who had lost all interest in almost everything other than his own circumstance. Mr. Thackeray’s nose was flowing freely with blood and his cheek was opened and sending more of it dribbling onto his clothing. His eyes seemed to be closing already, and his lips had no feeling to them. His scalp hurt unbearably, and he sensed that his cheekbone had been broken, if not his jaw. He reached up to find out if he still had an ear. He was also getting rid of at least one tooth from his broken face as, some minutes later, he struggled unsteadily to his feet, stumbling once to his knees as he spat blood and other things through his broken lips. He would later discover the rumpled and stained effects of his ducking upon his clothing and many further effects upon his body from being sent sprawling into the dust of the driveway. But that would be later. Much later.

He wisely decided not to provoke his soft-spoken, powerful but surprisingly agile and deceptively polite opponent any further, for he could not see him clearly anyway. He accepted that he was unlikely to prevail in any fair fight against this man. From the relaxed and confident way the man had handled himself, the same would likely be true in an unfair fight too. He had seen his pistol removed from his hands even as he had reached for it, and he would not dare risk trying to find either that or to go searching at his belt for his knife. It was amazing that his arm had not been broken, the way it had been twisted up behind his back, but he would wonder more about that later once he had time for the more serious pains from his face to die down.

He noted that his crumpled hat had been unceremoniously and contemptuously tossed out of the door by one of the female servants and to his feet. He picked it up and put it upon his head. An unwise move, for the pain shot through his head again.

Mr. Devane, turned back to the house and retrieved his coat from the hands of the housekeeper as he watched the man clumsily try to get to his feet once more.

She had picked his coat up from where he had dropped it and had swept any dust and leaf fragments off, that might have clung to it.

“Thank you, Mrs. Rogers.”

He shrugged into it with a little help, taking care not to transfer blood from his hands onto the fabric. She had seen the entire incident, and was both robbed of words and overawed and horrified by the level of violence that had so suddenly erupted and then had just as quickly died away as though it had never happened. Yet there was a man sitting all bloodied in the driveway, struggling once again to climb to his feet and completely at odds with the world. Then, for the man responsible for that vicious, though provoked attack, to speak so gently and calmly to her afterward as though nothing untoward had just happened, was quite surprising to her. It seemed that what had just passed was of no more concern to him than if he had just bade a gentle farewell to visitors. He had, but it had been far from gentle, and then he had spoken just as softly to the man he had mercilessly beaten too.

She noticed then, that he was even thanking her kindly for assisting him as he smiled upon her. She was rendered quite speechless for some moments.

William watched with disinterest as Mr. Thackeray unsteadily recovered his feet once more, straightened his clothing as best he could, and then after several attempts to do so, after the manner of a severely inebriated man, mounted his horse indecorously and with difficulty, and made off down the driveway. He was unsteady in his seat, more so than was usual, and with various new pains that he was just discovering. He felt as though he might have been kicked. The horse would appreciate its changed circumstance however.

Mr. Devane noticed then that the housekeeper, Mrs. Rogers, was wrapping a narrow strip of clean linen about his knuckles even as she was unabashedly shedding tears, as gratitude shone from her eyes. She buttoned up his coat, recognizing that he would not be able to do so easily for himself.

“Thank you, Mrs. Rogers.” He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, taking care not to mark her dress. “Better if this is not mentioned to Mrs. Barristow or the others to upset anyone further. I should hate to think that they might be regaled with a description of such poor behavior of mine and such violence at such a delicate time as this, but it had to be, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, sir. It did. I’ll let the servants know to relate nothing of what happened to that excuse of a man.”

He smiled at her polite and restrained description of Mr. Thackeray. Had he known of Molly’s description of the man—’giblet-grinding-blatherskite.’ He might have admitted to preferring that.

 

On his return to the church barely ten minutes later, he noticed that their neighbor was busy rounding up his cattle and removing them with some urgency from the field.

The squire had seen Mr. Thackeray ride by unsteadily and had not needed to see more than the condition of his face or disheveled clothing even at a distance—and his precarious seat which was apparently not solely related on this one occasion to his innate clumsiness with his horse—to realize that there seemed to be things suddenly happening of a violent nature that he’d rather not be too close to; and he suspected who might be to blame for that, for he had been speaking to him barely a few hours earlier. He felt a sudden discomfort up his back. He hoped things might not have gone from bad to worse, yet it seemed that they might have done. Civilized discourse and reasoned action was one thing, but what he suspected had just taken place was neither of those.

Mr. Thackeray had not seemed likely to be able to see him, or to see anything, the way his face was puffed up, so he had had no need to inquire after his health, for it gave all indications of being decidedly poor and unlikely to improve for some time. He had spoken to that same Mr. Devane earlier, and heard his gentle voice and seen his steady smile and intent and focused expression as he had looked deep into his eyes, as that same Mr. Devane had conducted a gentle conversation, all innocent-like. From what he could now see, that same Devane individual seemed to move easily enough and without injury and with no mark on him that might be seen at that distance, despite Mr. Thackeray being a known brawler with lesser men, even taking pleasure in injuring them and always ready to blow loudly about it. Better not invite trouble from that quarter at this time. Mr. Barristow had been firm, at times very stubborn and determined, and had cost him money for damned lawyers, but he had never been inclined to be so violent with such little likely provocation. It seemed as though things had indeed changed, and for the worse.

 

William caught up with the ladies once more, just as they were ready to enter the small church, having waited for a few moments for him as others went in before them.

Mrs. Barristow took in his slightly ruffled appearance. “But, Mr. Devane, there is a smudge of blood on your cheek. You should not have rushed as you appear to have done, for your hair is more askew than it was. But your cheek…you have been careless again. Allow me to wipe that away for you.”

“Yes. Foolish of me. I’m sorry, Ma’am. Carelessness. I should have checked.”

“Come here and lean down.” He submitted to her gently, as she moistened a corner of her handkerchief in her mouth, as his sister or mother used to do when he had still been in knee britches. She got him to lean closer to her, wiping at his cheek in a decidedly motherly way. He found it amusing and thought-provoking that anyone might wish to pamper him in that way but did not object or pull away. It was kindly done and filled him with a regret that his own mother might not have been so considerate of him. He then recalled that he used to fight with her when she had tried to show him any such concern or affection. He was remembering how poor and hurtful a son he had been while growing up and did not like the feeling of guilt it filled him with.

“Oh dear. And a few little splashes on your shirt too.” She dabbed at them. “Recent too. Not very old either. We will see to those later before they become more permanent. Now what have you been up too?”

He made no immediate response. She seemed to regard him as an errant and mischievous son.

She looked at him with a weak smile on her face. “Well, well. You did not need to return to shave in such a hurry you know? We are none of us at our best at a time such as this, and no one would have noticed anything amiss.”

Annis had been looking at him with some alarm for the few moments since he had returned and had noticed other things too. She knew he had shaved earlier that morning, for she had watched him from an upstairs window. He was an early riser, and he had even shaved by the trough outside, stripped to the waist, with a small mirror standing on the higher lip at the back, as there had been no hot water taken up to his room at that early hour, and he had not gone into the kitchen to find any. She had watched with great interest as he had even washed himself in the trough as though he was entirely used to doing it that way, and yet in other ways he had seemed to be a gentleman used to doing things in a more civilized way, for his table manners left nothing to be desired. She then noticed, where her mother did not, his bandaged hand, out of sight of her mother and behind him to be out of sight to others too, and with a few stains of blood beginning to seep through. There were obvious signs of redness and scrapes on his other hand too.

After what she had read of him in her godmother’s letter, she began to fear for the welfare of at least one of the servants, indeed for the safety of the entire household, but dared say nothing. She regretted not showing that letter to her mother now so that everyone might be aware of his potentially violent nature but would dig it out and lay if before her when they returned and see him gone from their midst. Meanwhile, he would be with them at the church and could not get up to any mischief while she was watching him.

The viewing was prolonged, with a steady flow of numerous friends of many years passing the open coffins and commiserating at length with the family afterward.

After the throng had conveyed their sympathies and offered their support and condolences to the widow and her daughters, they departed almost as quickly as they had come. No one was comfortable with tragedy and sorrow of such a magnitude.

William absented himself at that point but was not immediately missed by Annis.

Eventually, only one other lady remained behind. She had deliberately let everyone else depart before her so that she might have Mrs. Barristow to herself.

“My dear friend. I am disconsolate over your loss. A daughter and a husband, both at the same time.”

Annis was annoyed at the intrusion, where her mother was not. Mrs. Chepstow was the village busybody, for they all have them to go along with other questionable notables like the renowned village idiot, of which there seemed to be several, and the would-be dandy, as well as the squire.

She also fancied herself as a person of some importance and above other of her acquaintances, as she had wealthy relatives in town who, on occasion, would invite her to accompany them to Brighton or to Dover as the mood took them so that she could help them manage their three young and generally uncontrollable sons—for so she had described them to their parents on more than one occasion. Or so she said.

“But then I also heard that Bella was just married last night also in some haste.”

Mrs. Barristow hid her annoyance. “Yes. It was a long standing intent to see her soon married, but with the accident, it was brought forward, as her fiancé had then arrived.”

“Ah, I think I see.” She did not understand. It seemed to be strange dealings. “I did not know.”

“No. How could you?” Mrs. Barristow would have turned away and left the conversation there, but her inquisitor would not let go so easily.

“Well. It has the village astir with speculation and gossip, I can tell you. Was that the young man with you at the service this afternoon and just now?”

“Yes.”

Annis looked about her and saw that William was no longer in view, and that was why Mrs. Chepstow had dared broach any part of it. She had waited for him to leave before she pounced upon her present, vulnerable audience.

“I have seen him before, I believe. Some years ago in London. Is he not the son of Captain someone or other? Some estate not too far from here. But his name…Oh, I cannot remember it.”

“Yes. He is from not so far from here.” Mrs. Barristow did not, however, mention a name that might arm her inquisitor with information to continue, yet Mrs. Chepstow was not put off.

“Well, if he is the same man, and I think he must be, do you think it wise to have him in the same house and under the same roof as your daughters, without a living wife to perhaps steady him and sidetrack him from….” She expressed herself with slight gesturing to her daughters about her and a pointed look upon her face to convey her unspoken meaning of implied impropriety. She sniffed. “Well it is none of my business how you decide to run your own house now, but one should be careful. There are all manner of dreadful scoundrels ready to take advantage of a widow and her grown daughters.”

She gave every appearance of being horrified and, at the same time, critical of the possibility that he was let loose around young ladies in the same house, without some other male to control his likely predations. “His reputation may not be so well known in most circles as he has been away for some time after his family banished him abroad, for that is what they did, but I did hear of some of the things he did before he went abroad. Now what was his name?” She struggled to remember it. “I doubt he should be trusted around your girls, especially not the elder two, perhaps not even around the youngest.”

Her eyes lit up suddenly as she recalled the name. “Devane. Yes, that’s it. Devane. William Devane. A very violent man.”

Mrs. Barristow came to his defense. “Yes, I have also heard the same vicious gossip and the same rumors. I knew all about him and his alleged reputation before ever he set foot in the Manor, and the gossip is entirely wrong about him. You may tell that to those who choose to spread any of these disreputable tales about him for all the difference it will be likely to make. I would rather not hear any of it.”

But Mrs. Chepstow was not to be discouraged. “The gossip is not only that he seduced—too kind a word for what I believe actually happened to the poor girl—one of the Trevelyan girls, but there is another disturbing rumor that he actually might have killed that elder son of Lord Maxton some years ago in a duel, about the same time, over another female. That son has not been seen ever since that time, though that is not widely known or even confirmed, but it sits out there still, despite the Maxton son being rumored to have gone off to the continent almost immediately afterward.”

She continued. “Speaking of the devil, for the elder Maxton as well as his entire surviving male brood has that reputation, his remaining son was also murdered by a highwayman at Inchdene not more than a day ago. At least, so I heard just this morning, so now there are none of them remaining to comfort the father in his old age, nor to protect the daughters when he dies.”

Annis had perked up at the mention of that village name, for it was also mentioned in Lady Seymour’s letter, and she remembered William having also mentioned that place to her mother. Her starting, however, provided the older lady with an excuse to continue.

“Why, yes, Miss. Ugly goings-on. The stable hand at Inchdene related how a horse that Mr. Maxton had rented from them turned up in the stable yard with Maxton’s body tied across it, all bloodied with his head a terrible mess and no sign of his companion. Cruelly beaten to death he was, with a broken neck and a smashed-in head, and who knows what other injuries. Terrible, terrible thing to have happen, and that it seemed like the devil himself must have dealt the blows that killed him and crushed his skull. He said that Maxton had rented the horse when his own had thrown a shoe. Maxton’s companion—a Frenchman, I hear—must have witnessed everything that happened. He could not be found, however, and there is suspicion that his body is either still out there, perhaps torn limb from limb, or that he may have fled the country in fear or guilt or both, after that.”

Annis intervened to save them from more lurid and bloodthirsty tales. “Mama, we must go. It is getting chilly here, and we have much to do.” She shivered. She did not like the disreputable Mrs. Chepstow with her gossiping tales. But what she seemed to know may not have been so far wrong, considering what she herself now knew.

They turned away and moved away from the village gossip, robbing her of her audience. “Oh, Annis, I do wish Mrs. Chepstow was more restrained in her comments and did not relate such gossip, as she undoubtedly will, throughout the village.”

“I am afraid we cannot stop her, Mama. But perhaps she may be right in some of it, for there is never smoke without fire.”

“Oh hush, Annis. Not you too?”

They walked on in silence, each with her own thoughts to disturb her, but each feeling differently about what seemed to be known.

 

Within fifteen minutes they had turned into their own lane and then followed Charlotte through the gate, seeing her take off at a run and then stoop in the driveway to recover something she had perhaps dropped.

“Now what is your haste, miss?”

“Mama. Look. I found some gold sovereigns—four of them—lying loose in the driveway along with a pocket watch and two teeth, and there is blood and even some hair on the edge of the trough. I wonder what happened? May I keep them?”

Annis knew she had been right to fear for the worst and looked about for who might have suffered such a beating. Thomas had not been the recipient of it, as he was close by, speaking with her mother for a few seconds and then going about his work. He did not look to be suffering in any way and certainly showed no sign of injury. There, in the garden, was Molly hanging clothes out, and Mrs. Rogers could be seen through the window preparing for their supper, but then he would not beat a woman and expect to be welcomed anywhere. No one seemed to be the worse for wear. She wondered if the squire might somehow have earned his displeasure. She would feel little concern for him in that case.

Her mother responded to Charlotte’s question. “What was that you said, my dear?” Her mind had been in another place as she had been speaking with Thomas about something that she had meant to point out earlier.

“May I keep them?” Her fist clenched upon the coins and the watch, expecting that Sophia or Annis even, might suggest that they be given up and try to claim a share.

Her mother saw only the small bouquet of wild flowers that she had picked from the hedgerow on the way home.

“Of course, you may keep them, my dear. What a question to ask.”

Annis took note of the teeth left lying on the ground. Fortunately, her mother had not seen them. They appeared to be human teeth. She shivered. There was some story to be told, and she had better find it out for herself.

She then went to speak with Molly, who also seemed confused by her questions and, for once, seemed almost blockish—frustratingly so, and seemed unable to disclose anything. She then found Thomas, who had returned to his work in the stable. She was relieved to note, in better detail, that none of their own servants seemed any the worse for wear, but all had a different look about them and were even secretive about something, but they did not appear to be afraid of anything as she had first feared. Rather, they appeared to be quite contented and even happy—if that were possible in the present circumstance—but also furtive about something.

“Thomas, what went on here to leave those teeth and blood in the drive? Is everyone; are the servants all right?”

“Why, yes, Miss. Why would we not be in good fettle?” He seemed equally evasive.

She felt frustrated to be learning nothing when there was a story waiting to be told. “Why is everyone so secretive all of a sudden? Surely you cannot deny the evidence presented in the driveway for us all to see?” She broached the presence of the teeth again and the sovereigns and watch in the driveway and demanded to know how they had got there.

He had not liked to be asked, and frowned. “I knew I should ha’ moved ’em when I had the chance. Nothing to concern yourself over, Miss.”

It could not so easily be swept aside. “But I am concerned, Thomas. I need to know what happened.” The reluctant and unsatisfactory account she eventually winkled out of the unusually close-lipped Thomas told her enough to start with. She found out that Mr. Thackeray had paid a visit while they had all been in church, except for Mr. Devane of course, who had returned to see what his intentions might be. One part of the puzzle had now fallen into place. So that was why he had returned as he had.

Thomas heartily wished he’d thought to remove those signs of violence before the family returned, for he knew they would not be ignored.

Annis then heard a similar disjointed tale from Molly, who gradually became more expansive once she realized it could not be denied.

What was related was a tale of a violent encounter, which Molly stressed she should not repeat to her mother. The way it was told all seemed to reflect well on Mr. Devane, if the servants were to be believed. However, the violent nature of it all was to be abhorred and left too many unanswered questions.

“Oh please, Miss, don’t tell your mother. It was but a minor incident and best forgotten.” She was not likely to get more out of Molly at the present time, so she returned to Thomas. “Despite what you told me, Molly tells a slightly different tale, and it does not present the appearance of only a minor incident at all, Thomas.” There was obviously more to it than had been initially related, and Annis had no intention of letting it rest until she knew it all, but Thomas had decided to say no more and had excused himself to get on with his work.

When she approached Molly yet again, it was almost the same story. But she persisted. Gradually more was dragged from her. Molly was quite happy to initially play down what she later opened up to confess that she had been privileged to have witnessed. She seemed almost choked up with emotion as she recalled and retold it all, for she had seen everything that had gone on. But she was adamant that Annis’s mother should learn none of it, for she seemed keen to protect the girls and their mother from being upset by what had really transpired.

“Molly. I must hear it all, or I might never rest easily with him under the same roof.”

“Oh, do not say that, Miss. Mr. Devane thought that it need not be more widely known to upset anyone any further.” Annis believed that. “And I promised him, we all did, that we would say nothing, and I would not like to betray that confidence more than I already have.” She seemed ready to break into tears.

“Do not worry, Molly. I was not about to let this rest without knowing. We must know it all, can you not see that? For our own safety. I promise that I will say nothing to my mother, but I do want a better account of what happened than just to hear that there was a minor incident, when I think it was not minor at all. Especially when I see human teeth in the driveway, hair on the trough edge, and when Charlotte finds sovereigns and a watch lying there too, amidst the blood, and you seem to regard it all as a great and wondrous thing to have had happen.”

“Very well, miss, but I do not feel easy betraying what I know. As for those teeth and other things, we knew they were there, but none of us was going to touch any of that.” She sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “Anything that man had about him, even gold, was cursed, I would say, especially considering the condition he left in….” she chuckled and then remembered herself. “So we left them lying there. I doubt he’d come back to try and claim them, anyway. Not after the beating he got.”

With more encouragement, Molly went on at length and in considerable detail about what had unfolded, becoming more expansive and expressive as she warmed to the tale.

To Annis’s surprise, Molly recounted the violence she had witnessed in tones of such admiration that she was quite taken aback. Molly’s excitement was evident in her expression and the nature of her actions as she related the way in which Mr. Devane had spoken in a low voice to that Thackeray man.

“Oh, Miss. I was terrified for him—for Mr. Devane—at first for he did not seem to know who he was up against. I’d heard tales of that Thackeray man’s skullduggery with others and knew him to be a dangerous kind of man and rough with women. But he more than met his match in Mr. Devane. I felt the hairs rising on the back of my neck over it, and Thomas said how he’d felt the same way. Within no more than a minute, it was obvious what would happen even though that Thackeray man seemed not to know— stupid man to argue with a man that smiles when he is angry, as well as when he is contented with life. Though you would never have known he might have been angry at all when he thanked Mrs. Rogers after, as she bandaged his hand. All bloody it was. She was crying, as we all were, I do not mind admitting to that. I was breathless over it all, for I sensed what was to come. But Thackeray—the fool—had no wit about him and did not know what we did. Then before we knew it and with no more to do or hesitation, Mr. Devane had unceremoniously dragged him by the ear, and lord knows what, out of the house amidst considerable protest and noise—from that Thackeray individual of course—for Mr. Devane said nothing after his first gentle words. We fled for fear of our lives and being run down. He even disarmed him of that little pistol and sent him sprawling in the driveway. We were terrified. All the ill we had heard of that Thackeray person and his vicious ways and how he could be trusted to injure anyone who dared stand up to him had us quite concerned at first.”

She faithfully related the subsequent actions of both parties—the hammering of that stupid man to the ground and then his being lifted into the trough as though he were a mere stripling, and then Mr. Devane hammering at him again, and Thackeray helpless to do anything about any of it.

Her voice had broken several times in the telling of it, for she had felt it so strongly. She punctuated her words with emotions of her own as her eyes sparkled, and she bubbled over with tears of relief and gratification that it had happened as it had, and that she had been privileged to have been present to see it; for she had never seen the like in all of her life, and she had been in some rough company before she came to work for the master and had seen many brawls when she’d worked in those inns. She had spoken the last without pausing for breath or slowing down and then fell silent, having emptied her budget of it all.

Annis had no difficulty reconciling Lady Seymour’s lurid description with the man that was living with them, from the violent aspect of it all, but did have difficulty with the character that was being related by both the excited Molly and the admiring Thomas and then even by the tearfully admiring Mrs. Rogers—a lady who rarely showed her emotions over anything, except in the last few days.

What she heard related from all of those she questioned, was so clearly at odds with his generally gentle behavior of the last day, and yet, what could one possibly know of anyone on such short familiarity? This rough and extremely violent man, worshipped now, it seemed, by the servants, had stooped and meekly submitted to her mother wiping a drop of blood off his cheek with her kerchief moistened in her own mouth after he had grievously injured Thackeray in such a bloodthirsty brawl. He had submitted to her as though he were a young boy who might not harm a fly—one of her own children in fact—and he had not objected in any way or pulled away. He had even thanked her kindly for it afterward, grateful for the unexpected attention. It had been someone else’s blood on his cheek and shirt. She recalled that he had smiled kindly at her mother as though she had been his own mother doing it while his bloody and bandaged hand, hidden behind him, had eventually dropped a little blood onto the ground from the end of his fingers. She had seen him scuff that evidence into the dirt with his feet before entering the church with them and had then taken care that no more fell from his fingers.

But then, he would endeavor to hide his true colors from everyone as he worked his way into their confidence. Who might know what he was capable of if confronted in the wrong way or time? It seemed that Thackeray had got the beating he had deserved, but he had also served another purpose—he had forced the true character of Mr. Devane into the open. She began to wish that Lady Seymour had come in person rather than just sending her inflammatory letter and accusations along.

But then this account of calm and yet terrifying ferocity that had appeared to have made Molly’s blood run cold, and that transpired barely minutes before William showed up at the church, had also fired Molly up with such defensive awestruck admiration for it all and the man who had done it.

Thomas had been less effusive and had managed to play it down rather more, but the same story had been there to see and the same admiration, though not so openly expressed. She returned to Thomas wanting more details still, and managed to winkle more out of him. She was confused but relieved in the knowledge that she now had the entire tale and not sure what to make of it.

“Better not tell your mother, Miss. It might upset her.”

“Yes, that’s what Molly and Mrs. Rogers said too when I asked them. You should have told me all of it at the outset and saved me from this inquisition. Don’t worry. I shall say nothing. So how should we deal with this, Thomas?” She was unsure of how to go on, never having encountered such a situation in her life before. “Should we all be in fear of our lives from this man?”

“He won’t be back again, miss.”

“I meant from Mr. Devane.”

He could not hide his surprise from her. “Him? Not from him, Miss. Far from it.” He leapt to his defense in no half measure. “Why, just you ignore it all and try to forget it. It won’t never happen again, I can promise you that.” He chuckled as he thought about it again. “Not from what I saw.” He looked sharply at her. “Oh no, Miss. You need not fear about Mr. Devane. I’d stake my life on him. Certainly you need not worry about seeing Mr. Thackeray around here again. Not after what I was privileged to see. Not for a long time, at any rate. Not in my lifetime. Not if he has any sense.”

When she entered the house, there was a subtle difference in the way everything had almost imperceptibly changed. The looks on the faces of the servants were different—sharper, brighter, and they tended to move with more purpose and alacrity. Something had certainly changed, but in a positive way for once.

She also could see that there was a not totally subtle change in the way in which they looked at Mr. Devane.

She noticed over the next few hours that he responded kindly and with a gentle smile to any small attention given him during supper and afterward, and even openly thanked them for their help in whatever way they had given it and told them that he really did not need to be waited upon quite so well.

He did not behave like a tyrannical being or a usurper, for his every word was kind and gentle to them. But then he had never uttered an unkind word about or to anyone within her earshot that she was aware of, nor did he order anyone about as some men seemed to do, but always deferred either to her mother or even to her, and thanked all of the servants for even small attentions. She could not fault him for his manners but was afraid what it might portend. Her godmother’s account still lurked in her mind. The greatest villains always had the sweetest smiles and disposition with those they needed to confuse while they worked their way into their trust and confidences. Undoubtedly, he was an accomplished and careful villain, who knew exactly what he was about.

But it was also puzzling. The servants were not afraid of him nor cowed in any way. It was as though he had suddenly become the master of the house and had so easily slid into her father’s shoes with so little ceremony about it, and no obvious objection from anyone. Could he be so clever as to confuse everyone, even Thomas, in that way?

She was not sure that she liked the feeling or approved of the change, but there was little she could do about it, for her mother had been bitten by the same bug and seemed ready to leap to his defense, and even to deal with him as she would the son she never raised, and him almost a complete stranger to them all. But then she now needed some support to lean upon, and he was there.

He was perhaps even more dangerous than Lady Seymour may have detailed, if that were possible. Had he not just seen a competitor taken out of the lists? He now had the field to himself. With a houseful of now mostly witless admiring women at his feet, what might he not accomplish? Well there was one that had not lost her wits. What might he be planning?

It seemed that their troubles might just be beginning. She decided to keep a close eye on Mr. Devane but would not go so far just yet as showing her mother that damaging letter or relating any of what she had just found out. She would not be believed, anyway.

 

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