June 14th, 1881:
Pippa did not realize how many expectations she carried with her to Valley House until she finally saw it. Father had never brought her to his home, so like all forbidden things it carved out a special point of heartache in her imagining. She felt split, her childhood racing happily uphill as her present gripped it warily by the hand, taking only the smallest and most traceable steps.
Father lived here? It didn’t suit him. The estate was so strikingly feminine, a little ring of rounded towers nestled against the trees like the tips of a lady’s glove. The vast gardens, already blooming, blushed outward in all directions, nearly crossing the white sands that curved, liplike, over the crest of the high western hill. The hill itself gradually melted into beach and sea, while emerald pines, thick as velvet, encircled the house on its remaining sides. A lonely little dollhouse, but a dollhouse nonetheless, with its scrubbed red brick and salt-kissed windows. Perhaps that was why her father avoided Valley House himself. It was the perfect place to raise a little girl, something Ethan Cotton was determined never to do.
A youth was napping on the warm walkway, spade abandoned in a flowerpot, when the group reached the front steps. Holmes nudged him with his foot, then, when that provoked nothing, picked up the spade and rapped him smartly on the head. The boy yelped and rolled over, staring blearily up at them as if he had never seen anything more baffling than another human face.
“Mr. Sherlock Holmes and company, for Miss Amelia Dearborne,” Holmes said. “Quickly.”
The teenager scrambled to his feet and took off around the corner, trying to bow and run at the same time and failing at both. Moments later, a prim, auburn-haired woman in her late thirties appeared on the path, moving so lightly she seemed to float more than walk. Her navy train barely rustled behind her, thought it rippled prettily, revealing flashes of patterned cloth beneath. Pippa suddenly felt shamefully underdressed, and even the boys adjusted their collars in her wake.
“How do you do, Mr. Holmes?” She held her hand out, but her gaze went right through him, and she spoke with all the enthusiasm of signing for a package. “I know why you are here, though I doubt I can be of any service to…”
As Pippa stepped out from behind him, the woman trailed off. All at once she became human.
“You are here. You finally came.” She covered her mouth with her gloved hands, but her smile still peeked out on either side. “I had nearly lost hope, too. Please, may I?”
She opened her arms a fraction of an inch. Her joy was too pure, too fragile for Pippa to crush. Pippa nodded and Amelia embraced her, then examined her face with a watery laugh.
“God, and there she is!” Amelia said, pushing Pippa’s hair back. “Forgive me, but you truly do your mother justice. There is some of George in the jaw, too. I would know that stubborn set anywhere,” she said, wiggling Pippa’s chin. “Quite remarkable, really, you only have -”
She looked fully into Pippa’s eyes and stepped back with a stiff cough. “Pardon the interruption. You came for a reason, after all. How may I assist you?”
“We understand that you and Christina Cotton were quite close,” Holmes said. “We were hoping you could shed some light on her final year.”
“Apologies if this is hard for you,” Shekhar added, and Pippa kicked herself for not getting there first.
Amelia nodded, and, after a moment’s hesitation, offered Pippa her arm. “Of course, if you will walk with me. The weather has been so fine this year, and God knows when Valley House will be so bright again.”
Pippa took her arm loosely, and for a while Amelia allowed it. However, the further the group walked, the closer she pulled the girl towards her, until they were almost tripping over each other’s feet. Pippa had never seen someone so radiantly happy.
“I do not suppose you remember these gardens,” she said, “but they were your mother’s pride and joy – after you, of course. She planned those rows just for you to toddle about in, see?”
She pointed to a patch of scarlet blossoms twined throughout with delicate, bell-like white flowers, like lace on damask.
“Chrysanthemums and snowdrops,” Amelia explained. “She wasn’t sure if you would be a December or a January birth, you see.” She laughed, but her mouth sagged with the effort. “A shame neither of you saw it in bloom.”
“How long did you know my mother?” Pippa asked.
“Since childhood. She was a year behind me at Ashcroft.” Amelia closed her eyes, smiling slightly. “You never saw a gentler girl. The day we met, my mother had insisted on an atrocious hairstyle, all curls and loops and endless, endless pins. I cried from the scratching. Your mother helped pull them out and did me up with her own ribbon.” She squeezed Pippa’s hand tight. “There was nothing more important to her than other people’s happiness. Nothing.”
Once again she looked into Pippa’s eyes, and once again she let go. “I did not know your father half as well. I knew your Uncle George, of course. Lord Hallsbury and Baron Kert were old schoolmates themselves, so George and Christina had been friends practically in the cradle. But Ethan was older than us, and Oliver so much younger, so I really didn’t get to know them until after the wedding. Even then, I was preoccupied with my own troubles.”
“What troubles?” Pippa asked.
“I was engaged to Christina’s cousin Robert for a time. A sweet man. Christina introduced us, actually. They were raised together by their Aunt Esther, so they were really more like siblings than cousins.”
“Why weren’t they raised by their parents?” Watson asked.
“Robert’s parents died in India when he was small. As for Christina…” Amelia cast a suspicious eye over the four men, but finally sighed and dropped her voice. “Let us say that, for those who only knew Christina’s family and not her, her manner of passing did not come as a shock.”
Holmes raised his eyebrows. “Another suicide?”
“Yes. Her mother. Poor Christina found her, though mercifully she was too young to remember anything clearly.” She touched the small silver cross at her neck. “Her father was always a drinker, but after that…the man was in no state to care for himself, much less a child, love her as he might.”
“A hard thing for a young girl to bounce back from,” Watson said.
“But she did,” Amelia said, composing herself. “Esther was a fine woman, and Christina and Robert adored her as deeply as they adored each other. I am glad the three of us had each other when Robert passed.”
“He died too?” Joshua asked.
Amelia nodded. “Thrown from his horse. A freak accident, not long before Ethan began courting Christina. It is why they inherited Valley House, as Robert was the only male heir.”
She stopped in the middle of the path and glared back at the house. “I often wonder at the world’s prescient quirks, don’t you, Mr. Holmes? How fortunate that they found each other, right when they were both so in need of support.”
Pippa started. “You don’t mean my father…?”
Amelia shook her head, albeit reluctantly. “It is a tempting thought, especially in light of recent events, but Ethan was still in Europe when Robert died. All the same, it was an open secret that Lord Reginald favored his second son, and that Ethan had recently upset him somehow.” She shot Pippa a nervous look, then mumbled, “I know it is unpleasant to admit, but your father would not be the first man to see a woman as a safety net, even if she deserved to be seen as so much more.”
“No love lost between the two of you, I see,” Pippa said.
Amelia plucked a bloom from a hedge and twirled it between her fingers. “Tell me, have you ever seen a cotton seed?”
“They don’t look at all like you would expect. They are hard, coarse, dark pods coated in a thin layer of white silk. The fluff within is the valuable part, but there is not much of it, and it takes a great deal of cracking and scraping to get it out. Your mother thought the effort worthwhile. I did not.”
She popped the head off the blossom with her nail. The sound echoed again in Pippa’s mind, and for a moment she thought she tasted blood.
“How did you come to live at Valley House, then?” Holmes asked. “If the Cottons inherited the estate?”
“Lord Reginald returned it to Esther upon Ethan’s death,” Amelia answered. “As I lived with Esther, naturally I came to continue caring for her, and she graciously left Valley House to me when she passed two years ago.”
“Incredible devotion, if I may say so,” Watson said quietly.
“I was not waiting around for a reward, if that’s what you’re implying,” she snapped, but Watson gave her a singular look, and her eyes flicked back and forth between him and Holmes a few times before she relaxed.
“But yes,” she said, mirroring Watson’s strange expression. “Such devotion as befit an incredible woman.” Her lip trembled, and they walked in silence a long while before Pippa spoke up.
“Speaking of inheritance,” she said, taking the list and letter out of her pocket, “we were hoping you could tell us a little about the conditions in my mother’s will.”
Amelia took the papers from Pippa with a quivering hand. “I should have guessed. It is an awful puzzle, is it not?”
“Why do you say that?” Shekhar asked.
The noblewoman turned to Holmes in surprise, then, when he remained expressionless, chuckled and shook her head. “My word. Christina was good, but I never imagined she could outfox you, sir!”
“What is there to be outfoxed by?” Pippa asked, resisting the urge to snatch back the note. “It seems a straightforward book collection.”
“Seems, yes,” Amelia said, smirking. “And no doubt you came here first because I was left the diary.”
Pippa nodded excitedly. “Yes. Do you still have it? May we take a look?”
“Certainly,” said Amelia, but a disappointed pall fell over her face. “I would keep my expectations in check, though, if I were you. Follow me.”
She led them back to the veranda, then rang a silver bell that stood on the window seat. A servant entered at once. “The box, if you please,” Amelia said.
The man disappeared and returned a moment later carrying a small black case, like for a necklace. Amelia opened it, peeling back a sheet of crepe to reveal a thick, powder blue journal. It was held shut with a yellow ribbon, and embossed with the letters CJF in the lower left corner. The cover was immaculate but, as Pippa noted when Amelia handed it to her, the binding was oddly limp in places.
“I hoped your arrival meant you had finally riddled out what I could not, Mr. Holmes,” Amelia sighed, “but if you have not, I wish you better luck than mine in future.”
Pippa frowned and opened the book. The frown only deepened as she read. The journal spanned from 1880 to 1882, and had been filled in cover to back, but the entries only spoke of dances and dresses, love poems and housewifery, all the pleasantly dull minutia of any young girl’s life.
“There’s nothing in here,” Pippa said.
“Exactly,” Amelia said. There was a glint in her eye. “Nothing. Or at least nothing that should be there.” When Pippa still looked lost, she added, “Find the entry for February 14th, 1881.”
Pippa riffled through the pages. “There isn’t one.”
“Ah,” Holmes said, suddenly alert.
“Her wedding day,” Amelia explained. “All the planning is in there, but not the day itself.”
“Maybe she was too busy,” Joshua said.
Amelia shook her head. “Christina was a prolific writer. Even after she gave up poetry, she still journaled every day. She would not have left out something so important to her.”
“Cotton, when were you born?” Holmes asked, snatching the book.
“January 11th, 1882.”
“And your uncle drowned shortly thereafter?”
“Yes,” Amelia cut in. “March 2nd. In two weeks’ time, he would have been twenty.”
Holmes pinched a few pages between forefinger and thumb. “Yet she only made five entries between December and May of that year. Odd for such a meticulous woman to leave out the birth of her first child and the death of her dearest friend. What does that tell you, Cotton?”
Rage pooled in her stomach like hot lead. “That she just stopped caring about everything.”
“No, not at all, dear,” Amelia said soothingly.
Holmes, meanwhile, looked at her like she was too stupid to breathe. “Cotton, I am going to ask you if you notice something, and if you do not want to be shipped back to Merrimore like an undersized shirt, by God, your answer had better be ‘yes’.”
Ignoring Amelia’s remonstrations, he held the book out horizontally in front of Pippa’s face. This time, the pronounced slouch in the binding made sense.
“She ripped the pages out.”
“Cut, more likely, but correct in essentials,” Holmes said, opening the journal and running a finger down the spine. There, deep in the crease, a small tag stuck out between the pages. “Note the square edge and the short breadth. She used nail scissors, and quite carefully too.”
“Somebody was checking it,” Joshua said. “Or at least she thought they were.”
“Ethan was certainly eager to get it back,” Amelia said grimly. “I never showed it to him, obviously, but he raised hell about it over the years.”
Anger gave way to excitement. “She wrote something about him, something he didn’t want found out,” Pippa said.
Watson stroked his mustache in thought. “The missing pages could be anywhere, though. Perhaps she even destroyed them.”
“Doubtful,” Holmes said, pointing to a long, red stripe that ran down the margin. “A handful of pages are marked in green rather than red. At first glance it appears to be merely decorative, but if that were the case, they would alternate according to a set pattern, and they do not. She added them herself.”
Pippa flipped back to the cut page. Sure enough, the margin was green. “It’s a code. The missing pages go in the green sections.”
“Precisely,” Holmes said.
“I wonder how your father missed that,” Shekhar said, screwing up his mouth. “And this doesn’t get us any closer to the entries themselves.”
They all looked to Amelia, who raised her palms. “It did not get me any closer either,” she admitted. “My suspicion is that Christina hid them amongst her belongings, which she willed away in the hope that someone would find them.”
She leaned her head against her hand, looking pained. “If that is the case, though, we have failed her. I searched for years and found nothing. Finally when Ethan died, I gave up. There seemed no point now that he was safely gone. Whatever horrors Christina had recorded…well, I was not sure I could bear to know them. Best to let her rest in peace.”
Pippa murmured sympathetically, but Joshua pursed his lips. “That weren’t the only thing you gave up on though, was it?” he said, cocking his head at Pippa. “This shouldn’t be her first time hearing this stuff – shouldn’t be her first time meeting you, for that matter.”
Amelia wrung her hands. “Ethan forbid me to see Christina, near the end. Afterwords, none of her friends or relatives were allowed to see you, especially not me.”
“But he died ten years ago,” Shekhar said. “What kept you away after that?”
Amelia glanced at Pippa as if hoping she would call them off. When she did not, the woman gulped. “Well, Esther couldn’t bear to share you with the Cottons. It was selfish, perhaps, but given the circumstances her resentment was understandable.”
“And you?” Pippa asked.
“For my part, I…” She hesitated. “Christina had such hopes for you. You were all she valued in the world. So I could not endure it if I reentered your life only to see those hopes shattered by…inappropriate influences.”
All of Pippa’s goodwill wilted like weeds in frost. “By Folley, you mean.”
“Now, I have heard she is pleasant enough,” Amelia said, “but good temper alone does not make one capable of raising a lady. Your mother’s bearing shines through you, though. Blood will always out.”
Watson pulled on Pippa’s sleeve. “Thank you for your time, Miss Dearborne, but we had best be off. Come along, Miss Cotton.”
Pippa jerked away, seeing red. “My mother’s bearing,” she spat. “My mother, who decided to play hide-and-seek rather than tell the police about her husband.”
Amelia went white. “What did you say?”
“Who couldn’t be bothered to raise her own baby,” Pippa said. The others were frozen with horror, but she couldn’t stop. “Sounds like she and my father were a perfect match, seeing how much they both liked pawning their responsibilities off on other people.”
“Your mother loved you,” Amelia said, shaking, “and it would break her heart to hear you speak this way.”
“Good,” Pippa hissed. “Pleased to hear she had a heart at all, since I’ve never seen any sign of it. Women with hearts don’t usually let their husbands fuck a fourteen-year-old until she begs for death. My mother must have been a rare specimen indeed.”
Amelia’s jaw dropped and she covered her ears.
“That’s enough, cripes,” Joshua muttered.
“Christina did no such thing,” Amelia said, fighting back tears. “How – How dare you speak of your own mother like that, the woman who – ”
Suddenly Pippa lashed out, wrenching Amelia’s hands away from her ears.
“My mother,” she said through gritted teeth, “was a cow. A stupid, selfish, sniveling wretch who ran away from all the evils she let other, better women carry in her stead. Folley is a thousand times a greater mother than Christina Cotton – a thousand times a greater human being! I am not about to lose her for the sake of some blind, pigheaded little twit who was more whore than Folley ever was!”
At this, Amelia freed one hand and struck Pippa across the face. The blow rang in the air.
“It seems I was wrong,” Amelia panted. “There is plenty of your father in you after all.”
They made the journey home in seething silence. It was only when the train jostled them around a sharp curve that Holmes and Pippa were forced to catch each other’s eye, and the detective’s cold fury came down on her like hail.
“Do you intend to do anything of value here?” he said. “Or do you simply prefer an audience while you shriek about how the world has wronged you? I would like to give up my seat, if that is case, for I am sick of the performance.”
“She insulted my aunt,” Pippa said.
Holmes waved an arm wildly. “The world insults your aunt! If you fly apart like a spoiled infant every time you hear an unkind word, we might as well break your legs and follow where you crawl, for all the progress we will make. My God, adjust to reality!”
“Just because I’m investigating doesn’t mean I have to sit there and let every moron we bump into wipe their feet on my family’s good name!” Pippa snapped, balling her fists. “I can observe and challenge at the same time.”
“Can you?” Holmes scoffed. “Gracious, my own observational powers must be weakening, because I could have sworn you carried on like an overboiling kettle, and were dumped out in the same fashion.”
“We got the book, didn’t we?” Pippa said, inclining her head at the journal on Watson’s lap.
“Thanks to Watson’s efforts, not yours,” Holmes hissed. “Honestly, if there was one thing I would expect a finishing school student to grasp, it would be the importance of controlling one’s temper.”
“You’re one to talk,” Shekhar said, but Pippa could tell his heart was not quite in it. Truth be told, neither was hers, but she’d be damned before she let Holmes realize just how hard she was kicking herself inside.
Holmes continued scolding her until he was suddenly cut off by Joshua. “Just leave her alone, will you? Play fair.”
They all looked at him in surprise. Pippa had never heard Joshua contradict Holmes before, and clearly neither had Holmes.
“Play fair?” the detective repeated quietly.
The young man flushed but held firm. “Anybody would’ve lost their head being spoken to like that. I know I would, at least, but you’d have understood. So do the same for her, that’s all.”
Holmes did not reply, but looked suspiciously from Joshua to Pippa and back again, grinding his teeth. He reminded Pippa of a mother hen puffing out her feathers, and she nearly laughed, which made Holmes’ expression darken further.
The train whistled, sparing them any further argument. Watson and Shekhar both sighed in relief and were up as fast as their legs would allow. Shekhar’s peace was short-lived, however, for as they pulled into the station, he glanced out the compartment window and groaned.
“What is it?” Joshua asked.
Shekhar pointed into the crowd on the platform. “Please tell me that’s not who I think it is.”
The other four clustered around the window. The glass was streaky and Charing Cross was bustling as ever, but nonetheless Pippa’s gaze found the bored, circular face of Peter Spellman at once. Beside him stood a large, mutton-chopped man, leaning against a camera and tripod.
As soon as she saw them, both men turned and looked directly into the compartment window, as if called by some deep, demonic instinct. Pippa’s companions quickly pushed her head out of frame. The boys turned up their collars, Holmes pulled his hat completely down over his flaming hair, and Watson fiddled with his mustache as if calculating how quickly he could shave it off.
“How did they find us?” Pippa said. “Or have they just been waiting there all day, on the off-chance we returned to London?”
“That would be Spellman’s style,” Watson said, “though my money’s on a talkative ticket-taker. What shall we do? They’re not letting anyone off on the other side of the train.”
Pippa peeked over the bottom of the windowsill and scowled. Spellman was still staring expectantly at her, only now he was at the nearest exit from the car. The cameraman had already set up his tripod.
“We just gotta make a run for it, don’t we?” Joshua said with resignation.
Pippa nodded. “Split up, too. He’ll follow me or Holmes, of course, but the rest of you can get out and regroup at Baker Street.”
They assembled at the door, and Pippa took off like a shot. Shekhar, ever beholden to chivalry, stayed with her, but the other three fanned out, Holmes walking straight in between the two reporters. To Pippa’s surprise, however, they didn’t spare him a glance, and instead moved immediately to follow her. Holmes hung back at this, watching with a furrowed brow.
“Hey Pippa!” Spellman called, weaving nimbly through the crowd after her.
She made a scandalized noise. “That’s Miss Cotton to you.”
He grinned and winked at his cameraman. “Awful high and mighty, considering what we just heard, eh, Conway?”
“Sir, I doubt you hear anything but the sound of your own voice,” Shekhar said, but the reporter had a sparkle in his eye that chilled Pippa’s blood.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“You’re not the only one digging through your family’s dirt,” Conway said. “Farrier’s been looking up everyone who’s got a bone to pick with your aunt and uncle, and he’s found quite a few.”
“We got a tip he’s grilling one now,” Spellman said smugly. “Does ‘Dr. Xavier Abberley’ ring a bell?”
The coroner’s report flashed in her mind’s eye. “Where are they meeting?”
“I could show you,” the reporter said, examining his fingernails, “but you’d have to do something for me.”
“And what would that be?” she asked.
Spellman ran his tongue over his yellow teeth. “You gotta let me watch.”