August 5th, 1881
I swear, your fool uncle will catch a handful upside the head one of these days! Is there nothing that will make the man mind himself? Perhaps I should resort to a bridle.
George came over to duck an exam check in on you, and he and Ethan were unflaggingly polite at first, as if trying to lead you by example even in the womb. But an argument inevitably broke out.
“Did you hear they’re thinking of changing out the rods at Eton?” Ethan said, shaking his head. “Cloth-wrapped instead of bare wood, no wonder this country’s falling apart.”
George shrugged. “I don’t know, I never did think caning was very effective.”
“Yet you say that as a man who bore it,” Ethan said, “with fortitude and valor, as you ought. It was the whip itself that made you strong enough to speak against it! Boys must be taught firmness above all things, otherwise every other part of manhood crumbles.”
“I quite agree,” George said, “but how you teach the lesson is as important as the lesson itself, if not more so.”
Ethan took a long drag from his cigar. “Eton has produced noteworthy gentleman for hundreds of years, all at the end of a switch.”
“But they’ve made plenty of unstable, cowardly, broken, and ruthless wastrels, too,” George said, “and at a considerably faster clip.”
Ethan tipped his head back and blew rings at the ceiling, winking at me when I giggled. “You’ll always lose some metal in the forge. As long as you get enough steel, you needn’t worry about the dross.”
“You do if it is mostly dross, Ethan!” George insisted. “Don’t tell me that is not what happens, either. Half the aristocracy is being run into the ground by men who never learned anything from punishment except how best to dodge it.”
“Including me?” Ethan said, raising an eyebrow.
George glanced at me and bit his lip. “Perhaps, insofar was we are all affected.”
“That means yes,” Ethan laughed. “What about you?”
George went quiet again, but stopped squirming. “As I said, we are all affected.”
“Funny enough, that means no,” Ethan told me, opera clapping at his brother.
“It does not,” George said.
“Oh please, spare me the passion play,” Ethan sneered. “He has always been like this, Christina, do you remember? Saint George! Learned all his virtues straight from the angels, while his sins are merely the product of our times. Nothing is ever his own responsibility.”
“Not true,” George said, scowling. “Every man has the same responsibility in the end. He must examine the tools he was made with, keeping only those which will make the next man better than himself. All the rest he must destroy.”
“Destroy! Oh, the pathos!” Ethan giggled, miming a swoon. “Very well, O Shaman, what should we do with the little blighters then, in your divine opinion?”
George rose and began to pace up and down the room, gesturing in broad strokes. “Lead by example, rather than fear. Focus more on mental and moral discipline, rather than physical -”
“-See, he doesn’t even demur,” Ethan muttered to me, “just pops the crown on his head and launches right into the inauguration.”
“-And reinforce these values firmly, but with patience and compassion,” George continued. “And we must be prepared for painful self-examination as a class, to say nothing of painful self-correction. I mean, noblesse oblige is all well and good conceptually, but what obligations do we meet anymore? What do we contribute, for all our training in courage and dignity and your precious firmness? What good are gentlemen, if we refuse to make a world that values gentleness?”
“Oh Christ, you would have a planet full of Olivers,” Ethan said, rolling his eyes, “nothing but spineless, hermaphroditic worms as far as the eye can see, running from every obstacle instead of tackling them like men.”
George glared darkly at his brother. “What would you know of obstacles, having never met one in your entire life?” he snapped.
“I took my lashes, same as you.”
“Yes, same as me, thoughtlessly! It did not teach you right from wrong, did not even make you contemplate it! All we learned is that suffering is frightening and senseless, but it will always be over in a flash, and if you become a groveler, or a sneak, or a brute numb to pain, there is nothing else they will ever throw at you, and you can carry on as you please!”
“George, calm down,” I said, pulling on his sleeve, but he ignored me.
“Lord, I pity the poor child who must be raised by you, Ethan,” he said, “all cliffs and no fences!”
“Don’t trouble yourself about my son,” my husband growled. “He shall know his place in the world, or else know the back of my hand.” He put an arm around my waist. “And his mother’s too, isn’t that right?”
I sighed. “Well, I don’t know, dearest. I cannot see myself raising a hand to my child, I simply do not think I am capable of it.”
“You cannot be serious,” he said, gaping at me. “Are you actually taking his side?”
I flung my arms about him and held him close. “I agree with you on everything, sweetheart, you know that, but…well, every so often George made a good point, did he not?”
My husband stared at me strangely, then said in a harsh, black voice, “He must have. Must have really driven his point home.”
I asked him what he meant, but he just unclasped my arms and stormed off. I rounded on George. “If you are so compelled to devour each other, please wait until I am gone, lest I be bitten too!”
“Do you ever tell him off?” George said peevishly. “Or is it always a special gift for me, who has never upset you?”
“You share the punishment, as you share the crime,” I snapped. “’Never upset me,’ honestly, like I haven’t been sweeping up after your big mouth since you were old enough to use it! You talk of responsibility, how about sorting this out yourself for once?”
He scratched his head, suddenly contrite. “Fair enough. I apologize, Christina.”
“Not to me. To Ethan.”
I folded my arms, and he ran a hand over his face. “Fine. Fine. As long as he returns the favor and apologizes to you.”
“He does not need to – but he will,” I added, when he showed every sign of protesting, “Lord, he will if it will put a lid on this nonsense.”
“Bless you,” he said, kissing me on the forehead.
I patted you, the small bump in my belly. “Your uncle is more trouble than you are!” I said.
“And your mother is an angel for enduring it,” he told you, grinning fondly. “For all out sakes, you had better take after her side of the family.”
When they returned to Merrimore, Folley was waiting for them with a rolled-up piece of paper and a wry smile.
“You lot look like you could use a night off,” she said, rapping Holmes on the shoulder with the scroll, “or at least a night out. This one might be up your alley.”
Holmes unfurled the paper. “A gala at Thorncrest Hall?” he read, raising an eyebrow.
“That’s the old bag’s place,” Folley said. “Lady Iris Cotton, my husband’s grandmother. She bounces from cousin to cousin these days, and Thorncrest is the latest chicken-foot hut she’s parked her broomstick at.”
“I am aware. Forgive me, Your Grace, but somehow I doubt you are on the official guest list for this event,” Holmes said, returning her smirk.
Folley tossed her head proudly. “And do I strike you as somebody who gives a fig for the official, Mr. Holmes? My lady’s maid has a friend of a friend what works for Lord Crowle’s new wife. The poor little thing’s dumb as a herring, apparently, so she let her maid ‘borrow’ the invitation, and it made its way to me.”
“All the same, they won’t let you in,” Joshua said.
“Course not. You, on the other hand, have a fighting chance.” She thrust the invitation into Pippa’s hands with a wink. “I know you never say no to drama and dresses, and I’m sure we’ve got some extra suits lying about for these gents.”
Pippa read over the letter with a grin. “A masquerade. Not the wisest theme, under the circumstances. But why should we bother with her?”
“Trust me, that crone knew exactly what Ethan was up to,” Folley said darkly, “maybe even more than I did. It’s worth a poke around, at least. And if you don’t find anything, you’ll at least ruin her day, and isn’t that a triumph in itself?”
“God, if I never have to wear one of these again, it’ll be ten thousand years too soon,” Joshua grumbled, futzing with his tails. “You better get something out of this besides a finger in your gran’s eye, Cotton.”
“I’m certain we will,” Pippa said, peeking out from behind the large screen they’d unfolded in the center of her room. Turning this way and that, she frowned at her reflection in the glass, pulling lace fringe up and off her shoulder repeatedly, weighing degrees of scandal. “They’re a tight-lipped bunch, Iris’ court, I’ll grant you that, but there’s bound to at least be something in the house we can make use of, some paperwork or banking records or the like.”
Fluffing her curls, she stepped out from behind the screen, and the young men’s jaws dropped. “Well?” Pippa said, raising her arms for a coy half-turn. “What do you think?”
“Fantastic,” Shekhar said, sounding short of breath. “You look beautiful, Pippa, truly, I am not sure there are words for it.”
As if to prove this, Joshua was uncharacteristically silent, and did not look up when Pippa addressed him. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on his shoelaces, which he retied over and over until they formed a braid at his ankle. His face was crimson.
Feeling impish, Pippa bent sideways into his line of view, fully aware of what this did to her neckline. Every time he moved away, she leaned in closer, until she was practically laid out on the coffee table.
“What about you, Tabak?” she murmured. “Do you like my dress?”
It took him a few tries to make intelligible words. “It’s very…very…blue.”
Pippa raised an eyebrow. “Blue?”
“Yep,” he said. He tried to inch his chair back, and instead fell out of it. “Sorry. Um. Yeah. Yeah, blue is…blue is nice, it’s…’scuze me, would you, we’ll be late.”
As he got to his feet, he glanced back at Pippa, promptly tripped, then bolted for the door.
“You are the devil made flesh, my dear,” Shekhar said, laughing into his hand.
Pippa curled a dark lock around her finger. “The devil and your dear?”
Shekhar looked her over, pulling the wrist of his glove into place with his teeth. “Ah,” he said at last, winking. “I see. My turn to run.”
Thorncrest Hall crouched in the darkness like an old lion: golden, imposing, ready to pounce. But Pippa wagered it was similarly toothless, so she and the others walked through the towering doors without hesitation. She felt a touch of pride whenever they passed a footman; the Cottons could sneer down at Folley all they liked, but the only place her staff let gatecrashers through was a trapdoor.
Joshua wedged himself between Pippa and Shekhar, trying to muffle himself behind their loud costumes. Even with his silent footfalls, he drew suspicious glances from the crowd, and he ran a hand through his curly hair whenever it happened, as if to flatten it. “Should we fan out?” he said, though he sounded as though he would rather die.
Pippa shook her head. “I’m the only one who knows the Dowager by sight. Just keep your masks on, and pray I spot her before she spots us.”
The ballroom was so packed, they were able to easily melt into it without raising alarm. Pippa kept hold of her companions, Shekhar leading her by one hand, Joshua following by the other. The chain was jostled apart only for a brief instant as they ascended the large spiral staircase in the back right corner of the room.
But that instant was enough. Suddenly the ribbon slid from her head and her mask clattered to the ground. Amid a chorus of gasps, Pippa spun on her heel to see Conway, Spellman’s photographer, lift a red domino from his face to grin at her.
“You rat bastard,” she said, “how did you get in?”
He shrugged. “Bet they’ll wanna ask you the same. Smile pretty, Pippa.”
She didn’t even see the camera until the flash blinded her. When her vision cleared, Conway was gone, and in his place stood a short, fuming old woman enveloped in white furs, her withered red face like a cherry sinking into day-old cream.
“Great-grandmama,” Pippa said, letting the poison in her voice float obviously atop the syrup. “It has been so long.”
“Not long enough,” the hag snapped, clicking her fingers frantically above her head. “Moreband? Moreband, who let this little toad in? I want them whipped, and her besides, along with her…cadre,” she said, noting Shekhar and Joshua with a shudder. “Good Lord, is this what Oliver’s letting you drag back to Merrimore? I told Reginald, that boy should’ve gone straight to the sanitarium.”
An elderly butler hobbled over and grabbed Watson’s arm, or at least as much of his sleeve as his frail fingers were able to keep hold of. “Come along, no funny business now,” he gasped.
“I am a Cotton, am I not?” Pippa said, folding her arms. “I have as much right to be here as any of you.”
“Your uncle lost you that right the day he ran off with that Loiner cow,” the dowager duchess spat. “You are not welcome here, and certainly not with this circus in tow.”
“Your Grace, I remind you that this is an official criminal investigation,” Holmes said. “All we ask is that you answer a few questions for us and allow us to look around your property, no differently than the police.”
Lady Iris braced her hand on her heart. “The police? You think I would let those dirty thugs into my home, in front of civilized people?” She shook her head plaintively towards the heavens. “Perhaps some of my grandchildren were foolish enough to involve common watchmen in our private affairs, but that does not mean I will, and I certainly will not throw you into the mix for good measure, Mr. Holmes!”
“Madam,” Shekhar ventured, “if anything, talking to us can only help your reputation. If Ethan Cotton is truly innocent, than proving so would – ”
Lady Iris turned purple. “How dare you presume to address me directly, boy?” she said. “Now leave, all of you, or I shall make you do so before everyone is alerted to your odious presence.”
Pippa contemplated the balcony to her left, jutting out over the crowded ballroom. At once, she ran to the overhang, plopped down, and slipped her legs through the bars. “And how, pray tell, do you plan to do that?” she said loudly. Several heads turned below; she swung her bare calves back and forth to heighten the effect.
Lady Iris went gray. “Stop that at once. You are making a scene. For heaven’s sake, Pippa, you are not a child!”
“I am a child, though,” Pippa shouted cheerfully, “so I shall behave like one, until you see fit to include me in grown-up conversation.”
Lady Iris turned to Holmes, suddenly contrite. “Please, sir, can’t you control her?”
“Alas, madam, had you complied in any way, I could placate her,” the detective said gravely. “As it stands, all I can do is inform her that the acoustics are vastly improved by shifting three spaces to the left.”
“Oh, very well!” Lady Iris said, holding her hands out and scowling. “Five minutes. Will that get you out of here, you little witch?”
Pippa tapped her chin. “Twenty might.”
“Ten,” Lady Iris said.
Pippa raised her voice. “Shekhar, darling, come and kiss me!”
“Twenty then!” the old woman wheezed before Shekhar could move. “And may the devil take you for it!”
Pippa stood and brushed herself off, grinning. “Probably, but let’s tackle one problem at a time, shall we?”
Lady Iris took her firmly by the arm, hissing when the men tried to follow. “Oh no, you don’t! I paid more than money to keep you out of my affairs, Mr. Holmes, and I do not intend to render that investment entirely moot. You and your flunkies can occupy yourselves in the kitchen, if you wish. It is the only place those belong, anyway,” she said, wagging her fingers at Shekhar and Joshua as if flicking away a spider. “And do not even think about raising another ruckus, Phillipa. I can only be pushed so far.”
“Let’s find out how far, shall we?” Pippa said, but Holmes motioned for her to stand down.
“Now, now, Cotton,” he said, “I am sure you can handle things. And if you cannot, well, a wasted interview is a fair trade for an unfettered search of the property.” His eyes narrowed at Lady Iris.
The dowager grumbled but was clearly calculating. “A discreet search?” she said at last.
“Naturally,” Holmes said.
The old woman nodded, then pulled Pippa down the stairs and into the map room. Inside was a group of five laughing men, Van Den Burg among them. Lady Foster sat at his elbow. Her smile fell as soon as she saw her grandmother.
“Sarah, what on Earth are you doing in here unsupervised?” Lady Iris snapped.
Lady Foster wrinkled her nose. “John is resting, Grandmama Dear. Harry is my chaperone. Surely I can talk to him, at least.”
“Do not test me, silly girl,” Lady Iris said. “Now leave, all of you.”
The group began to rise, but a well-dressed gentleman in the middle waved them down. He wore an ornate, bottle-green suit and a pagan mask, which he lifted to see Pippa.
“Good God, it must be fate.” His teeth were much too white, and his voice was as deep and smooth as an undertow. “I’ve been so hoping to talk to you. Come closer, child.”
“Yeah, come sit on his knee,” jeered the red-faced man next to him.
“You could fit her on one knee,” hiccuped another man sprawled on the floor. “Why, you could cup the wee thing in your hands!”
“And wouldn’t you just love to?” laughed the man leaning over the back of Van Den Burg’s chair. The marquis frowned but said nothing.
“Forgive them,” the green man said, “weak livers make for poor manners. Rest assured, we are all gentlemen here. I am Lord Tyne, I was a friend of your father.”
Pippa pursed her lips and Tyne laughed. “Yes, from what I hear, I expect that does not endear me to you.”
“Phillipa demands that I air all the family laundry to her, as if I were some common fishwife,” Lady Iris sniffed.
“Does she? Well, good for her,” Tyne said warmly. “That shows courage and determination. Your father would be proud.”
“Oh yes,” Pippa sneered, “a woman asking uncomfortable questions, that sounds right up his alley.”
“I see Folley is as persuasive as ever,” Tyne said with a curt laugh, “and as dishonest.”
Pippa held up a hand. “Please, if you’re going to lecture me about my aunt’s wicked ways, let me assure you that there are more amusing ways to waste your time.”
“You don’t know her as well as we do,” Van Den Burg insisted.
“I didn’t know my father as well as you did either, yet none of you rushed to tell me his sins,” Pippa said. “How about you, Lord Tyne? I don’t imagine you and my father spent your school days quietly reading Ovid every Saturday night. Will you tell me what you did do, or just let me draw my own conclusions?”
Tyne cocked his head. “I suspect you already have, but why not? I love a challenge.”
Pippa smiled coldly. “You and Father are alike.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Tyne said, wagging his finger. “Especially not from the sort of women you’ve been talking to.”
“Quite,” Lady Iris said. “I mean, really, Thompson stole her weight in silver, and she was there less than a year.”
“And Waterson, well,” Lady Foster said, chuckling into her wine glass, “need I say more?”
“Not unless you want people to get exactly the right impression of you,” Pippa said coldly, but her voice was lost in the snickering crowd.
“Your father chased many skirts, as any red-blooded youth would,” Tyne said, “but I assure you, he forced his way into none of them. Maybe a girl here and there regretted her passions in the morning, but –” here he waved at the assembled company – “who among us hasn’t had that happen?”
“I wonder that myself, sir,” Pippa said grimly, scanning the circle of leering faces. “Did my father also frequent prostitutes from a young age?”
Tyne shrugged. “As I said, all very normal.”
“Did he do normal things to them?” Pippa asked. “They are hard women to rattle, yet he seems to have done it, in my aunt’s case at least.”
“Whores may be hard to rattle, but they are easy to bribe,” Van Den Burg said, rolling his eyes. “Their word is worth nothing.”
“He gave all that up when he married, anyway,” Lady Iris said.
Lady Foster nodded, but there was a strange look in her eye, and she drank more deeply than usual. A small anomaly, yet Pippa found her gaze constantly returning to the woman.
“Were there any problems in the marriage, prior to my mother’s suicide?” Pippa asked. “Any odd behavior?”
The man on the floor guffawed. “Christina was nothing but odd behavior.”
“Mental, that one, the poor thing,” said the man beside Tyne, shaking his head.
“Hardly surprising, given her stock,” Lady Foster said, just a touch too quickly.
Lady Iris nodded. “Yes, it is a pity we did not look into the Fairboroughs more closely, but Ethan was besotted with the girl and would not hear of it.”
“A lot of good that did him,” Lady Foster grumbled.
“Besides,” Lady Iris continued, “she did not exhibit any signs of madness until she got with child. And we all know what they say about the effects of distressing thoughts on a child’s formation.” She glared at Pippa in revulsion.
Pippa resisted the urge to cross her eyes and stick out her tongue, but it was a close shave. “What sorts of things did she do? How did she change during the pregnancy?”
“Hysteria, mostly,” Tyne said. “She became terribly paranoid and suspicious of everyone, particularly Ethan and the staff.”
“In fairness,” Van Den Burg said, “that Lavoisier was awfully strange.”
Tyne tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Fair, but do you remember how she was when George –?”
At this, Lady Iris shushed him, and the whole group shifted uncomfortably.
“What?” Pippa asked. “What about George?”
“Never you mind,” Lady Iris snapped. “I quite agree, Henry, that Lavoisier fellow was an insolent sort, and he had far more access to the girls downstairs. Why not track him down, eh, Phillipa? Pester him with your mangy pack of bloodhounds, instead of your own flesh and blood!”
“Even if Lavoisier was involved,” Pippa said, “it still doesn’t speak well of my father that he let such a person hold a position on influence within his household.”
Tyne rolled his eyes in unison with the other men. “Heavens, a man cannot be expected to keep tabs on every little thing his servants get up to!” he laughed. “I mean, where is it written that a butler must be personable as well as competent?”
Pippa frowned in amusement. “Any household guide. Literally any of them, believe me, I had to read them all.”
“An admirable use of your time, young lady,” Tyne said, simpering.
Lady Iris chortled. “One wonders why she does not return to it!”
“All the same, if you’ll permit me to counter your, ah, woman’s intuition,” Tyne said, “Lavoisier ran Valley House to Ethan’s standards, ably and well. Your father was pleased with his service, and saw no reason to pry into his personal affairs.”
“Even after the man disappeared?” Pippa asked. “He must have had great respect for him indeed, to let him drop off the planet without a word of reproach.”
Tyne shook his head. “Oh, honestly. He may have reproached him indeed, I have no idea, your father knew that staff problems never make for riveting conversation.”
“Lavoisier would not be the first fellow to walk off the job without notice or cause,” Van Den Burg said.
“And that may speak even better to Ethan’s character,” Lady Foster jumped in. “If that leering little Frenchman was hurting girls in Valley House, Ethan would never have stood for it. Lavoisier probably ran for it, rather than face his master’s justice.”
Pippa burst out laughing. “Really, if my father was the Avenging Angel, he did an awfully good job covering it up,” she said, cocking her head at Lady Foster, who was turned crimson. “No apologies, no restitution, no hundred-pound bounty on Lavoisier’s head? Why, he didn’t even round up a posse, and if a childhood wasted on cowboy books has taught me anything, it’s that such things are customary.”
“Lord,” Van Den Berg said, lip curled, “are you saying Ethan should have gone out and fought his butler hand-to-hand, over the honor of some kitchen maids?”
“I am saying, Lord Catesby,” Pippa said, fixing her cousin with a sharp stare, “that any man who does not ensure the welfare of his staff does not deserve to have any.”
It was Tyne’s turn to laugh. “You speak so true, Sarah!” he said, pointing at Lady Foster. “George’s mouth, and George’s voice inside it! Ha, it’s better than a séance!”
Lady Iris screwed up her face, looking like a wrung sponge. “Hush with that foolishness. If she speaks like anyone, it is the harlot. She has filled her head with all manner of socialist nonsense, no doubt.” The old woman shuddered.
Tyne ignored her. “Your uncle wanted to help people too, people who didn’t always deserve it,” he said, his voice overly kind. “Perhaps if he had been a little more discerning, he would be with us now.”
Pippa smiled, slowly and widely, and Tyne whitened slightly as his error sank in. “And what exactly do you mean by that, my lord?” she said, showing an excessive number of teeth.
Tyne leaned back, scratching under his mask as casually as he could. “Well, I mean, George was always an impulsive sort, you know – impulsive enough to go swimming when the ice was barely thawed. You seem to share that flaw, and it is always a good idea to keep one’s failings in check, that is all I meant.”
“Then why did you say it like a threat?” Pippa asked. “I don’t usually take advice from people who threaten me, it’s a bit self-defeating.”
“I did not say it as a threat!”
“Oh? Pardon, I must have misheard,” she said mockingly. “You must have meant it as a confession, how rude of me to presume.”
Tyne recoiled in shock. “Confession?” he repeated. “Are you mad? A leg cramp killed your uncle, it was simply a tragic accident!”
Pippa nodded gravely. “Yes, and then my mother poisoned herself, and the butler went missing, and come to think of it, so did an awful lot of maids over the years – goodness, my father really racked up the personal tragedies, didn’t he?”
“That’s enough!” Lady Foster thundered, getting to her feet. “I am not going to sit by and let you slander good, honest gentlemen for the sake of my fool cousin and his she-wolf of a wife.”
“Madam,” Pippa said coolly, “if my father was a good, honest gentleman, then Burke and Hare were field medics.”
Lady Foster’s pupils became pinpricks, but Van Den Burg took her hand before she could whip it against Pippa’s face. “You were always a little monster. No wonder you ran to Folley like a pig to cream, you always took the easy way out, even if it crushed your poor father’s heart to dust.”
Pippa yawned and mimed rubbing tears from her eye. Lady Foster’s hand yanked against Van Den Burg’s, but he did not let go.
“You never appreciated him, not you nor Christina,” she said, voice breaking, “but even then, I never expected you’d turn out this bad.” She laughed. “It almost beggars belief, how well that slut’s twisted you up. I rather wish we still tried witches. Throw Folley in a river, and I’m not convinced she’d sink.”
Pippa’s smirk vanished. “Careful.”
“Though I suppose that’s the first trick they teach whores, isn’t it?” Lady Foster said, shaking her head. “How to convince people that you love them? Once you can lie about that, I suppose every other lie is easy.”
“She’s not lying,” Pippa said. “About any of it.”
“Then why did she keep you?” Lady Foster said, grabbing Pippa’s chin with her free hand. The girl tried to wriggle away, but her cousin had a strong grip. She tapped a long nail under Pippa’s eye.
“You have Ethan’s eyes,” she hissed, “exactly his eyes. So if he took advantage of her – if anyone could actually advantage of trash like that – why did she keep those eyes in her house? How could she raise you, how could she bear the sight of you, if he really hurt her that much?”
A sweat broke on Pippa’s brow, but she wrenched her head free of Lady Foster’s talons anyway. “Because she loves me,” she said, and it sounded right enough in the air to steady her voice. “She truly loves me, she truly loves my uncle, she seeks true justice, and if she says my father was a rapist and a murderer and had to be put down like a rabid dog, then that is what truly happened!”
“What filth!” Lady Foster said shrilly. “He was never with her, it wasn’t like that, not at all!”
Pippa scoffed. “Oh, how would you know what it was…like?” She trailed off, suddenly aware of the heavy silence, like the space between the chimes of a clock.
“Oh my God,” Pippa breathed.
Immediately Lady Iris swept around the room, coming down beside Lady Foster like a hammer. “Sarah, control yourself. We don’t want to give the wrong impression, now, do we?”
“How did it happen?” Pippa asked softly. She reached for Lady Foster’s hand in spite of herself, but the woman turned away, wrapping her arms so tightly around herself she nearly vanished behind her puffed sleeves.
“Nothing happened. Whatever are you going on about?” Lady Foster’s voice was flat, and Pippa remembered Folley staring into the fire.
“He was, what, eight, nine years older than you?” Pippa continued, as gently as she could. “So whenever he did it, you couldn’t have been more than a child.”
“Hold your tongue, girl!” the dowager barked, though whether it was at Pippa or Lady Foster was hard to say.
Lady Foster did bite down hard on her inner cheek, rendering her barely intelligible. “It was not…not as if…you misunderstand…”
“Yes, I suppose he had to play it off differently with you, didn’t he?” Pippa said. “You had influence, you could have hurt him, so his best bet was to make it so you didn’t want to. Is that what he did? Did he tell you he loved you? That it meant something sweeter than how it felt?”
She didn’t say it mockingly, but Lady Foster still flinched as if slapped.
“Thin air, thin air!” Lady Iris cried, sneering desperately at Pippa. “Little girls and their imaginations, what a wonder!”
“And then he married my mother,” Pippa continued, “as soon as he got back from Europe, when all the while you had been waiting so patiently. I can’t imagine how you must have felt. The sorrow, the anger, the insult.”
At this, Lady Foster shook her head. “No matter his feelings,” she said quietly, “a man of honor cannot be expected to give his heart to any woman who plays so freely with her own.” There was a strange reverence on her face, as if she were reading the words off a golden scroll.
Pippa’s own heart panged. “Did he tell you that?” She turned to her great-grandmother with a deadly glare. “Or did you?”
The crone’s face blackened and she stood up, planting herself between Pippa and Lady Foster. “Do not dare pass judgment on me, you venomous little hornet,” she hissed. “As if you could know anything of honor and decency with a background like yours!”
“On that point we agree,” Pippa said. “If I had a choice between Ethan Cotton and the Devil himself to father me, I would take my chances with the flames, but sadly I’m stuck with the former.”
“Oh you are, are you?” The Dowager laughed coldly. “Is that what they’ve been telling you all this time? I thought that bitch would jump to shame him as quickly as she jumped to kill him, but I suppose you would be less useful to her if you knew the truth.”
“What are you talking about?” Pippa asked. “What truth?”
“That you would be lucky to be Ethan’s daughter,” the woman said, “that you were lucky he pretended for as long as he did, instead of chucking you out in the gutter where you clearly belonged! It takes a rare man to raise up his brother’s bastard as his own, and look what it brought him! Nothing but agony and humiliation!”
A warm, giddy feeling spread over Pippa, like anointing oil creeping down from her head. “His brother’s bastard?” she repeated.
“Yes, you vermin, you’re no proper Cotton! You are only George’s bit of baggage, though he was in no hurry to claim his errors!” The Dowager said, gnashing her teeth. “Everyone knows it, even if they are wise enough not to speak it aloud. Oh, it was a dark day when that Fairborough girl crossed over our threshold, and if Oliver’s tramp ever did a decent thing in the whole of her wretched existence, it was taking you off our hands.” She turned eagerly to see Pippa’s reaction, then frowned when she saw the girl grinning. “Now, what on Earth are you so smug ab – ?”
Before she could finish, Pippa jumped up and kissed her between the eyes. “Bless you,” she giggled. “I mean, you’re still a heinous old carp and I hope you die writhing, but bless you for this!” With that, the girl dashed out of the room, feeling as though her feet would never again touch the ground.
I’m not his child. It was all she could do not to whoop. I’m not Ethan Cotton’s child!
She bumped into the boys in the main hall, who also wore half-crazed smiles. “Listen, listen,” she said, “you won’t believe what I -”
“Will tell us in the car?” Shekhar said, hooking his arm through Pippa’s and looking surreptitiously around. Joshua did the same on her left, and they quickly bustled her down the stairs.
“Hey!” she said. “What’s your hurry?”
There was a piercing scream from the floor above, and the boys’ grins widened. “That.”
Pippa smirked. “Kept yourselves busy, did you?”
“Oh, all the usual tricks,” Joshua said, “salt in the puddings, wax in the spigots, leeches in the champagne…”
“Which was masterful, by the way,” Shekhar said, reaching across Pippa to shake Joshua’s free hand. “I never thought you’d get those corks back in.”
“Shoot, mate, what about that menu trick of yours, though?” Joshua said, miming a hat tip. “You’re a sharp one, no mistake. How about you, Cotton, what are you so sunny about?”
“He’s not my father.”
The young men stopped dead in their tracks. “No way,” Joshua said.
Pippa nodded. “The Dowager told me herself. I’m George’s daughter, not Ethan’s. It’s apparently been an open secret in the family.”
Joshua and Shekhar exchanged looks and Pippa’s face fell. “What, you don’t believe it?”
“No, erm, it’s not that,” Shekhar said, “just…just processing, you understand. It’s not that we don’t believe you.”
“Is too!” Joshua snorted. “I en’t gonna lie to you, Cotton, I wouldn’t put money on that table if you paid me double to do it.”
“What?” Pippa cried.
Joshua shrugged apologetically. “Look, mate, you’ve got his eyes. Like dead certain his eyes, everybody says so.”
“My grandmother had gray eyes,” she said, digging her heels in. “George and Ethan were brothers. It’s possible.”
“Probable, though?” Shekhar ventured.
Pippa glared daggers at the two of them, then pulled herself out of their arms. “Oh, I’ll show you probable. Where the hell is Holmes?”
She stormed off with the increasingly panicked young men at her heels, and found Holmes and Watson in the map room. They were rifling through whatever they could get their hands on and visibly annoyed that that didn’t amount to much.
“Cotton, you better have found something, or I will fling myself off this balcony now,” Holmes grumbled.
With a cocky smirk, Pippa dragged the men into the corridor, where a small portrait of George Cotton hung on the wall. “Notice any resemblance?” she said, framing her face with her hands.
Watson frowned. “Well, yes. That’s your uncle, correct?”
“My father,” Pippa corrected smugly. “My real father.”
Holmes peered at the portrait, raised an eyebrow, and sighed. “Allow me to rephrase: Have you learned anything that isn’t fanciful hogwash?”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Pippa said, clapping a hand over face. “Look, ignore the eyes, alright, examine literally everything else. I look like him, I talk like him, I even think like him, we hold the same values!”
“Dear me, Watson, aristocrats really do chalk everything up to bloodlines, don’t they?” the detective groaned to his partner. “Cotton, if values were passed on through sheer heredity, then I shudder to think what odious ancestor is shared by the people in this house. Some waylaid demon, perhaps, it would explain the apparent absence of souls.” He crossed himself incorrectly, then started down the stairs.
Pippa kept pace with him, tugging on his sleeve. “But Father – Ethan – he suspected I was George’s, everyone did! Why would he cast doubt on his own line if it wasn’t blindingly obvious I wasn’t his?”
Holmes paused on the bottom step, clearly trying not to laugh. “Ah, yes. Because a man who hates women enough to cut out their reproductive organs would naturally greet the arrival of a firstborn daughter with nothing but joy, trust, and understanding.”
Pippa balled her fists, but to her surprise, Holmes clapped her on the shoulder before she could say another word. “I understand your frustration,” he said, “but a detective must learn to accept the truth, however painful, rather than shape it to her will. Now, do you have any other, more accurate information to relay?”
“Yes sir,” she said, dropping a snide curtsy, but the words only sang out louder in her mind. I’m not Ethan Cotton’s child. I’m not Ethan Cotton’s child. It nestled in her heart, certain as sunrise and warming as champagne, and she couldn’t help but smile.
Despite the late hour, Baker Street was full of raucous laughter when they returned, and they found Mrs. Hudson cackling in the kitchen with a plump gray-haired woman in a gingham dress. Pippa recognized her at once.
“Tiffey? Gracious, what brings you here?” she said, embracing the woman with a smile. “Everyone, this is Margaret Tiffey, my family’s former cook. I hope you’re planning to drop by Merrimore as well, my aunt and uncle would be so pleased to see you.”
“Of course, Miss Pippa,” Tiffey said, “but I hope to bring them joy beyond that, on account of which I reckoned I should talk to Mr. Holmes first.”
She turned and pumped Holmes’ hand so hard his heels left the ground. When she finally released him, the detective shrank behind Watson like a frightened turtle.
“How may we be of service, Mrs. Tiffey?” Watson said, trying not to laugh. “We did receive your letter defending Lord and Lady Hallsbury’s character, if that’s the concern.”
“A finer young couple you never did see,” Tiffey boomed, shaking Watson’s hand in turn (the doctor remained stationary, but only through concerted effort). “And as for Ethan, I always knew he was a rotten one. The way he carried on with the girls, why there’s steam engines what couldn’t burn through their supply so fast!”
“Yes, yes, so you said,” Watson said, trying to free his fingers.
“And Lady Readham – Lord, poor Lady Readham!” Tiffey released the doctor’s hand in favor of Pippa’s, which she patted with merciful care. “Never did a lamb skip more cheerfully to the slaughter, I can tell you that much, and who could blame her?”
“Typically, people are only allowed to barge into my home if they’re bringing me new or pertinent information,” Holmes said, slingshotting back to nastiness, “and this appears to be neither. So why are you here?”
“Shoo, you weren’t kidding about this one!” Tiffey said, winking at Mrs. Hudson. “Right, I’ll come to the point if you’ll only let me, sir. Brung you some evidence, I have, or at least I think so.”
The group exchanged electrified glances, and ushered the cook into the sitting room.
“Now, I en’t as learned as y’self, sir, so pardon if I sound foolish, but…” Tiffey looked around
conspiratorially and dropped her voice. “Are you sure it was just Master Ethan? Under the hood, I mean?”
“Why do you ask?” said Holmes.
The cook rubbed the back of her neck. “Well, I know it sounds crazy, right, but something
happened a ways back that I can’t shake. Just a little thing, but dead strange. Hope you don’t think me
loony for bringing it up, sir.”
“Mrs. Tiffey, if we wrote off every odd story as ‘loony’, the both of us would be out of a job,”
Watson said with a smile. “You may speak freely.”
“Right sir. Thank ye, sir,” she said. Her green eyes glowed with terror, but also a little glee, as if telling one of her ghost stories by the light of the oven fire.
“’Twas about eight years ago, sirs, not long after little Kate was born. Lord, you never saw a
better-loved babe. The master and the missus couldn’t go two minutes without picking her up. ‘S a wonder the child ever learned to walk! You remember how it was, Miss Pippa,” she said, pointing to her and laughing. “You were fair green over it at first. We’d try to get you to play together, and ye’d stomp upstairs and glare through the banisters like a little tiger in a cage. Ye came ’round, though.” She winked. “’Specially after the whole Dr. Tungo hoopla.”
Pippa turned scarlet, and Tiffey laughed even harder, then remembered herself and cleared her
throat. “Anyways, so they was protective, but this was something else. Master Oliver was out one night, and the tweenie-maids had gone home for the day, so there was only us five in the house: Me, me boy Toby, and Alice, the lady’s maid, in the kitchen downstairs, Lady Folley and the baby upstairs. Lady Folley put Kate down herself, as usual, and bid us goodnight around nine. Told us she was feeling a little worn and was just gonna read a script and call it a day. Never heard a peep till half past eleven. Then, out of nowhere, there was this horrible scream.”
The old woman shuddered and crossed herself. “Honest, sirs, I’ve been on this earth a while, and seen many a terrible thing. But I never in my life heard a scream like that, and I pray I never do again.”
“What did you do?” Joshua asked.
“Well, we all jumped up like devils on a flame, a’course, but soon as we found our feet, Lady
Folley burst in the door. Nearly took her for a banshee, I did, she was so pale and wild-eyed, screaming
blue Jesus about the baby and a mask and which one of us took her, please, God, say one of us done it.”
“Done what?” Pippa said.
“Couldn’t figure that ourselves, Miss, she was so nervy. So she dragged us upstairs and showed
us the empty cradle. Lord, there was the maddest ten-second dash round that flat after that, but we found her. Curled up in the laundry hamper, happy as a clam. None of us could sort out how she got there, though, which didn’t calm the lady down at all. Sat on the kitchen steps, clinging to her child, and
wouldn’t let anyone near her till the master got home and soothed her. Even he hard a hard time of it, on
account of her dream.”
Holmes raised an eyebrow. “Her dream?”
“Yes sir. Lady Folley’s always had awful nightmares, and she takes ’em seriously. Greek, y’see,
knows her omens. This was the worst I’d ever seen of it. Seems she’d dozed off on the couch, and
dreamed she saw a masked man standing by the window, holding her baby.”
Watson and Holmes exchanged looks, while the youths rose out of their seats in shock. “What sort of mask?” Pippa asked breathlessly.
Tiffey scrunched up her face. “Red, I think? Don’t think we got clearer details out of her.”
“But Lady Hallsbury had recently suffered trauma,” Holmes said, “so in all likelihood it was merely a dream.”
“That’s what we thought too, sir,” Tiffey said grimly. “Then the next morning, one of the tweeny maids goes to air out the nursery, and finds something stuck in the windowsill. We never showed the family, of course, didn’t want to frighten them, but I kept ahold of it just in case.”
She drew a yellowed playing card out of her bag and slid it across the coffee table. It was a standard knave of diamonds, but the top of the head was cut off in an upward stroke, and the word, “BRAINLESS” was written across the face in neat red script.
Joshua jumped back as if pushed. “How in the hell?”
“What?” Pippa asked, staring at her friend. “What does this mean?”
He shook his head, wan and bug-eyed. “I don’t know,” he said in a creaking voice, “but I have one of them too.”