She sent him about his business and I have had young Wally Hoskins go with them everywhere since then, just in case. But if he was intending to kidnap them—why these children? We are not wealthy, he must have realised that.
I thought I had better tell you—because of him asking for you by name. Perhaps I am worrying too much and he is just what he said. Or slightly mad. But I must confess to being anxious.
‘Mama, do we have any relative who is, or was, a sea captain? Or any relative who is estranged from the family?’
‘A sea captain? Or someone estranged? Goodness, no, I do not think so. In fact I am certain. Why?’
‘Oh, Jane met someone who said something that puzzled her. She must have misunderstood.’
‘No doubt she did. I cannot help but think that living so secluded as she does cannot be good for her.’
Isobel folded the letter, then opened it again. The mysterious man had been asking for her and then he was found with the children. Annabelle. Lady Faversham’s words came back to her like a curse, even though it had been almost a month since they were uttered. You will be sorry for this. Very sorry.
She could not possibly know and Isobel had seen neither her nor Giles since that night. And yet Annabelle was Isobel’s only weak spot, the only secret she was desperate to keep. She tried to tell herself it was pure fancy, yet she could not be easy in her mind.
* * *
Three days later there was another letter. It began, Do not leave this lying around, for I cannot write in such a way that would disarm suspicion if your mother reads it and yet convey my anxiety adequately. The strange man is still hanging around the neighbourhood—and still asking questions about us. When you were here, how long you stayed, what happened to Ralph, how old the children are—he has looked at the parish registers, I am certain, for Mr Arnold found him right by the cupboard where they are stored and it was not locked.
He is very subtle about it, which, I confess, worries me most of all, for it seems professional somehow. It is only by piecing together bits of gossip that I can see a pattern in his questions, for he never interrogates the same person for long. I have spoken to the few servants who were with us that year and who know the truth so they are on the alert. I cannot see how he would approach Dr Jameson, who, besides, would never say anything.
Can you make any sense of this, dearest Isobel? I vow I cannot. I have hired two of the Foster brothers—you recall what a size they are—and they patrol the house and yard at night and one of them is always with the children by day. It is doing dreadful things to Nathaniel’s vocabulary!
It would not take much effort for anyone to find out where she had spent that year after Lucas’s death—they had made no secret of it at the time, quite deliberately. Isobel’s refusal to allow any friends or relatives to visit had been lamented by Lady Bythorn to all her circle and had been attributed to hysterical grief followed by a sad decline. The very openness of her mother’s complaints seemed to disarm all suspicion that there was anything to hide and Isobel’s reluctance to socialise since her return had contributed to the diagnosis of a melancholic temperament.
‘Jane is unwell,’ she said to her parents, the letter tight in her hand. ‘I must go to Hereford.’
‘Now?’ Her father put down the copy of The Times he had been muttering over and frowned at her. ‘In the middle of the Season? All that way?’
‘It would take me only twenty-four hours, even if I go by the Mail, but if I might take a chaise, Papa, I could do it in less time and more comfortably.’
‘Certainly not the Mail,’ her mother said firmly. ‘And a chaise? Oh, dear, you know how those things bring on my migraine and they do your father’s gout no good at all.’
‘I can go with Dorothy, Mama, there is no need for either of you to disturb yourselves. If we leave before luncheon and take a basket with some food we can go right through to Oxford for the night with only stops for changes—and there are any number of most respectable inns where I could find a private parlour.’
* * *
It took almost an hour of wrangling to convince her parents that she could not possibly abandon her friend when she was unwell and worried about the children. That, yes, of course she would come home just as soon as she could and not miss the Lavenhams’ ridotto which promised to be the event of the Season. And yes, she would take the greatest care on the road and not speak to anyone unless absolutely necessary and certainly no gentlemen.
It was only then, as she organised her packing, that the apprehension churning in her stomach turned to real fear. If she was ruined, then that was just too bad, although she was very sorry that the disgrace would distress her parents. But for Annabelle to be exposed as an illegitimate child would destroy all her prospects as well. And what of Jane? There might be penalties for allowing a false record to be entered in the registers. Would it even cast a shadow over little Nathaniel’s legitimacy?