Whitebriar Abbey, Cumberland, England
Jon paced the Oriental carpet runners outside Cassandra’s bedchamber like a caged lion until he tripped on the mess he’d made of them. Did all babies take this long in coming? She had been closeted in that chamber for hours—nearly all day, with Dr. Fenimore from Carlisle, and Grace Bates, his housekeeper at Whitebriar Abbey.
He plopped himself down on the hard wooden settle beside her door, and dropped his head in his hands. A blood-chilling scream came again from inside—then another. Jon vaulted off the settle and kicked the wrinkled carpet runners out of the way against the wall. Whose idea was it to lay down runners in the first place? What colossal dunce dictated that? Why wasn’t there regular carpet on the floor in the corridors? Good God, the Hyde-Whites certainly had enough blunt to afford carpet. The halls were more frequently traveled than any chamber in the Abbey.
St. John Hyde-White was surely going mad.
Another scream pierced the quiet, and Jon groaned. Raking his hair back ruthlessly, he began pacing again. The heels of his brown top boots rang on the bare wood underfoot. The runners he’s kicked aside had absorbed some of the noise. Now, between Cassandra’s screams and the racket he was making, he thought his brain would burst. There was nothing for it. If something didn’t happen soon, he was going to barge straight into that chamber like a juggernaut and see for himself what was taking so damn bloody long.
This was no ordinary baby being born. They had both agonized for nine long months over this birth. The child would either be normal, or like they were…infected with the unspeakable condition. He hadn’t spoken its true name—not even in his mind—since they returned from Moldovia. Cassandra had put up a brave front, trying not to worry him with her fears, but he saw through her thinly veiled attempts just as clearly as he saw through the leaded panes in the window at the end of the corridor. No light passed through that window now; night had fallen—dark, bleak, moonless night. The blood moon had saved them, but no moon would shine upon the birth of this child. Was it an omen of ill boding that it be born during the dark of the moon? Cold chills snaked their way up and down Jon’s spine as he pondered that. What else could it be? It was coming nearly a month early.
Hours passed. Grace came and went, bearing soiled bedding and clean linens. Bates, her husband, the butler at Whitebriar Abbey, carried kettle after kettle of water up from the kitchen, but neither would let him into Cassandra’s chamber.
“Bear up, sir, ‘tis almost over,” Bates had said the last time he barred him in the doorway. That was over an hour ago, and but for Cassandra’s screams, which seemed closer together, and growing weaker, God help her, there hadn’t been a sound in the Abbey since.
Just when he feared he could bear no more, a lusty cry from inside ran him through like a knife blade. Was it born? Was it finally born? He pounded upon the door with both fists. It was a moment before Grace opened it. Her plump face was flushed, and beaded with sweat. Her apron and hands were streaked with blood. There was a time when the sight and smell of blood—especially Cassandra’s blood—would have brought on the feeding frenzy, the accursed bloodlust. He scarcely gave that a moment’s thought now. His eyes were riveted to the housekeeper’s.
“Is…is…” was all he could get out. It was as if his tongue were paralyzed.
“Aye, it is,” she replied. “Ya’ have a fine son, sir, and the mistress is restin’ easy. ‘Twas a difficult birth, but she’s goin’ ta be just fine.”
She didn’t have to tell him it was a difficult birth. Cassandra’s screams would pierce his heart, and live in his mind until doomsday. But he had to see for himself.
“May I see her…uh, them…?” he said, craning his neck to see past the woman into the darkened room at her back.
“Once we’ve cleaned them up,” Grace replied. “Now, sit you back down and give us a couple o’ minutes.”
The door shut in his face then, and he did as she bade him, dropping his head into his hands again. He had a son—a son!
It was only minutes, as the housekeeper said, but it seemed like forever before she opened the door again. This time, she beckoned. She needn’t have bothered. The instant the door left the jamb Jon streaked past her with a crashing disregard for her bulk in the way and knelt down on one knee beside the bed, where Cassandra lay propped with down pillows, cradling the child in her arms.
Outlining his instructions for his patient’s care, the doctor took Grace’s arm, and led her away. Jon studied the child in his wife’s arms. How tiny he was and how fair complexioned for one come so recently through such an ordeal; he could see the tiny blue veins through the baby’s translucent skin. How dark his eyes were, like two midnight sapphires, only showing the faintest trace of blue.
He leaned nearer, a close eye upon Grace and the doctor behind, and spoke in a stage whisper. Neither was aware of the situation, and it wouldn’t do to have them find out what he feared it was that they had just brought into the world.
“Is he…?” he murmured.
Cassandra stared. How lovely she was with the candlelight picking out the sun-painted streaks in her honey-colored hair, with a touch of color in her cheeks, and her hooded eyes glazed with the shimmer of leftover tears.
“I see what you see,” she said. “It is too soon to tell. It may be years before we know for certain. If Milosh were here, perhaps he could tell us. I miss our Gypsy friend, Jon. He knew I was with child before I did…for certain.”
Jon embraced mother and child. He had a beautiful son, and his wife had come through a difficult birth splendidly. What more could he ask for? It was enough…for now, and he thanked Divine Providence through a deep, heaving sigh. He would not share his morbid thoughts about the birth occurring during moon dark. Cassandra was radiant, gazing down at their infant son. He would not spoil her euphoria. It was contagious. He had a son—a beautiful, healthy, perfectly formed son. Yes, it was enough…for now.
Cumberland, England, January, 1841
Joss should have stayed in London. The worst snowstorm in history, and he was abroad in it—on horseback, no less. Madness, but necessary madness, at least the way he viewed it. It would have been worth it if his efforts had borne fruit, but they hadn’t. His parents, St. John and Cassandra Hyde-White, weren’t at the townhouse when he reached it. None of the servants knew where or when they had gone. It was passing strange. They had vanished in the night, and he was right back where he’d begun, with nothing resolved. He had to find them. He needed answers. Hence his journey back to Whitebriar Abbey in what had all the earmarks of becoming a blizzard, in hopes that they had tired of Town and decided to winter in Cumberland after all. It didn’t bode well. Only a Bedlamite would venture forth in such a storm, and in that moment, battling the cruel north wind, that was exactly what Joss considered himself to be.
His head bent low in the gale, he urged his mount onward. He might have stopped at an inn along the way, but the snow had just begun again, one storm having bred another, when he passed the last public house, and he was so close to home, he decided to press on. Now, his multi-caped greatcoat and beaver hat were caked with snow, as were his eyebrows, and the woolen muffler wrapped around his nose and mouth. Still, freezing moisture crackled in his nostrils, and he cursed the air blue. Cold melting snow was trickling down his back beneath the coat collar despite the bundling.
Night was falling, and the road was no longer visible. Joss had no choice but to press on. He would have known the terrain blindfolded, but it had disappeared. The swirling blasts of blowing snow had whitewashed the earth and sky into one continuous blue-white blur. The snowflakes, driven by the wind stung like thousands of needles piercing what little of his face was still exposed to it. He began to daydream of the welcoming hearth in his study at Whitebriar Abbey, of propping the feet he could no longer feel up upon the little tapestry covered stool before the fire and sipping his favorite French brandy—warming himself from the inside out.
Lost in those fantasies, he had come so close to the obstruction ahead that he nearly plowed right into it before he realized it was there—a carriage—a brougham, by the look of it, its horses standing like two ghosts, washed white in the snow. A faint snort from one as he climbed down from his mount was the only evidence that the animals weren’t frozen statues standing there. He had considered taking a carriage home. Now, looking at this, he was glad he hadn’t.
His top boots had scarcely sunken to the calf in the snow, when something shaggy and black against the white world all around him bounded through the open coach door and lit out over the drifts to disappear in the night; an unusually large dog, by the look of its paw prints, or a wolf, like…but that couldn’t be.
Joss reached beneath his coat for the pistol in its holster strapped to his leg, but the animal had disappeared behind a whirling curtain of snow by the time he’d taken aim. No use to waste the bullet. He jammed the pistol back in its holster, and plowed through the drifts toward the carriage, dreading what he would find inside.
Hard packed snow from the previous storm underneath the fresh blanket kept his feet from sinking down too deeply. He lost his balance nonetheless in the slippery stuff, and floundered several times before he reached the gaping carriage door. It had been thus for some time, judging from the way the snow had drifted inside it and begun to mount up and spill onto the floorboards.
It was moon dark, and there was no light save what reflected eerily from the snow. The coach lanterns had all but burned out, and he took one out of its bracket and held it high, peering inside. It gave off no more light than a firefly. Why did everything of a catastrophic nature always seem to happen to him in the dark of the moon?
There were five passengers in the coach. The coachman was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he had gone for help. There were no footprints in the snow, but that wasn’t unusual. The way the stuff was falling now, it would have covered any tracks recently made. His heart sank. The passengers were all in a jumble on the floor of the carriage. Had they passed out, or fallen to the floor when the coach stopped abruptly? There was no use trying to make sense of the situation, and he set the lantern aside and began lifting the passengers back on the seats one by one.
There were three men and two women inside. How long could they have been bogged down there? They seemed to be frozen stiff. By the look of it, the wild dog had gotten to four of them; they were dead, covered with blood. The woman at the bottom, to his profound surprise was alive, and didn’t seem to have been bitten. It was hard to tell in the bleak semi-darkness called by the storm, through a veil of falling snow, and so much blood. The salty, metallic smell of it rushed up his nostrils despite the muffler. It was happening again—the same surge of euphoria, the same strange reaction to the scent of blood that had driven him to London, seeking answers. He beat the bone-chilling sensations back. The woman needed tending. The others’ bodies had kept her warm by the look of it, and more than likely kept her from freezing to death. The carriage had evidently been bogged down there for some time.
All at once, the carriage lurched as one of the horse’s forelegs buckled and it fell forward, then on its side in the snow, with a mournful whinny. Dragging his feet through the drifts, Joss unhitched both animals, but the fallen horse would not right itself. Its crazed eyes were bulging, and its tongue had slipped between its teeth and lay like a ribbon in the snow. Its breathing was heavy and labored. The animal could go no farther, and he couldn’t leave it at the mercy of wild dogs like the creature he’d just frightened off. It would be back, with the rest of the pack the minute he moved on, and the horse was in no condition to defend itself. His hand griped the pistol beneath his greatcoat. He unsheathed it, running his all but numbed hand over the cold steel barrel, hesitating, but only for a moment. The horse was in pain. There was nothing for it, and he raised the weapon and fired. The horse’s head fell back in the snow.
A groan from the coach turned him back toward it, but when he reached it the woman showed no signs of coming around. She was a little thing, wrapped in a chinchilla-lined hooded cloak, which had also spared her from the cold, and he hefted her over his shoulder, collected the other carriage horse’s bridle, and trudged back to his own mount. Laying her across the horse’s back before the saddle he swung himself up and lifted her into the crook of his arm, meanwhile setting his mount in motion. The snow was falling more heavily now. He couldn’t see two feet in front of him. With a firm grip on the carriage horse’s bridle, he called out to the horse underneath him: “Home, Titus!” praying that the animal knew how to get him there.
Titus labored up the tor heading into the flaying wind. They reached Whitebriar Abbey an hour later, and not a minute too soon to suit Joss. The carriage horse plodding along behind, they struggled to the flat summit, where he left both mounts in the hands of Otis McFee, the stable master, and plowed through the drifts carrying the woman to the Abbey.
It wasn’t until the door came open in the hands of Jonathan Bates, the antiquated butler, and lamplight flooded the Great Hall that he got a good look at his charge. She was as white as the snow swirling in around them, and caked with it just as he was, from head to toe. Her lips were tinged with blue, the starkness of her whole countenance a shock against the wisps of chestnut hair spilling out from beneath her hood. She looked to be in her early twenties.
Limping on his lame leg through the little whorls of snow dancing over the threshold, the old man struggled with the wind in the doorway until he’d slammed the door shut. Jon was already streaking up the stairs, leaving a wet trail of melted snow and solid clumps that had fallen from their clothes behind him on the terrazzo.
“I shall take her to the yellow suite,” he called over his shoulder. “Send Grace and Amy up straightaway to attend her. The poor gel is nearly frozen stiff. “I suppose we shan’t have Dr. Everett?”
“In this?” the butler barked. “You dream, sir.”
“I thought not. We shall just have to make do, then. Don’t just stand there, man! All four of her companions lie dead in their bogged-down carriage on the moor. Let us see if we can save this one, eh?”
The butler loped off at a pace consistent with his age and disability despite the directive, and Jon carried on to the yellow suite, and burst inside. Stripping off the girl’s snow-caked mantle, he laid her on the sleigh bed, trying to ignore that her frock beneath was covered in blood, he prayed not hers. Chucking logs into the hearth, he engaged the tinderbox on the mantle, producing a spark that ignited the flammable bits inside and his numb fingers into the bargain. Cursing the air blue, he dropped the flaming tinder on the hearthstone and waved his hand about, making matters worse. Sucking the most painful of the lot, he fed the ignited matter to the pile of logs with the help of a hearth shovel. He was breathing life into the fire with the bellows, when Grace Bates, the butler’s wife, who served as housekeeper at Whitebriar Abbey, marched over the threshold through the door he’d left flung wide, with the housemaid, Amy, in tow.
“What on earth are ya’ doin’, sir?” the old woman said. “That’s no chore for you. Get up outa there before ya’ burn yourself.” Then to the maid, “Don’t just stand there, girl. His hands are like two cakes o’ ice. See to that fire before he does himself a mischief.”
“We shan’t have the doctor ‘till the roads are passable,” Joss said, straightening up and slapping ashes from his buckskins. “So we must make do. The young lady has been exposed to extreme cold for God alone knows how long a time in this blizzard. Do what you can, and report to me once you’ve done. I shall be in the study after I’ve changed. See that there’s a fire there as well. I’m chilled to the bone.”
Shuffling to the bed, Grace Bates threw up her arms and screamed. “Heaven save us! Where is she bleedin’?”
“I do not know that she is,” Joss said. “The others in the coach with her were drenched in blood and she was underneath them; I believe it’s theirs. Just… do what you can, and burn her clothes—all but the mantle, that can be saved. You may fetch some of Mother’s things; they should fit. Are they at home, Mother and Father? Have they come on from London?”
The housekeeper gave a start. “In this?” she said. “No, sir…We’ve had no word to expect them.”
Joss nodded and said no more. Briefly, his gaze fell upon the huge sleigh bed and the unconscious girl in it covered with blood, his nostrils were flared with the evocative smell of it. His heart began to race, and his sex leapt with an unexpected arousal. He dared not remain. It was happening again. Riveting chills raced along his spine, setting him in motion. Streaking past the slack-jawed servants, he marched down the hall to his own apartments, flung open the door, and stripped off his wet coat, muffler and beaver, which he left in a heap on the floor for Parker, his valet, to deal with. The soggy top boots and hose came off next, and he chose a clean shirt and trousers from the armoire. His wet ones soon joined the pile. Then shrugging on a bottle green satin dressing gown over the dry togs, he went straightaway to the study, drawn by visions of that French brandy he’d been fantasizing about. Minutes later, the dream was a reality. He had done all he could for the gel. Lounging in his favorite wing chair before the fire, with his long legs stretched out full length, the neck of his shirt undone, feet propped up, and snifter in hand he viewed the world through the ambery liquor in his glass, and waited.
Slowly, his toes stopped tingling. Feeling was returning in his numb limbs, and with it, pain—throbbing, aching pain. At least his sex was behaving. Out of the range of the scent of blood, he was no longer aroused, though the sight of the girl in the yellow suite upstairs literally covered with it would not fade from his mind. What was she doing out in such a blizzard in the first place? Who were her companions that now lay dead for their foolhardy decision to venture out in such weather? The other woman in the party was older, a plain-looking woman, with a large hairy mole above her upper lip. From her black twill costume, Joss assumed her to be the girl’s abigail. Two of the dead men were portly, considerably older as well, the third was a younger man, who appeared to be in his late twenties—younger at least than Joss was at thirty. The dead youth was well-dressed gentry from the look of him; a country squire, perhaps, or the son of one, or full fledged aristocracy. It hardly mattered now. They were all dead, and horribly. The strange girl upstairs in the yellow suite was the sole survivor—if indeed she had survived. One thing was certain, she would have met the fate of her companions if he hadn’t blundered into that carriage when he did and chased off the animal that had savaged the others. He would just have to wait to see if he’d been in time to spoil Mother Nature’s plans.
Lulled by the snapping and crackling of the logs in the hearth, he began to doze. Sleep dulled the pain, and his fingers relaxed on the glass in his hand. When the knock came at the study door, the snifter slipped from his fingers and shattered on the floorboards that edged the Aubusson carpet, scattering glass shards and what remained of the brandy in all directions.
Joss lurched erect, his sleep-dazed eyes trained upon the study door. “Come!” he said, clearing the thickness from his voice. He vaulted upright in the chair. For a moment he was disoriented. His sleep had been sound.
Grace entered, sketching a curtsy, no mean task, he observed, considering her age and circumference. She must be nearly seventy now, he thought.
“The young lady hasn’t come ‘round,” Grace said, “but we done for her as best we can, and she appears ta be restin’ comfortable. Cook is fixin’ an herbal draught ta bring the fever down, and we’ll try to get her ta take it, but she needs the surgeon, and there’s nothin’ for it ‘till the snow stops fallin’. ‘Twill be a miracle if the poor lass don’t take pneumonia.”
“The blood…was she…injured?” Joss said.
“There was some bruises on her, and a real bad lump on her head, which is probably why she ain’t come ‘round. Cook’s makin’ a poultice, but there was no wounds ta cause blood the likes o’ what was on her frock.”
“There were others in the coach that had been savaged by a wild dog. The blood was evidently theirs,” he explained, ignoring the woman’s gasp. “Did you burn her things?”
Grace gave a crisp nod. “Tossed them straight inta the kitchen hearth, I did. Her mantle’s dryin’ out below stairs.”
“Good,” he said. “I do not want her left alone. Have Amy stay with her ‘till she comes ‘round. Her companions are dead. It must have been a terrible ordeal for her. She is bound to be frightened when she wakes.”
“I’ll look in on her before I retire.”
The housekeeper opened her mouth to speak, but a hollow pounding on the front door echoing through the Great Hall and along the corridor brought Joss to his feet, and he streaked past her. Bates had shuffled to the door and opened it by the time Joss reached it with Grace in tow. A man stood on the threshold dressed in coachman’s togs, a green coat with a wide skirt, a wide-brimmed, low-crowned brown hat, cord breeches, and top boots—all caked with snow. The only thing that wasn’t was the bright red traveling scarf he had tucked inside his coat.
“Beggin’ your pardon, gov’nor,” the man panted, “…I’ve lost my way. My coach bogged down in the snow. I went off afoot to get help…and got lost in the blizzard…”
He hadn’t crossed the threshold. Snow was swirling in past him in little whorls, and his caped coat was flapping in the wind. Could this be the missing coachman from the carriage on the moor? If it was, he knew naught of the fate of his passengers. Something didn’t ring true. He was either a colossal dunce, or there was more to it than he was telling. Why hadn’t he unhitched one of the horses to go for help instead of trudging through the drifts afoot? Still, the poor man looked done in, and he could hardly turn him away.
“Come in, man,” he said, “I believe I have given one of your passengers sanctuary here.”
The coachman stepped inside, and jumped out of the way as Bates slammed the door shut on the storm.
“Only one?” the man said. “There were five in that coach.”
“The rest are dead,” Joss said. “I came upon them just after dark.”
“How dead?” the coachman queried, doffing his hat. He was a man of middle age, clean-shaven, his dark wet hair plastered to his head. He was tall and thin, with angular features, and the sharpest pair of black Gypsy eyes Joss had ever seen. “They were alive when I left them,” he said.
“They were attacked by a wild dog,” Joss told him. “I chased it off, but not in time, I’m afraid. How is it that you didn’t take one of the horses instead of floundering about afoot in this blizzard?”
“I thought I saw lights off to the east, and I was sure I could reach them easily enough afoot. I was mistaken. ‘Twas Will-O-the-Wisp, no doubt; the fells can be deceiving at night. Where is this place?”
“Whitebriar Abbey,” Joss said. “I am Joss Hyde-White; this is my home…and you…?”
“Owen Sikes, at your service, sir,” the coachman said, sketching a bow.
“Well, Sikes, you look about to drop in your tracks, and there is naught to be done tonight. Go along with Bates and Grace here. They will see you have something to warm your belly, and a place to sleep in the servants’ quarters. Then, in the morning, once the storm has passed over, I will take you to your coach. I managed to save one of your horses, the other had to be destroyed, I’m afraid.”
“Thank you kindly, sir,” the coachman said, sketching another bow. “You’re a fine gentleman to be givin’ shelter to a total stranger on such a night as this is.”
“I wouldn’t turn a dog out in such a storm,” Joss said.
The coachman smiled; it did not reach his obsidian eyes. “I was banking on that, sir,” he said sketching another bow, and followed the Bates’ toward the servants’ quarters behind the green baise door under the stairs.
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