Chapter Twelve (complete)
It had been early evening when Rowena had been brought back to the manor. Now it was early evening again, the day after. Rowena had given birth to a tiny baby daughter, and lost an enormous amount of blood in the process. She was sleeping now, while Alex stood watching her beside the bed. In his arms, he held the infant, reluctant to give her to Meg, who would put her into her cradle.
Alex found that he was fairly able to see the new-born babe, albeit it not as sharp as he would have wanted. She had a soft mop of curly black hair on top of her little head, and a rosebud of a mouth in the softest of little faces. She was smaller than the length of his joined hands, Alex mused, and no heavier than a good-sized loaf of bread, but she was absolutely perfect. Her chubby hands had all their fingers, and her tiny feet bore all their toes. Alex wanted to kiss every single one of them, yet for now, he was content holding her to his chest.
“My lord,” Meg pleaded, “let me put the little one in her cradle. She is very weak, and I fear she might …”
“No.” Alex was determined not to let his newly born daughter out of his sight. He wanted this tiny, fragile creature to live, so that he could be her father and raise her the way she deserved. He owed Rowena that much. His gaze went back to his wife. She was exhausted, and even in sleep, her pale face was drawn and thin.
“Richard, how is she?” Alex asked his friend.
“Her ladyship has been through something of an ordeal, Alex, as you very well know. She will need a long bed rest and good food and care. Do you want me to arrange a nurse?”
Alex’ eyes wandered to Meg, who bristled at the doctor’s suggestion. “No, Richard. I am fairly sure, Mrs Wallis will be competent enough in taking care of my wife. Now what about the little one?”
“Alex, she is very small. She might not survive through the next hours.”
“Yes, she will. Arrange for a wet nurse to be here as soon as possible. Mrs Wallis, go ask Mrs Hall for some boiled water with lots of honey in it.”
“Yes, my lord,” Meg replied, surprise in her eyes, but she ran to do his bidding. When she returned, Meg was even more baffled to see her master dip the corner of a fresh handkerchief in the sugared water, and put it between the infant’s lips.
“Come, my sweet,” he crooned. “Suckle, my darling, it is good for you. From now on, I am going to take good care of you.”
And the baby, as if she understood every word he said, pursed her soft, rosebud mouth and suckled.
Meg, as well as Richard, looked in complete astonishment, as Alex patiently and diligently fed the babe.
“Where have you learned that?” Richard Orme asked, baffled by the careful skill his friend was using.
“When you are a soldier fighting a war in a foreign country, you encounter more than swords and cannon balls. There are also the civilians who have to fight their own daily battles, often with less means than you have. I mastered quite a few skills.”
Once Meg had settled the baby in her cot, Alex, with one last gaze at his sleeping wife, went downstairs and gathered a few people in his library. Not only his steward, John Wallis, and his solicitor, Mr Middlebridge, but also Ketteridge’s vicar, Mr Brindley, and Squire Thaddeus Orme, Richard’s father were there. Richard himself stood watching from the side, as Alex invited them all to sit down around his large desk. Porter, silently brooding, positioned himself behind Alex’ chair like a watch dog.
“Gentlemen, I have an assignment of the uttermost importance for you all. I want the individual named Peter Johnston apprehended and brought before a court of law for deceiving my wife and causing her harm. We must work together in order to catch this man, since he is a serious liability to my countess.”
“My lord,” the Reverend Brindley asked, clearly puzzled, “who is this man? Why did he approach Her Ladyship?
Even with his limited eyesight, Alex saw the puzzlement reflected in the faces of all his listeners. “Gentlemen,” he said in a serious tone, “what I am about to convey to you, must stay between these walls. Knowledge of it could harm my wife’s reputation, and I will not tolerate that.”
They all murmured acceptance of this condition, so Alex continued. “Peter Johnston, Carlisle’s third son, is the father of her ladyship’s child. This child is now my responsibility, and I will undertake steps to have her adopted. Johnston was also reported as a casualty of the Waterloo Battle on June 18th of the previous year. So, either this man posing as him is a fraud, or Johnston is not dead. Suffice it to say that in both cases, there is a danger to my wife and child. I shall therefore need your assistance in order to protect them both.”
Squire Orme cleared his throat. He was a tall, broad-chested man in his late fifties, and possessed a keen intelligence, Alex knew. “It makes no sense, Alexander,” he said. “If this man is an imposter, then her ladyship would have immediately known so, and called for help. She did not, so I assume he was indeed Johnston. Why, I ask you, would a cavalry man reported dead, not make himself known to the military authorities? I imagine his family and his regiment would like to know he is alive.”
“I can think of a number of reasons for Johnston not wanting someone to know he is alive, Thaddeus. What if he were a deserter? He would face a court martial, should he be arrested.”
The squire nodded. “Yes, I agree. He would be in serious trouble.”
The Reverend Brindley, a timid man who was clearly awed by the honour Alex had bestowed on him by inviting him, ventured, “My lord, I am confused. Her Ladyship comes from country gentry, I understand. Why has her family – I believe she has a half-brother – not intervened on her behalf? How did they know about Johnston’s presumed demise?”
Alex sighed. “There are lots of mysteries here to be solved, Mr Brindley. My wife has been chased from her childhood home by the very person of this half-brother, when he learned of her pregnancy. I would like to know his reasons, for I cannot fathom why a brother would do such a despicable thing. But, first things first, let us search for this man Johnston. Maybe he can reveal more than we know now.”
“Very well,” the squire said, in a firm and determined tone of voice, “let us proceed. What does this man look like? We need a description, if we are to find him.”
Ah … there was the catch. Alex suddenly realized that he had not clearly seen Johnston in the dimly lit graveyard. Only Rowena could give them a picture of her former lover.
“I am afraid we will have to wait until her ladyship wakes, gentlemen. Even my trusted batman has not caught a glimpse of the fellow. I will inform you as soon as possible.”