Chapter Twenty Eight

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After a sleepless night, Sally confessed her eavesdropping to her mother and Aunt Bella.

"They are making a storm in a puddle, Mama. David told me what happened. Look. I will show you." And she fetched the letter, precious because it was from Toad even if she had been offended by it.

I was required to catch six fine specimens of feline. Picture it (but do not laugh at me, I beg). I was forced to coax them out of their corners and alleyways with the kinds of treats they most enjoy, then release them in most august company. I cannot overstate the lacerations.

"It does the gossipers little credit to believe that 'feline' refers to women, Aunt Bella. Do you not agree? And Mr Crowhurst called it 'catting'. It is the same rumour made bigger by gossip, but it worried Papa and Uncle Wellbridge, though exactly what worried them I am not sure. I suppose 'being' with six women at a time would be more scandalous than one after another?"

"Sarah!" Mama rebuked her, but then said, "It is all ridiculous, Bella."

"Utterly," Aunt Bella agreed, and she and Mama must have spoken to the dukes, who were suddenly much more cheerful and began once again talking about Toad coming home for the August holidays. And the mothers managed it without mentioning Sally's private correspondence through Grandmama, because her father did not demand to see or stop it.

The younger Mr Crowhurst continued to trail after her, as much as such a pompous man could be said to trail. Other young men in the party were happy to ensure she was never forced to be alone in his company, and she made a habit of partnering herself with Almyra and Jonny for games. But she could not avoid his lavish compliments, and was pleased when he and his parents took themselves off home immediately after Twelfth Night.

The following morning, Sally again in the library window seat, a book open on her lap and her mind far away.

"If you will wait in here, sir, I will find out if the duke is At Home." That was Blakeley. Sally stayed where she was. If Uncle Wellbridge came, she would reveal herself and quit the room. If not, this visitor would go away. The sunlight through the window caught the facets of the sapphires in her ring, making them gleam like Toad's eyes. She was shifting it to and fro in the beam when she heard Uncle Wellbridge enter the room, but his first words froze her in place.

"Penchley, is it? What's this about my son?"

"Your Grace. I bring a letter from the Ambassador, Your Grace. He instructed me to deliver it personally, in case you have questions. It was I who procured your son's release from prison, sir, and who subsequently investigated the–er–rumours."

Prison?

Sally's silent exclamation was echoed by Uncle Wellbridge. "Prison? What is this about prison?"

"I daresay it will be in the letter, Nick." That was Papa's voice. Sally wouldn't move now for all the gold in England.

Uncle Wellbridge snorted, but must have taken the missive, for a full minute of silence followed, before he roared, "Utter nonsense. Here, Haverford, you read it. Torture? Rape? Ridiculous. I will not believe it. What do you mean by it, Penchley?"

The man, Penchley, to his credit, replied immediately. "It is largely hearsay, sir. No more. Though I was introduced to one young woman who claims to have been a witness. I say 'claims,' Your Grace, for I could find no hard evidence. But the Ambassador thought you should be aware."

Papa's voice held the kind of calm that would send all who knew him ducking for cover. "It says here you spoke to others of the club at which Abersham purportedly carries out these deviant practices. Friends of Abersham's, were they? And co-conspirators, one assumes?"

"I did not ask them to incriminate themselves, Your Grace. They claimed only they had heard of these activities. Oh. And they said that Abersham was covered with scratches after his initiation, but I, myself, believe that was a result of the incident at the comtesse's salon. Which the Ambassador also mentions in his letter, Your Grace."

"I think they lie, Nick," Papa said. "We agreed after hearing Crowhurst. Whatever he did at the comtesse's salon has been blown up out of all proportion. I cannot believe our boy hurts women. Nor the Muhadow cub. I don't know d'Alvieri, but young Zajac is a protégé of my brother. They are none of them the kind of degenerate who would do..." He trailed off, then echoed Uncle Wellbridge's words, spoken all the more strongly because he clearly wasn't certain. "I do not believe it."

"But the woman, Haverford," Uncle Wellbridge said. "Penchley, tell me about the woman. She says she witnessed this abuse? And a murder? Truly?"

"Two women, Your Grace. One was bruised: a black eye, a swollen cheek. More perhaps, that was covered by long sleeves and a high colour. She said the men at the club wished to make a pet of her, and when she objected, they spoke of disposing of her, as they already had of a previous pet. One she called Le Crapaud spoke up for her, and insisted on her release."

Le Crapaud. The Toad. That was good, was it not? That Toad would not allow the others to hurt the girl?

Penchley had not finished. "The other was the cleaning woman, or so she claimed. I– I find it hard to believe what she says about the young marquis and his friends, but the Ambassador thought it best you were informed, Your Grace. After all, what purpose would she have in lying?"

"Blood, it says in the letter," Uncle Wellbridge said. "And a locked room. Women who arrive and are seen no more."

Penchley dropped his voice. "'The furniture drips with the blood, and pools on the floor, and on the gowns that lie on the floor,' she told me. 'Women's clothing, but where are the women? And what scratches and whimpers in the locked rooms?' It sent a chill down my spine, Your Graces, I can assure you."

"But the gendarmerie investigated and found nothing?" That was Papa, his voice sharp.

"Nothing, sir. His Excellency could not make direct enquiries, of course, but I was introduced to a gendarme who inspected the locked room. Only a row of cages containing cats. Over large for mere cats, but that proves nothing."

Sally shivered. Cats again. But Toad would never torture anything; not a cat, and certainly not a person. The whole idea was ridiculous.

Papa was saying the same thing, but they asked this Penchley some more questions before sending him off with Blakeley to refresh himself. "You will join us for dinner, Penchley, after coming all this way."

The two dukes were silent after the Ambassador's man left the room. Sally could hear clinks as they poured themselves a drink. Brandy, beyond a doubt.

"I still don't believe it, Nick." Papa sounded uncertain.

"Neither do I, old friend. We will say nothing of this to the duchesses."

"Nothing. I will write to Jon, my brother. He will–the Zajac boy is his protégé. He may know something. And I'll have a word with Winshire about his grandson. But it is all lies, surely. All lies."

Yes. All lies. Sally might not believe Toad was loyal to her, but she knew beyond a doubt he would never hurt her or any other woman. Not deliberately. Not at all, physically. Blood? It was ridiculous.

But before she left Wellstone, she asked Aunt Bella to keep her ring.

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