“Noooooh! Dear God, no!”
The scream was accompanied by the tinny screech of iron bound wheels, the whinny of frightened horses, and the angry curses of the driver. The carriage lurched heavily to one side, before it righted itself in a groan of bouncing springs and straining leather.
The Dowager Countess of Moncrief hung onto the strap mounted above the window, constructed for just such a purpose, closed her eyes and sighed with the patience of a much tried saint. She barely managed to ignore her daughter’s hysteria. Melissa, it could be charitably said, was high strung, a statement which always made her mother think of a high stepping pony, or a Springer Spaniel with a habit of relieving himself on the carpet. It could be said, also charitably, that Melissa availed herself of every occasion to demonstrate a fit of the vapors, interspersed with a shrill, high pitched, whining moan not unlike that of some ancestral ghost. While Melissa’s reactions were perhaps appropriate in this case, it nevertheless had the unusual effect of irritating her mother beyond belief. It was no wonder – it truly had been an awful day.
She had spent the majority of it vainly attempting to secure a nurse for her illegitimate granddaughter. Not only was that an unprecedented action on her part – it was usual in most cases to simply ignore the blatant fact that one’s children occasionally sired offspring outside the bonds of matrimony – but neither her good intentions, nor the fact that she had spent most of the morning interviewing candidates, had resulted in finding someone suitable.
She had seen five young women. Two would not be considered to oversee the kennels at Moncrief, they were so slovenly. The third determined that the position was beneath her; the fourth was a possibility, but did not wish to rusticate in the country. The fifth she did not care to remember. She sighed again.
“Do be quiet, Melissa,” she said to her daughter, who was showing all the signs of working herself into a fine case of ladylike delirium. She was trembling, and every few seconds would emit little mouse squeaks of terror despite the fact that the carriage was no longer rocking dangerously. In fact, it was not moving at all.
She gestured for Melissa to remain seated and opened the door, letting the three folded steps unfurl themselves to the street. It was not easy navigating her way unaided, but some voice of reason must prevail in the scene which met her eyes. John, assigned to be her driver on this hapless day, stood impassively at the front of the carriage, while a young woman pulled at his arm, gesturing frantically towards the rearing horses. Finally, unable to move him, since he was almost two feet taller and at least three feet wider than she, she flew to the rear team, grasped the halter of the nearest horse, and attempted to force him to back up. The high spirited horse, straining at the bit and shaking his head wildly, was not cooperating.
“Please help me!” she yelled, while swatting at the horse. It showed the same obstinacy as the driver, refusing to budge despite her tugging on the lead. Nor did the crowd that had rapidly gathered make any attempt to aid her, either. Miriam stepped forward quickly.
“What seems to be amiss?”
The young woman stopped pulling at the team long enough to breathe deeply, glance at her with an expression that could only be construed as disgust, and pointed to a brown bundle lying dangerously close to the legs of the rear team, horses bred for their beauty and their matched gait, not their patience or safety.
“Dear God, what happened?” Miriam asked as she turned to John and motioned for his assistance. The slight gesture was enough to summon him without delay.
“Your driver happened,” the young woman said, censure in her voice. Tears wet her flushed face, but she didn’t seem to notice them, her concentration fixed on the sight of the carriage driver manipulating the frantic horses. Together with the footman, they managed to back the horses slowly away until their hoofs no longer posed a threat.
“We must get help, John,” the Dowager Countess said, her voice holding a note which brooked no interference.
“But your ladyship…” John began, years of service making him dare what others would not.
A single shake of the head, and a slight smile were all that was needed to stop his protestations.
Katherine knelt beside the bundle just as the woman reached her side. “Will he be all right?” Miriam asked in concern. The wadded rags had been transformed into the figure of an emaciated child, his thin legs sticking out in an unnatural angle from the rest of his body.
“I don’t know,” Katherine said, her voice conveying real distress. Poor little boy.
John stood behind his mistress. He’d wanted to tell her that it wasn’t his fault, the child had darted in front of the carriage before he could do anything but pull frantically on the reins. It was too late to stop their iron shod hoofs from striking the lad. It wasn’t his fault.
Miriam was in no mood to assign blame. She simply wanted to help the child. She glanced at the people ringing the scene. No one came forward to assist, but they all stared as if this were a mummer’s play, something to break the monotony of their day.
The young woman straightened and sighed. The dark glint of anger illuminated amber eyes.
“I fear both of his legs are broken,” she said. “More than that, I do not know.”
“I am deeply sorry,” the Countess said, words which separated her from a great many of her peers. It was not that Londoners were callous, nor was it that members of the ton treated life without regard. They simply did not see the wretched conditions which surrounded them. It was as if they concentrated only on objects and people at a safe distance or no lower than eye level. Otherwise, it was doubtful they would choose to live in a city that, while the center of commerce and society, was nevertheless so dangerously crowded and which reeked of eternal soot and other more noxious odors. Yet, Miriam Lattimore, Dowager Countess of Moncrief was not the usual grande dame of fashion and arbiter of social mores. If she had been, she would not have spent an entire morning attempting to acquire a nurse/governess for a child born on the wrong side of the blanket. Nor would she be suffering such pangs of conscience now.
She turned to John with iron resolve, the look in her eyes defying any protest. “John, you and Peter,” she said, referring to the footman who still stood at the head of the horses, “fetch the child and place him in the coach. The least we can do is offer this woman and her child sanctuary until he heals.”
“But, madam,” Katherine attempted to interject, but her gesture was as futile as the carriage driver’s had been.
“No, I insist,” said the Dowager Countess of Moncrief, mother of two grown sons and a daughter not yet out of the schoolroom, patroness of numerous charities and benevolent societies, friend to three quarters of the ton and gentle listener to the complaints of her elderly companions. She reasoned that it was foolish of her to spend so much time on worthy charities if she failed to extend a little Christian compassion so close to home.
“But, madam,” Katherine said again, but this interruption proved as futile as the first.
“We will obtain medical care for your son and see that he’s cared for. I cannot say how sorry I am about this. I would not willingly hurt a child, and this small gesture is the least I can do. Please allow me that.”
“He is not my son,” Katherine finally managed to interject.
“He is not?”
“Likely one of the beggars roamin’ the streets, m’lady,” John offered. Katherine glared at him. So did his mistress, with such an frosty glance from her ice blue eyes that he shuffled his feet awkwardly and stared at the ground.
“Does his lack of money mean that he is less important than any other child?” Katherine asked him. There was an edge of anger to her voice. John did not look up, but his exposed neck reddened. “If that were so, then half this world is populated by such as he.”
“No of course not,” the Countess demurred, taking pity on her servant. It was quite evident that the young woman had taken it upon herself to champion the little boy. And, from the looks of her own dress, brown as the dust beneath their feet, and as threadbare as the victim’s own clothing, it seemed as if she were not too far from sharing the penurious condition of the child. The only difference was in her speech. There was no cockney about her tone, no lower East End accent. She spoke, Miriam realized, in the same cultivated tone as her own daughter.
A daughter who was rendered mute by the scandalous actions of her parent. Miriam sat beside the unconscious child, grateful not only for her daughter’s unusual silence, but that the young boy had not regained consciousness. Otherwise, she suspected, the pain he would have felt would have been unbearable.
“We should begin to search for his parents,” the Dowager said to Katherine who sat opposite her, next to Melissa.
“I do not think they are worrying overly about his absence,” Katherine contributed. “His face is badly bruised, but not from the accident. It looks as though he has been beaten.”
Despite Melissa’s frantic signaling – all waving eyebrows, widened eyes, and angled head – as if Miriam were not aware of Katherine’s presence next to her, she gave directions for John to return home quickly, and for Peter to summon their physician.