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Henrietta paused to look at the photograph in the cheap, gilded frame one more time. It was a picture of Helen Schuyler and her husband, Neils, and their baby daughter, Daphne, taken what must have been years ago. Even as Henrietta sat staring at the people in the photograph, it was still hard for her to believe that they were all tragically gone now. Gingerly she ran her finger along the frame, an overwhelming sadness coming over her once again at the realization that nothing more remained of this little family except the few possessions among which she currently sat.
Helen, the Howards' elderly, retired cook, had died in the hospital, never having recovered from Jack Fletcher's brutal attack nearly three months ago, and the cottage had stood empty over the summer until Henrietta had recently volunteered to clean it out. Mrs. Howard had initially declared Henrietta's odd proposal to be out of the question, that the servants would do it eventually, but Henrietta had practically begged, saying that she needed an occupation separate from the wedding plans and that, anyway, she wanted to. Henrietta had never said it out loud, and she knew that it wasn't really true, but she could not help feeling at times that she was somehow responsible for what had happened to Helen.
Despite Henrietta's pleading, Mrs. Howard had sniffed at her suggestion, saying that Henrietta had precious little free time for anything but to attend to the wedding plans, still slightly irritated by Henrietta and Clive's decision to marry quickly. In the end, however, after a quiet word in private from Clive, she had acquiesced.
Henrietta had eagerly set about her new task, then, earlier this week, but even now, on Friday, she was still not finished. The problem was not that there were so very many items to be sorted, but rather that she was perpetually getting distracted. It was unlike her, but then again, she had a lot on her mind.
Henrietta shook herself and, looking at the photograph once again, hesitated before having to put it into either the box set aside for rubbish to be burned by Mr. McCreanney, or into one of the other boxes of items slated to be given to Sacred Heart's collection for the poor. Neither seemed an appropriate choice, so after a few more moments of deliberation, Henrietta resolutely slipped the small frame into the pocket of her apron. It was the least she could do for poor Helen to honor not only her memory but that of the daughter to whom she had been so delusionally devoted, despite the fact that Daphne herself had died over twenty years before. Henrietta wasn't sure what she was going to do with the photograph, but she would think of something.
She sighed as she opened another drawer of the dresser in the tiny bedroom, trying to determine what could still be of use to the poor. She held up an old-fashioned petticoat and wondered if anyone would still want such a thing. Finally deciding that someone with even mediocre sewing skills could make it into something else more useful if desperate enough, she carefully placed it in the Sacred Heart box. She scooped up the remaining petticoats and other undergarments and put them into the same box as well and then gave in to the urge to sit down again on Helen's lumpy bed. She stared out the open window to the lake beyond, the unassuming lace curtain permanently aloft on the gentle breeze that blew in, and reflected that not too long ago she herself had been nearly that desperate.
She anxiously hoped that Elsie and Ma were adjusting to their new place with all of the kids. She had helped them to get settled on moving day, of course, but the servants had done most of the real work. In truth, she actually was needed at Highbury for the myriad of things to be done for the wedding, so Ma and Elsie had had to do most of the unpacking themselves with the help of the permanent staff that now resided with them, which consisted, really, of only five persons, namely, a cook, a housekeeper, one maid, one nanny, and one man servant who doubled as the butler and the chauffeur. Ma, of course, had at first fought tooth and nail against such an arrangement, but, in the end, the fight had just gone out of her and she had given in.
Henrietta drew in a sharp breath as she remembered the day Ma had finally been reunited with her long-lost family, the Exleys. Not long after the engagement party at which Ma had failed to appear, the Exleys had lost little time in seeking out Martha on their own terms. As much as John and Agatha Exley were bosom friends with the Howards, old Mr. Exley Sr. decided that this was a family affair and was loath to use Antonia Howard as a go-between any longer. He had sent a direct letter to his daughter, but Ma had merely crumpled it, unread, and thrown it into the fire, or so Henrietta had learned via a whispered telephone call from Elsie made from the booth at the back of Kreske's. Henrietta had then received her own letter from her grandfather, requesting her help in his reunion with his only daughter. Henrietta, knowing that nothing would induce Ma to come to Lake Forest where the Exleys resided, had, after much thought, dutifully written to her grandfather and suggested a time when he might condescend to visit them at their shabby apartment in Logan Square.
There was nothing else for it. Something had to be done, Henrietta had realized. It was bad enough that Ma had not come to the engagement party, but it would be inexcusable for her not to attend her oldest daughter's wedding. Besides, now that they knew of Ma's whereabouts, Henrietta was certain the Exleys would not rest until they were reunited with her, so it was best, she reasoned, to get it over with.
Henrietta had accordingly gone home a few days before Mr. Exley Sr.'s expected visit to surreptitiously prepare, having chosen to not inform Ma of his coming until the very morning of the momentous event. When Henrietta did finally reveal the secret of Mr. Exley's imminent arrival, Ma was livid, of course, and screamed at both Henrietta and Elsie — as if she were also in on it — before she finally threw a plate against the wall, shattering it, and had then dissolved into tears. Elsie had abandoned her task of dusting and went to tend to her, while Henrietta had picked up the broken pieces of the smashed plate and continued to methodically scrub down the apartment and each of her siblings as well. She sent Eddie out to Schneider's to buy some decent tea and biscuits, with actual money rather than having to put it on their long charge bill, as they had had to do in the past. Clive had given Henrietta money to pay off their debts and to sustain them until a more formal arrangement could be agreed upon. Ma had predictably refused to have anything to do with the extra cash, so Henrietta had entrusted it to Elsie for the days when she had to be away at Highbury, which, as it was turning out, was most of the time.
And so, with just about an hour left before Mr. Exley was due to arrive, Henrietta made Herbert and Jimmy scrub the landing outside their front door, to no real avail, really, but it made Henrietta feel better to have it done. Eugene, meanwhile, had spent the morning out somewhere and, having only returned just before Mr. Exley's arrival, was informed of his auspicious relative's imminent visit as he lazily climbed the stairs, Jimmy shouting out the exciting news from his knees as he scrubbed. Not sharing Jimmy's excitement at the prospect of meeting their rich old grandfather — having already met him, for one thing, at Henrietta's engagement party — Eugene merely scowled and grumbled to Henrietta that she could have let a fellow know before now.
"Where's Ma?" he had asked, irritated. Henrietta nodded toward the bedroom where Ma had locked herself away about an hour before. Eugene took a step toward the bedroom but then hesitated and instead stalked off to the other one, slamming the door behind him, causing Henrietta and Elsie to look wearily at each other from across the room.
"You might help, you know!" shouted Henrietta, but no response was forthcoming. She had merely sighed, then, and kept scrubbing, guiltily knowing that Eugene's days were indeed numbered. She hoped the plan that her grandfather had concocted and which Clive had agreed to was not a mistake ...
When Henrietta had received Elsie's letter shortly after the engagement party, informing her that she had found two golden, jewel-encrusted eggs shoved under the mattress in the boys' room, she had gone straight to Clive and told him, shamefully placing the letter in his hands to read. It was obvious that Eugene had stolen the two missing Fabergé eggs, which also called into question the truthfulness of his story regarding the planted candlesticks at the St. Sylvester rectory. Clive had finally pinned Fr. Finnegan down but had not gotten the hoped-for confession from him about framing Eugene, as Eugene had earlier claimed. Clive's intuition, however, had told him that both of them were lying somehow, but it wasn't officially his case and there wasn't much he could do now. He had tried consulting with O'Conner, the detective assigned to the case, but O'Connor had not been interested in Clive's help or his theories, as it turned out, himself upset that he had been ordered to step down on what seemed like an open-and-shut case. O'Connor was naturally of the opinion that a conviction would have looked good on his record, but the chief had called in a favor with a church dignitary for Clive and had disappointingly — for O'Connor, anyway — gotten the charges dropped.
"Clive, I'm so sorry," Henrietta said after finding him in the study and handing him Elsie's letter that fateful afternoon.
Clive quickly skimmed the letter and walked to the large windows running along one wall. From this vantage point he could see the vast expanse of Lake Michigan to which the grounds of Highbury abutted. "This puts me in a very awkward position, Henrietta," he said in a tight voice, looking out at the lake.
"Yes, I know. I'm sorry," Henrietta repeated, sensing that she should remain standing where she was rather than go to him. "What ...
what should we do?" She had forced herself to say "we" rather than "I," tentatively suggesting that the problem was now both of theirs.
"Damn him!" Clive said in a sudden burst of emotion. "He's determined to make a mess of it. How could he be so stupid?" He paused and exhaled deeply. "Leave it with me for now. But don't say anything to Eugene. Don't let on that you know anything. I'll let Father know."
"Must you?" Henrietta asked, her face burning with shame.
Clive raised his eyebrow. "I'm afraid so, Henrietta. Father's threatening to call the police this time, and we don't need the local nitwits crawling over the place, searching for something that isn't here."
"But what if Eugene sells them in the meantime ... or loses them or something?"
"He won't. He didn't take them for that reason, if I've pegged him correctly. And anyway, he's smart enough to eventually realize that if he does sell them, they will be traced back to him."
"Why take them, then?" Henrietta asked, puzzled, as she looked up into his eyes.
Clive didn't answer at first, but merely looked at her and sighed.
"I'm afraid Eugene might be one of those who steals for the thrill of stealing. Something about him. Just a guess, though," he muttered, stiffly handing her back the letter.
Before Clive could reason out the best course of action regarding Eugene, however, having only told his father the briefest of the facts regarding the Fabergé eggs, saying that he would handle their recovery, the problem was brought to a head by an unexpected visit to Highbury by Oldrich Exley himself.
Mr. Exley was shown into the library, where he had remained closeted with Clive and his father for the better part of an evening while they discussed what was to be done with the wayward Martha and her brood. Clive had explained that he had promised Henrietta that he would provide for her family and he still held to this promise, but Exley, it seemed, was having none of it. He requested, no, demanded, of both Clive and Alcott, that they agree that he, Old-rich Exley, be solely responsible for their welfare from here on out. He had already consulted with his lawyers, apparently, and had set the wheels in motion, so, really, he had said, his gout causing him to shift uncomfortably as he sat in one of the leather wingback chairs near the fireplace, there was no more need of discussion. He had it quite in hand, as it were. He explained that he was taking a house for them in Palmer Square, nothing too ostentatious, of course, but something reasonably respectable for his daughter and his grandchildren, an address suitable for him to occasionally call in for tea without risk of embarrassment. It was one of the smaller residences on the Square, he admitted with a slight wave of his hand, with apparently three floors and a small carriage house and a formal garden out back, or so his agent had led him to believe, not having set eyes upon it himself. Naturally, he would employ a small staff adequate to the keeping of the house and to whatever needs they might have, which he assumed would be minimal, having just come from a life of poverty and as most of the children, he pointed out, would be away at boarding school, anyway. He planned to send them to the establishment to which he had sent his own sons, Philips Exeter, in New Hampshire.
Upon hearing this, Clive silently groaned, but he let Mr. Exley continue laying out his plan, knowing full well that Mrs. Von Harmon would be irate, considering how she had already reacted to Clive's attempt to give them even small petty cash with which to buy staples. She would never agree to this, and yet, what choice did she have now? Clive wondered. Having finally found her, Clive doubted that much would stand in old Exley's way. He knew by reputation that Exley could be ruthless.
Clive watched as Mr. Exley drew out a piece of paper from his inner jacket pocket, unfolding it carefully and adjusting his spectacles. The three oldest boys — Eugene, Herbert, and Edward — he read from his notes, would be sent away to be properly educated, whilst James, Donald, and Doris, he added, again adjusting his wire-rim glasses slightly, would be enrolled at St. Sylvester's until they were old enough to be sent away as well. At six, James was technically already old enough to attend Phillips, but Mr. Exley assumed he was academically behind and would need at least a year to catch up.
The girl, Elsie, was a different conundrum, he had gone on. At seventeen she should be just coming out, after her sister's wedding, of course. It was too late now for her education, Mr. Exley feared, and she was too old to have a governess. Better to employ a lady's companion to subtly educate her on the finer points of being a lady of society, he had decided.
Clive marveled at how much thought Exley had put into this plan without having even seen his daughter for over twenty years and how he casually assumed his dictations would be unquestioningly followed. As much as he was not overly fond of Mrs. Von Harmon at this point in his courtship with Henrietta, a glimmer of understanding occurred to Clive as to why the young Martha may have run away so many years ago. He quickly realized that there was not much he could do to alter the last twenty years of Exley family history, but, still, he felt he owed it to his future wife to at least try to suggest caution to Mr. Exley, knowing that Henrietta, not to mention Mrs. Von Harmon, would vehemently oppose this plan, at least in the beginning.
"Do you think it wise, Mr. Exley?" Clive finally put in carefully. "With respect, sir, all of these changes might be too much just at the beginning."
"Do you think me a fool, Clive?" Mr. Exley snapped, as if talking to a schoolboy. "I'm well aware of the delicateness of the situation. The move to a decent dwelling must be done as soon as possible, of course, but the rest of the plan can evolve over time. I'm merely outlining the grand scheme so as you can be assured that every aspect of their livelihood will be provided for. I should have done this years ago. It is to my shame that I have so grossly neglected my duty," he said bitterly. "But Martha was ever a stubborn one, as was Charity," he said, referring obviously to his late wife, but with no apparent trace of emotion. "However, I will not be thwarted in it this time. I mean to atone for the past whichever way I can." He paused to take a drink of the scotch Alcott had poured out for all of them when they had first sat down.
Excerpted from "A Promise Given"
Copyright © 2018 Michelle Cox.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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