It was a furtive hiss, made all the more difficult to place for no one else having entered the room. Lady Mary looked up and surveyed her sitting-room, but noticed nothing--apart from, perhaps, the rustle of a curtain out of line with what little breeze there was.
"Gherkins," she said anyway, acting on educated guesswork. "Come on out of there--what on earth are you skulking around like that for?"
"I'm not skulking," Gherkins protested, goaded into peering out from behind the curtain--as she had thought he might be--by the implied slight to his honour. "Only being careful. What's that you're writing?"
"Nothing you'd care to see." Lady Mary shuffled the letter hastily into a drawer. "It's to Mr. Cathcart."
"Love letters," Gherkins elaborated for her, with mingled fascination and disgust, and Lady Mary chose not to correct him. Having approached her desk, he moved to lean on the edge of it in hopes of a better look, but remembered himself a moment later and folded his hands behind his back again.
It was too late; Lady Mary had already spotted the stained handkerchief wrapped around one of his hands. “What’s that you’ve done? I suppose you want it looked after.”
“Rather,” said her nephew, with a sigh of relief, and then, remembering his manners: “If it isn’t too much trouble?”
It wasn’t enough of an effort at courtesy to be worth answering, so Lady Mary leaned down to rummage in a lower drawer; this kind of request from him was not unprecedented. “You’ve a real nurse to do this kind of thing for you, you know.”
“You are a real nurse,” Gherkins pointed out, hands still clutched behind his back. “And I can’t tell Nurse what happened. She’ll be awfully furious—but you’ll understand, won’t you, Auntie? It was in a good cause, truly it was.”
“Let’s have that hand first,” suggested Lady Mary, and held out her own in invitation.
The handkerchief was a great deal more colourful than it probably had been when it had been provided to Gherkins that morning: brown with mud and a dark yellow-green that Lady Mary suspected had to do with the thick ivy covering the wall beneath her open window. But underneath those stains was the darker, redder brown of dried blood, and quite a bit of it, too. “Looks nasty,” she said absently. "What were you thinking, doing more climbing with your hand like this?"
“Doesn’t it?” said Gherkins happily, although he flinched as she peeled the fabric away. "Mother's showing guests around up here. I couldn't go near her like this, she'd have noticed in an instant."
“Too bad,” said Lady Mary, with sympathy. “A little deeper and you might have needed stitching up. Now that would have been a story to tell the boys at school. Not,” she added, suddenly rethinking this line of encouragement, “that it’s something you ought to aspire to.”
Gherkins offered no opinion on the matter; he was examining the wound himself, seemingly fascinated by the ability to see into the flesh of his own hand.
Lady Mary swatted his finger away. “Don’t poke at it. It needs cleaning out first.”
The first touch of the alcohol-soaked rag elicited a sharp noise of protest from him; then Gherkins bit his lip, eyes wide, and let her get on with it. “Aren’t you going to ask how I did it?”
“I didn’t think I’d need to ask,” said Lady Mary, dabbing away the last bits of blood from the palm of his hand. “But what did you do? Am I going to be hearing screams in another few minutes? Will we have to evacuate the household?”
“There might be screaming,” admitted Gherkins, with a hint of pride if anything. “I’ve put Winnie’s favourite doll up a tree. And then I slipped a bit coming down from the tree onto the roof of the gardener’s shed. It’s not my fault—it rained this morning, the tin was all slippery, and anyway I caught myself all right.”
Lady Mary stared at him. “What in God’s name did you do a thing like that for? I don’t fancy Winnie much for the screaming type, but there’ll be plenty of tears, and since when do you like seeing your sister cry?”
“It’s for her own good, really,” said Gherkins, with an easy certainty that Lady Mary couldn’t bring herself to share. “Ow,” he added, upon reflection. “Must it be so tight?”
“The tighter it is, the quicker you’ll heal up and start making a nuisance of yourself again.” Lady Mary gave the gauze an extra yank for good measure, taped it down, and began on a second layer just to be sure. “And you still haven’t explained yourself.”
Apparently the bandaging process lost its entertainment value once the gory bits were no longer visible; Gherkins had gotten hold of her fountain pen, and was doodling scratchily all over one end of her blotter. “Aunt Mary,” he said thoughtfully, “when you were Winnie’s age, could you climb trees?”
Lady Mary eyed him as she finished taping the bandage in place; she thought she might be getting an idea of how his logic had run, such as it was. “I wouldn’t say I could. Four is pretty small for tree-climbing. I was certainly trying by then, but if Winnie hasn’t taken an interest in the same things as you then you can’t very well make her.”
“But she does want to. I’m sure she does.” Gherkins frowned, inspecting the edges of the fresh gauze on his hand, and then returned his attention to the blotter. Some of the results were showing signs of being profoundly inappropriate as part of a nine-year-old’s artistic output; Lady Mary supposed she couldn’t get him to unlearn those kinds of things, but she would have to chuck the top few sheets in the fireplace before the Duchess could get a look at them. “Only whenever I try to get her to do anything fun, she says she mustn’t because Mother thinks girls ought not to. What does she care what Mother thinks? I never do.”
This was a real poser. Winnie’s devotion to Gherkins, and his to her—however poorly concealed and, in this case, horribly misapplied—were so far removed from Lady Mary’s relationship with either of her brothers that sometimes she wasn’t sure how to deal with it at all. What was more, she was inclined to share Gherkins’ opinion of his mother, but she really didn’t feel she could tell him so outright. “So you put her doll up a tree for—what, motivation?”
Gherkins grinned hopefully at her. “Do you think it’ll work?”
“No,” said Lady Mary frankly. “Winnie may be old enough for tree-climbing, but I doubt she can appreciate all the devious thought you've put into this plan. It’ll only hurt her feelings.”
The frown was back. “What do I do, then?”
“Get her doll back down, for starters, and try not to get lockjaw doing it.” Lady Mary reclaimed her fountain pen, which was now being used for destructive rather than creative purposes, but there were already several holes punched in her blotter. “Honestly, this is a girl who tried to follow you to school in a car boot last fall; I expect she’s far more likely to follow you up a tree than some old doll. Just give it a bit of time.”
"But waiting's so beastly," complained Gherkins. "I wish she'd learn how to have fun now."
"She must have some idea, or she wouldn't care about the doll to begin with." Lady Mary leaned across the desk, close and confidential. "And if you really do feel the need to put other people's possessions up trees--"
"Yes?" Gherkins smiled. It was a smile simply dripping with bright, childish innocence, and he got it straight from his father, which was how she knew not to believe one ounce of it.
"Not your sister," Lady Mary suggested. "Someone old enough to at least understand, if not properly appreciate it. I"m not giving you permission, of course. Just a bit of advice."
"Of course not," said Gherkins, clearly thinking it over. "Although Mother has some silk scarves--thanks awfully, Aunt Mary. For the bandages. And the advice."
"And nothing too valuable," said Lady Mary hastily, "or you'll get the staff in trouble for it--" but, struck by sudden inspiration, Gherkins was already on his way back out the window to do God knew what.
Lady Mary almost hoped that screaming would result, whatever it was. Any kind of excitement would be better than writing a letter to Denis.