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The Only Thing That Signifies

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The door into Lady Broome’s drawing-room stood open. Within the room, an appalling sight met Kate’s shrinking gaze.

Sidlaw knelt on the floor next to Lady Broome, kneeling and rocking and sobbing that she had warned her, she had warned her beautiful lady.

Kate forced herself to look at Lady Broome, thinking that perhaps she had fallen and was merely hurt. It took only a glance, however, to see that Lady Broome was beyond any mortal help. There was a bluish cast to her face, and her eyes stared at Kate, forever furious. Sarah Nidd knelt as well, and Kate held onto the small hope that perhaps she was wrong. But she could see from the expression on her dear friend’s face that she was not.

Lady Broome was dead. Even with her horrible words still etched into her memory – trying to bully Kate into marrying poor mad Torquil, even trying to use the image of the poor boy confined for the rest of his life against her – Kate could still feel a shred of pity for the woman.

A crowd of servants was gathering outside the door, and Kate hoped that none of them would remember Mrs. Thorne’s prophecy about blood flowing from a coffin in the Blue Saloon.

Sarah rose from beside Lady Broome’s body and went to try and calm poor Sidlaw. Kate sent one of the footmen to fetch Dr. Delabole in the hopes that he could do something for Lady Broome’s distraught dresser.

Pennymore was fretting about the possibility that Sir Timothy would hear the commotion. Kate gave him instructions that she hoped would control the situation for a moment, but she knew that it was going to be a long, horrible day here at Staplewood.

“He killed her!” Sidlaw had stopped sobbing and wailing, but her voice was still hysterical and shrill. “He killed her, and it’s all your fault, you wicked, ungrateful hussy! He killed her!”

Sarah Nidd slapped the woman across the face, and Sidlaw whimpered and cowered. “Don’t you heed her, Miss Kate! She’s clean out of her senses!”

The doctor came in just then, and Kate could see the horror, the pain, in his eyes as he, too, examined Lady Broome. Dr. Delabole closed her eyelids as gently as possible, and Kate wondered again if the rumor that Delabole had been Minerva’s lover was indeed true.

“She could always control him, but I warned her that he was growing beyond her power to handle safely,” Delabole said sadly to Kate. “She refused to accept that.”

And then she realized that the only inmate of Staplewood who was not in the room at that moment was her cousin Torquil.

Poor, mad, and increasingly difficult to control Torquil…

“We must find him,” Kate gasped. “Where is Torquil?”

*** ***

Sarah Nidd had taken Sidlaw upstairs to administer the composer Dr. Delabole had prepared, while Delabole and most of the male staff began the search for Torquil.

Kate accompanied the two footmen carrying Lady Broome upstairs. With her abigail’s help, she stripped the bed and made it ready to receive the body of Staplewood’s mistress. Even with her eyes closed, Lady Broome’s face was still a ghastly sight, and Kate was relieved when she could draw the sheet over her.

But not before she looked at the unbruised throat, thinking of the possibility that Torquil had attacked his mother. There did not appear to be any signs of violence on her aunt’s body. Perhaps it had been an apoplectic fit of some sort, Kate thought to herself.

She closed the door behind her, turning the key in the lock and taking it with her. The last thing she wanted was for some curiosity seeker to come look at her aunt’s dead body.

Kate desperately wished Philip would return.

*** ***

Philip returned within the hour, and immediately joined the searchers looking for Torquil. The longer there was no word, the more concerned Kate became.

Finally, after what seemed like hours of waiting, during which Kate did her best to restore some order to the household, Philip found her in the Blue Saloon.

“Torquil?” She tried to keep her voice calm.

“Badger and I found him on the bridge,” Philip replied. “I think perhaps we were just in time.”

Kate shivered, thinking of how Torquil had once told her that he thought it would be pleasant to drown. “Thank God. Did he say…”

“Torquil says he was arguing with Minerva when she fell to the floor,” Philip assured her. “I think he is telling the truth. He was quite frantic after finding out that she was having bars put on his windows.”

“Poor Torquil,” sighed Kate. “I think he was truthful. There were no…marks…that I could see.”

“There will be no way to stop the talk after this,” Philip said after a long moment. “Added to the incident where Sarah brought him home, Torquil’s condition cannot be kept secret anymore. Even if we know that he did not kill his mother, you know that there are those who will not want to believe it.”

“Do you think that it is necessary now to confine him?” Kate asked quietly. Only hours before, she and Philip had discussed Torquil’s situation, little thinking that they would need to do anything this soon.

“I think we may be able to put that day off,” Philip said after a long moment. “We will have to address the situation with our neighbors honestly, and admit that Torquil is not…normal. I have a few possible names to replace Delabole, and that must come first. My immediate concern is getting affairs here at Staplewood in hand.”

“Sarah and I will remain to help, of course.”

Surprisingly, he did not fight her on the subject. “It would be a very great help. In addition to Torquil, there is my uncle’s situation. Staplewood and its lands are not in good heart, and someone who cares must take charge of it.”

He clasped her hands between his own and drew her near for a kiss.

*** ***

They were married by special license quietly at Staplewood, with Sir Timothy claiming the privilege of giving the bride away. Kate had been shocked at how calmly the older man had taken the entire situation, how he had acted as if it had merely been an acquaintance who died an unfortunate death, rather than his wife.

It had quickly become clear to Kate that she and Philip would have to stay at Staplewood, rather than making their home at Broome Hall, at least as long as Sir Timothy was alive. Philip would not leave his uncle to his lonely life now that Minerva was no longer maintaining Staplewood as an uncomfortable showplace. Kate would not have agreed to even if he had wished to.

There was also the matter of Torquil. Even with better medical care and supervision than that provided by Dr. Delabole, Sir Timothy was not capable of handling his son.

Philip had been quite frank with Kate about their situation. It was their duty to stay, however little either of them wanted to do so.

Kate did not resent the idea of remaining at Staplewood, especially since the men gave her a free hand to do what she thought best about improving the house. Her aunt had made it a cold place, if a lovely one. Luckily, much of what Lady Broome had not wanted on display had been consigned to Staplewood’s attics. Kate enjoyed bringing pieces out to show Sir Timothy, whose wing was now much less crowded, as his favorite pieces of furniture were safe from Minerva’s desire to set the stage.

Torquil seemed to be responding well to his new doctor, a younger man who was more able to enter into the sort of pursuits that appealed to Torquil. There were still unpleasant moments, and Kate missed having animals around her for companionship, but overall she thought they were doing well by Torquil. He seemed to have blocked the memory of his last argument with his mother, which Philip thought was for the best.

In fact, Torquil seemed almost happy. Almost normal. Kate sometimes struggled to remember that he was not normal, that she must not let herself, or anyone else, be alone with him. Not ever. There were moments when she thought she could see his control slipping, but the new doctor was better able to manage him in those moods, along with two strong attendants who had been hired for that express purpose.

Philip had elected not to hire a new bailiff for Staplewood, but had taken on the duties himself. Now it was his own Broome Hall that needed a bailiff.

Sir Timothy had come alive again. Kate did not think he had many years left, but she did feel as if now he had a chance to be happy for the time he had left.

The effective portioning of Staplewood into three houses, in which three very different people lived three very different lives, had been greatly reduced. Kate knew that it was too much to expect Torquil and Sir Timothy to suddenly embrace each other after all the years of mutual disinterest, but she felt they both made more of an effort when in company together. Sir Timothy and Torquil still occupied rooms in their respective wings, but Kate and Philip did their best to draw both of them into the central wing.

Despite the fact that they had made Torquil’s condition more generally known, the newlywed couple found they had little trouble filling the seats at their table. Kate knew that some people came to satisfy their curiosity, but many others came to show genuine support. The Templecombes were in the latter group, and Kate found herself liking Gurney Templecombe for his honest and good-natured support. It did mean that her duties as hostess entailed a little more than approving Gaston’s excellent menus and arranging flowers, but Kate was willing to do the extra work if it meant that Torquil could be more comfortable in his own home.

There were, of course, dinner parties to which Torquil was not invited, but Philip ensured that his younger cousin knew that he was being excused from them, rather than excluded.

Perhaps it was not the life that Kate had envisioned when she had accepted Philip’s proposal of marriage, but she owned that it was not a bad one. Sometimes it gave her pause, as she realized that things could have been much worse. Her aunt’s plan to force her to marry Torquil could have succeeded, or they could have failed to find Torquil in time, or her aunt could have made good on her threat to confine Torquil in a strange place, while barring Philip from entering the premises of Staplewood.

*** ***

It was nearly Christmastime when Kate realized that she was increasing. It did not give her the unalloyed joy that she would have expected motherhood to bring – in fact, she would have been quite happy to postpone motherhood in light of their current situation. She could not deny that she found the idea of giving birth here at Staplewood a little intimidating.

Philip was also cautiously happy, but Kate could see that it was another strain on him. He did not say it, but she could guess that he had also hoped for more time. Sir Timothy was pleased by the thought that there would be another Broome child running about Staplewood, even if it was not his heir. Philip had proposed naming the child Julian, if it was a son – after his own father, and Sir Timothy’s first son.

They decided not to tell Torquil until later – until it could no longer be avoided, if they were honest. Kate hoped that a child would not overset the delicate balance she and Philip had brought to Staplewood.

They would simply have to take it as they had been doing, and deal with what each day brought in turn, without borrowing worry.

So they would.