I saw my mother out of the corner of my eye and thanked God she was all right. Jenny was another matter, though. As she was dragged towards the door of the mansion, her eyes were fixed on me and Mr. Birch as though we were her last hopes. The torch-bearing attacker came to join his colleague, hauled the door open and darted out towards a carriage I could see on the street outside.
For a moment I thought they might let Jenny go, but no. She began to scream as she was dragged towards the carriage and bundled in, and she was still screaming as a third masked man in the driver’s seat shook the reins, wielded his crop and the carriage rattled off into the night, leaving us to escape from our burning house and drag our dead from the clutches of the flames.
10 DECEMBER 1735
Even though we buried Father today, the first thing I thought about when I awoke this morning didn’t involve him or his funeral, it was about the plate room at Queen Anne’s Square.
They hadn’t tried to enter it. Father had employed the two soldiers because he was worried about a robbery, but our attackers had made their way upstairs without even bothering to try to raid the plate room.
Because they were after Jenny, that was why. And killing Father? Was that part of the plan?
This was what I thought as I awoke to a room that was freezing—which isn’t unusual, that it should be freezing. An everyday occurrence, in fact. Just that today’s room was especially cold. The kind of cold that sets your teeth on edge; that reaches into your bones. I glanced over to the hearth, wondering why there wasn’t more heat from the fire, only to see that it was unlit and the grate grey and dusty with ash.
I clambered out of bed and went to where there was a thick layer of ice on the inside of the window, preventing me from seeing out. Gasping with cold, I dressed, left my room, and was struck by how quiet the house seemed. Creeping all the way downstairs, I found Betty’s room, knocked softly, then a little harder. When she didn’t answer, I stood debating what to do, a little concern for her gnawing at the insides of my stomach. And when there was still no answer, I knelt to look through the keyhole, praying I wouldn’t see anything I shouldn’t.
She lay asleep in one of the two beds in her room. The other one was empty and neatly made up, although there was a pair of what looked like men’s boots at the foot of it, with a strip of silver at the heel. My gaze went back to Betty, and for a moment I watched as the blanket covering her rose and fell, and then decided to let her sleep on, and straightened.
I ambled along to the kitchen, where Mrs. Searle started a little as I entered, looked me up and down with a slightly disapproving gaze then returned to her work at the chopping board. It wasn’t that Mrs. Searle and I had fallen out, just that Mrs. Searle regarded everybody with suspicion, and since the attack even more so.
“She’s not one of life’s most forgiving sorts,” Betty had said to me one afternoon. That was another thing that had changed since the attack: Betty had become a lot more candid, and every now and then would drop hints about how she really felt about things. I had never realized that she and Mrs. Searle didn’t see eye to eye, for example, nor had I any idea that Betty regarded Mr. Birch with suspicion. She did though: “I don’t know why he’s making decisions on behalf of the Kenways,” she had muttered darkly yesterday. “He’s not a member of the family. Doubt he ever will be.”
Somehow, knowing that Betty didn’t think much of Mrs. Searle made the housekeeper less forbidding in my eyes, and while before I would have thought twice about wandering into the kitchen unannounced and requesting food, I now had no such qualms.
“Good morning, Mrs. Searle,” I said.
She gave a small curtsy. The kitchen was cold, just her in it. At Queen Anne’s Square, Mrs. Searle had at least three helpers, not to mention sundry other staff who flitted in and out through the great double doors of the kitchen. But that was before the attack, when we had a full complement, and there’s nothing like an invasion of sword-wielding masked men for driving the servants away. Most hadn’t even returned the following day.
Now there was just Mrs. Searle, Betty, Mr. Digweed, a chambermaid called Emily, and Miss Davy, who was Mother’s lady’s maid. They were the last of the staff who looked after the Kenways. Or the remaining Kenways, I should say. Just me and Mother left now.
When I left the kitchen, it was with a piece of cake wrapped in cloth handed to me with a sour look by Mrs. Searle, who no doubt disapproved of me wandering about the house so early in the morning, scavenging for food ahead of the breakfast she was in the process of preparing. I like Mrs. Searle, and since she’s one of the few members of staff to have stayed with us after that terrible night, I like her even more, but even so. There are other things to worry about now. Father’s funeral. And Mother, of course.
And then I found myself in the entrance hall, looking at the inside of the front door, and before I knew it I was opening the door, and without thinking—without thinking too much, anyway—letting myself out on to the steps and out into a world clouded with frost.
“Now, what in the blazes do you plan to do on such a cold morning, Master Haytham?”
A carriage had just drawn up outside the house, and at the window was Mr. Birch. He wore a hat that was heavier than usual, and a scarf pulled up over his nose so that, at first glance, he looked like a highwayman.
“Just looking, sir,” I said, from the steps.
He pulled his scarf down, trying to smile. Before when he’d smiled it had set his eyes twinkling, now it was like the dwindling, cooling ashes of the fire, trying but unable to generate any warmth, as strained and tired as his voice when he spoke. “I think perhaps I know what you’re looking for, Master Haytham.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“The way home?”
I thought about it and realized he was right. The trouble was, I had lived the first ten years of my life being shepherded around by parents and the nursemaids. Though I knew that Queen Anne’s Square was near, and even within walking distance, I had no idea how to get there.
“And were you planning on a visit?” he asked.
I shrugged, but the truth of it was that, yes, I had pictured myself in the shell of my old home. In the games room there. I’d pictured myself retrieving . . .
“It’s too dangerous to go in the house, I’m afraid. Would you like to take a trip over there anyway? You can see it, at least. Come inside, it’s as cold as a greyhound’s nostril out there.”