Beatrix was trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. “I understand, Amelia. I promise that from now on, I’ll try to think of eligible gentlemen as an interesting new species.”
After her younger sister had left, Amelia buried her face in her hands. A groan escaped through her fingers. “What are we to do with her?”
Cam smiled and pulled her close. He spoke in a soothing tone not unlike the one he had used for the tawny owl. “Be at ease, monisha. No ordinary man will do for Beatrix. We’ll have to let him appear in his own time.”
“He’s taking too long.”
“Beatrix is only nineteen, love.”
“I know that. But she needs someone, Cam. Someone just for her. There’s a restlessness in her, a sense of aloneness . . . whatever it is, it makes her want to draw away from the family. She spends far too much time rambling alone in the wood. Even after Miss Mark’s etiquette instructions, Beatrix is still only half-civilized.”
Cam drew back to look at her, his gaze steady and thoughtful. “Having her marry the wrong person won’t solve the problem.”
“No, and I certainly don’t want that. It’s just that if the right man does come along, Beatrix will be so busy trimming alpaca hooves or rescuing orphaned badgers that she won’t notice him.”
Cam smiled. “She doesn’t have an alpaca.”
“Yet.” Amelia gave a rueful sigh. “I’m afraid this obsession with animals is Beatrix’s way of avoiding risk and pain. She’s never been quite the same since Mother and Father died. She was so young—I think losing them both so quickly affected her more than the rest of us.” Met with his silence, she gave him an anxious glance. “What do you think?”
“I think Beatrix will find someone when the time is right. And you’re trying to bend fate to your will, which never works.” He smoothed her hair back and kissed her forehead. “Relax. Let your sister follow her own path.”
“I’m not good at relaxing,” Amelia said, a rueful grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “I’m far better at worrying.”
Cam slid a protective hand over the slight curve of her stomach. “I can’t allow that in your condition. Come upstairs with me, and I’ll see if I can help.”
“Thank you, but I don’t need a nap.”
“I wasn’t thinking about a nap.”
Meeting his gaze, Amelia saw the glint in his eyes, and her color rose. “In the middle of the day?” she asked faintly.
A soft laugh escaped him. He stood and pulled her up from the settee, and kept her hand in his. “By the time I’ve finished with you, hummingbird, you won’t remember what you were worried about.”
Beatrix kept the young owl close to her body, stroking the sleek feathers of her back. She felt the nervous clench of the bird’s talons against the leather gauntlet. The owl was light, fragile, and yet filled with tensile strength. “It’s all right,” she said gently. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll have you well soon, so you can fly back to your family.”
“My sister is right, you know,” she said as she carried the owl toward the barn.
“I want to find a mate. But I’ve been through two seasons, and I’ve met a thousand men. And they’re all so languid and lifeless, and most of them spend their days in idle amusement, waiting for someone to die so they can inherit. They take pride in being sophisticated, which means they say the opposite of what they really mean, and then you’re supposed to praise them for being clever. Ha. At least when male owls come courting, they’ll bring food for you.”
The bird clicked quietly, her entire body vibrating.
“I agree,” Beatrix said. “One has to take the best of what’s offered.” A wistful smile touched her lips, and she curved her long fingers protectively around the stocky little body. “It’s just that I can’t help wishing to find someone who sees the world as I do. How silly and senseless all these rules are. Manners, corsets, gossip, asparagus forks . . . and heaven help me, polite conversation. If I can’t talk about something real, I’d rather not talk at all.”
She paused as the owl chattered at her. “What kind of man, you ask? I haven’t the least idea. I like the idea of marrying a Rom, but it’s awfully difficult to make them stay in one place. And I don’t want to roam the world. I like Hampshire. I’m quite territorial, actually.”
Entering the barn, a large limestone building, she made her way to the upper hayloft. It was a chall barn, built into a slope so that both the first and ground floors were accessible without the need for steps. Down below, there was central threshing floor, a row of cattle shippons, and built-in sheds for carts and implements.
Beatrix went to a corner of the hayloft, and settled the owl into a nest box.
“Here you are,” she said tenderly. “A dry, safe place for you to rest. In just a little while I’ll take my ferret Dodger to the granary, and we’ll catch dinner for you.”
Sunlight pressed through the slats of a louvered window, sending bright yellow stripes across the hayloft. Sitting by the nest box, Beatrix watched the owl preen herself. “Is there someone waiting for you?” she asked. “Someone who’s wondering where you’ve gone?”
Leaning her head back against the wall, Beatrix closed her eyes and inhaled the comforting incense of hay and cattle and barn-smells. “The problem is, I’m not going to find the man I want in a stuffy London drawing-room. I want . . .”
But she fell silent, unable to confess or describe the intense yearning she felt, the caged feeling that would only be released by someone whose force of will equaled her own. She wanted to be loved . . . to be overtaken, challenged, surprised. And she had found no one like her imaginary lover in the succession of passive town dandies she’d met during the season.
Picking up a stalk of hay, she nibbled thoughtfully at the tip, tasting its dry sweetness. “Is it possible that I’ve already met him but somehow overlooked him? I can’t imagine it. I’m sure he’s not the sort of man one could–”
“Miss Beatrix!” It was a young boy’s voice, coming from the open threshing area below. “Miss Beatrix, are you up there?”
Beatrix’s brows lifted. “Excuse me,” she told the owl, and went to peer over the edge of the hayloft. “Thomas,” she exclaimed upon seeing one of the servants, an eleven year-old hall boy named Thomas. He lived with his parents in the village and came to work at Ramsay house every day after attending school. A busy, bright-eyed child, Thomas was given tasks such as polishing boots or cutlery, or assisting the footmen in their work. “How are you?”
His round face was glum as he gazed up at her. “Awful, miss.”
“What is the matter?” Beatrix asked in concern.
“I’ve just come from seeing Fulloway’s traveling menagerie show in the village.
I should have saved my tuppence.”
Beatrix nodded, a frown pinching her forehead. The exhibition practices of such traveling menageries were criminal, in her opinion. Exotic animals such as tigers, lions and zebras were conveyed from town to town in so-called “beast wagons,” and displayed to the public, along with bands and jugglers and other entertainments. The animals always looked dispirited and maltreated, which filled Beatrix with outrage. It was inhuman to take an animal from the wild and confine it to a cage to be gawked at for the rest of its life.
“I can’t abide traveling menageries,” Beatrix said. “And I’m not all that fond of zoological exhibitions, either.”
“I went to Fulloway’s because they advertised a dancing elephant,” Thomas said. “But Bettina—that’s the elephant’s name—dropped dead when they got here—they made her walk too fast and too far, someone said. So they put up a sign that reads, “Dead elephant on display,” and they showed it to us and let some people poke the carcass with sticks.”
“I don’t need to hear more,” Beatrix said. “That’s dreadful, Thomas.”
“There’s only one elephant left, a small one, but he won’t dance or even stand up,” the boy added. “The band plays music, and the trainers prod him with a bull hook, but he just lays there moaning.”
“I’m sure he’s mourning his friend,” Beatrix said quietly.
“The dead one was his mother, they said.”
A feeling of sadness pressed down on her, until Beatrix could hardly breathe from the weight of emotion. Closing her eyes, she thought, You can’t save all of them.
Moreover, she couldn’t let herself become any more eccentric than she already was.
No more misadventures. No more scrapes.
“You have a way with animals, Miss Beatrix,” Thomas said. “Maybe you could visit the elephant and do something for ‘im? If he would just move a little, they might stop jabbing him with that bull hook.”
“I’m not at all familiar with elephants,” Beatrix said. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m sure he’ll recover on his own, Thomas.”
“Yes, miss.” Obviously disappointed, the boy went to attend to his chores.
Beatrix groaned and went back to the nest box. “I can’t help him,” she said, staring at the drowsing owl. “I can’t.”
But she couldn’t stop imagining the young elephant collapsed in despair, while people were entertained by the sight of his dead parent nearby.
God help her, she knew what it was like to lose a mother.
The village green of Stony Cross had been temporarily enclosed for the Fulloway Menagerie, at least fifteen large caravans arranged in a rectangle. A decidedly flimsy fence had been erected to the north of the enclosure, while decorative displays and signs had been arranged in front to attract potential ticket buyers. To lure in onlookers, a band on a wooden platform played polkas and lively airs, while a trio of acrobats performed a balancing act.
Beatrix glanced dismissively at one of the yellow caravans, which had been painted with a likeness of George Fulloway, the owner of the menagerie. Fulloway was a florid-faced man with cheeks that hung like saddlebags on either side of a white goatee and a billowing mustache that seemed to pull his upper lip aloft as he smiled.
“He must love animals,” Thomas commented, “to collect so many of them.”
Viewing the filthy monkey cages nearby, Beatrix smiled without humor. “One wonders,” she said, “if he has their best interests at heart. Where did you see the little elephant, Thomas?”
“In the pen on the other side of those wagons. The fencing’s awful flimsy . . . it wouldn’t hold him if he wanted to go somewhere.”
“Where would he go?” Beatrix asked rhetorically.
They went cautiously around the perimeter of the fencing, and saw the dejected bulk of an elephant on the ground, beside the fence. He was smaller than Beatrix had expected, certainly no more than five feet when standing. His skin was gray, and sparsely covered with hair, and his ears were relatively small. An Indian elephant, reputedly more timid than the African species.
The animal’s eyes were half-open, his gaze on Beatrix as she approached the fence. But he didn’t stir, only lay there as if he were drugged or ill.
Or prostrate with grief.
“Hello, boy,” Beatrix said gently. “What is your name?”
“Ollie, the sign said,” Thomas volunteered.
Beatrix lowered to her haunches, looking at the elephant through the fence.
Taking out an apple she had brought, she rolled it through the flimsy slats. “That’s for you, Ollie.”
The young elephant regarded the fruit listlessly but made no move to take it.
“Look at the scars on his stomach,” Beatrix told Thomas. “And the fresh wounds around his neck. They’ve struck him with the bull hook in places where it’s not as likely to show.”
“His hide looks right thick,” Thomas observed. “Maybe he doesn’t feel it.”
“You think not? When something tears the skin until it bleeds, it is painful, Thomas.”
The boy looked contrite. Before he could reply, however, they were interrupted by a harsh voice.
“What are you doing? Making mischief, are you? Get away from that animal, both of you!”
Beatrix stood slowly as a lean, hatchet-faced man approached them from inside the pen. He was dressed in rough clothes and a bowler hat with a rounded crown. One of his hands grasped a long implement with a large iron hook at the end.
“We meant no harm,” Beatrix said, trying to sound conciliatory, even though she was filled with hostility at the sight of a man approaching a helpless animal with a weapon.
“If you want to see the animals, you’ll have to pay tuppence like everyone else.”
“Is the elephant ill?” Beatrix asked.
The man responded with a scornful laugh. “No, only lazy.” He brandished the bull hook. “He’ll show some spirit before I’m through.”
“Perhaps he needs some time to recover after the death of his mother.”
A smile twisted the man’s mouth. “Just like a woman. You think a poor dumb brute’s got feelings, when Ollie’s only shirking. And considering what he eats, he’d better earn his keep!” He came to the dispirited creature, jabbing him with the bull hook. “Time to dance, Ollie. You’ll perform while the band plays, or I’ll make short work of you.”
“May I speak to him?” Beatrix asked impulsively. “Just for a moment?”
“Speak to him?” The request earned an incredulous glance, and he viewed her as if she were a halfwit. “Who the blazes are you?”
“This is Miss Hathaway,” Thomas said, before Beatrix could hush him. “Animals love her—she can speak their language. Please let her talk to him, sir!”
The man began to laugh, shaking his head. “Speak elephant, do you?”
“No, sir,” Beatrix said with dignity. “It’s only that I treat animals with kindness and respect. Most of them respond quite well to that. You might try it sometime.”
The quiet rebuke seemed to sail right over his head. “Go on, then. See if you can wheedle him into doing his job. And if your means don’t work, mine will.”
Beatrix nodded and lowered to the ground. “Ollie,” she said softly. “Poor Ollie. . . you must believe that I’m a friend.” Reaching her slender arm through the slats, she rested her hand on the ground, palm-up. “I know you don’t feel like eating, or dancing, or doing any of the things they want of you. I know your heart is broken. I lost my mother when I was young, too. And the truth is, you’ll never stop missing her.READ MORE >>