Mother and Gloria saw Aubrey off with Sir Prescott. Mother had dressed her like a doll in frilly taffeta. Gloria had brought her blue bonnet for Aubrey to wear. Aubrey could even appreciate why Gloria would help an obstructive and unimpressionable sister-in-law out of the house before she and Richard married.
If she wants Richard entirely to herself, she’ll have to marry Mother to Lord Ives next.
Gloria could do it. Lord Ives was already teetering under the pressure of Mother’s marital expectations.
Sir Prescott collected Aubrey in a barouche with a driver. He complimented her bonnet and complexion, then droned about the various buildings they passed as they crossed Berveley Bridge into Vale District where Government House loomed.
“The Roasia Gallery,” Sir Prescott intoned, “once the Royal Gallery, since it was built in the last century, was in pitiful condition when our current administration took office. New Government House was built around the existant building. Many of the paintings now on display were stored in the old palace. They were not, I’m sorry to say, considered of interest to ordinary citizens. But of course, these days, we know better, don’t we, Miss St. Clair?”
Not one of the old guard.
She said, “You’re a member of the Academy.”
“On its board, yes. It is my sincere wish to see the Academy modernize its charter and submit to more government regulation. It is no longer equipped—conceptually, you understand—to deal with modern techniques and approaches. Hide-bound. Terribly hide-bound. The mind, Miss St. Clair, is where the new philosophy should begin, not potions and pills. You still suffer from your bespellment, don’t you?”
Do I? “I have dreams.”
“Of course. Lord Simon's fantastical concoction could never be absolute or permanent.”
“So if I start to remember—”
“If I had my way, you would have gone directly from Lord Simon’s abode to one of my spas in Braemouth. We’re accomplishing great things with hysterics these days. Great things.”
“I’m not a hysteric.”
“Please don’t misunderstand. Hysteria refers to a collection of ailments, all of which stem from excessive trauma. Lord Simon set you on the road to full recovery, but it was pure arrogance to consider the issue resolved.”
“With continual treatment, the entire ordeal will eventually become little more than a vague notion. No more fears or worries.”
No more questions or concerns.
Wasn’t that what she’d chosen before: forgetfulness?
I should have argued with you, Charles had said. But obviously the “ordeal,” as Sir Prescott called it, had been too painful, too much for Aubrey to want to remember. Wasn’t it better to stop bothering Richard and Mother and Gloria with her past? To enjoy scandal and balls with Olivia, rides in Belemont Park, trips to Merviole’s and Plimsoll’s? Rostand, Sommerville, Kingston. She might even marry. She might have the life Charles believed she deserved, the life she’d had before.
Wasn’t that the point of recovery—to get back to where one had been?
Age is age.
She said, “Would you take me to the police?”
“Police Headquarters. Would you drop me there?”
“You don’t wish to go to the gallery?”
“I’d like to see Mr. Stowe.”
“The head of the police? Didn’t you see him a few days ago at Shops police station?”
Aubrey sighed. Olivia and her mouth.
“No,” she lied without a qualm. “But I think he could fill in some gaps.”
“What an excellent idea,” Sir Prescott cried, “I never did learn what happened after you transformed at the Academy. You ended up at Lord Simon’s, but I was never briefed on the police’s role in that decision. 39 Cleveland Square,” he called to the driver.
The carriage lurched forward past New Government House, swinging down the broad boulevard that bordered the building’s plaza. Beyond the boulevard, the carriage turned off into a series of narrow streets. Sir Prescott rattled on delightedly about the importance of self-knowledge while Aubrey watched tidy squares pass, small shrub-filled gardens at the center of each. The carriage entered a cul-de-sac and stopped before a thin, tan-brick town house.
Sir Prescott hopped down and helped Aubrey descend. Still chattering about “learning facts for oneself,” he escorted her up shallow stone steps through an open door.
They entered a bare lobby facing a steep staircase. The lay-out was not that different from the station house in Shops although this building was much taller. But its office was also to the right, a square room filled with charts on easels, tables loaded with papers, and chairs of various sizes and shapes. A burly man with a beard sat at a desk near the door.
“Miss St. Clair,” he said, rising to his feet.
Sir Prescott said, “And you are?”
“My name's Jonas Perry.”
“You encountered Miss St. Clair during her tribulations last year?”
“I met her.”
“Is Mr. Stowe available to see us?”
“Upstairs. Resting. Just got off late-shift. You want to see him?” to Aubrey.
“Col!” Perry bellowed, and a young man with sandy hair slid into the room. “Get Charles, will you?” Tell him his gir—tell him Miss St. Clair is here.”
Aubrey tried not to redden. His girl. Sir Prescott didn’t appear to notice. He was looking about the room with bright interest.
“Always enlightening to see civil institutions at work,” he said as he ushered Aubrey to a chair.
“You alright?” Perry said to her.
Sir Prescott smiled.
“Miss St. Clair has great spirit,” he said.
Perry, Aubrey noted, didn’t roll his eyes—at least, not where Sir Prescott could see him. She waited, hands folded, feeling claw tips against her palms. She shouldn’t be so nervous—she hadn’t been before. But Charles was more than a source now, more than a potential answerer of questions. Aubrey didn’t have much experience with beaus—watching other people’s beaus, yes, just not many of her own. How did one behave?
Not that differently, if Charles’s behavior was any indication. He entered the room quietly without fanfare, shook Sir Prescott’s hand and settled in the chair beside Aubrey’s.
“Miss St. Clair is putting her life back together,” Sir Prescott said. “Once she has all her memories in situ, she’ll be able to conquer them and move forward.”
Charles arched a single eyebrow in Aubrey’s direction. She smiled demurely.
The corner of his mouth quirked.
“How can I help?” he said.
“You had contact with Miss St. Clair on two occasions—immediately following her reversion and after her second transformation?”
Sir Prescott made a note on a slim notepad.
“She was with you how long?”
“A few hours. Both times.”
“I see. The first time, you escorted her to the Academy.”
“Sir James fetched her.”
A slight barb in the voice, and Sir Prescott sighed.
“A heavy-handed man,” he agreed. “The second time—”
“Since she is collecting memories, why don’t you tell Miss St. Clair what happened at the Academy meeting?”
“I intend to do so. I even hope Academy members will assist. Since I was present, I can fill in any gaps. Now—the second time—”
“She was with the police only a few hours. Sir James collected her and took her to Lord Simon's home.”
“Did she return to the police station as a cat?”
“She transformed before she arrived then. What condition was she in?”
“Presentable. Fully clothed.”
“Oh, dear,” Sir Prescott said. “I didn’t mean—Mentally, Mr. Stowe. How was she mentally?”
Aubrey stopped listening. Charles was clearly lying. What cat would change with all its human clothes? And if he was lying about that, what other lies was he telling the impressionable, if guileless, Sir Prescott? How long she had stayed with the police? What she and Charles had discussed on both occasions? She watched the mobile mouth, the amused eyes and drifted on the sound of his low voice.
“That is very helpful, Mr. Stowe. Thank you,” Sir Prescott was saying, and Aubrey roused herself. “Miss St. Clair?”
“The police can take me home,” she said.
Everyone paused. Everyone looked at her: Perry, interested; Sir Prescott, confused. Charles—expressionless.
“I’m sure they will provide a suitable escort,” she said.
“I assured your brother—”
“I told Richard I might be late. There are questions—Sir Prescott, you know there are some questions a lady can’t ask in front of a gentleman.”
He blushed. “Of course. Of course. But Miss St. Clair, I cannot relinquish my responsibility.”
He was serious. He didn't intend to leave her. Aubrey sighed inwardly.
I escaped before.
She set her hand in Sir Prescott’s, allowed him to lift her to her feet. She then pressed her hand to her left breast and sank to the floor, eyes shutting.
“Oh, my,” Sir Prescott cried.
She let herself go limp, even when Charles picked her up. She was truly fatigued, she realized. Tired of uncertainty, of questions—even her own.
Her head drooped against Charles’s shoulder, her eyelids fully closing.
“You’ll have to wake up eventually,” Charles said softly in her ear.
He was carrying her out of the office and across the lobby, entering another open space—
“You boys mind giving us the room?”
“Nice bundle you’ve got there, sir.”
Boot clomped away. Charles nearly dropped Aubrey on a soft surface, a sofa. She nearly opened her eyes in indignation, but waited for Sir Prescott.
She could hear him crying for smelling salts, a doctor. His voice neared as Charles squatted on the floor beside the sofa and took Aubrey’s wrist between his fingers.
“He’s more likely to haul you off to one of his spas than leave you here,” he murmured.
And then Sir Prescott was in the room, declaiming against the “horrendous terrors undergone by such an innocent young maiden.”
Aubrey allowed her eyes to flutter open.
“My dear,” Sir Prescott said, “I should never have pushed you to come here.”
“It was too much, too soon.”
“Sir Prescott,” she said weakly, “if you could find Richard—my brother—and bring him here.”
“Of course. He will be fetched.”
“He may not come back here with a policeman,” she said, trying to keep her voice low and sorrowful—not argumentative. “If you go to New Government House, he will naturally admit you.”
“True. Yes. I will leave you to Mr. Stowe’s protection. Miss St. Clair, I beg that you consider a stint at one of my spas. Yes? Yes?”
She agreed. He hurried out, brushing past Perry who leaned in the doorway. They heard him calling to the driver—“New Government House as quick as you can.”
Aubrey sat up.
“Does she handle all gentlemen the same way?” Perry said.
“I doubt Sir Prescott comprehends female self-interest,” Charles said dryly.
He hauled Aubrey up by the elbow.
She didn’t resist as he led her out of the office. They bypassed the steep stairs to the upper floors and headed to the back of the house, Charles’s boots scuffing the worn boards. He took Aubrey’s hand, pulled her through a doorway and down a few short steps into an empty square scullery lit by high windows. A well of water stood in one corner. A worn table topped by a heavy pot stood in the center of a rough-bricked floor.
Charles turned immediately to face her.
“What is all this?”
“I needed to see you, and he was the best way to accomplish that. The last time—I caused talk when I visited Shops station.”
“He seems a decent man. Does he deserve so much twaddle?”
“You lied to him, didn’t you? How much time did I really spend at the police station”
“Only a few minutes the second time. The first time—you spent the night in our upper room.”
“You are entirely unsullied, Aubrey.”
“It seems rather relative when nobody believes it is true.”
She said, “Sir Prescott thinks I should forget again. And again. Until the ordeal is over, and I’m restored to something—I don’t know what.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t want to forget anymore,” Aubrey said, and that was the truth, what she truly thought. Sir Prescott talked about suffering and treatments and hysteria and all Aubrey could see was a yawning chasm, an absence of any real solution.
Age is age. Events make us, even forgetfulness
I don’t want negation. I want to be.
“I want to control it,” she said. “The transformation. You said practice, so here I am. Will you help me?”
“Now? Your brother—”
“Oh, he’s not at New Government House. He’s out surveying properties. It will take awhile for Sir Prescott to find him.”
Charles looked at her, just looked at her, then laughed.
“Oh, Aubrey,” he said. “Yes. I’ll help you.”