Christmas at Gravesend

By: Amanda Dewees

I. Sybil

“She is in terrible danger,” I said. “I just know it.”

“What makes you so certain?” Roderick asked, so reasonably that it only aggravated my anxiety.

“The Gravesend estate is cursed! I told her as much before she married. I said that marrying into the Telford line was a terrible risk.” Darting up from my seat for what felt like the dozenth time, I peered from the window at the countryside streaking past. “Can’t this train go any faster?”

Roderick caught my hand and drew me back down beside him. It was Christmas Eve day, and we had the train carriage to ourselves on this last leg of our journey to Cornwall, so he had shed his coat and propped his feet up on the opposite seat. He looked as much at ease as I was on edge.

“Sweetheart, I think perhaps you’re letting your worries run away with you.” Gently he pried my hand open and removed the letter that I had been clutching ever since we had boarded. Unfolding it and smoothing it out over his knee, he read aloud, “‘My dear Miss Ingram, I was delighted to learn that you have returned to England. If you and your husband have no other plans for the festive season, Atticus and I would be pleased to welcome you at Gravesend at any time from the present through Twelfth Night. Yours sincerely, Clara Telford.’”

Folding the letter back up, he returned it to me. “I have to say those don’t sound like the words of a woman suffering under a supernatural curse. Isn’t it possible she just wanted to see you? Perhaps to show you how well she’s done for herself?”

“But you don’t know her as I do,” I insisted. Clara Graves, as she had called herself then, had been my dressmaker for many years, until I had retired from the theater early in the year. Now that 1873 was in its last weeks, it was startling to realize how much had happened in less than twelve months. “Graves has always been a very proud person, keeping her troubles to herself,” I said. “Naturally she would not lay her soul bare in a letter and reveal all her fear and horror.”

Roderick’s expression of polite attentiveness was marred by a certain twitching of his lips. “So the fact that her letter sounds perfectly normal is proof that everything is not normal?”

For the first time my certainty wavered. “I don’t know that I’d say proof. Not in the court-of-law sense. I just have a very strong feeing that she needs my help. And this time I shall not fail her.”

I had said more than I meant to, and my husband, knowing me so well, caught the slip at once. “How do you think you failed her before?” he asked.

“In not dissuading her from so drastic an action as marrying into a cursed family!” I said miserably. “I could have found another position for her if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with my own difficulties and preparations before I moved to America. Then she wouldn’t have been forced to marry. It is entirely my fault that she married this man, this Baron Telford. Any trouble that has befallen her should be placed at my doorstep.”

At that, hearing the woe in my voice, Roderick reached over and pulled me onto his lap, displacing a sheaf of sheet music that crashed to the floor unheeded. “Sybil,” he said gently. “You didn’t force her into this marriage. And didn’t you say that when you made inquiries later you heard only good things about this baron fellow?”

As an American, Roderick did not much trouble himself with the niceties of the peerage. I couldn’t help smiling. “‘This baron fellow,’ as you call him, does seem to be spoken well of. He is evidently something of a philanthropist. And although I was only in his presence for a few moments when he came to visit her, I do recall his seeming amiable—and extremely handsome.” I eyed Roderick, with his stormy hazel eyes and cloud of dark curls, and observed, “I must say that I have found having a handsome husband to be an agreeable experience.”

That earned me a kiss, and under other circumstances the conversation might have ended there. But I was still too troubled to give Roderick my entire attention. Sensing my distraction, he drew back to regard me.

“Have you considered,” he said, “that you simply enjoy feeling needed, and so maybe you are inventing a reason to help your friend?”

How childish it sounded when couched in those terms. I dropped my eyes, but Roderick raised my chin so that I could see the understanding in his eyes. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, mind,” he said. “It is very endearing, the way you bustle about trying to help people get their lives in order.”

“So I’m a busybody.”