Helen paused, seeming preoccupied with removing a flake of peeling paint from the wall.
“Go on,” Devon murmured.
Meticulously Helen set the flake of paint on the windowsill, and picked at another, as if she were pulling scabs from a half-healed wound. “I asked Kathleen if she could ever remember crying. She said yes, when she was a little girl, on the day she left Ireland. Her parents had told her they were all traveling to England on a three-masted steamer. They went to the docks and made as if to board the ship. But as Kathleen and her nanny stepped onto the gangplank, she realized that her parents weren’t following. Her mother told her that she was going to stay with some very nice people in England, and they would send for her someday when they didn’t have to travel abroad so often. Kathleen became quite frantic, but her parents turned and walked away, while the nanny dragged her aboard.” Helen sent him a sidelong glance. “She was only five years old.”
Devon swore quietly. He flattened his palms on the desk, staring at nothing as she continued.
“For hours after Kathleen had been brought to the ship’s cabin, she screamed and sobbed until the nanny became very cross and said, ‘If you insist on making such a horrid fuss, I shall go away, and you’ll be alone in the world with no one to look after you. Your parents sent you away because you’re a nuisance.’” Helen paused. “Kathleen quieted at once. She took the nanny’s warning to mean that she must never cry again; it was the price of survival.”
“Did her parents ever send for her?”
Helen shook her head. “That was the last time Kathleen ever saw her mother. A few years later, Lady Carbery succumbed to malaria during a return voyage from Egypt. When Kathleen was told about her mother’s passing, she felt the pain of it acutely, but she couldn’t find the relief of tears. It was the same with Theo’s death.”
The sound of hard-falling rain was like the clatter of coins.
“Kathleen is not heartless, you see,” Helen murmured. “She feels very deep sorrow. It’s only that she can’t show it.”
Devon wasn’t certain whether to thank or curse Helen for the revelations. He didn’t want to feel any compassion for Kathleen. But the rejection by her parents at such a tender age would have been devastating. He understood all about the desire to avoid painful memories and emotions… the compelling need to keep certain doors closed.
“Were Lord and Lady Berwick kind to her?” he asked gruffly.
“I believe so. She speaks of them with affection.” Helen paused. “The family was very strict. There were many rules, and they were enforced with severity. They value self-restraint perhaps too much.” She smiled absently. “The only exception is the subject of horses. They’re all quite horse-mad. The night before Kathleen’s wedding, at dinner, they had an enthusiastic conversation about pedigrees and equine training, and rhapsodized about the fragrance of the stables as if it were the finest perfume. It went on for nearly an hour. Theo was a bit annoyed, I think. He felt somewhat left out, since he didn’t share their passion for the subject.”
Biting back an observation about his cousin’s lack of interest in any subject except himself, Devon glanced outside.
The storm had settled over the brow of the high grazing fell, water pouring into the chalk streams and flooding the downs. Now the idea of Kathleen being caught out in that tempest alone was no longer enjoyable.
It was intolerable.
Cursing beneath his breath, Devon pushed back from the desk. “If you’ll excuse me, Lady Helen…”
“You’ll send a footman after Kathleen?” Helen asked hopefully.
“No. I’ll fetch her myself.”
She looked relieved. “Thank you, my lord. How kind you are!”
“It’s not kindness.” Devon headed to the doorway. “I’m only doing it for the chance of seeing her ankle-deep in mud.”
Kathleen strode briskly along the dirt path that snaked between an overgrown hedgerow and an expanse of ancient oak woodland. The forest rustled from the approaching storm as birds and wildlife took cover, while leaves descended in pale currents. A bolt of thunder unfurled with ground-shaking force.
Pulling a shawl more tightly around herself, she considered going back to the Luftons’ farm. There was no doubt that the family would provide shelter. But she had already reached the halfway point between the tenant farm and the estate.
The sky seemed to break open, and rain lashed the ground, blanketing the path until it was puddled and streaming. Finding a gap in the hedgerow, Kathleen left the path to head across a sloped field of old grassland. Beyond the downland fields, the chalk soil was mingled with clay, a rich and sticky composite that would make for an unpleasant slog.
She should have heeded earlier signs that the weather would turn; it would have been wiser to delay her visit to Mrs. Lufton until tomorrow. But the clash with Devon had unsettled her, and her thinking had been muddled. Now after the conversation she’d had with Mrs. Lufton, the red mist of fury had faded enough to allow her to see the situation more clearly.
While sitting at Mrs. Lufton’s bedside, Kathleen had asked after her health and that of her newborn daughter, and eventually discussion had turned to the farm. In answer to Kathleen’s questions, Mrs. Lufton had admitted that it had been a long time, longer than anyone could remember, since the Ravenels had made improvements on the estate land. Moreover, the terms of their leases had discouraged the tenants from making changes on their own. Mrs. Lufton had heard that some leaseholders on other estates had adopted more advanced farming practices, but on the Eversby Priory land, things remained as they had been for the past hundred years.