The first course was roast quail which was rapidly losing heat. Still, the aroma emanating from the silver dish was so delicious my appetite returned and it was all I could do to stop myself ripping one of the tiny thighs to shreds with my teeth. My anger was reaching boiling point as I stormed through to the dining room.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to rearrange my features and some of what I was feeling must have shown on my face. Eagle-eyed Jasper missed nothing.
“Everything all right, Mercy? I was beginning to get a bit worried. Worried we might not get our next course, that is.”
Arabella smirked and smoothed her golden hair. I felt like tearing it out by the roots. Instead I gritted my teeth and took the platter to the side board. I served the quail onto plates and brought them to the table. Arabella glanced at it.
“I can’t eat this,” she said sharply. Jasper looked pained.
“Why ever not, darling? It’s fresh from your uncle’s grounds this morning.”
“I’m sure it is, but have you forgotten I’m afraid of chickens?”
I couldn’t help interjecting. “It is dead, Miss, I assure you.”
She swiveled around in her chair to fix me with her cold blue eyes, “Did I ask for your opinion, maid? Hold your tongue!”
I swear my mouth moved on its own accord, or perhaps what I had just read in the letter had made me bold. “But how can you be afraid if it’s the size of a mouse and not moving?” I said. “Besides, it’s not chicken, it’s quail. Even I know that.”
Arabella’s mouth dropped open at my insolence. Jasper looked at me and I stared back unflinchingly. The tables had turned, I had the upper hand. He saw instantly that I had it but didn’t know why.
“Are you going to sit there and let her talk to me like that, Jasper?” complained Arabella. There was a terse silence. I could almost see the wheels turning in Jasper’s brain. “Well?!”
“I think she already has, Arabella,” he said slowly. “If you don’t want your quail I’ll have it, perhaps Maggie will rustle you up an omelette, I think I heard her come in just now. Unless you’re afraid of eggs as well?” He looked at me expressionless. “That’ll be all for tonight, Mercy, Maggie can serve us the rest of our dinner”.
And with those words a warm glow settled somewhere in the region of my chest. I was off the hook, and even better he’d stood up for me. I floated off upstairs, leaving Maggie to deal with Arabella’s dietary requests. I had regained my power through what I had read in the letter, and I held that knowledge close to me like a protective cloak. He must never know that I knew.
In my chamber I disrobed and put on my nightdress. I felt unbearably tired, not to mention hungry. I shut my eyes and prepared to go to sleep. A few minutes later a noise in the corridor downstairs disturbed me. I heard footsteps, a giggle being shushed and then all was quiet. I shut my eyes again.
But shortly afterward I heard a soft thump against a wall and I sat up, startled. Then there was another thump, and another. And then a woman moaned softly, the sound floating up through the floorboards. A cold hand gripped my heart and slowly squeezed it until I couldn’t breathe. Jasper’s chamber was directly below mine, but surely he wouldn’t do that? He’d stood up for me against her, he’d shown he respected me. Arabella was now making high pitched cries of pleasure as Jasper thumped her up against the wall. This couldn’t be happening, he must know the pain this would cause me!
Arabella’s groans reached a crescendo, obviously she didn’t care who heard her. A black pit of depression overwhelmed me and I curled up into a tight ball with my hands over my ears to try and block out the noise. My only comfort was the knowledge that I now had; the pox was Jasper's nemesis. I remembered again the words scrawled in the letter I had found in the wardrobe that had miraculously given me the will to stand my ground.
3rd May 1760,
This letter will come as a shock to you no doubt, and I pity myself for being the one to tell you, but tell you I must. Your poor dear mother, father, sister and brother have all perished from the pox last week.
I did not send message to your school before now because I have only just received the terrible news myself. The family friend who wrote me said they did not suffer, as those from the illness have been known to do, it was a quick passing. Your father and mother’s will has specified that I am to be your guardian and you are, of course, most welcome here after term ends.
God be with you dear nephew and I am ever,
Your loving uncle,