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Gemma took the tray of shaving things and hurried out. Her face felt unusually warm, and she could not get Raffendon's words out of her mind.
We have something in common then after all, Miss G. Groot. It seems we're both in need of a little excitement.
He wasn't in the least horrified to hear that the murderous Vengeful Venetia was her relative. The man didn't even blink, but let her continue running that sharp blade around his face.
She took the tray through the kitchen and into the scullery. A little speck of Raffendon's blood remained on the razor's gleaming blade, and she lifted it to the lamp light.
What would the gossips of Withering Gibbet— the vicar's wife included— have to say about Gemma Groot being asked to shave the face of a bachelor in her father's library? They would be shocked, of course, not only by the degree of questionable propriety, but by his bravery in letting her near him with a sharp blade.
What a strange creature he was. But people thought that of her too, of course.
There was a surreal air to the house this evening, she mused, and he'd brought it in with his laughter.
Gemma placed the blade against her palm, took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and closed her hand around it. Oh, that she felt. She gasped, opened her hand and her eyes, and looked down at her own blood now mingled with his.
Why had she done that? Who knew. Why did anybody ever do anything? Perhaps so that they could be sure they were alive. Sometimes pain was important. A reminder.
Pain. She heard the scream of wood on stone, a long drawn out, shuddering howl. She saw flour flying through the air like snow. Blood, a bright red petal blossoming on a soft, gasping lip. Fat, red fingers squeezing around a slender wrist.
Gemma dropped the razor and stared out through the small scullery window. The stars were out now, just visible, winking through the dusk. On this night, fourteen years ago, Venetia Warboys, a woman who could never bear the butchering of a pig, had calmly slaughtered her husband.
Why did she think of the word "calmly"? She had no evidence of that. Must be thinking of the way her aunt had acted when she was arrested three days later— almost nonchalant, resigned to her fate. Even relieved. As if she were already dead, or dying, but she couldn't feel any pain.
Of course, thought Gemma, they were all dying. From the moment they were born it was all downhill, heading inexorably for the grave. Well, that's a cheerful thought, she could hear her mother exclaim. But the daughter of an undertaker had more opportunity and cause to consider the brevity of life and certainty of death.
Today new life had invaded their world, and for once it seemed to outweigh the other side of the scale. The balance had shifted.
"I hear we've got a guest for dinner." It was Mrs. Cuttle, the cook, banging her pots around grumpily as usual. She came to the scullery door with a ladle in one hand, her face mottled pink from the heat of the fire, bristles of grey hair poking out of her white cap. "Another mouth to feed."
"Yes, Mrs. Cuttle. Unless, of course, we eat him. He's nicely tenderized after his fall and should go well with some boiled potatoes." She couldn't help herself. These opportunities fell into her lap and it felt remiss of her not to make use of them. It was all the fault of that mischievous, dark sense of humor.
Mrs. Cuttle, having eyed Gemma's bloody hand, went hastily back to her work. The woman was, quite probably, the worst cook in Cambridgeshire, but they hired her because they had no other applicants for the post and Mrs. Groot liked to say, "We keep a cook". It made her feel slightly better than middle class, even if she could have cooked a more appealing meal herself.
Gemma held the damp cloth to her cut palm and looked out at the evening's sky again.
If she closed her eyes, she could hear Aunt Venetia whispering in her ear, as she did when they arrested her, "For these three, my most beloved."
The words made no sense to her fourteen years ago. Even now she was at a loss, other than to realize that her aunt thought she deserved an explanation when nobody else did. Gemma had studied poetry, wondering if it was a quote that might lead her to a clue, but it was not. At least none from any book she'd yet read.
For these three, my most beloved.
She remembered the flour on her aunt's gown. It stuck in Gemma's memory because it was unusual to see Venetia with any sort of mark or dirt about her person. She was always well dressed, not a hair out of place, and one never saw her without powder and rouge to cheer her complexion, despite her elder sister's disapproval of cosmetic artifice. But the first thought that came to young Gemma's mind, as she watched the police constable lead her aunt through the crowd at the county fair, was that Venetia must have made those pies in such a distracted hurry that she hadn't thought to put on the pinafore she usually wore when baking. Nor had she changed her frock before she carried her wares to the common on unsuspecting Bill Downing's cart.
Later Gemma gleaned the full story from overheard snippets of gossip, and realized why her aunt had made that pastry in haste.
The patches of flour clung to her blue skirt like frost, shimmering in the autumn sunlight as she passed.
And then, seeing Gemma at the edge of the crowd, she had bent and whispered those words, "For these three, my most beloved."
There was no sadness in her voice. It was breathlessly triumphant, as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. As if she'd done a good deed.
The police constable marched her onward and as she turned her face away, her feet tripping over a tussock of grass, her straw hat fell. A stray curl of dark hair escaped its knot, possibly for the first time ever, and caught on the end of her smile.
An inappropriate smile that made her guilt unquestionable in the eyes of most, even before she confessed.
But Gemma wondered who decided exactly how somebody should act when they had just been accused of chopping up the pieces of their husband.
That was the last memory she had of Venetia: the dusting of flour on her smart, pale blue gown, and then, as she bent to whisper, the sunlight basting the side of her face to reveal a slight discoloration— a bruise— on her cheekbone, under her eye and not quite hidden by the 'Poudre de Riz' she always wore. Of course, there was nowhere in Withering Gibbet that sold fancy cosmetics, so she sent away for hers by post. A needless extravagance, according to her sister. The box said it came from Paris, by way of Marshall and Snelgrove on Oxford Street in London.
And as the constable led her away and she bent to whisper, Venetia's aniseed breath blew soft against her niece's cheek, mingling with the remnants of cider and Cold Cream of Roses.
Fourteen years had passed since then. Sometimes it felt longer; other times it could have been yesterday.
Now, here came this man. Raffendon. Another puzzle. It seemed significant that he should fall out of the sky on the anniversary of Venetia's rampage.
She glanced back over her shoulder, almost expecting to find him standing there, watching her. His eyes had a peculiar ability to make her feel as if they left her marked, the progress of their steady gaze caressing her with the strength and solidity of a warm, bold hand.
But no, he was in the library still— a room he had requisitioned as his own domain this evening. Wretched, interfering, inconvenient man. Her father must be annoyed too, but he would say nothing about it, of course. After a good squeeze upon the ends of his moustache, Casper Groot would go on as if nothing different had happened and there was no handsome stranger billeted in his library.
But something had happened. Something terrible and yet wonderful. The air was charged,
"These apples are all maggoty," Mrs. Cuttle shouted suddenly from the kitchen. "How am I supposed to make a pie with these sorry things?"
Gemma smiled at her reflection in the scullery window. "Find something else to put in it then. As my aunt used to say, the good thing about a pie is that anything can be put in it. Anything at all. She would know, I suppose."
After a sharp intake of breath, the cook resumed grumbling under her breath about having to stretch the budget for another dinner guest without due notice, but she didn't dare complain out loud again.
Gemma's mother would tell her to watch her tongue. "You're a wretched, gruesome young lady. It's no surprise you cannot get a husband."
But really what was the point of having an infamous murderess in the family if she couldn't make the most of it?
Just then her mother appeared in the kitchen, hands wringing, head twitching. "Do get upstairs and change your frock, Gemma."
"What for? I didn't get any blood on it."
Her mother's eyes widened as she sucked on her lips, before exclaiming impatiently, "Change into something livelier for dinner, for pity's sake."
"For the nine hundredth time, I like black."
"It's ghoulish! And that's another thing, young lady! Why would you tell our guest that she was your aunt? Had to blurt that out, didn't you?"
"Mother," she replied wearily, "he would find out sooner or later anyway." Gemma was certain that old nag, the vicar's wife, must be restless and whinnying in her stall waiting to be let out.
Her mother took her by the arm and pulled her out of Mrs. Cuttle's hearing. "You always do this!" she hissed. "That's why none of Mrs. Fletchley's bachelors have stayed long."
"It is only fair to them. Don't you think they have a right to know the truth?"
"No, I do not. The truth never did anybody any good." Her mother looked flustered and felt for her cameo brooch. "Not that sort of truth. Not about that. And the less a man knows about anything the better. Venetia would agree with me on that score."
"She never cared what anybody thought of her."
"Of course she cared. Why do you think she kept that cottage so tidy? And dressed herself up with powder and rouge every time she went out, even if it was only to post a letter? Why do you think she had to win every competition with her jam and marmalade?"
"But she always did what she wanted, no matter what other folk thought. Yes, she liked things to be pretty and in their place, and I suppose she liked to win, but that was for her own satisfaction, not the approval of others."
"It seems you forget that she was my sister and I know how she really thought. Oh yes, I know...we knew each other better than anybody. Better than ourselves at times. Furthermore, she would want you well married and settled. She would never want that incident to spoil your future. It is the very last thing she wanted, you foolish girl. You think you know it all, but you don't. You don't understand why."
The sentence ended, yet not in a natural way. The "why" was left hanging there as if something should come after...
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